Tool, Not A Toy
Originally posted on October 5, 2014. We recently completed a class project on teen usage of social media, so this seems appropriate to post again.
As a child of the 80s, I grew up in the era of the PC. I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, when I was in junior high. Like many kids my age, we also had an Atari 2600. I was introduced to the Apple IIe in college and never looked back.
As adults however, it’s easy to forget how much children today are hard-wired, if you will, to the digital age. We may think of iPhones as a new invention, but they came out when my students were still in elementary school. My one-year-old niece can take a selfie almost better than I can.
For the first time this year, I am allowing technology in the classroom, mostly because I am forced to do if I want students to produce the best quality work. I am teaching a speech class, but we don’t have enough desktop computers on campus for me to hog a media lab one period a day for them to write their speeches. When students are working in my other classes, sometimes they ask if they can listen to music while they do so. While I play classical or jazz for some classes, at other times I allow them to choose their own tunes when they write or draw a scene from a story. The end result tends to be better work than I might have received otherwise.
Not, don’t get me wrong: if I confirm they are texting or goofing off, I am enforcing school policy and turning the device over to the discipline office. I have established a mantra that guides my philosophy for electronic usage: It’s a tool, not a toy. If you use it as such, we will not have a problem. If you deviate from that philosophy, we will.
There are some larger principles we can draw from this approach. One of the things we are being asked to teach students is digital citizenship: how to use technology in a responsible way. In an era where everything is instant, we need to re-introduce an appreciation for patience. Here are some suggested guidelines:
Think before you text.
Don’t take that risqué selfie.
Don’t post that mean picture to Snapchat.
Unplug and be in the moment.
But we can’t just blame tech-obsessed teens when many of use our phones almost as much as they do. I can’t count the number of times a student has told me they are responding to a parent’s text during class or are on a “bathroom break” because Mom or Dad expects them to return a voicemail.
This may sound harsh, but the “think before you text” rule should apply to parents as well. One of the best ways you can help your student focus on art, math, science or history is to wait to contact him during a break, if you must do so at all. If someone is in the hospital and you need to pick your daughter up during third period, her day is going to be thrown into chaos whether or not you interrupt her second period class with a text. And if you want to tell your growing teen you still love him as much as when he was five, try a note in with his lunch like we did back in the digital dark ages.
And, one final thought: I am amazed at how many smartphones I see whose front glass is cracked like a haunted house mirror. Even if you are frugal and purchase an older model phone, after taxes and activation fees, it’s still easy to spend $250. I have never understood how parents make this kind of investment and then don’t include a protective case for the device. Teens rarely think of protecting their phone when horsing around with their friends. You would never send a football player into the game without a helmet and shoulder pads. Why would you do so with a phone, which for students can be a communication device, research tool, word processor, camera, and music player?
Like I said before, it’s a tool, not a toy.
Starting Off Well
Originally posted on June 14, 2014
When I return to campus this August after a summer of writing and resting, I am scheduled to have several sections of freshman classes, more than I’ve had in a while. Whenever a new crop of students enters our school, it always fascinates my fellow teachers and me to see what is true about the group as a whole.
While one would expect a bit of excess energy that comes with the age group, we are very curious to see which ones are relatively serious about their studies and which ones are not so concerned about success. There is a perceived notion that at the junior high/middle school level there are not enough significant consequences for failing academically, leading some students to believe the first year of high school doesn’t really matter. If they fail a class here or there, it won’t be a big deal because when they have four years ahead of them, there is time to make a few mistakes along the way. The teachers and counselors will make sure they don't actually fail high school.
The problem with that kind of thinking is it’s only true in a very limited sense. Some schools have the option for remedial courses after school and in the summer, but if students begin to dig themselves too deep a hole it will be really difficult, if not impossible, to get out. While our most dedicated students are filling every period with strong, academic courses and taking summer school each year to get ahead, even the students in the middle of the pack know it is not smart to mess around when it comes to grades. In addition to being placed in a mandatory study period, spending hours during the summer or after school taking make-up classes is not the best use of their time. They might even need to transfer to a continuation or alternative school setting to make up the units just in order to earn a high school diploma. This is not a position they want to be in.
Also, let’s be honest here – some of the students who consistently fail classes are involved in less than ideal activities. Whether it is having a general lack of direction and tendency towards disrespectful or disruptive behavior or something more serious like substance abuse, students who don’t take school seriously can more easily be drawn into crowds unconcerned with their future well-being.
Let this, therefore, be a friendly warning to parents of students entering high school. Do whatever you can to make sure your student is prepared for success on day one of his or her high school experience. Make a connection with teachers in the first few weeks of class. Back to School Night is a great place for this to happen. Make sure they are taking classes best suited for them and doing the best they can in those classes. Include enjoyable electives where you can, but remember that focusing on the academic courses likely will help them in the long run. If you need an incentive to encourage their continued focus, let them know that if they work hard, there is the possibility of choosing a fun elective, teacher’s aide/office aide job or even an open period their junior or senior year.
In short, whatever you can do to keep them focus on doing well will do them well in high school and beyond.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.