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The Right Technology May Be a Pencil

Mary Beth Hertz

K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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As a tech integration specialist and a computer lab teacher, one can imagine that I have a special place in my heart for bringing current technologies into the classroom. At the same time, I find that sometimes pencil and paper do just as good of a job.

It's important to remember that sometimes just because we have access to new technologies does not mean that older technologies won't suffice. Too often we get so excited by the fancy gadgets that we have access to that we forget that sometimes a pencil and paper will suffice.

For example, my friend Karen McMillan teaches blogging with her middle schoolers by having them write using pencil and paper first. Karen has her students write paper blog posts and then has them leave comments in analog format in preparation for their "real" blogging experiences using Google Sites. As Karen told me on Twitter, "It helps them visualize blogging in a medium that they are more comfortable with. Plus... it's fun!"

In my lab, students receive a folder for each project with a project overview, rubric and templates. Technically I could host all of that online, but when managing a project, having the paper there really is just more functional and effective. Perhaps if I was in a 1:1 setting things might be different, but with 45 minutes twice a week, paper is just the easiest way to share an make information easily accessible. In addition, I often have students plan their ideas out on paper before they attempt it on the computer. Often, when transferring skills, this makes it easier for students to successfully complete a complex project.

Paper and pencil also lends itself to exit slips, as Jen Roberts suggested to me on Twitter. While I sometimes have the exit ticket completed online, I also use checklists as a form of exit ticket. Other teachers in my building use exit tickets to quickly assess who feels comfortable with the material from the class period or from a particular lesson. Sometimes, too, having students fill out a paper and pencil Venn Diagram to compare and contrast and then discuss a topic is powerful and requires only the technologies of pencil and paper.

This is important to remember: At one time, pencils and paper were a kind of technology. My friend John Spencer's brilliantly funny and poignant book, Pencil Me In, follows that trajectory. His main character is a "pencil integrator" and is working hard to give his students access to this new technology, often to the chagrin of his colleagues. Through this metaphor, Spencer describes the journey that Tom takes and how he discovers that as much as he loves the bright and shiny new pencils, sometimes chalk slates do the trick just fine.

It is not so much about the tool and what it can do, but more about the purpose for using the tool. Obviously, if students want to share pictures of a project they are working on, a digital camera and a blog make a lot more sense than a flipbook. Still, don't count out older technologies just because you are trying to be a "21st Century Educator." Sometimes a dry erase marker and a wipe-off slate will do the job just fine.

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Jim Berman's picture
Jim Berman
Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE

There is something timeless about writing. Seriously. I write with a fountain pen because it is, dare I say, fun and enjoyable. Writing is (or can be) a pleasant experience. A huge proponent of effective educational technology, I believe actual writing still has a very effective place. Yes, there are great technology-based tools that do many magnificent things in class; at the same time, my students are issued little pocket-sized notebooks at the start of their 3-year stint with me. Those notebooks become constant companions as living, growing artifacts gathering bits and pieces from class time, interaction with other students and daily wisdom. Like all the other tools in the box, pencils collect no more dust than, say, a mouse or cell phone.

Ghostwheel's picture

I love my technology, but I decide when I want to use it. I was helping my daughter figure out how to create a floor plan on Visio, and while I could tell her what all the templates and shapes were for and how to use them, I still had to sit next to her and draw it by hand so I could show her what she needed for each component. (This is a door, this is a window, etc) I could not put into words what I could draw so well.

But my son could never do that, and so he types. Trying to make him do it on paper would be abuse, plain and simple.

Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz's picture
Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz
Senior High School Communications Technology Teacher

We do often get caught up with wanting to embrace all the gadgets because that seems to be where the kids live already. But, purpose is so important. I agree there is a place for pencil and paper, but not for the same reasons as mentioned in the post.

I think information is much more easily accessible when you regularly use some sort of online communication tool, rather than a paper folder because students have access to it 24/7. Sometimes their ideas come at odd times of the day and can't be forced into a 75-minute period. In addition, these ideas can be shared very easily online, which allows for peer revision to become a much bigger part of the writing process along every step of the way. Instead of the peer commenting that comes post-publishing, sharing a Google Doc for the writing process becomes such a powerful and collaborative use of an online tool. This is where they write, peer-edit, revise, and's a very efficient way to teach that writing is a process, while still having the benefit of choosing to publish for an authentic audience by publishing the final work through a blog or wiki site.

I do use a paper file folder system in my classroom. Students are invited to plot ideas, make diagrams, lists, draw, etc to help organize and initiate ideas. But, their main notes are online and organized as a digital notebook in Google Docs with their links shared with me in Edmodo.

Having said all that, as I mentioned at the start, I still find that online isn't the answer to everything. The problem I find is that students have already become conditioned to "skim for information", all while trying to multi-task across different sites. However, with paper, students have long become accustomed to focusing their attention and reading deeper into the physical material in front of them (less distracting). It can sometimes be hard to focus that attention if you take it online, but with some prep and thinking about purpose, some answers can be found in the tools. When students "share" docs their attention becomes more focused as they engage in real time collaboration. As well, social pressures guide their contributions (kind of like having to pull your weight in group work). It's all about thinking about how those tools will help get the most beneficial results.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

I wonder how many students sit in 1:1 classes or other classes where they are not allowed the option to write on paper (or vice versa!)

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

A thoughtful piece on the technology in the classroom. While we assume that kids are attracted to digital devices because they beep and glow. I think there's another reason. Digital tech gives kids control over information, functionality and choice in what to do with it.

In the classroom we can give students more control over content, process, product and evaluation of learning. That can all be done with a pencil. For more see my post "The Four Negotiables of Student Centered Learning"

Dana Castine's picture
Dana Castine
Director of Technology Integration, Florida Union Free School District

Education reform these days comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. If there is anything one take take from the countless books and articles assisting to define education today is that there is not "one size fits all" in education. Students need a variety of skills and approaches to their learning. If web 2.0 tools will help, then so be it. If paper and pencil will do the trick, then go for it. What really matters most is that students are learning because teachers are helping them achieve and move forward with their knowledge and education. Teachers can successfully accomplish this with good teaching. Student "buy in" is always helpful though.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Great points. I use Schoology (kind of like Edmodo) for the reasons you state. As my students are under 13 and we don't have Google Apps for education, Google Docs are not an option. I also teach a population who often do not have access to the Internet at home, and if they do, it's through a phone or game system.

I'm curious how many times a week you see your students and what age you teach? It seems like maybe yours are older? Teaching students how organize their digital lives is very important. I also don't have many notes or artifacts to be organized in that way, and our students have no access to tech in their classrooms. As much as I try to teach them, I wonder how they will refine these skills as they get older and leave my care.

Rachel's picture
2nd grade teacher

My school's focus this year is technology. On Monday a team of outside technology specialists are doing a walkthrough of our school to observe teachers. Administration told us not to change our instruction because we are being observed, but then sent out a schedule telling us when the visitors would be in our rooms. I feel like if I am having my students write with paper and pencil (instead of typing on the computer) or even if I am reading a book to them (instead of having a computer read a book to them) I will be evaluated as subpar. I do see the value in technology, yet as you said, it is not the only option. Just because we have fancy gadgets does not mean they need to be in use constantly for you to an effective modern teacher.

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

The same day I saw this post (and commented) I discovered the #pencilchat meme on Twitter. It was late at night here in Portland Ore, and the comments seemed to be mainly coming in from the UK. Despite the hour I had to archive them using Storify. You can find them here #PencilChat Log

Fun to read and share with your colleagues!

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