In Praise of Pencils and Paper

Four reasons why I occasionally jump off the edtech train

Marilyn Yung, Educator and Guest Blogger

I’m a fan of technology in schools. In my middle school ELA classroom, I use my school-furnished laptop and software, a cart full of Chromebooks, a SMART board, YouTube videos, Google Classroom and more. Based on what I learned at an edtech conference last summer, I also now host a private Instagram account for my classes. In addition, I continue to experiment with various apps and extensions. Some have been helpful; some haven’t.

As a result, I can honestly assert that I am completely dependent on edtech in my classroom. In fact, I am so dependent on it that I can’t imagine teaching in the pre-internet age. Memories of teachers cranking mimeograph machines and reserving filmstrip projectors not only indicate my age, but also cause me to say, “Sheesh. Those were so NOT the days.”

However, there are times when I want to jump off the edtech train. I see technology making students lazy, too dependent on the thinking of others, and too easily distracted. So while I embrace technology in the school setting, I also believe in pencils and paper. I believe that edtech should be used in moderation and in balance with more traditional learning tools and methods.

Here are four reasons why I use edtech in moderation in my classroom:

Some students don’t understand that thinking takes time.

Even though technology allows students to research and discover solutions more quickly and conveniently, using Google and other search engines instills in them an unrealistic demand for “instant everything.” In my experience, students all too quickly open their laptops, but not their minds, when it comes to generating ideas. When they do use their minds, they expect ideas to burst forth instantly, and it just doesn’t work that way. For example, during Quiet Writing Time, which we do about twice each week at the beginning of the period, students handwrite in a composition book in response to a creative writing prompt projected on the SMART Board.

Without fail, about three seconds after reading the prompt, several students in every class say, “I can’t think of anything.” I patiently remind them to give their brains time for an idea to surface. If they wait a minute or two, I assure them, an idea will blossom. Creative thinking is not only just that — creative, — it’s difficult and time-consuming. Students whose lives are saturated by the internet simply haven’t discovered this truth.

Students venture to unauthorized websites.

While I post links and resources in Google Classroom, students will stray. This year, my school implemented a new monitoring system that displays every student’s laptop screen on my own. So far, that’s working, but unless I carry my laptop with me as I meet and conference with students around the room, students can wander away from the safe content into unknown territory. There are many days when paper, pen, books and encyclopedias seem like the more worthwhile and safer approach.

Using edtech in balance with low tech tools also helps my students hone their fine motor skills.

The promotion of 21st-century skills, including keyboarding, has fostered students who experience difficulty manipulating pencils, scissors, and other small tools. I have more than enough Chromebooks in my classroom, but only one or two students who are comfortable writing their signature in cursive.

In short, more screen time means less developed fine motor skills. Last week during my fifth-hour class (the class right after lunch), I asked students to retrieve their composition books for some note-taking. One student remarked that he hadn’t used a paper and pen all day until that moment. In the pursuit and elevation of technology, why should curriculum simultaneously permit the demise of hands-on skills?

I don’t think “paperless” is a goal to aspire to.

I hear fellow teachers commenting with satisfaction that their classroom is a “paperless classroom.” My response? That’s a shame. Call me old-fashioned, but I see value in the transaction — the exchange, if you will — that occurs when a student turns in an assignment. They have their handout and their drafts. They stack them together, straighten them, staple them, and then hand them to me. Okay, sometimes they drop their assignments in the basket, but that still allows me to glance at it, skim it, and tell them thank you.

Sometimes I notice an effective phrase, or the correct use of an ellipsis or semicolon, for example, and compliment them on their skill. Or at other times, I notice that they omitted an important detail. Either way, turning in their work in person allows us the opportunity to share in the process. Submitting files in Google Classroom or another system doesn’t allow that. It feels impersonal and detached when compared with turning in a tangible product.

Yes, edtech has noble intentions. It creates relevancy and engagement in my classroom. After all, the world my students inhabit is immersed in “online this” and “virtual that.” Let’s face it. Edtech is not going away. But while the train speeds down the track, I won’t forget that as a classroom teacher, I have the power to use edtech how I see fit: in moderation… and in balance with pencils and paper.


Marilyn Yung is a middle school English Language Arts teacher in Kirbyville, Missouri. She teaches sixth-, seventh-, and eight-graders how to express their ideas through writing. She specializes in providing authentic writing experiences for her students with essay and poetry contests and publication opportunities, both online and in print. Her ELA blog is www.elabraveandtrue.com. She tweets at @marilyn_yung.


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