Cell Phone Management Tips in the Classroom

I started Slate & Tablets with one burning question in my head: “why do we force kids to put the most incredible invention of our entire history in their pocket so that they can learn?” I had been through school and this had frustrated me to no end, despite sometimes using my personal device for educational purposes, and other times for passing the time in class. No matter what classroom I walked into, every single teacher seemed to be under the assumption that no learning could take place when a student has their hands on their cell phone. As a student who grew up using one in class, this is wrong, and as a teacher who invents new ways to use cell phones in class, this is also wrong. Not only is the cell phone an incredibly valuable resource to a teacher and a student, but the education of how to use one appropriately and to manage one’s own distractions is a vital lesson for students of all ages to learn. 

This blog post started because of this meme. This is not an uncommon classroom management strategy. It successfully removes the distraction of the cell phone from the class, allowing students to be “distraction free” for the period. Let’s all be honest here: for many a student, the cell phone is the least of the distraction worries. If it’s not the phone, then it will be a classmate sitting next to them, what’s going on in the bathroom, or doodling in their notebook. In addition, removing the phones from kids hands does not prepare them for the world they’re growing up to. Cell phones are not going away. When I retire in a million years, cell phones will still be here. It’s time we understand this fact and start adapting to it. Here are a few rules I live by in my own classroom that have proven effective. If you have read this blog for a little while now, you’ll notice that none of the philosophy behind any of my work is “high tech” or ground breaking. All I do is apply tried and true teaching methodology using our technology as my tool. 

Model Appropriate Text and Email Usage

When students have the phone in the classroom, they will use it. You should use it too. Check your email, go ahead. Send a text message. But here’s the important piece: like with all teaching you do, make a big deal of modeling the behavior that’s appropriate. Check your email and/or send a text message for no more than 30 seconds, then put your phone away. Do it when the class is working on practice problems, or writing in their journals, when it’s not disrespectful to a speaker. The first few times you do this, announce that you’re doing it so the kids watch you. Then, announce that you’re done. As teachers we model all kinds of behaviors for our students and appropriate cell phone usage is no exception. 

Set Expectations For Where The Phone Goes During Class

Just like with backpacks, rulers, colored pencils, and other tools, decide where students will keep their phones during class. I instruct my students to keep their phones right on their desk. This serves two purposes. First, it makes them fully aware that there is nothing to hide. Second, it makes me fully aware when they’re actually hiding something. Students sneaking their phones underneath the desk to watch a movie or play a game will put it there naturally, and it’s an automatic tip off. By keeping the phones on the desk, you’re able to more easily enforce the boundaries of appropriate usage.

The Way to Stop Cheating is Not To Take Cell Phones Away

Since the beginning of time, students have cheated on exams in millions of different ways. Cell phones are not some magical cheating device. Tell the students to put their phones flat on their desk during an exam, again enforcing the fact that there’s nothing to hide. This (again) automatically tips you off if they are in fact using it to cheat; they’ll be touching it. Allow the students to use their phones after the exam to look up and send you the link to a content related video. This gives them an educational task to use the phones for, and it sets the expectation that they may touch the phones again when the test is over, signaling to you that it’s time to pick up their exam. 

Picture Perfect Picture Taking

Encourage your students to take pictures of your class, make memes out of it, and blog/tweet/post about it. The cell phone is an incredible communication tool and we all know how annoying it is for students when mom asks child what they did at school at the dinner table. Students who tweet and post about their classes are accomplishing the same cognitive feat that students who talk about their classes accomplish, not to mention the technical skills they will build in photo sharing and editing. Once again, model the behavior, take a few of your own photos, and don’t be scared of the tech when it comes out. Every time I do a demonstration I always ask my students who tweet or instagram their pictures to use at least one vocabulary word from the demo in their post. Again, nothing groundbreaking.  

Music is Good

One of the best reasons to allow phone use in the classroom is because it allows students to listen to music. It’s been proven that music can help productivity so I’m not sure why teachers haven’t tapped into this power. Allowing students to listen to their music on worksheets, practice problems, or during project work sessions allows them to focus better. Music is also a great connecting tool, and asking students what they’re listening to is another great way to make the connections that a teacher is so valuable for making. It also builds upon the idea that the mobile device is there for a certain set of reasons in school, and not for being a target of disciplinary action. Some teachers will play music over speakers for their class, but there’s no reason not to differentiate here.

This is a small sample of tips for cell phone management. The most important one of all is not to be afraid of the device. It’s not going to bite you and I promise, the cell phone is generally the last reason for students not succeeding in school. If they’re unfocused, they’re not going to focus with or without the cell phone on their desk. As teachers in this generation, it’s our job to educate students about appropriate usage of many tools, and the mobile device is no exception. If you have any tricks you use, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear.



League of Legends Club and the (Potential) Value of Extracurricular Activities

I am a faculty advisor of two different clubs at GHS: the League of Legends Club and the Computer Programming club. At first glance, the latter would look to be the more valuable extra curricular activity for students to participate in. It may appear shocking to hear that isn’t the case, and it has to do with the actual value we expect to gain out of extra curricular clubs, and how we define that value to our students. Too frequently, many clubs are simply hangouts, which while certainly important to social development, are not really extra curricular activities and hold little value aside from just hanging out. 

Our programming club started a year and a half ago, when a bright young student came to me and asked if he could start the club to invite his friends to learn how to code. He had a great plan to use Codecademy to learn. At first, students made great strides for two weeks but then they got bored, and started using the time to play video games and hang out in the computer lab Fridays after school. This went on for a while before I began to direct them towards more productive activities, but the leadership of the club, now consisting of the founder and two vice presidents, did not have the leadership skills necessary to direct the club towards positive movement. Perhaps it was an immaturity thing, since they’re all sophomores today, but for whatever reason they couldn’t corral their group towards success. As a result, nobody really learned or accomplished anything of substance, and the club risks being discontinued. 

Let’s compare this to the story of the two month old League of Legends club. League of Legends is a video game that many of the students play. Several students approached me with the idea of starting a club for this game knowing that I’m a bit of a gamer myself, but they didn’t really have any idea for the direction of the club. We talked about how the club was not going to be a bunch of people sitting and playing video games, because they can just do that at home. They were to use the school time to organize the club into a league with teams, discuss winning strategies, and build a community of players at the school. I asked the founders to come to me with a list of ideas they had to accomplish these goals before I signed the paperwork. A few days later, they approached me with two pages of these ideas, and I happily signed their charter.  Two months later and 40 students strong, this club has a leadership group consisting of the president and vice president, along with four team captains and a media specialist for the group. They use the club time to review their weekly matches that the team splay against each other, and collectively watch a highlight video that the media specialist compiles. Despite the fact that this is a club surrounding a video game that is not academic by nature, the skills gained and reinforced by the student who participate are ultimately the reason we even allow extra curricular activities in the first place.

This all boils down to our definition of what makes an acceptable club at school. Is the goal for students to learn something? Can a club just be a hangout for kids at school after hours? Does it require students to compete in something? Surely, there exists a definition that varies by region of what an extra curricular activity must entail, and without one, failures such as the Programming Club will continue to exist. This is caused by simple teaching science: without a definitive goal or set of expectations, students will generally tend not to achieve anything. Too often, schools don’t have a real set of expectations for clubs and thus, many clubs fail to accomplish anything. Generally, it’s the faculty advisor’s job to set expectations for each club but realistically, this is not always possible and should not be the case: a school should create the culture of success amongst its extra curricular activities.

This should start from a list of skills that every student should be expected to gain from any extra curricular club. This list can be standardized amongst all of a school’s clubs, or be the job of the founding members to put such a list together to be approved by the faculty advisor and/or director of student activities. If we start defining these goals for our students, extracurricular activities can become much more than resume items.

Let’s look at a club that is present at pretty much every school, yearbook club. No matter the name, it’s the job of one group of students and teachers to put together the school yearbook every year. This requires a large degree of coordination and many different jobs to achieve success. Surely, there is value here for student participants. But what is the value? What does every single student get out of yearbook club? Try it; write them like content objectives you’d write for your own class. Here’s what I came up with, though keep in mind I’ve never participated in yearbook club:

  • Students will develop collaboration skills involving completion of a large project piece by piece.
  • Students will become accountable for an individual portion of a large project.

I don’t know about you, but it was pretty tricky for me. Certainly this would change for different students, since each student will use different skills to complete their portion of the project, but they still should probably share a common goal. By completing this exercise with our own clubs and with founders of future clubs, just like we do with our own classes, we may be able to extract quite a bit more value out of extracurricular activities than what they are for most students today: resume items. Share any interesting club experiences you’ve had in the comments below, I’d love to hear!

Some Observations About the Hour Of Code

Let’s preface this post by saying that the Hour Of Code is the best educational event in this country ever. It has united political and industrial figureheads in promotion of a joint cause for the common good. It has demonstrated how this unity of purpose can create commercial opportunity for businesses. It has demonstrated the power of technology to disperse important educational lessons and opportunities to every member of the populace. Last, it has succeeded in making something very scary all of a sudden very cool, and being a part of the 13 million students and counting who have tried an hour of code through this website is something that many students can relate to.

Unfortunately, this program has neglected one highly important part of this whole process; our schools. In fact, it’s gone as far to undermine everything a child learns in school by providing an opportunity to learn what they don’t teach you, as delivered by some of the most famous people in the world. Before I go on to praising the program for all that it has done for computer science, let me first underscore this incredibly important message. The reason schools don’t teach computer science has nothing to do with the school.  No one in their right mind would teach computer science at a high school. They’d start with a salary almost half the amount they could make as a junior engineer. They would be leaving what’s often ranked one of the most relaxing jobs to enter what’s commonly referred to as one of the more stressful jobs. There is literally no incentive for a person with a degree in computer science to teach in high school. Some think that we can convert teachers who are willing, but I assure you, and this is coming from someone who is probably the most qualified convert there is, that there’s way more to teaching this skill than answering “how do I do this?” questions. Putting a person with some experience in the room is better than having nobody to teach the course, but to do it effectively you need someone with a background in computer science, just like you need a chemistry teacher with a background in chemistry. We can’t blame our schools for that because the whole system that recruits teachers is what’s broken, and as much as I’d love to see it changed, it won’t. 

I want to focus on the positive here though. The Hour of Code has united groups of people who are commonly publicly opposed to various issues. Just a few days ago, Facebook, among many other Internet giants, opposed the stance currently taken by the US Government on practices of spying via the internet.  Kanye West, whose controversial face graces the Hour of Code main video, has publicly opposed almost everyone else in the video with him. These are individuals from a diverse array of public and private sectors, areas that are not typically aligned. The people who put together this program have miraculously united these leaders and convinced them to collectively voice their support on video. I’d love to know how they managed that.

The consequences of this unity are more than a cool chance for people to learn how to code. Learnstreet, Codecademy, Scratch, and many others are private, internet-based tutorial websites that teach people how to code. They’ve all been asked to provide an hour-long tutorial for the program. As a result, they’re essentially competing for millions of new customers because you can be assured that people who enjoy their experience will go back for more. Many of my own students have. This is not only healthy competition but essential for capitalism and beneficial for future students. Note that this is not an advertising battle: it’s a sheer quality of product and experience battle. This is healthy for our educational goals, our economy, and for our technology. If only this could be applied to other areas of education, then our lagging quality of ed tech could finally catch up to the rest of the giant innovators.

There are more positive consequences. This project has demonstrated some of the potential ed tech has to rapidly disperse rich learning experiences to almost every student. Through sound cross platform development, the tutorials have been made available on every mobile device and computer available. They’re all accessed through one centralized location, and upon completion, they all award a certificate demonstrating achievement of an hour long coding session. As of writing, 13 million students participated in this program in four days. Before this event there may have been questions of this potential. No more.

Finally, and let’s not underestimate how important this is, the project has turned a skill which is often scary to many people in coding, into a fun hour of time. Technology has the power to do this with almost any skill, and this project took aim at the most scary one of all. The whole goal of the project was to get people to just try their hand at coding and at least 13 million people did. I would love to see data on how many people go back for more after their hour, which might be relatively simple to collect. It would also be great to see how many people are inspired to pursue further education in computer science, which would be much more difficult to unearth. Either way, this project has proved to be successful in at least breaking the barriers to computer science that stood in the way of a lot of students trying to learn it.

The Hour of Code is the best educational event in a long, long time. Many states have begun petitions to count computer science courses towards graduation. The recent success of this event will lend publicity to these movements and pressure politicians to make bold changes to state education rule, something needed to proceed forward with this important skill. Now, if only our politicians, CEOs, actors, musicians, and other leaders could get their heads together more often for a unified purpose, then perhaps we’ll continue to see the kind of momentum for underserved sectors that the Hour of Code has generated.


The PISA Results Are In…

…And the U.S. has lagged even further behind the rest of the world in math, science, and reading. 

While more countries have decided to take the exam this time around, the numbers are still, as NPR put it, sobering. By any standard, dropping at least 6 places in the rankings in every category means one of two things: we’ve either gotten worse, or everyone else has gotten better. I touched on PISA related issues in a review of The Smartest Kids in the World, but in light of recent results the issue deserves much more attention than anyone is giving it.

To summarize Amanda Ripley’s book, the U.S. suffers from, most simply, a lack of societal emphasis on the purpose of school. All of the other countries studied in the book, Finland, South Korea, and Poland, have decided as a culture to reemphasize the purpose of school and it shows. American culture simply does not hold a candle to the emphasis placed on academics by higher ranking countries. My favorite quote from the book proving this point is that, at the time of writing, the national average for GPA required to be admitted into a teaching program in our country is 2.3, while the eligibility requirement for the NCAA is 2.5. Clearly, our teacher selectivity must (and will) change if we want to get to fixing this problem.

Let’s not forget the root of the issue though, which of course is not embedded in the ranks of teachers, but our society as a whole. We are satisfied with the “well rounded student,” while other cultures don’t settle for anything less than the “academically successful” student. I can never be an opponent of students with the types of broad interests ours have, however we are simply missing the point of school in our culture. We can round our students around sports, art, and music after they are academically successful. Our current model provides for both occurring at the same time, and this is a problem of conception. In our schools, students spend an hour per day, sometimes two, on music, art, or sports. Then, after school, they participate in after school activities that are generally not academic. We continue to send the message to our children, whether we know it or not, that these other activities are just as important as their academics.

Here’s an example: in our school, it’s against the rules to prohibit a student from joining a club based on their GPA. Why is this a problem? What are we afraid of – that the kid will be left out because they’re not doing well in school? Guess what: they should be left out for not doing well in school, because that way they’ll have some actual motivation to do better. A student has to fail classes before they’re ineligible for high school sports. Our schools are already the easiest academically in the developed world and our only expectation is that students pass before they can play sports. In our country, successful athletes, musicians, and actors are glorified while our most important scientists, writers, and mathematicians are anonymous until they’re dead, and even then I would bet that most Americans have no clue about them. This is a problem.  

We need to start glorifying academic success the way other types of success is glorified in this country. When an American wins a Nobel Prize in Science, Mathematics, or Literature, we need to celebrate, televise, and idolize these people. We need to present these people as role models to our children and become genuinely interested in their accomplishments. They need to be made into celebrities, as opposed to anomalies. Our children need to be as familiar with James Rothman as they are with James Franco. 

As teachers, we can make the small change celebrate the academic achievements of our students far more than we do. We televise more high school sports than we do high school academics. Why? Is it because people find sports more exciting than academic achievement? Obviously, the answer is yes and, also obviously, that is a big reason we’re in the hole we’re in. We need to find a way to showcase outstanding student work in a public and powerful way so that students have as much incentive to achieve in school as they do to achieve on the field. Students care about how many people like, comment on, and favorite their twitter and instagram posts: they will care about the same statistics with their own academic work as well.

I know this because I’ve seen it in action. In my integrated science class, students create a website attempting to sell a product with different types of polymers in it, and they have to describe the science behind what they’re selling in each item. Then, there’s a competition involving which student can get the most web traffic to their website. If a student is just showing their teacher, they don’t really care what the product looks like. If they know their work will public, “googleable”, and viewed by others, however, panic ensues and they do everything in their power to make the website look as good as it can. I’ll be posting the winners’ work here in January as well.

I don’t know how to solve this enormous problem any other way than by correcting small issues one at a time. If we want to see these results improve, as a whole, we must all start to take school a little more seriously than the joke it is for many kids right now. Parents, teachers, students, and everyone else must take genuine interest in the academic accomplishments of our students and academically successful individuals. Otherwise, we’ll continue to send the wrong message, the message that school is not as important as sports, music, or art, and we’ll continue to lag behind the rest of the world.

What small problems do you think can be corrected that could contribute to a larger solution here? Perhaps if it’s broken down into smaller issues, then one by one we may get to the crux of the problem. Let us know in the comments.

Names Day: An Interesting Perspective on an Anti Bullying Event

Names Day at Greenwich High School is something every freshman student experiences. It involves a series of activities, presentations, and what you might call group therapy sessions, involving instruction about situations involving bullying. Throughout its conception, it’s one of the better ways in existence to fight bullying, and I think the entire Names Team at the school does an excellent job both in preparation and execution.

One of the more powerful scenes at each Names Day is when students take turns lining up at the microphone in the auditorium to either talk about when they were bullied (targets), confess to being a perpetrator, admit that they have been bystanders, or declare themselves as an ally. Most freshmen are reluctant at first, but by the end of it there is a long line of students waiting to talk about their experiences. Many times, some much needed reconciliation is provided for students who had been run through the gauntlet in middle school, and they hear apologies from their once feared and now more mature classmates. 

Of course, it can’t be taken lightly that bullying is one of the hottest school climate topics right now. The long term effects of bullying are well documented, and at Greenwich High School, we’ve unfortunately seen the powerful and catastrophic short term effects this act can have. With every problem comes a plethora of solutions, and while some are effective some can exacerbate situations. Names Day seems to be a good solutions, it brings up an important question in my mind that I think is really being missed by all of these anti-bullying campaigns.

What happens to the targets when they are (inevitably) bullied later in life?

This is similar to a standard gun control debate: will outlawing guns actually prevent these violent crimes from happening? Shouldn’t we be empowering people to defend themselves instead? The answers to these questions have different consequences, but let’s not forget that the Second Amendment was drafted to allow for self defense. Many anti bullying campaigns do not teach self defense, but instead try to stop the problem from happening in the first place. This is a valiant and noble effort, but are we disservicing kids by not teaching them emotional (and sometimes physical) self defense?

I’ve posed this question to a number of students whose opinions I trust. They seem to have the same feeling. A common concern is for the students who are constantly easy targets. Not every victim of bullying is completely innocent, in fact some students act so outlandish that they invite the negative attention. While it’s easy to stand up for one of your friends who is being bullied by someone else, it’s not so easy to stand up for someone who is mean to everyone, or whom you have no connection to. And why should kids be expected to do this? It’s almost as if we’re preaching the message that it’s OK to be unable to defend yourself, because look at how many people will come to your rescue! One of the students I posed this question to went as far as saying, “It’s almost as if we’re being bullied out of bullying people, and that doesn’t solve the real problem which is the way people deal with being bullied.”

This is a valid point. Bullying is inevitable because it happens to everyone in some way at one point in their lives. It used to be mostly physical bullying but now, with the advent of the anonymity of the internet and social media, bullying has turned much more psychological, difficult to track, and emotionally damaging. Physical bullying is easy to fight through suspensions and the evidence it leaves behind linking it to the perpetrators, but online bullying is much different. In addition, many students were encouraged to take martial arts and self defense classes, and no bully wants to pick on someone who isn’t an easy target. Schools have not yet figured out how to encourage kids to stand up to bullies online, which would be the most effective solution, so they’ve turned to other methods. I’m not convinced that the solution is so abstract though.

Bullies pick on the insecure and the students with low self esteem. That’s because they’re easy targets and they are most injured by the bully’s actions. This is a fact, and is well documented since people started caring about bullying. High tech bullying is no different. It has the greatest effect on those with low self esteem and confidence. What if the way to fight this was to educate students about their own self awareness and worth? We already don’t spend enough time helping students explore their own interests and talents that may not have to do with English, Math, or Science, and it may be the right place to start incorporating self awareness messages. Sports teams are notorious breeding grounds for bullies, so maybe it’s time to change the conversations there to involve helping your teammates get better, not putting them down. I know I am a guilty party of putting down teammates back in high school, and I could have benefitted greatly from an adult showing me how to provide constructive criticism and be a leader on the field.

This topic is obviously complex, but with the advent of the number of anti bullying campaigns across the country, I do wind up wondering if these are the best things for our students. Sure, were are bringing light to an important topic which is really great, but shouldn’t the message be, “you are worth more than these people make you out to be” instead of “don’t be a bully, be an ally”? I’d love to hear what other schools do to fight bullying in the comments! 

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