I have to pop in and share this article I read today at washingtonpost.com:
I haven’t talked much about my intentions for the coming semester, because I feel it’s probably pretty boring for most people. But when I read this article, I felt a big old YES about it, because it accurately sums up the problem I’ve been having. As I may have mentioned before, a lot has changed in the five years since I was last a classroom teacher, and the presence of laptops and cell phones is one of the biggest. Technology may be, in fact, the only change that’s occurred, actually; it’s just so huge it feels like 99 problems when it’s really only one (unavoidable joke, sorry).
I struggled all semester with the laptop/cell phone/internet problem, and until i had the chance a week ago to talk it out with a friend, I could not hit upon a solution. Were I simply teaching an English class, the solution would be simple: no cell phones in the classroom, for sure, and even though we are not allowed to ban laptops, I would have my classroom set up in such a way that I could see what they were doing on them most, if not all, of the time (had to do that in the past when I taught in a computer lab, and it’s quite doable in a normal classroom with desks you can arrange).
However, I am in this special program that does not have a content area, and one of the major accommodations our students with learning differences receive is the allowance of laptops in classrooms – primarily for note taking. So, I can’t exactly ban them outright when they are with me for their study hall. Furthermore, one of the things we want for the center is for it to be a more relaxed and open environment than a regular classroom, so I allowed students to have their phones out at all times, to listen to music while they studied, for example. The problem is, even when students did use the technologies available to them, they still ended up distracted by Twitter or Pinterest or YouTube more often than they actually studied. And the texting was non-stop (and was often coming from their parents!).
You’d think these things would be easy enough to control in a classroom of six students or less. But the truth is, these kids are incredibly skilled at appearing to be working when they are not (put a few books on the table, hold a pen in your hand, and look very serious). And even though I only have six students per class, I am often working closely with one or a few of them, and as soon as I am occupied, they’re off-task.
One thing I like about the article linked above is that it doesn’t shame or blame the students for this behavior – in fact, the author admits that he struggles just as much to stay focused when surrounded by technology as they do. My weakness in teaching has always been my ability to empathize with my students to the point of being lax, and I definitely fell down in this regard again in the fall. And, in all honesty, there were times when I myself got distracted by the Internet and caught myself sitting at my desk reading some article when I was supposed to be helping students! I don’t think your average kid engages in this off-task behavior on purpose, any more than I do – I think we all get called away from our purpose by virtual distractions before we even realize it’s happening; it’s not a conscious decision we make to check out of whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing (although I have a few students who are doing it decisively, but that’s another story). I’d like to be able to trust the students overall and give them the freedom to utilize whatever technology they need, whenever they need it, but it puts me in the position of being a constant “technology cop,” forever looking over individual shoulders and getting into conflicts with kids I catch off-task. I do not have the time nor the constitution for this approach. It’s too much work and too stressful and it puts me in the position of having to directly confront students on a regular basis, which is not my style.
But what do I do if I cannot ban technology entirely from my classroom? It’s true that for some of my students, listening to music may help them study. And certainly many of them are allowed to use laptops – it’s in their documentation. There’s also all sorts of assistive technology and apps they theoretically could be using to help them meet their educational needs (although to be honest, I’ve yet to see any app that’s all that helpful or impressive). My friend helped me come up with a few ideas:
1. Ban cell phones for a certain amount of classroom time. Classes at my school are an hour and half due to block scheduling (which I loathe, but subject for another time). So, at first, I decided they would be able to get out the phones and use them for the last 20 minutes of class in whatever way they see fit – including play a game or look at Twitter if they need a break. But then I read this article about taking small “tech breaks” throughout a class period to reduce the anxiety our social-media addictions create in us (I say “us” because I have it, too). I think this might work better, but I’ve just hit upon this research so I need to think through how do it realistically, in a manner that won’t get cumbersome for me to monitor. Bottom line is, they can use their phones to check social media or texts- at some point during the period. But not for the entire class. The truth is, they are simply not dedicated enough on their own to steer clear of the numerous distractions, and their work is suffering as a result. I think that’s what finally became clear to me – I actually have an obligation to keep them away from the distractions and assist them in learning how to focus without all that crap. I thought I was doing my job by allowing these things, but in reality I was doing them a disservice by allowing them to engage in sub-standard study practices.
2. Laptop use is allowed at designated areas of the room only. I’m not sure I can pull this one off this year, because I only have one big, jerry-rigged, makeshift room to work with and designated areas are hard to create at this point as the space is stuffed (remember August, when we didn’t even have desks or walls? Well yeah, that’s changed just a little – see the picture below as a reference). My friend suggested a few places, but it all seems a bit too forced to me to pull off, so what I may say instead is that any student on a laptop MUST have their back to me, so I can see what they are doing. What they do now is sit facing me – easy to do since we have those wonderful, inviting round tables that have turned out to be a bit of a pain in this regard – and then they incorporate way too much Netflix and Twitter into their study time while I can’t see the screen. It is not my desire to constantly pace around the room policing their laptop comings and goings, so if they sit with their backs to my desk (which is where I normally am) I can easily look up and see what they are doing. Much easier, and still little confrontation and conflict involved. Next year, we actually will have two rooms to work with (and two teachers instead of just me!), and I can be sure to create a ‘laptop friendly’ area where the use of them will be allowed while all other spaces are ‘technology-free’ zones.
I have a few other ideas for how to be of better assistance to the students this year, but they aren’t technology-related and this post is probably already boring as hell. But it’s been on my mind since my break started, and I feel like I finally have solutions to the issues I had last semester. I do feel badly that I let the kids, and their parents, down in this regard: I left them to police themselves in an area where I should have been enforcing better habits. We even had a few kids fail classes, and while I know that’s always going to happen, I do feel that a few of those kids would have worked harder if I’d monitored them more – and yes, even forced them to work when on their own they allowed the distractions to get them off-task. But in my defense, I’ve never dealt with technology in a classroom before, as when I was a teacher it just wasn’t allowed, plus I was trying so hard to create a unique, comfortable, and trusting environment that I hesitated to put a stop to it when I saw it becoming a problem (plus, I just didn’t have enough time away from the situation to catch a breath and come up with a workable solution).
So them’s my new rules, and I’m sticking to ’em. I’ve actually written whole posts about this subject several times but always deleted them because they felt too work-specific to be interesting. But that article inspired me – interesting to hear what difficulty even colleges face when it comes to the subject of laptops and cell phones. By the way, I’ve certainly yet to see any way in which all these bells and whistles have added much of anything to the field of education – I know it’s probably sacrilege to say such a thing, but one of the reasons I left teaching was because I got so sick of being sent to training after training chasing the next big technological advance only to once again have it fall short. Hell, I was still using a good old overhead projector when I left five years ago – never saw where a “smart board” did anything more than my overheads could do…and don’t get me started on the abject failure of all that “every kid must have an iPad” crap schools were all over a few years ago, mine included. I’ve never ONCE seen a student use an iPad for an educational purpose; I even tried to get my students to use ours to study and they chose to use pen and paper instead. Grrrrrrr – Kids these days! Get off my lawn!
Now, I swear I’m going to share all these photos I keep talking about in my next post. I just keep getting sidetracked.