Paper: The Best School Tool Yet

Rebecca Mieliwocki_Best Tool_d

Rebecca Mieliwocki was chosen by the CCSSO as the  2012 National Teacher of the Year to represent America’s 3.2 million public school teachers.

Rebecca loves being in the classroom with kids and so continues to work as a 7th grade English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, California. She collaborated with several educators on the book, "What Really Works in Secondary Education", published by Corwin Press, and is available as a speaker.

I have the coolest job in the world. I teach English to seventh-graders. Yep, you heard me right. The. Coolest. Job. Each school year we set out together on a road of discovery that fills our minds, fuels our passions and grows us all.

Come June, I feel like I walk away from my classroom having learned as much, if not more, than my students. This year was absolutely no exception, and what I learned feels like it should have surprised me, but in reality it’s no surprise at all.

The thing I learned this year was how vital paper remains in the lives of kids. How useful it is, how engaging and effective it is as a learning tool. This was made abundantly clear to me in three key aspects of my students’ learning that pack a huge punch academically.

First, we know students report they feel more successful at school and with learning when they use paper to learn. I put this to the test in my class this year with an experiment while studying the 100 Most Beautiful Words in the English language. Gorgeous words like mellifluous, petrichor, blandiloquent and foudroyant were theirs for the taking. Half of my students chose to look up, study and work with the words using a vocabulary app on their iPads. The other half made good old-fashioned, color-coded flash cards. After two weeks of intensive study, the results were in. Hands down, the kids who studied with paper cards did better on the test than my digital-doers. Weeks later, that group, led by the irascible, loveable Charlie, continued to use the words in their casual conversations and load their writing up with them. Those words were now in their working AND long-term memory, and I was thrilled. My card-carriers couldn’t contain their excitement over how easy and effective they felt the cards had been for them. They began asking if we could make cards for everything.

Second, we know that more than 90 percent of kids and teachers prefer content to be delivered to them in the form of printed text. This explains why nearly every one of my students carries a book with them daily, despite having access to other reading devices. As their English teacher, it’s my job to help them read with a critical mind, question a piece of literature, immerse themselves into the world on the page and connect to it. To do this work, we’ve got to get pretty hands-on with the text. That means we’re working with paper and pen. In what ends up looking a great deal like a glorious wreath around the text, my students mark, circle, underline, ask questions and doodle in the margins as we work to engage with the author’s work and make meaning from confusion. My student Maggie put it best, “I need to be in there, IN the text, and the only way in for me is by touching the page, turning it, going back, stopping and contemplating.”

Third, I saw how central a role paper played in my students’ work when I gave them a project called Genius Hour. This project gave them 100 percent control over what they chose to do and how to do it. Each week, my students were given a class period to pursue a passion of theirs. The only requirement was that it had to matter deeply to them, and they had to present their learning journey and results at the end of the term. Thirty-four students created 34 unique and amazing final projects using a blend of high-tech and low-tech tools. Emery learned how to use three different photo apps on his phone, and his final project was a book of his best photos to be given to his parents for Christmas. Melissa taught herself to sew clothes and the process of making, cutting and using paper patterns was a glory to watch unfold. Nicole and Julianna’s project to bring a more positive school culture to campus involved them plastering all 1,000 students’ lockers with motivational, kind messages on sticky notes. Eli’s incredible short film follows the journey of his love note turned paper airplane on several disastrous flights before landing in the hands of his true love. The scripting and storyboarding for his project, not to mention the dozen stunt paper planes he made, kept Eli absorbed for months. And yes, I’m sure you were wondering. He eventually gets the girl. What blew me away as their teacher was watching them shift from their tech tools to a pen and paper world at critical junctures of their project. When it was time to understand and plot their next steps more deeply or to work through the logistics of what they’d set out to do, paper was always where they did this important work.

What this year of learning taught me was something we all probably know, but may have forgotten with the rise of on-screen education. Learning with paper works. It’s a smart choice. It’s effective. It’s meaningful for kids. Students believe they are more successful when they read, study and work with paper. As a teacher, I know they are.

This gives me some clear direction for the school year rapidly approaching and some great advice for parents, educators and students.

Parents, prime your kids for school success by making sure your kids have access to printed reading material, a calendar, folders for organizing paperwork, plenty of lined paper for writing and a big stack of index cards. Keep your eyes peeled for project handouts, and whenever possible, help your kids break large tasks like projects into smaller, manageable bits of work they can conquer easily. They need your support and welcome it.

Teachers, there’s no end to the magic you can make with paper in your classrooms. From interactive bulletin boards and notebooks to handwritten first drafts to flash cards for memorizing key vocabulary, paper remains an essential tool for us to both deliver content and for our students to engage with this material and make it their own.

Students, paper is the bomb dot com, and using it will make you smarter. Writing down your assignments, tracking your progress in your planners, using cards to learn new material, handwriting your notes in your spiral notebooks, doodling to make knowledge symbolic and presenting your work in gorgeous poster presentations will help you be the star student you were meant to be.