To Shred, or Not To Shred... by Bob Sprankle

We have a recycling group at my school made up of third grade students who collect paper from each classroom's recycling trash can. They make their rounds twice a week and fill 2 huge bins each time. Schools use a lot of paper. I hate to tell you how many bins they filled the last week of school. It surpassed the regular collection because it was "clean out your desk/cubby/locker" time --- the end of the year. All over the school, in a frenzy against time, students made quick decisions about their work from the year: "Do I take it home, or does it go into the recycling shredder?"

When I was a classroom teacher, I used portfolios to help students preserve their best work, but even then, there was still the big "toss-out" during the last week of school. Surely, we can't save everything. Those atoms take up a lot of space. But what an amount of work that is lost to the wind! I take some comfort in that fact that the paper will be recycled and reincarnated as future sticky notes, blank paper for artwork and writing yet to come, and even... toilet paper. That's fine for the paper part... but, wow (especially the last example), it's hard to see our students' effort disappear after working so hard all year.

But it doesn't have to, does it? We live in an age of virtually endless storage space if we go the digital route.

Think of Blogs.

One of the main reasons I started using Blogs with students was so their work had permanence, and wasn't just shoved in a box in the back of an attic, but published in an authentic venue, where people could continue to interact with it. For years to come.

I still have people leaving comments on the first Blog that I set up for students over 5 years ago. It remains a living, breathing organism. The students can still go back and see their previous work. Surely, the life of the work is finite (as all work is, I guess), but I will continue to pay for my unlimited server space and bandwith at my provider and keep this Blog up... until either the Internet's or my own demise. In either case, I predict that the work will have a pretty long run.

Every time I give a workshop to teachers about Blogging, a particular question comes up. Usually, I teach these workshops in the summer, so teachers have the memories of tossing out the piles still fresh in their minds. Their classroom has been emptied and "boarded up" for the summer season of "floor waxing" and will be rebuilt once again in about three months. We've gotten used to this; students and teachers. Most schools in the United States stop sometime in June and reopen in September, with new students, new paper and new work, starting to build the pile that will be tossed in June... all over again.

The question that always comes up in my workshops is this: "Do you toss the old classroom's blog to make room for the new year?" In other words, do you delete all the work created and start with the blank slate, or do you keep it and just add on with the new students' work? We traditionally have tossed the "paper stuff"... should the same rule apply to the digital?

I usually allow some time in my workshops for folks to talk this out. There are a lot of arguments on both sides. One of the most common arguments for the tossing option is that teachers don't want the new students having access to (read: copying) the work that the previous year's class had done. I can see the power of this argument (though I'm not convinced), especially if its primary rationale is that teachers don't have time/resources to build an entirely new curriculum each year.

But consider: who's work is it? Do we teachers have the right to obliterate the entries of students just because they reside on the blogs that we've set up? Perhaps giving the students a backup of the work exonerates a teacher from pulling the work down, but I can't help feel that it's breaking a contract. Publishing our students' work on a Blog is different than hanging it up in the school hall. The reason we hang work up in the hall is to "show it off". The reason we post student work on a Blog is to engage in conversation; a conversation that has global potential and can be carried on (theoretically) indefinitely.

I taught in a Multi Age classroom, so it was natural to just keep adding on to the Blog: half of my class was always made up of returning students who were continuing their work in the same classroom, with the same teacher... with the same Blog.

But I don't really think it's different from a "graded" classroom (i.e., a classroom that refreshes its student population entirely each year). Your classroom may have different students each year, but you, the teacher are still there. The room has a history, a past, a story that doesn't have to evaporate from the blog each year to make room for a new story.

I implore you to keep the old posts indefinitely. Your new students will be able to look back at previous students' work. They'll recognize siblings, and acquaintances, and even ask questions about those past classes. They will also recognize that their own work will be secure and cherished and that future students will be reading it and asking questions about them.

Here's my recipe for keeping the stories and the work alive:

  1. Buy your own domain name (usually about $10 a year). Name it after your own name, or a name that you will never grow tired of. Your classrooms may change, and you may even change schools, but chances are, you're always going to be you. My domain name is "". I will always be Bob Sprankle. In our society, many women change their last names when their marital status changes, so that may need to be taken into consideration. Chances are, however, your first name will remain the same, so something like, "" might work out better.
  2. Consider (if your district allows) creating your students' blog off campus, for instance, on a service that will exist and offer up your students' blog even after you retire, or if you move to another school. There are plenty of free options out there from the "giants" in the industry (can you say "Google"?). If you must use a Blogging platform that is tied to your school's infrastructure, ask your IT folks how this could be "backed up" or transferred (if ever the need arises).
  3. Have parents sign permission forms to allow their students' work to be posted on the Internet (most schools already have this in place), but hang onto copies of those permissions (I know: more paper to store...). You may wish to get in touch with a student years from now because of continued conversation that's happening with his/her work. The information in the permission forms may help you track the "future them" down and also maintains your permission to continue to keep their work posted.
  4. Be willing to DELETE. On the flipside of all this, I think we as teachers also must be willing to "erase" a student's work if asked to do so by that student in the future. Perhaps "20-year-old-Johnny" no longer wants the poem he wrote about his dead hamster as "10-year-old-Johnny" on your Blog. As keepers of the story, we should honor that not everyone wants all stories to be kept.

As teachers, we must remember that when we publish student work on Blogs, we are the "caretakers" but not the "owners" of that work. Students' hearts and hard work have gone into the pieces. The decision to post or to delete is an essential conversation between "caretakers" and "owners", and one of the most important steps in setting up a classroom blog.