What a Difference a Year Makes

I'm wrapping up another semester here in Tennessee, grading final papers, taking time to assess students--to assess myself.

But looking back over the span of a year, I can't help but feel giddy, both for the classes I teach and for what the future holds.  The end of 2011 marks the end of what is probably the most remarkable period of professional growth that I have ever experienced.

I always assign a persuasive essay for my English 11 final.  Last year five students submitted their exams as Google Documents.  This year every student completed a Google Site in which their persuasive essays included traditional elements like MLA works cited and outlines as well as multimedia graphics, charts and hyperlinks. The gap between five online Docs and 23 online Sites is a fit metaphor for the kind of changes I've seen in my classroom.

Catching "The Paperless Bug"
It was during the summer of 2010 that I caught a computer virus--not the one that erased my hard drive, but one that infected me with a desire to find an answer.  I was taking an online course in PBworks, developing my knowledge of the use of wikis in the classroom.  My mentor in the course, a Spanish teacher from Pennsylvania, mentioned that he was "not paperless yet" but soon hoped to be.

Paperless?  It sounded like science fiction to me.  I'm an English teacher.  If I haven't graded reams of paper every month, I don't think I'm doing my job right.  Still, I had caught the virus, and an infection was a matter of time.

When I got back to school that August, the media center had a stack of old computers waiting for shipment to central office for disposal.  I commandeered four of them and set them up along the back wall of my room.  I had been assigned a new class to teach--creative writing--and with these four, aged, Windows 2000 computers, the Paperless Bug kicked in.

Within the first week of the Creative Writing class, students were infected with the Paperless Bug.  Three students began bringing their own laptops to class and posting assignments on the PBworks wiki I had created for them.  All four donated computers were occupied during class.  Still, a handful of students worked on paper and submitted assignments each day.  But by the midpoint of the semester, the majority of Creative Writing students were working and publishing online.

Concurrently, I taught two standard-level English 11 classes.  The Paperless Bug didn't catch on here as quickly for two reasons:  (1) there were more students in a classroom with only four computers, and (2) I had been teaching this class for years, and I was set in my "tree-killing" ways.  Still, I had struggled for years with library polices that wouldn't allow students to save their work, take it home, and then bring it back to the library.

Google Docs, a tool with which I had created all of six documents by that time, seemed like a solution to the problem.  I encouraged students to set up Google accounts, and by the end of the semester five students--of about 40 I taught--expressed a desire to do ALL their work in Google Docs!  (Again, I remind you that I was using donated Windows 2000-era computers.)

A realization struck me as I printed out those five Google Docs papers for grading: what if I didn't have to print out papers anymore?  What if the grading were online, just like the compositions?  I knew the answer was out there, if only I could find time!  (It's every teacher's favorite excuse, right?)

El Nino and Everything After
Then it snowed.  It snowed and snowed.  It snowed a lot last winter.  We had twelve snow days last winter, and as the first snowflakes began to fall, I logged into Google Apps Education, and started toward becoming "GQ," a.k.a. Google-Qualified.

The course was challenging, hours of poring through directions and learning the apps in the Google Suite.

On the eleventh snow day, I was GQ, leaving me one, entire snow day to enjoy!  I was ready to teach with GoogleDocs, schedule with GoogleCalendar, create with GoogleSites and communicate via GMail.  But more importantly, many of the lessons I had learned from PBworks, were read-made for this brave new, paperless world.

The last snows of February were now melting.  I was GQ, one step closer to Paperless.

All that I needed now was computer access. For everyone.

The Unrealized Investment
Of course the whole while I was seeking answers to questions about grading online and encouraging students to post their work on the Web, there were others at my school working even harder to get technology into the classroom.  My administrators, particularly my principal, Mr. Crook, were also beating the bushes for ways to bring technology into the classroom.

After my Creative Writing class had infected four young writers with the Paperless Bug, my principal came forward with a modest proposal:  some instructional moneys, about $1,000, to purchase a few more computers for my classroom.

This proved to be one of greatest investments in education I have ever seen.  I began pestering everyone I knew:  laptops or micro PCs? could I afford two or three? how about four?  I asked everyone I knew until I got this response from a contact at Central Office:  Volunteer State Community College had offered to donate some used laptops, maybe I could check there.

It took another two weeks to get in touch with the contact at VolState.  By then, the laptops had been given away to the county EMS, but I had learned an important lesson:  with $1,000 "in my back pocket," there was really no limit to the number of computers I could get for my classroom.

Two months later, near the end of February, I got an unsolicited e-mail from my contact at VolState.  "I have about 30 computers I can donate. When can you pick them up?" it asked.   I remember reading that e-mail in the middle of my 1st-block class.  I let out a "Whoop!," ran across the front of the classroom, and did a baseball slide out the door of the room.  It was one of my best moments as a teacher, and when the students heard that 30 computers were on the way, they were pretty excited, too.  Just not as excited as I was.

Looking back, I didn't spend a dime of the $1,000 my principal had proposed for the new computers.  Yes, there were some accessories that I later purchased--electrical strips and extension chords--but the money was invested wisely.  I had $1,000 backing up my new teaching ideas; $1,000 saying, "I believe in you," and that was just as important as the purchase of new technology.

I spent nothing, yet I gained everything I had wanted for my classroom--really, more than I could have imagined getting with a purchase order.

Looking back, one truth strikes me more than any other.  There are computers out there--and the online tools I use with my classes don't require high-price, up-to-date computers.  In fact, for every principal wracking her brain to find more technology for her school, there is a manager in her community trying to figure out a place to send an old computer.

Putting it All Together
It took about a month to get the donated computers up and running, leaving me my spring break to make the Paperless Classroom a reality, about eight months after I had caught the bug.

My Creative Writing students moved seamlessly onto the wiki.  I also had two classes of honors English 11 students.  I set up a Google Site for the class, and taught students how to use a "notebook" on Google Docs for their daily work.  Every week or so, I'd find a new wrinkle in Google Apps to introduce:  from presentations to map-making activities, from blogs (called "Announcements Page" in Sites) to drawings.

The cool thing was this: I kept learning, and the students kept teaching me.  They grew tired of using actual books, so I found online links to most of the works of American Literature.  They wanted to use music, so I found ways to stream the songs I used in my lessons.

On the other hand, I struggled to keep up with the grading--the output was 35% higher than in a normal class.  I had to grade submissions in many different formats:  Google Docs, blog posts, online presentations, class presentations.  Students finished these projects at a much quicker rate than they had in my previous classes.  To be honest, this is one element of the Paperless Classroom that still challenges me.  As classes ended last May, I had been paperless in all classes for the final nine weeks of the year.

Where I am Now
The beginning of school brought new challenges.  To Creative Writing was added German 1 and English 11 standard, the class that had pushed me into Google Docs a year earlier.  The full extent of my learning will be detailed on upcoming blogs in "Learning Out Loud," there is precious little space left here.

What a difference a year makes! I look back on on year ago--those five GoogleDocs final exams--with equal parts wonder and weariness, and I look forward in 2012 to sharing more of what I've learned along the way.