Phones and Sh*t - Ed Blog pt. 20, pt. 1

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.