Wrestling with the Modern World

Sometimes I am convinced that the universe is sending me important messages to sort out. I am not sure if I am always up to the task of making sense of these meanings. In my last post I was wondering aloud about how to incorporate technology into my assessments in a way that made sense. I asked my Calc BC kids to wrestle with a tough problem about circles. The problem made much more sense (to me, at least) when I graphed it using GeoGebra. It allowed me to lock in on a region of reasonable solutions. I asked if anyone out there has logical ways to incorporate this newer technology during assessments. For years my students have come armed with TI calculators. Sometimes they know how to unlock its powers, sometimes they do not. Somehow, the world of GeoGebra and Desmos (and Wolfram Alpha, and and and) seems more dangerous or intimidating to open up to classroom assessments. I worry about how to evaluate my students’ progress when I do not know where/how they found answers. So, that’s one part of what is in my head now. I have struggled with cell phone presence in my school. A little background might help explain where I am. Eight years ago when we moved north I became involved with our local Unitarian Universalist church and I volunteered as a youth group counselor. I attended a number of weekend ‘Cons’ with our youth. One of the persistent messages at these events was that this was an intentional community that was being created for the weekend. The youth were urged to be present to each other and to the event. They were expected to put electronics away for the weekend and they were asked not to engage in public displays of affection. For the most part, they bought into these requests and the energy was palpable. Kids were engaged with each other, they were talking, singing, laughing. It was a fantastic, but exhausting, weekend environment. Just last week I visited a school and sat in on four classes and two assemblies while I was there and did not see one student (or one faculty member, by the way) staring at a screen in their palm or in their lap. Kids were present to each other, to their classes, and to their assembly speakers. I found it refreshing. In my school there is a gathering area right outside my classroom window and I often see two or three kids on one bench all staring at their phones. I know that this is my bias (maybe this bias belongs to others as well!) but I find this dispiriting. In my class, I tend to stand near the door to greet people as they come in and some of them are trudging through the halls staring in their hands and barely aware of those around them. I used to have to spend time getting my classes to quiet down at the beginning of class because they’d be talking to each other as they sat down. Not so much anymore. Again – I know that this is my bias here, but I find this a bit depressing. I try to utilize the language from my UU experiences and since I teach in an independent school I CAN invoke the idea that there is a choice made in being at our school. The reality though is that this choice is often the choice of parents and not my students. At the youth group it was much more a matter of choice by the youth engaged. So, after my school visit I was feeling that my bias was being confirmed and supported by the environment of the school I visited. Then my brains was rocked yesterday by Justin Aion. Justin blogs over at http://relearningtoteach.blogspot.com and his posts (nearly daily ones!) are a treat. I have also had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know him in person here at a workshop we hosted (run by the wonderful Jennifer Silverman) and at twittermathcamp this summer. He is as delightful in person as he is through his blog. Yesterday Justin wrote a pretty moving post (you can find it here) about cell phones and I want to try to address his points as a way to help me clarify my own mixed feelings. His final point is the most important (by the way – read his whole post, don’t just take my highlights!):

If the answers to my tests can be looked up on Google, are they really worth asking in the first place?

I want my students to be creating, to be evaluating, to be synthesizing information.  I want them forming opinions and interpreting answers.  It would be great if they could determine the circumference of a circle from it’s diameter.

It would be better if they could tell me which of the given answers is the most reasonable estimate.

A smart phone can’t make judgement calls.  They can’t interpret answers.

If a smart phone can answer my test questions, I’m asking the wrong questions.

I agree 100% with these sentiments. When I first visited my current school I saw a chapel presentation that completely won me over. It was one of the 4 or 5 major reasons why I am here. Our  Reverend addressed these ideas and won me over. I do not think that this is the real reason why I worry about cell phones or other connectivity issues on assessments or in my class. Justin writes passionately about students doing what he wants (needs?) them to do while still being connected electronically through their phones or their headphones. What troubles me is a persistent belief that I have that we all benefit when everyone is engaged in class. The student who is doing solid math while wearing headphones is depriving their classmates of a strong voice and they are depriving themselves of the opportunity to explain their own thinking or to hear the thoughts of their classmates. I believe SO strongly that learning ought to be social and interactive. Maybe I am just inflating any logical concerns about relating to each other but that is where my heart and my head are right now. I don’t know how to balance what I want, what my students want, what I believe is best for the group as a whole, and the needs of the individuals. I know that there is a sweet spot there and that it almost certainly varies by class – hell, even by time of day.

I have asked my students to have their phones on their desks this year. We know that they are in the classroom and I don’t want surreptitious use in their laps. I ask them to look up stuff, I recognize that some of them use their phone as a rudimentary calculator. I don’t pretend that these don’t exist and I want to encourage honesty and openness about their presence in the classroom. Some students have complied while others have not. I speak patiently (but consistently) with those who keep them in their laps and text friends during class.

I know that I want my students to interact and I believe that they do less of it when they are plugged in to their phone or their headphones. I want students to research and solve challenging problems and I know that they do less of that when they are not connected to the internet through their phones or tablets or laptops. I chaired a committee at our school that helped develop a 1 – 1 program in our middle school. That program should soon bubble up to our high school. I believe in technology. I do, I think it improves learning and depend understanding. I am jealous of my students when I get to display complex ideas with Desmos or GeoGebra because I am old and did not even have rudimentary graphing technology available when I was trying to learn trig and calculus. I cannot tell if my visceral reactions to cell phones is at all logical and I am trying to sort that out. Justin – thanks for making me think and making me uncomfortable. Anyone else out there reading this – please poke at me through comments or through twitter (I am @mrdardy) I want to sort through these conflicts. I want to create an environment that is meaningful for my students AND for me. I sometimes feel like the grumpy old man yelling at kids on the lawn (even though I don’t have my own yard!) even though I don’t want to believe that is me.

sigh… This stuff is hard.

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2 thoughts on “Wrestling with the Modern World

  1. goldenoj

    I think about being a doodler – as are my kids – and the backlash from teachers about it. When those studies came out saying some doodling students had better recall of what was happening in class, I felt so justified.

    I used to ban having phones out in class. When students asked, I’d say it was a pet peeve, or give one of my many reasons it disrupted learning. Now – no ban. I’ll ask students to use them, or point out when might be a good time to google. If there’s a bit of math it might ruin, I’ll let them know ‘not now’ but also why. (Makes me accountable for it – how will my reason sound to them.) And I try to intercede if someone’s use affects their group or partner. That’s hard for me as I’m not confrontational. It’s different than the kinds of behavior that you could draw attention to by standing next to the student, because they often feel justified in what they’re doing.

    Overall, I’m happier with things now. I always think of the NCTM principle: technology should change what we teach and how we teach. What I want my students to take responsibility for is when will tech enhance their learning and when will it detract.

    I’m mindful, though, of that research that says some significant portion of drivers who have an accident or near accident because of texting do not change their texting while driving behavior. (40-50%?) That indicates to me that some kind of dependency is going on. Some students are going to need intervention about their phone use in class.

    Reply
  2. mrdardy Post author

    John – Thanks for your thoughts here. The dependency issue is an interesting one to think about. The school I visited convinced me that this dependency CAN be broken, but it sure seems like a nervous habit for many of my students to simply glance at their phone every few minutes. I guess the angle I am realizing that is tough for me is to try and balance what I think is best for the group with what my students feel is best for them on an individual basis. No clear answer, of course, but a question worth pondering.

    Reply

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