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How paper-free days can spark a tech transformation

Cutting out paper and pencils one day a week gets everyone thinking more creatively

Sometimes one simple question is all it takes to trigger revolution in a school. In the case of Kelly Mill Elementary outside of Atlanta, the question was: How can we more effectively engage our learners? It’s loaded, I know. The idea migrated from my head into staff meetings, and a variation on that question eventually ended up posted next to every copy machine in our school to prompt teachers to find new ways of teaching—without paper and pencils.

The term “paper-free days” may sound like a tactic to cut spending, but that wasn’t the main goal. I wanted to challenge my teachers to think differently about educating and engaging students. Are doing worksheets and reading textbooks really teaching our students what they need to know? Probably not.

What if we were to get young learners moving, get their hands dirty through project-based learning, incorporate more technology, and actually engage them in material? Would it make a difference? From there, paper-free days  were born, and traditional teachers quickly embraced the true meaning of being paper-free.


Kelly Mill Elementary is only four years old, but from day one we have been a bring-your-own-device school. We’re a school that’s willing to take new ideas, apply them, and see if they work.

About two years ago, I sat down with my staff for a brainstorming session on how to reallocate resources to build a more effective learning environment. We had a goal of making technology available to every student, increasing engagement levels, and closing the achievement gap. I walked out of the session with pages of notes for different ideas on funding, new tools, and ideas about how to make our school even better on a tight budget. Word quickly spread to the rest of my staff, and I was flooded with e-mails from teachers about how they believe teaching could be improved.

The topic of paper-free days kept coming up. It was something I’d only read about and never actually seen, but through research I found much negative coverage about the topic. Most schools ended up going to paper-free days due to year-end shortages or budget constraints. In programs like that, the teachers weren’t supportive of administration which, in turn, caused backlash against the system. I did not want that to happen.

Next page: How teachers embraced the change

At Kelly Mill, we have never met our county copy allotment for the year and never had a problem staying within our paper budget. Nearby, schools are paying thousands in overage charges because of their high paper usage. I reassured our staff we were not in any budget trouble, but wanted to jump on the technology bandwagon before it was too late. I also assured them that money saved on paper would be put toward new technology.

I pitched paper-free days to my team as a new mindset toward engaging children. Teachers and staff embraced it, viewing the day as a good challenge. They saw it as an open opportunity to try something new, to incorporate technology and hands-on activities instead of doing the same old lessons, many of which are tired and outdated. Teachers ran with the idea without thinking twice, and I credit that to our approach and our school’s overall frame of mind on being paper-free.

I wanted to make it clear: our school isn’t anti-paper. There are a lot of needs for paper in a school, and teachers do continue to use paper lessons as an alternative. Some have truly embraced being paper-free, and literally emptied out entire file cabinets, retiring old lesson plans and giving them new life through virtually appealing flip charts, songs, and videos. Soon, teachers started to look forward to the paper-free day.

Teachers from each grade got to choose what day of the week they would be paper-free, so they feel included in the implementation and planning. It also gave them an opportunity to look forward to their paper-free day and plan ahead for lessons.

Removing paper from the equation

Since we are a BYOD school, our community was well aware of the power of technology and what devices can do for engagement. Prior to launching our paper-free days, each classroom had an ActivPanel interactive flat panel installed, which of course helped teachers use move away from paper. While many teachers use technology in their personal lives, much of the staff had never used it for classroom instruction, which was a big adjustment. The panels went from being a scary, cumbersome piece of technology to becoming part of everyday life in the classroom.

In the beginning, teachers used the panels as large overhead projectors, but with a bit of professional development, they realized the capabilities and engagement opportunities. Though some were timid, every teacher stepped out of his or her comfort zone to use the board on some level; where they started, it didn’t matter.

I told them the students will know more and catch on faster to this kind of technology, and that’s okay; use it to your advantage. I encouraged teachers to hand over the interactive whiteboard pen to the students, giving them the power to get involved in their learning. If they did that one more time each day, it’s a win. Once they got comfortable, teachers were able to see the true difference between paper-focused and paper-free lessons.

The engagement level of students skyrocketed. There was a clear difference in activity, performance, and fun when paper and pencils were removed from the equation. Soon, parents started to recognize the benefits of technology in school, asking our staff for advice on what device to buy their child to get them more involved.

The tale of our transformative initiative quickly spread. We communicate with parents and community members on social media by taking photos of students doing cool things in the classroom with technology, then posting the photos as daily updates.

As avid Twitter user, I once shared a photo of our inspirational signs posted above the copy machines with the simple question, “How can we more effectively engage our learners without running it through this machine?” Soon, educational leaders across the globe started to reach out, asking how we made paper-free days a reality. The biggest advice I could give them is not to look at it as a budget cut, but as a new way of teaching and learning. It’s not about the money; it’s about the students.

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