One of the easiest ways to sell parents on the paperless classroom was simply to show them the start-of-year supply list. The only thing I require for the whole year is a thumb drive and a set of headphones—a true necessity. When there are 24 kids in here who don’t sit still creating something at once, it can get pretty loud. The headphones are part of good digital etiquette, teaching them respect for others who may be concentrating on something totally different.

Being a science class, we naturally do a lot of projects and experiments, and the kids record each one using their device. The kids are natural problem-solvers, so I know that when I ask them to build app-controlled cars out of Lego and Spheros or learn about force and motion using Hot Wheels, they’ll break off into groups and figure it out. Some of our favorite projects come from a curriculum we use called DefinedSTEM, which focuses heavily on real-world situations. It’s all digital, and gives the kids a chance to use their devices in lots of new ways.

Last year, for example, we used a DefinedSTEM project on weather, where the kids took on the role of an on-camera meteorologist, educating the community about what to do during a hurricane or tornado. The kids loved it, and took it to a whole other level, downloading maps of weather fronts from the internet and giving their lesson in front of our green screen wall. Then using TouchScreen Studio on their iPads, they cut some very creative videos. One student asked his mom to take him all around the city so he could deliver a series of “live” weather reports from the courthouse, the park, and other recognizable locales. The class and I both loved it, but I couldn’t help but wonder what his final project would have looked like without that device.

Same Size, More Space

I’ve been teaching in the Johnsonville style for 14 years now, and before the iPads, things looked a lot different. My classroom has stayed the same size, but before we went digital kids used to create a physical city out of shoeboxes that took up anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of the floor space.

Now the design aspect—like everything else—is all in the cloud. The class used to manage their economy using spreadsheets, but back then we had to book time in the computer lab to do it. Sometimes we could only get in once or twice a week, and we certainly couldn’t do all the same things using desktops that we can with our iPads.

The added benefit of getting rid of the shoebox city is that there’s so much more open space for the kids to move around. And they do move around—a lot. Since our school WiFi works everywhere, the kids hardly sit. They take their iPads outside on nice days and we do experiments on the playground.

On field trips, they document everything. Even the school buses have WiFi now, and students work on their field trip Keynotes on the ride home, when their experiences are still fresh and their excitement infectious. After they’re finished, we upload them to the cloud and, at the end of the school year when we take the devices away, they can still watch them from anywhere. And the best part is, they actually do!

To me, the progression to paperless and mobile makes sense. Years ago, I was still waiting in line at the bank and managing my finances with a paper checkbook. These days, I do everything on my phone. I’d hate for my students to think they were stepping back in time each time they stepped into the classroom, so I make sure it looks and operates like the world students relate with, the one they live in every moment they’re not in school. This way, they have the skills and habits they need to succeed when they move out of Johnsonville.

About the Author:

Anthony Johnson is a fourth- and fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at Isenberg Elementary in Salisbury, North Carolina. He was recently named Regional Teacher of the Year in southwestern North Carolina.