In Defense of Paper

Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

One of the happy accidents I have discovered in this most unusual year of teaching is my own affinity for seeing student writing — the mulling, the dreaming, the scratching out — on paper. 

Last year at this time, I remember leaving my own notebook under the document camera to get up and weave through my classroom, glancing over the shoulders of my students as they wrote in their writer’s notebooks. I would often say, “Ooh, I love that line you wrote there!  Would you mind sharing that with the whole class when it’s time later on?”  There is a lot to learn about students from their raw notebook pages, even from the lettering and doodling  and their use of space.  While I can still model what strong writer’s notebook pages look like under the camera, I can no longer draw near and take a look at their writing. 

As I prepared for a virtual classroom this year, and one month later morphed into to a hybrid classroom, I made one critical decision:  I needed to keep a paper writer’s notebook central to my teaching.  Even as digital writing enjoys its day in the sun during the pandemic, giving me instant access to their words and their process and useful tools to provide feedback, paper will still prevail.  Hard copy writer’s notebooks will always provide what Naomi Shihab Nye calls “A way to fuel up.  Supreme superior unleaded.” 

In this post, I have gathered a few observations, a bit of research, and helpful tips for teachers who want to keep paper writer’s notebooks at the core of each student’s experience this year. 

Put Those Hands To Work

So what do we know about writing by hand? 

For primary school students, research shows that composition of ideas and fine motor skills can improve when children write by hand. This is one reason doctors now use writing by hand as good “cognitive exercise” for aging patients.  A study involving college students taking notes for their classes revealed that handwritten notes on paper resulted in better memory of the material than taking notes on a computer.  

During revision, I often extoll the value of reading what we have written out loud, even if no one is listening to us. It is an indispensable step in the writing process. We catch the bumps that need smoothing and the gaps that need filling when we engage our mouths, our ears and our eyes in the work of writing. 

I believe in something similar when it comes to writing some of our thinking on paper. It puts our hands to work too.  Our brains are firing on all cylinders as we engage multiple parts of our body.  The same way we encourage our students to embed images that tug at their reader’s five senses, we can encourage them to engage in physical writing practices that tug at their own five senses and harness the full potential of their brains.  

A study out of France reveals that a whole different section of our brain, associated with sensorimotor activity, lights up when we write letters on paper but not when we write on the computer. It goes on to suggest that “ the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading.”

As recently as last week, The World Economic Forum published research on the benefits of putting pen to paper: “The delicate and precisely controlled movements involved in handwriting contribute to the brain’s activation patterns related to learning,” the authors wrote. “We found no evidence of such activation patterns when using a keyboard.”

Classroom teachers — the on-the-ground experts in reading/writing workshops — have long observed that reading improves writing which then improves reading. Because of the sensorimotor connection this research presents, the connected reading-writing growth in English class may indeed be strengthened by the tactile aspects of writing on a physical page.  

Give Those Eyes A Break

My own children, who are in full virtual school right now, have started complaining of headaches. Screens can be fatiguing after hours and hours.  The overexposure to blue light can cause insomnia, while The American Academy of Opthamology notes that  screen reading makes us physically blink less often, leaving our eyes dry and irritated, even when we use blue-light filters.  

No matter what classrooms look like where you live and teach right now, digital devices demand a growing amount of your students’ attention and time. Requiring some writing time in a paper writer’s notebook gives students time away from these side effects, a well-deserved break for the eyes. 

Make Space For Wild Imaginings

A page invites more than the stern focus and self-critical, rapid revision we sometimes employ when drafting on a computer.  It lets us scribble and scratch. 

White space tends to intimidate young writers, but on screen this can be especially so.  A blinking cursor at the top taunts them, as if to say, “You don’t really have anything significant to say, do you?” White space on a notebook page, however, gives room for a doodle or a stray thought. Often I encourage my students to sketch something before they write about it, map out a concept with a web or flowchart, write an idea as a poem before writing it as a paragraph.  

The notebook is a space for their wild imaginings, writing some thinking that will never be revised but rather be preserved in its rawest form.  Digital space can facilitate this, but not as naturally as a physical page.  And these days, when my students’ physical proximity to each other and their teachers is more tightly controlled, I can still provide a space for physical proximity to their own ideas: the ink and paper and smeary graphite, the texture of it all.  

Getting A Glimpse of Their Work

I have uncovered a few ways to look in on student work in their paper writer’s notebooks while maintaining social distance.  These methods marry digital tools and physical notebooks, and while they may not be quite as in-the-moment as roaming the classroom and looking for hidden gems, they have helped me to gauge student success in playing with new structures and applying new skills. 

  1. Post a picture of a page using the school’s LMS.  For us, this means that I create an assignment on Canvas where a student can upload a picture of their page.  In the “Speed Grader” mode, I can flip through every student’s page quickly and get an idea of who is moving forward well, who is falling behind a bit, and who is out in left field, distracted by a flock of starlings. Students keeping the LMS app on their phone makes this so much easier too!
  2. Upload a 15-second Flipgrid to show writing volume. Your goal may be to see whether students are writing with sufficient volume to practice skills and play with language.  Flipgrid videos give you a quick look at this while students flip through and narrate their in-progress work.  Since you can set a time limit on Flipgrid videos, it is easy enough to survey the entire class this way.  
  3. Hold it up high. Now that I have some students in my classroom each day, the old-fashioned “hold up your work and let me see it” assists me in determining whether students followed directions or progressed with a project.  Because students all have to face the same direction, their pages remain private too, and I am the only one who gets to see this, albeit from a distance. 
  4. Read a favorite line.  Sometimes a round-robin sharing of notebook work allows me to hear just one line from each student’s notebook at the end of some writing time.  If we were studying imagery, I might simply ask, “Share what you think is one of the best images you wrote today.”  Listening gives me an idea of who understands the definition of imagery and to what degree they can create it with their words.  I always offer “pass” as an option for this kind of sharing. 

By now, it is as clear as a bottle of Purell how I feel about keeping some of our writing on paper. But how do my students feel about it?  

Nearly one hundred of my students completed a one-question survey last week. The question was this: “Mr. Vogelsinger is asking you to use a paper Writer’s Notebook instead of a virtual one. What do you think about working as a writer on paper? How does it help or hinder you?

Five students said they prefer working entirely digitally. Some students expressed that computer writing is helpful for writing a longer essay. Most students expressed some deep and abiding paper-love. I’ll share a few of their comments here.

“I enjoy using a paper writer’s notebook. It allows me to get a break form the screen and it helps me use the skills I’m learning better as I don’t have the grammar and spell check.” — Zoe

“I just like writing on paper. It makes me feel more accomplished. I’m not sure why.” — Avery

“It’s much better to write on paper because you can learn more and remember more” — Pierce

“Paper helps me so much!!! It makes it so much easier to edit my writing and get thoughts out of my head quickly. Having a physical book makes me feel like I’m making a lot of progress on my writing.” — Cassandra

“I feel as though I can collect my thoughts and get them down better than I can if I was online.” — Sean

“I think I am just more organized on paper because I have been doing it my whole life. I don’t paper hinders me in any way other than making my hand sore.” — Veerya

“It helps me to get off the computer and focus more on my writing.” — Kyle

Until pre-COVID use of our physical classroom spaces can return, we will need to continue to find ways to blend the old and the new.  For me, students maintaining physical notebooks will always be a part of that process. 

— Brett Vogelsinger

What do you see as the pros and cons of your students writing in a paper notebook?  What workarounds have you discovered to help you maintain this routine through the COVID-19 pandemic? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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1 Comment

  1. I’m moving my students back to paper notebooks this quarter for this very reason! I’ve already noticed a significant improvement in student engagement and in the amount of writing they’re producing. It eliminates a lot of the frustrating distractions they have on the computer, too. And honestly, it helps give me a break from the computer and lets me talk to them more, too!

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