January 9, 2018

FTV: Going Paperless


    The ecological implications of the phrase ‘going paperless’ are obvious but it somehow hasn’t worked out exactly as planned.  Admittedly, there are many organizations that give their members the ‘electronic delivery’ option.  Off the top of my head, local groups like The Friends of the Porkies and the Ontonagon County Historical Society come to mind.  Gains made in the paperless society movement, however, are often offset by the simple fact that we can now make more paper waste faster and more efficiently than at any other time in history.  Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a sticking point if we had a viable recycling option for these mountains of waste paper (are you listening Waste Management?).

    When I got started in the education game forty plus years ago, text books and mimeographed worksheets ruled.  If you aren’t old enough to remember the dizzying smell of a freshly mimeographed worksheet, then this won’t be terribly relevant to you without a little context:  we didn’t have a Xerox copy machine available for classroom prep until I returned from a year back at NMU in the fall of 1980 (and Xeroxed copies don’t make you dizzy).  Mimeograph sheets were tricky affairs in that making a mistake while preparing the print master required several steps to repair.  It was much more prudent to dial back my speed typing while pounding the keys on an old manual Underwood typewriter.  This helped because one then avoided time consuming template repairs.  When I discovered there were mimeo backing sheets (where the ink lived before being transferred to the waxy surface of the print master) available in red and green, it became possible to jazz up those monochrome purple worksheets by inserting the different colored highlights as needed.  One of my colleagues at the time spied one of these multicolored creations and asked, “How did you DO that?” making  me feel that perhaps I had just taught an old dog a new trick.  His take on my great discovery  was, “That is cool, but then again, I was happy when we got this new electric machine – the old one you had to hand crank.”  Touche!

    Teachers using mimeographed sheets to make worksheets wasn’t a new trick.  One can probably recall getting copies that had been run from reused masters so many times that they put a strain on the eyes when reading the faded print.  In those early years, I found that 120 student copies per assignment )(with a few extras just in case) were about all one master sheet could produce.  As class sizes shrunk over the years, it was possible to run a year’s worth and re-use the same master the next year before having to retype it.  It was also possible to run two year’s worth and stash the extras in the file for the next year thus saving a few trips to the office to run them off.  When we finally did get a Xerox machine in the JH office, it ran a blazing three copies per minute so it could be used for making some reference copies of newspaper or magazine articles, but it was much too slow to copy classroom quantities of material.  As far as receiving instantaneous electronic delivery of materials, we had that, too.  It was called the fax (we didn’t use the Pony Express or Telegraph for anything other than history lessons, so don’t even go there).

    By the time the junior high grades had made the move to the high school building in 1983-84, the Xerox technology had progressed to the point where the copy machine was the preferred method for making student worksheets.  I can’t actually remember using a mimeograph machine once we were in our new digs at the newly christened Jr-Sr High.  The copy machine was still slower than a mimeograph machine, but being able to type assignments on regular paper (yes, still banged out on my old Underwood manual machine) saved time because one never needed to retype a ‘master’ sheet as was the case with the mimeographs.  A couple of our newer copiers even had an option for black, red, or blue ink, but eventually the colored inks were phased out.

    When the district began equipping each classroom with a computer for staff use, they were set up with a colored printer that made it possible to incorporate more color elements into student sheets.  About the time we got used to having a colored printer at our beck and call, the economics of the situation moved us into having a centralized black and white printer for most printing and one centralized colored printer for special projects.  Why the change?  The ink and upkeep of a bunch of individual printers was much more time consuming and expensive than fewer, more efficient printers.  Read the word ‘efficient’ here to mean ‘faster’.  As our technology improved, the speed at which we could print class materials made it possible for us to produce printed material from many sources faster than ever.  Our current copier-printer makes the older models pale by comparison as it can staple, hole punch, collate, shrink, enlarge, fax, and e-mail items as well make multiple copies at blazing speeds.  For all I know it might even make coffee.

    The improvements in our computer technology has also had an impact on that other stalwart of classroom education:  the textbook.  When I started, my seventh grade science book was a recycled ninth grade level book that ended the space unit with the declaration, “Someday man may travel to the Moon on a regular basis.”  I began using this book three years after the final Apollo moon landing mission.  I limped along with this book for my first four years and when I took a leave of absence to return to school in 1979-80, it never dawned on me that the person who filled my job that year would order a new book.  They did and it was heavy on the life and biological sciences.  Upon returning from NMU for the 1980-81 school year, I found it a poor match for the two year Geography/Earth Science curriculum I was teaching.  After four more years of teaching around an inadequate book, teaching my GES classes without relying on a book was becoming my norm.  The year Jr-Sr High principal Tom Hartzell put the science department on the top of the list for ordering new books, it made my day.  I replaced the two book set with a single volume that we could use in both seventh and eighth grade.  By the time Chuck Zielinski and I were team teaching ninth grade Physical Science in the early 1990s, it was time to look at new books again.  We decided to get one book to cover grades seven, eight and nine.  The best book we previewed was already ten years old so we had to write a letter to the Board of Education explaining why we wanted to purchase an older book.  Our reasons were sound: 1) they were cheaper than the newer books being marketed  2) they had a comprehensive flow that met all the areas we wanted to teach in grades seven through nine, and lastly 3) most of the physical science principles we taught would not be changing anytime soon.  New trends in science could kept up with by using current events taken from magazines and newspapers.

    The okay was given to purchase the new text series.  My classes had now cycled through four different texts in less than twenty years.  I told the superintendent at the time that the book we were recommending was so good that we wouldn’t need to purchase another series for the another  twenty years.  I may not teach Physical Science any more, but a quarter of a century later, I am still using the last two texts purchased for my classes (the green book and the blue book as I refer to them) for reference in my science classes.  Why are they used only for reference?  Over the years I had contended with less than helpful books, I began to rely on more and more outside sources of information to teach science and less and less on the old ‘read a chapter, do the worksheet, take a test’ teaching format.  The books were there for backup, but they were no longer the primary tools employed in my class.

    With the increased availability of instructional materials on-line today, we have been encouraged to use more computer and chromebook based teaching sources and less text book bound lessons.  Text books have also become prohibitively expensive, giving us even more reason to explore other avenues of delivering educational content.   I would like to state that not basing my instructional style on a book meant I was ahead of the curve.  In truth,  I stopped relying exclusively on text book lessons and branched out into other areas to expand the curriculum out of necessity.  Who knew the last textbook purchase I made would last almost 30 years.

    Back in the day, ‘cut and paste’ had a different meaning than today.  As the self-anointed “King of Cut and Paste”, I modified a lot of sources into lessons by physically cutting them apart and reassembling them for classroom use.  These days, a few computer mouse clicks can accomplish the same thing and with a couple more clicks, the lesson can be sent off to the office copier to be printed, collated, stapled, and/or three hole punched in less time than it takes me to walk down to the office to retrieve it.  Don’t get me wrong, I still do plenty of the old fashioned cutting and pasting, but my crown now extends to the electronic version of ‘C&P’ as well.  

     It has been a decade or more since I taught ninth grade Physical Science so it made good sense  to me that those boxes and file drawers of old units could now be cleaned out.  Among the various  worksheets filed in my archives, I found a packet of unit notebooks from one the students in my last PS9 class.  Since my second year in the classroom, I have insisted that students save all of their assignment work.  At the end of each unit, they bind them into a unit notebook and hand them in for a final unit grade.  While scanning over this student’s accumulated work, it hit me:  I am sure there are many ways to electronically file all of one’s assignments.  As an old mimeograph guy, it would be hard for me to find looking at pages of electronic files with the same satisfaction one gets from having a physical pile of work.  Paperless society?  We are still working on it, but I don’t see it impacting an old cut and paste guy like me any time soon.  Until push came to shove, I still preferred getting an old fashioned paycheck in lieu of a pay stub indicating my pay has been electronically deposited.  My accountant won this round and my paycheck now gets deposited after a short flight through the ether.  In the meantime, I will keep sorting my piles of work because I am not ready to go totally paperless.


Top Piece Video:  Okay, you find a better song about paper . . . I love Alex Chilton’s Box Tops, but Joe C did it well also!