On the first day of this semester, the first day of my new paperless face-to-face classroom, the course management system crashed. When the system revived, the projector quit. In short, in the first seventy-five minutes of opening day I experienced my greatest fears about going paperless. More than once I longed to throw my laptop out the window, and to return to a time before Facebook and smart phones, when we sat outside under trees with ripening apples, doing independent free writing and discussing our writing processes together, unaware of the genie about to emerge from the bottle.
Yet, at the first sign of nostalgia, I blinked. The memory of that seemingly better world held deep imperfections of its own. At the same time, I find unexpected connections between those paper-centered BW classrooms of a generation ago, and the paperless classrooms of today. Students then and now struggle with juggling a multitude of academic, personal, and economic responsibilities that often come in direct conflict with the requirements of our courses.
Rather treat these issues as flashpoints, or to ignore the existence of such issues altogether, we can work with students to foster resilience and persistence for the future. Additionally, we can create moments that remind us to humanize our classrooms by re-purposing the space that binds us to the classroom.
Here is one example of re-purposing space: On a bright autumn day, I invited students to leave the classroom, or to use the classroom as a place for independent study. What would students learn from creating their own activities for promoting writing? I offered students approximately 45 minutes of a 75-minute class period to work on this activity, with the goal of finding specific examples to support an education narrative. At the end of the 45 minutes, students return to the classroom to report their findings to the class, and to take attendance. Four specific responses followed:
1) Writing with the lights off: Several students chose to stay in the room. With fewer students in the classroom, the remaining students worked quietly and independently on their education narratives. We kept the lights off so that students could write and read without the glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. Students found sufficient natural light from the Arizona sun, filtered through the high shaded windows.
2) Mindfulness walk: A small group of students took advantage of the midmorning mild desert temperatures to take a mindfulness walk. As these three students walked across campus, they brainstormed ideas, and offered each other suggestions for developing their narratives.
3) Interviews: Other students had wanted to conduct random interviews on campus to supplement the main persuasive point of their narrative. The interviews helped students gather ideas, and also gave them opportunities to converse with strangers on campus. One student tweeted that her interviewee had given her information that she found contradictory. Because of the contradiction, the student did not think she could use the interview as an example. Instead, I suggested including the rich material of the interview as a point of refutation. Not all examples needed to work in harmony with the thesis.
4) Photos: Many students decided to take photographs that might work as visual arguments for their education narratives. The outdoor spaces feature large crowds of people moving quickly between buildings on multiple modes of transportation (walking, skateboards, bicycles, golf carts). Additionally, the campus offers a landscape thick with trees, including palms, evergreens, and orange trees, that attempt to shade the inhabitants from desert heat. As a next step, students would need to discern if their photographs would serve as appropriate visual arguments.
Much like that class discussion held long ago under the apple trees, our class activity included student-centered elements of re-purposing space and independent study. Yet this work also approaches writing from a paperless perspective. Instead of being tied to technology as we were once tied to paper, we included a variety of multimedia and kinesthetic resources that students had at their disposal. Instead of viewing the paperless classroom as a threat that interrupts writing, we can learn to reclaim technology and humanization as a point of intersection, rather than as oppositions at odds with each other. That point of intersection offers us the hope of living without nostalgia, and becoming fully present for the writing of our future.