Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Going Paperless: The Digital Binder

By on September 13, 2013

I wanted to share a bit of what I’m doing in my various classrooms as a means to go paperless.  To me, the need to go paperless is about two things:

1. The reams of paper that are used in any class, in particular a writing class, are simply grotesque.  It’s about the environment, sure, but it’s also about budget.  Now, I’m not on a crusade to save the district money or anything, although I’m happy to do so; I am, however, on a crusade not to be dependent on anyone ordering reams of paper because that is a ball that constantly gets dropped.  I’m tired of being dependent on the supply-ordering-gods in whatever office or warehouse they reside.  It’s a cult, and I refuse to worship at its wasteful and undependable shrine.

2. My job is to prepare my students for their future, and being able to type, collaborate, share, tab, click, design, create, problem-solve, troubleshoot, record, edit, write, and publish while online is vital in a Language Arts class.  In my class, as I’ve written about before, it’s more about the Art of Using Language than Language Arts.  While we work on reading and writing, we use content from other classes in order to help learn how to best communicate using 21st Century means, regardless of the subject matter.

So it seemed obvious that the most natural next step for my classes was to see if we could go as paperless as possible in as meaningful a way as possible.  We’ve made a lot of progress, and I wanted to share one strategy in particular.  This year, I had my students ditch their 3-ring binders in favor of a student-created digital one.

First thing I should tell you is that we have a class set of iPads and a smattering of Chromebooks in my bindersclassroom.  My district is dipping its toe into a deeper use of technology, as we all are, and while we don’t have the budget or necessarily the philosophical buy-in to go whole-hog into allowing students to take technology home with them or to bring their own, we are permitting a few classrooms in different schools to use 1:1 within the classroom setting.  I’m one of them.  I wish there were a sniglet that meant both grateful and frustrated.  That’s how I feel about being one of those classrooms.  It’s great.  It allows me to experiment in a more autonomous way with integrating technology, but not a day goes by without glitches and having to troubleshoot.  I have learned to model patience on the outside while cursing both iPads and Chromebooks on the inside.  As they say, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  Clearly Google and Apple haven’t gotten the memo.

I should note that these classes are designated as Honors; however, I will be taking this model to my mainstream classes as well.  I think the digital binder can work with any level of student, so long as the appropriate scaffolding and guidance are in place.  A few models wouldn’t hurt either.

Here’s how we are progressing:

1. The school got Google Apps for Ed – each kid has his or her own account and that account only permits emailing between those with our district account.  Don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.

2. Students have log in usernames and passwords – I keep a file of them close at hand for those inevitable  brainfarts when a middle schooler who has logged in successfully 20 times forgets their log in information on the 21st time.  It happens.  They’re middle schoolers.

3. Students each created their own websites – They logged in to Google Sites and browsed various themes and templates.  Most students, however, started a website from scratch so they could control more of the look of the site itself.  I did not have to teach this.  I only had to guide them to the location and let them loose on Google Sites.  I gave them the parameters of the assignment, it’s purpose, and its requirements.  The kids figured out the How all by themselves.  Those students who do not have a computer at home, some of whom have never touched a computer save for those at school, picked up the skills soon enough.

4. They first created a Homepage to their website – This homepage works like a Table of Contents or Cover Letter that you might put on the cover of any working portfolio.  It includes text about the purpose of the digital binder as well as hyperlinks throughout the website to various pages.

5. They then created additional tabs.  – These could either be seen from a horizontal top menu or side menu for easy navigation.  The required tabs were as follows:

     About Me – This is a 3rd person biography page about various interests and hobbies.  They are also permitted to post images and pictures that symbolize them.

     My Blog – This is a page that acts as a blog, but doesn’t mimic one entirely.  Due to a limitation in Google Drive, they can’t comment on each other pages without giving them editing privileges.  This leaves their work vulnerable to other students’ interactions.  What’s with that, Google?! Anyhow, the work around is that they develop their blog posts in Google Drive as documents and hyperlink the titles of the posts to documents from that page. Visitors can view, but not comment.  Others students in the classes can comment with permission.  On the documents themselves, students can use the comment feature as they would comment on a normal blog.  Rather than the comment be added to the bottom of the post, however, it embeds along the right margin instead.

     Works in Progress – This is the page that, like the blog, links to all rough drafts that are in progress or activities that show the writing process.  For instance, their current narratives, complete with text, peer-to-peer comments of advice, highlighting activities, Think Alouds, etc…can by seen on this page.  Many kids decided when they created their website that using the File Cabinet template was an interesting way to do what was needed for this page.  It gives a little twist on the webpage itself, looking different than the rest.

     Final Drafts – This one’s obvious.

     Research Library – This is an ongoing list in either APA or MLA Bibliographical format that represents any research that the students do for various projects or assignments.  For our current narrative unit, my students are writing sci-fi or historical fiction superhero origin stories (more on that unit in an upcoming post.) These stories utilize facts by embedding them into fiction (a little tip o’ the hat to the needs of Common Core.) The Research Library is their archive of resources that they found over the course of the unit that helped them establish reality into their comic fantasies.

     Reading Log – I hate reading logs, but they are recognizable to parents and admin as your typical evidence of independent reading.  I have the kids keep a growing bibliography list of their independent reading.  I accept anything: books, magazines, comic books, graphic novels, websites, whatever, so long as they cite it properly.  They must also rate them in terms of their level of interest to the student.

     Notes – Any notes they take in class are taken either on a Google Document or on the iPad using Paperport Notes that they can then send to their Google Drive.  They typically use styluses to write on the tablet if using Paperport Notes.  On their website is a page that links to all their note files so anyone can see some of what they are up to and learning.  It also gives them easy access to their own resources.

6. I linked their sites to a main page.  – This main page includes a list of all of their names (first name last initial), divided up by period.  They are all live links to each student’s webpage.  As such, a student can click on any name and go directly to a peer’s digital portfolio.  In terms of ease of grading (always a concern for any teacher), it’s really simple to click on a kid’s name, click on their webpage, and score their assignments.


A 3-ring binder gets full.  Pages fall out.  One of my own 7th grade teachers, an ex-nun, would, if your rings were open when she walked by, shake everything out with the yell of, “Disorganized!”  I guess Google Drive would have been her nemesis.  No disorganization here.


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