Friday, September 24, 2010

Sending Snail Mail from a Paperless Classroom

My kids are using paper this week. Two sheets per kid, actually.

This week's unit in Freshman Human Geography was on forced migration. As our case study, we looked at the events of the Sudanese Civil Wars and the Darfur Genocide.

We watched two striking films: God Grew Tired of Us and The Devil Came on Horseback. The first is about the plight of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the second about the situation in Darfur that arose out of the Civil Wars.

Then we looked deeper, using the resources of Google Maps, Radio Dabanga, PRI's The World, New York Times, and the BBC. Students looked at survivor accounts and explored the resources of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on genocide, violence, and witness.

And we blogged and discussed what we had learned.

All of this was done paperlessly. And most of it could never have been done in a pre-digital classroom. But now we come to the stage where we must put pen to paper. Because there are somethings that the digital medium does better than the analog, but there are somethings that pen and paper can still do that you just can't do with an email or a Tweet.

Things like getting noticed by a US Senator.

And so my students are taking everything they have learned and all the stories, discussions, resources, and realities we have digested over this unit, and they are sitting down, putting pen to paper, and they are writing letters to their Senators. They are writing about what they've learned and they are writing about their own personal reactions to the genocide in their own words. They are asking the Senators what they've done, what they are doing, and what they propose doing to assist and empower the victims and to bring the perpetrators to justice. They are learning what it means to play an active role in democracy and they are learning about the limits and realities of one nation's influence over the destiny of another.

And they are writing letters. Not because they don't have access to digital means, but because they do have the ability to produce what in these days of massive digital issue campaigns might be more effective in being something that gets noticed: a handwritten letter.

This has not been an easy unit. I've seen kids cry. I've also seen them smile along with John Dau and his Sudanese compatriots. I've heard them ask why they didn't know this was going on. And I've heard their questions and their frustration that something like this could happen.

As for 'Teaching Paperless'? Well, two sheets of paper per kid and a handwritten and heartfelt query is well worth it to engage them in that kind of learning.

Because, as I've said from the beginning: this paperless thing isn't about the dogma of paperlessness; it's about dynamism. It's about change. It's about using the connections to create situations where learning can take place. And sometimes the best way to do your part to effect change -- or to see the limits confronting it -- is to send a bit of snail mail.


  1. I almost cried reading this post. Damn. Good. Stuff.

    That is teaching. Relevant, personal, awesome. And a letter to a senator. Great capstone to a great unit.

    I read "forced migration." I thought boring. Then it came alive.

    I wish that all students could be in classrooms like yours and hope that personal kids do.

    Well done.

  2. I've done this in the past with students as well, and it is quite funny in this day and age that a "handwritten" letter still yields a better response than an email would.

    Your blog continues to inspire as I've been dreading the time or moment when I have to add my 2 sheets to my paperless classroom as well. Now I don't fear it quite so much.

  3. I am a new social studies teacher this year. I teach sixth and seventh grade. I am struggling with trying to teach without the aid of a textbook. I am currently teaching a unit on East Africa and we are reading a novel in verse HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate that is about a Sudanese refugee who flees to the US. I would love to model my unit after yours. Any advice or help you can give I would greatly appreciate. My email address is Thank you so much for the inspiration!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.