My Beef With Paper

I realized something this week: I have a deep-seated, unhealthy HATRED for paper.

Forms from the office, handouts from professional development sessions, and materials that need to be sent home to families sit in silent stacks on my desk, my counters, my backpack and my floor.

And that doesn’t even include the piles and piles of handwritten assignments that my 130 students turn in each week to demonstrate mastery.

Sure I’ve got folders and binders and file cabinets all neatly labeled and at the ready, but those neatly labeled storage systems are only useful if they’re close by when papers are given to me.

And sure I’ve got a wiki where I’m warehousing digital copies of documents, but that’s only useful when someone actually GIVES me digital copies of documents – or when I can find the time to dig out my scanner to MAKE digital copies of other people’s documents.


Instead, papers are given to me by my peers in meetings. They’re dropped in my mailbox by secretaries. They’re handed in by students in the hallways between classes – and they almost never actually make it into any kind of file folder.

The whole system is so darn inefficient that it makes me want to scream. I find myself wasting the little bits of free planning time that I have wrestling with paper — and that leaves me more than a little hacked off.

But my REAL beef with paper runs much deeper. My real beef with paper is the negative impact that it has on the willingness of my students to revise their work.

Tom Whitby – college education professor and #edchat legend – says it like this:

"Word processing enables kids to write at a higher level, and they are more likely to make corrections and rewrites when using a word processor.

A word processor is not a typewriter. We write in a word-processing world and our students should learn in the same way."

He’s right, isn’t he? I mean, when was the last time that you wrote ANYTHING longer than a hall pass or a quick note to a loved one longhand on a piece of paper?


And what’s the likelihood that you’d spend any time revising work that you’d been forced to write out by hand?

Would you REALLY want to erase entire paragraphs to make small  but important language changes? Would you REALLY want to rewrite an entire piece simply because one section needed revising? Would you REALLY want to find creative ways to insert forgotten content into a piece sitting on paper?


But that’s exactly what most of our students are forced to do simply because they don’t have regular access to digital tools for composing in our classrooms.



And that HAS to influence student choices when it comes to demonstrating mastery through a written product.

I’ve even told students NOT to make changes to work products that they wanted to improve simply because the time that it would take to rework a final piece wouldn’t result in enough extra value to be worth it.


I think what bothers me the most, though, is that struggling students – whose hard earned first drafts generally need a TON of work – are hurt more by our paper-chained world than their high achieving peers.

If it took you three hours to write three paragraphs, how would YOU react when the teacher asked you to add more detail before turning in a final copy?



For years, teachers have moaned and groaned about kids that were unwilling to put effort into revising their work

We grumble on about the fact that elaboration and word choice and varied sentence structures are the key to being an influential writer.  We plead with our students to give us just a little bit more and accuse them of being lazy misfits when they don't.

Maybe — just maybe — however, it’s time that we stop complaining about the kids and start complaining about the antiquated tools that we’re forcing them to use.


Author’s Note: I made 63 revisions to this piece in 22 minutes. Some were simple word changes. Others were more complex – moving sentences and paragraphs, adding line breaks to make this bit easier for readers to consume.

Think THAT would have happened if I crafted this sucker with a sharpened Ticonderoga and a few sheets of college-ruled?


15 thoughts on “My Beef With Paper

  1. hoijui

    hey, nice post 🙂
    i am not a teacher, but a student at university. things are different here, but my topic still falls under the hatred of paper.
    I study IT, and in most classes we get scripts as PDFs. these scripts are quite hard to understand, even after having heard the lecture, except if you add lots of scribbling, painting and other annotations to them. therefore, practically every student has to print the script, which is usually 100+ pages long, only because there are simply no annotation tools that are worthwhile, flexible and easy to use.
    i would like to see such a tool.
    an other thing, where i would like to make a comment to the form that was described earlier, how students did their work with word processors and blogs:
    I believe there is an even better technique, which consist of using text based content format (for example Markdown or Latex) coupled with a distributed SCM (for example git, Mercurial or Bazaar). alternatively, Wiki platforms supply kind of a slightly inferior version of these two systems combined.
    the benefits of such a system may seem small in the beginning, and you may think they are not worth the trouble, because they are more complex to learn and setup, and… of course i can not give any evidence or even clues that would prove you wrong there, but i can tell you, that even the majority of IT Master students has not yet even an idea of the existence and benefits of these techniques.
    they should, and i think everyone that does a lot of work on texts of any sorts should.
    * overall cleaner workflow
    * changes can be visualized much easier, because they are done in plain-text
    * conversion to different formats is easier
    * students learn stuff they can use later in live (academic live, wikipedia, at their job, …)
    * a history of changes is available in a perfect format, allowing to visualize progress, and to go access past (versions of) content very easily
    * (for me, the most important benefit:) parallel work of multiple students on a single piece of text is very easy (or actually made possible at all)
    once you learned using this style, you never want to go back to binary or XML formats and no history tracking and no merging assistance, which is the case when using blogs and word processors for example. it is a similar painful step like the move from blog & WP back to paper.
    if you want to learn this style, and have no idea how, maybe start with learning how Wikipedia (Mediawiki) works, or ask for help at any open-source coding project that uses git, Mercurial or Bazaar.

  2. D Caldwell

    As a pre-service teacher, I recently blogged about the absurdity of using pencil and paper.
    I believe to meet a school’s goals of decreasing paper, while still providing a quality education, an investment in the necessary technology tools is required. To move student learning from the rote and mundane, to the more analytical that leads to the development of innovative thinking, there must be an investment in the tools to help teachers, and students accomplish this goal.
    The tools also provide further real world experiences for students. They can use tools to research, explore, analyze, compare, contrast, and collaborate. They can produce electronic portfolios that reflect their knowledge and growth.
    By the time they are college bound, they have a wealth of information to demonstrate how they learn, where their interest lie, and have already developed real world social, technological and interpersonal skills.
    My goal, as I draw closer to having my own classroom, is to keep thinking about how to develop a classroom that is representative of the real world for my students.
    One site I have found is Technology for K-12 Transformation: Web Showcase for Student Work, offers planning tools for developing classroom sites. There are a myriad of technologies, examples of works, etc. to be explored. I intend to explore these further to reach my goal for my students.
    Here is a link to my blog post:

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Mike,
    Thanks for stopping by the Radical! Its good to see you again.
    And youre definitely right on this one. The challenge for any student is learning to compose — and composing DOESNT mean writing in longhand and filling blue books. Composing is all about structure and content and organization — and structure and content and organization is impossible to pull off when youre forced to erase and write and rewrite.
    EVERY student — especially in one-to-one districts like yours — should be doing the majority of their drafting and practice in digital spaces to practice those composing skills. Would it be alright to have kids do a sample bit or two with the Ticonderogas? Sure — but that darn well shouldnt be the bulk of their writing simply because theyll be reinforcing the revising is too difficult to bother with writing habits that are killing our kids.
    Hope this helps,

  4. Mike Hasley

    I agree 100%. Last week I came across a teacher who still has his students hand write essays despite each of our students having laptops. His reason: on the AP test, they have to hand write. My argument is that it’s better to learn how to develop your thoughts in writing (digitally) then learn the muscle movements, because the actual writing is easy, it’s the thought development that needs practice. Do you think that’s a fair argument? He didn’t seem convinced.

  5. Ginnyp

    Excellent points, Bill. Our hands are tied with our classes of 30-35;;we have to sign up to get to a computer lab days (maybe weeks) in advance. My problem with a direction to “now type it on your computer at home and revise it” is that mom and dad do the rewriting and all I see is the perfected final. I’d like to see how my students change and improve their work and for now, pencil seems to be it.

  6. TeachMoore

    I’m totally with you on this, Bill. I’ve seen for myself that once students become truly comfortable with word processors and what they can do, the amount and quality of their revisions improves dramatically. This was true with my high school students and even more so with my community college students, and as any writing instructor knows, the more students are willing to revise and rethink their writing the better. Of course, we can always generate hard copies when they are needed, but that’s getting rarer.
    Are you familiar with Ted Nellen’s CyberEnglish work? He’s a pioneer in the paperless classroom going back to the early 80s. If not check him out here:

  7. John E

    Great piece, especially the part about students and writing. I run an online writing program. Whats interesting ( and baffling to me ) is that the teachers are against providing students spelling and grammar checkers as part of their online word processors but the like a TTS option. Weird.

  8. Kristen Beck

    Bill, You make some great points. I used to make my students use the old computer printer paper that was green and white. This forced the students to skip lines and it enabled us to revise. We would have room to add things and we would also cut it apart and tape it together as we moved sections. It was a great way for students to learn how to cut and paste. And then after all that work, they would re-write the piece. They weren’t as resistant because the rough draft really was a sloppy copy. Back then the only computer in my classroom was the teacher computer.
    As a writing project fellow, I have attended and presented many sessions where teachers complain of the kids not revising. Some language arts teachers do not see the editing and revision students do on the computer as “real work”. They feel the students have to do it the long way for the learning to occur. #writinginthedarkages
    Thank you for letting me know that I am not the only paper phobic teacher with piles of it everywhere in my classroom.
    I lost count of the revisions I made while writing this.
    Your perspective will stick with me as I assign writing to my math students!

  9. Naomishema

    I can agree with you only 90%.
    I give online homework tasks but let kids decide in which manner is most comfortable for them to hand it in.
    Some kids are more comfortable with paper. They think better with a pen (we don’t use pencils much in high-school!) or find it easier to concentrate when there is no option for facebook in the background.

  10. Bill Ferriter

    John Wrote:
    Everything from spell check (the ultimate method of instant feedback) to
    the idea of saving an incomplete draft seem like an excuse to make kids
    lazy writers when, in fact, the opposite trend has been true for me.
    John — I completely love your reference to spell check as a form of immediate formative feedback! Id never thought of it that way — but its a great comparison.
    Thanks for sharing,

  11. Mbteach

    I actually have embraced using paper in my computer lab. Mostly because my students only come to me one or two times a week. By having them work out ideas through graphic organizers and guiding questions on paper, I can more easily manage 150-200 students’ work and they spend less time trying to retrieve those ideas when they come to the lab.
    That said, I completely agree that word processing, blogging and online writing has made my students better revisers and more willing to take risks with their writing. The pre-planning they do on paper is never really more than an exercise in getting the juices flowing, but I think it has its place.
    John, your comment about spell check is interesting. I wonder how many of those teachers use the spell check/word completion on their cell phones. Does that make them “lazy?”

  12. Timothy Kanold

    Bill, as usual, lots of good points! Although not a middle school example, this summer, I taught a doctoral studies class at Loyola in Chicago. For many of the reasons you mentioned each student (who had a personal laptop), had to create a blog, that linked to my class blog.
    All assignments were given on the blog, each student had a “blog buddy” that was required to respond to and provide formative feedback on the “Buddy” submission, and all assignments were completed and turned in via the blog.
    With the exception of their final major paper, I graded the blogs by liking them (or not) and in some cases I submitted great student responses back to the class on my blog, for their discourse before the next class.
    I learned a lot, it wasn’t perfect, and most paper was eliminated. The best part was in anticipation of a class meeting, I could post class prompts (like a case study) on the blog, that would help to guide our work in class that night.
    I also noticed that because the work was so “Public”, student responses seemed more creative and thoughtful than in the past (or maybe I just imagined that!)
    Here is the best part, I was taught how to do all of this and bring a student accountability to the work, by a high school Social Studies teacher – Chris Salaturo who has been doing this with his students for about 3 years.
    Students use their home computers or pda’s; and in class, use a set of “traveling lab” ipads available to his department. He also teaches them quite a bit about social media responsibility as well.
    Thanks for placing this out there as an important issue to address.

  13. John T. Spencer

    When I first began as a teacher, I had to use really old computers and I ran them on Linux. Kids wrote documents, saved the documents and e-mailed them to me. Suddenly they were taking the time to revise. When we switched to Google Docs and I could leave comments, they began to revise more.
    Now that we start on Google Docs and they publish to blogs, they are truly getting the system of revision toward mastery.
    However, when I explain this to teachers, they reject the idea altogether. Everything from spell check (the ultimate method of instant feedback) to the idea of saving an incomplete draft seem like an excuse to make kids “lazy writers” when, in fact, the opposite trend has been true for me.

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