Notebooks, yellow pencils and three ring binders are usually the first images that come to mind when you think about heading back to school, especially if you haven’t been inside a classroom in a few years. Whether you’re a recent grad or just attended your 25th high school reunion, you’d be surprised to see the rapid changes put into place in school systems—especially the materials the students are using.
As generations of students go through school and the ways of learning change, the stereotypical “back to school” list has expanded from the simple pencil and notebook into a booming industry of technology, personalized pencil cases and enough fidget spinners to drive a teacher insane. There are so many flashy items cluttered on store shelves that it’s hard to tell what students really should be bringing to class.
We spoke with teachers ranging from elementary school to high school to see what students are actually utilizing, what went out of use years ago and most importantly, does anyone still write in those black and white marble notebooks?
Yes, they’re still using classic school supplies
Any parent who has a young school aged child will know that oftentimes teachers aren’t requesting specific supplies for students to bring for themselves, but items the entire classroom can use. Mary McCarthy, an educator for twenty years and current first grade teacher, only requests four items for her students to bring in at the beginning of the school year: glue sticks, dry erase markers, tissues and hand sanitizer.
“I prefer everyone to have the same thing, so I provide the crayons, pencils, pencil boxes and notebooks. The students can get easily distracted when they have their own stuff, so sharing from the same classroom supply keeps everyone on an equal playing field,” McCarthy said.
“Of course the famous black and white notebooks are still being used,” current 4th grade teacher John Barry said. While the school system supplies the textbooks, his students come into class with armfuls of folders, binders, pencils and crayons.
The one thing they’re usually missing though, is a pencil sharpener. It seems that no matter the generation, most still prefer to get up in the middle of the lesson and fill the room with the noisy grinding of a pencil sharpener. While he had his 4th and 5th grade students use the standard school supplies we all know and love, he has watched as they brought different trends into the classroom too.
Here are the new additions to the classroom
Teresa Culverhouse, an educator for only 3 years, has seen the effect of technology in her kindergarten and second grade classrooms. Some of her young students enter the class at the beginning of the year confident on how to utilize an iPad and take pictures with an iPhone, but shaky when it comes to turning the pages of an actual, physical book.
“We definitely want to build our student’s 21st century skills, but we aren’t using technology all day,” Culverhouse said. Her classroom is out fitted with multiple desktop computers as well as Playaways, which are MP3 players with books already loaded onto them to listen to.
Over the years, Mary McCarthy has certainly seen a change in the materials brought inside of her classroom, with the addition of having Chromebooks available in the school and a SMART board installed next to her whiteboard.
The SMART board, which can act as a projector of what is happening on her computer, video player and interactive whiteboard, is definitely what grabs the attention of her students the most. “I always say, some days I could Skype myself in and they would listen just as much because once I turn on that SMART board, they immediately start paying attention.” she said.
“The controversial fidget spinners were a major issue in class. Their initial purpose was to stimulate kids yet help them focus, but of course they became a major distraction,” Barry said. Over the past 4 years of his teaching career he has seen the fidget spinner fad change to putty, a clay like substance that occupational therapists recommend for students who have trouble focusing, to Squishies, which are basically adorable looking stress balls. “Who knows what the fad will be this year, it’s constantly changing.” he said.
Of course, the major difference he notes in current classrooms as opposed to what he was experiencing in school himself is the technology divide. With a set of about 10 Chromebooks in each classroom and the option of bringing in the school’s Chromebook cart for the entire class, these current students have grown up with technology constantly available to them.
“It’s an even greater uphill battle getting them organized with papers and folders because they are so reliant with technology that their organization skills are compromised,” Barry explains.
The attention spans have shortened because students now are used to the stimulation with online games and apps, leading the majority of the teachers I spoke with to believe that their students are now almost over stimulated.
Here’s what isn’t being used in schools anymore
For Matthew King, a high school teacher based out of Boston, he doesn’t see students loaded down by cumbersome backpacks in the hallways anymore. That’s because the days of heavy textbooks are now behind them, as his students are required to use iPads with their textbooks stored on them.
“Every day my students need to come to class with just 4 things: their iPad, a binder for handouts, a notebook and something to write with,” King said. While King has his students use their iPads for about half the time in class and take notes by hand the other half, he finds the constant problem he runs into isn’t with the technology, but basic school supplies.
“The biggest issues I have is with pencils and pens. Since so many teachers have the students just using their iPads, they just forget that they need a pen or pencil in my class as well. I’ll have kids come to my class at the end of the day and they won’t have a pencil or pen and I won’t understand how they’ve been in school that long without one,” King explains.
The lack of writing utensils might be because in some schools, the students don’t have to write down homework assignments anymore, as they are automatically sent to their online calendars. King’s school uses a learning management system called Canvas, where teachers post homework assignments.
These assignments automatically go to a student’s calendar, where they can see all of their work for that night and submit some assignments electronically as well. But don’t worry, King says, having easy access to all of your assignments still hasn’t changed adolescents, because just like we all did, they still are coming up with excuses as to why they didn’t do their homework.
In Montana, Erin Faulhaber, an educator for 18 years, uses a system called Infinite Campus, that acts as a place where students can submit assignments and see their homework, but it also is a live gradebook for teachers. If students choose to download the Infinite Campus app, they can get an alert sent to their phone once their teachers have finished grading a test and added it into the system.
“I have kids coming up to me and asking about why they got a grade on a test, when I haven’t even handed back their tests yet.” Faulhaber said. She says this type of behavior is most common with her advanced students. Meanwhile the majority of the student body is content to not log on and obsessively check their grades everyday, sort of like they are going to school in the early 2000s, when you only knew your grades once you had waited for a progress report.
With technology like Chromebooks, tablets and SMART boards becoming the norm in classrooms across the country, it’s easy to say goodbye to old classroom staples, like bulky overhead projectors and assignment notebooks. However, we can all agree on one thing for sure; no matter what type of class it is, make sure your student has an extra pencil on hand, and no matter who tells them or where they are reading it, kids are always going to try and get out of doing their homework.