Pt. 1: Phones

Part 1: Phones

Things come up.  Things change.  How we adapt impacts how relevant we are. 

One major change happened to occur at the exact time my teaching career began, and that change was cellphones.  

I got my first cell phone in 2003, when I was 23 years old; the same week I started my teaching career.  I moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and my first two stops were the bank and the Verizon store.  The 1,500 miles between Grand Rapids and Fort Lauderdale was the last time I was truly unreachable.  I've had my same 954 number ever since.  

I was one of the last of my friends to get a cellphone, though it wasn't too uncommon for a person not to have one in 2003.  Often, if people had a house phone, they didn't need a cellphone, or their work would provide a phone for them to use during the day that that was thought to be enough.  

What makes this situation unique is that by about 2005, almost everyone had a cellphone.  Rather than being a right of passage, like computers for college freshman, phones were seen as convenient for any person of any age.  This meant that a kindergartner coming to school may have gotten her first cellphone the same week as her sixty year old teacher.  Parents realized that if their 4th grader had a phone, it made it easy to find them after school.  So entire families were getting phones, taking advantage of this convenience.  Why does this matter here?  Where only a year or two prior very few students  had a phone, by 2005 almost every student had one.  It went from being nearly zero percent in 1999 to almost 100% in 2005.  That's a major change, and it's worth taking a look at.  Not surprisingly, many schools handled this change poorly.

Why cellphones are worth taking a look at is that no one could deny they were convenient.  Even though some older people didn't want to use them, often 'out of principle', arguing they made life more difficult wouldn't stick.  When they were talked about in staff meetings or the lunchroom, everyone knew they were around for good.  

The issue was an interesting one for me, also, because I had two siblings in high school, was in the very beginnings of my career, and on the 'youth' side of the debate.  [For the record, my opinion on cellphones (is and was): the youth know how to handle them better than we do, so we should ask for student input on the cellphone policy.]  This meant coworkers looked at me as a 'rookie', and would very rarely listen to my opinion.  (One hilarious example was a guy that came to speak on the dangers of the changing pop culture.  He was speaking of the rap artist, Eminem.  The movie 8 Mile had just come out, and was very popular.  The speaker was referencing the lead character, calling him 'Paul Mathers'.  All the old people were nodding their heads, like, 'yup Paul is corrupting the youth'.  If you don't get why this is funny, it's because Eminem's real first name is Marshall, which any 'corrupted youth' would have known.  The speaker's point came across as if he'd simply googled: popular vulgar rapper.)  My opinion was not shared.  Rather, what happened was that in staff meetings, long portions were devoted to student cellphone use.  Memos were sent out.  Punishments were added to handbooks.  Policy was written about this issue.  That policy, in many schools, was this: if you see a phone, call the respective authority and take the phone.  

Pause at that and think about what was likely to happen.

If you guessed full compliance, you're wrong.  If you guessed anarchy and chaos, you're completely correct.  It also created two camps of teachers: those pro-phones and those against.  Those pro had a philosophy like this: phones are not going away, students come with better technology in their pocket than the school has, and this may be a useful tool.  Those against had a philosophy like this: phones are evil, and school reigns supreme, ban them.

But this shouldn't be a surprise, because these two positions are almost always the default when something new enters the equation.  

And the point of this post is not cellphones, it's about how we deal with change.  

Because so many schools were anti cellphones, our educational system is getting further and further behind.  Phones provided an active example of how to model new technology for students.  There was an opportunity for active learning, sharing together, and discussing boundaries and etiquette.  Not to mention the fact that there are so many great resources available to teachers and students that come from technology, but we are late adapters because we didn't see that the easiest access to these this technology was already owned by the students.  Schools spent millions on new systems that could be avoided by simply upping the wifi and having access to chargers.  

In the debate on phones, here are some things I saw and heard:

  • an argument to install army-grade cell signal jammers.
  • principals telling the staff that no students could use cellphones, and then texting during the meeting.
  • teachers arguing that students shouldn't be allowed to use phones, and then answer their own cellphone in the middle of the same meeting.
  • teachers taking student phones, but playing games with other teachers in the same building, during class hours.  

When these types of actions go with those types of thoughts, of course we're going to adapt poorly.  The thing to do is to ask:

  1. how can this benefit us?
  2.  what challenges does this present?
  3. how can we meet the challenges head on, and effectively use this new technology?

Asking and answering those questions is so important, because it makes us either relevant or irrelevant.  The quality of our education is also directly depended upon it.  I'll conclude with a good and bad example.

Bad: Ottawa Hills High School

Grand Rapids, as of 2016 had a policy where phones were to be taken by security, packaged and sent to Franklin Campus, and a parent/guardian had to drive down there and pick up the phone on their own time.  In practice, if a teacher followed this, the principal marked that teacher down for having 'lack of discipline'.  Also, if the principal liked a student, the student would get their phone back at the end of the day.  It made discipline uneven, unfair, and created more problems.  But one of the worst of those problems was that policies on acceptable use were never enforced.  I witnessed a class of students using the app Periscope.  On it, they were actively talking shit to other participants, searching for drugs, making sexual references, picking fights, and gave the location to the high school.  No one did anything.  So here we have a technology that has been readily available for over a decade, but is being treated like it's 1999.

Good: Khan Academy.  Anywhere.  Free.  

Khan Academy is a site that teaches math to anyone for free.  It uses an algorithm to find out where users start, and takes them to whatever level of dedication they're willing to go to.  This is amazing and free.  The goal of the program was to help remote students learn.  It is based upon the belief that all children can learn, if only provided a tool.  Khan Academy is an amazing example of something that is here, free, and ready to benefit actual people today.  Now.  

I'll leave it at that.  There are two ways to look at anything new technology, one way is progressive, the other way is reactionary.  Only one of them helps children.  I'll let that be a pop quiz. 

Pt. 2: And Shit

Pt. 2 And Shit

Phones were simply the example that I happened upon in my first year of teaching.  This was all circumstance, the same as will happen to many teachers in coming years.  Maybe one way to think of it is through mention of the printing press.  

Prior to the printing press, it was very difficult and expensive to get things on paper to the masses.  500 years after the advent of the printing press, we cannot imagine not having that thing.  But even more than that, we think we can now do it a lot better through electronics.  They would have never guessed that most people would have a printer in their house, and that paper would be used for virtually everything.  When you walk in most organizations, you're greeted by stacks of paper in all forms.  So what, for them, was beyond a dream, for us is very commonplace.  So commonplace in fact, that we may go beyond paper at some point.

But paper, phones, and any individual issue is not even close to the point.  The point is that things evolve and change, and our job - right now - is to make this particular step in the journey a good one.  We are only responsible for our step, but if we're not careful, it could be a step backward.  That's why phones and shit do matter.  So much energy and discussion centered on the phones being bad, that years passed before technology as a whole was embraced by many people in education.  Which begs the question: where else does this happen?  Where else does it occur that backward thinking leads negative results?  

Here are some ways: (Structure 1. Indicates the problem, bullet point indicated the reason, ex. uses an example)

1. A shitty teacher has been with a district for 26 years.  They never had a good principal, never had an honest evaluation, and when they finally do, they're in their 26th year of teaching.  Yet, because of their tenure, firing them would be very hard.  Admin says: we can't do anything until they retire.

  • This is a problem because 8 years worth of students sit in this shitty teachers class.
  • Ex. Without even trying, I can think of two teachers I worked with where multiple people said, "Well, they have tenure so we can't fire them".  This was said by people in leadership.  It was widely acknowledged that the teacher did not know what they were doing, how to teach their curriculum, and was hurting students.  But, when weighing the pro/con, the choice was to wait them out.  This is so backward, because adults have the luxury of looking at time having a lived a bunch of it.  But, telling a 16 year old to wait 8 years, that is half of their life.  Much different telling a 60 year old to wait 8 years.  Not understanding how important time is to younger children makes schools irrelevant and dated.  

2. A school has a policy where they'll accept anyone as a student at any time during the school year / current session.  Three or four times a year, they get a bunch of 'new students' and all celebrate these new students.

  • This is a problem because the students that had been enrolled are no longer challenged, nor do they feel important.  Their commitment to the program was diminished, and they stop coming.  No one talks about this.  Instead, the backward thinkers think only of the 'new students'.  They don't realize that the 'old students' didn't like the program and what this could do for word of mouth and/or reputation.
  • Ex. I heard of a program that took new students any time, any day.  This was great for data purposes in a number of clicks type way.  It made data and numbers looked good, but was negative for the students involved, as well as for the teachers in the program.  What it meant for them was that on any given day, the enrity of their class/program could change.  Instead of things working very well and a plan being in place with goals and a curriculum, the practicality was that it was a day-to-day thing rather than a smooth program.  

3. The curriculum does not inspire the kids.  The textbooks are old, the novels are irrelevant, the content is dated and boring.  Yet, because a 'curriculum expert' came up with it, they stay with this curriculum for years.

  • This is a problem because it shows a complete lack of evaluation of content.  Also, every year (day, really) that the curriculum is not relevant, the students sitting in that respective class are being passed by any student in any other class that is doing relevant things.  
  • Ex. The Grand Rapids Public Schools are and have been struggling.  To fight this, they did a bunch of shit to their curriculum (and by a bunch of shit, I mean copied from Georgia.  And, they forgot to take "Georgia" off of many documents.)  The State of Georgia had a curriculum designed for the regional students.  GRPS copied that regional curriculum and used it in the north.  It didn't work.  It was also designed by mostly people that didn't teach it, so there was no evaluation to them of how it worked.  This is the ultimate problem because it: 1. takes power away from the teacher 2. puts it in the hands of people that aren't teaching which 3. moves it all away from the students.  

These are all just simple examples of things that don't work, hence: shit.  But the specifics do not matter. 

What matters is how we tackle the problem.