I am a young high school English teacher.
So young, in fact, that I have been mistaken for a rogue student escaping into the parking lot during lunch by a truancy officer. Don’t get me wrong, when I am not a miscommunication away from Saturday detention, I don’t mind looking youthful. I am actually pretty thankful for that youthfulness, because it allows me a connection to student culture that helps me understand the way my kids think. It isn’t a perfect connection, because in the words of multiple students, I am totally not cool. But, whatever.
This connection has made me more aware of why classical sit-and-get education is losing students’ attention; consequently, I try to build lesson plans that meet kids at their ever-changing needs. Lately, I’ve been feeling the effects of being caught in the middle on the issue of cell phones in the classroom. Often times I refrain from engaging in conversations about devices with colleagues older than me in fear of creating a generational fissure, or slightly less dramatic, an awkward silence. I often hear this generation of high schoolers described as disrespectful, lazy, and cell-phone dependent. As a young adult only a few years removed from “this generation,” I always wonder if my cell phone usage ever inspires those descriptors. Then in true millennial fashion, I get back on my cell phone. I certainly agree that it isn’t easy to get kids to set down their devices these days, but I don’t always think they should have to.
Ask any veteran teacher what the biggest change in classroom culture is over the years and those darn cellphones are always front and center. I hear and respect that struggle. Kids do take each and every opportunity to text, post, FaceTime, play games, plus my personal two favorites: “I’m calling my mom I swear,” and “I’m just changing the song I swear.” This can be disruptive to learning time, distracting to others, and straight up annoying to teachers. I’ve even read the headlines claiming technology is making our kids stupid. I read those headlines on my cell phone, where I also track my health, do research, keep my family in the loop, pay my bills, write lesson plans, showcase my work, and answer emails. You get the point. My cell phone allows me to be my most efficient self, and I never pass on an opportunity to teach my students to utilize the tool in their hands.
In the time it takes me to ask students a simple question, their cellphones allow them to define my question, find current events on my question, locate disagreeing points of view on my question, and type their answer to my question. Why is this such an outrageous thing? All I see is an opportunity to build skills faster. For example, during a discussion on colorism and how it can be influenced by religion and culture, I started using the genocide of the Rohingya people as an example. I backtracked immediately because I questioned whether my 11th graders would have any idea what I was talking about. 3 students mentioned that the genocide was on the Snapchat news feed. Instantly, half my kids were reading about it in the NY Times straight from their Snapchat feeds and relating it to our other examples. If my English classroom is truly centered on critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, how could I possibly ban that type of instant understanding?
Sometimes high school teachers create a tech-free bubble under the guise of teaching students discipline and self-efficiency, but most careers are becoming more and more tech dependent. Instead of banning cellphones, we should be teaching kids how to use them as a support resource. Our kids have the world at their fingertips. Who else should be responsible for teaching kids how to hone that power sensibly in a professional setting, but teachers? I understand that push-back comes from a complicated and sensitive place; there is always an underlying fear that teachers could easily be replaced with tech. It terrifies me too, but I like to think the human connection and mentorship that happens in a classroom is not so easily overthrown. I hold true to the sentiment that teachers are the irreplaceable spark leading students to knowledge they wouldn't otherwise pursue. I choose to do that leading through the obnoxious and constant Reminds I text to my students daily.
Don’t get me wrong, from time to time I do enjoy speaking to my kids’ faces instead of their glittery, over-priced, plastic phone covers. So I do make it clear to my students that there are times the cell phones need to be out of sight in order for them to show mastery independent of their devices. Kids ignore me all the time, and I am not immune to taking up a cellphone in a frenzy of indignation and sass. I just want to do what is best for my students. In my mind, that means I cannot ignore a future where they will be expected to have a comprehensive grasp on technology, whether we teachers do or not. So until my district is 1 to 1 (a blog post in itself), my classroom will be the place cell phone batteries go to die.