October 30, 2014

Why Fight the Phone? Using tech to compliment writing instruction

This is the soundtrack for our classrooms: *bzzzbzz* *bzzbzzz*.  The rhythms of instruction are now delineated by the tiny mechanisms in student pockets.  LED lights and miniature vibrating motors alert us to the passage of time, irrespective of the actual pace of learning.  We are all familiar with the irritation of competing with phones.  We all have policies governing their use, some more strict than others.  We are all aware that these machines aren’t going away, nor is their effect going to be lessened.  

 I am going to propose that we lay down our arms.  Stop fighting the cell phone.  Learn to convert cell phone use into a teachable moment.  By teachable moment I mean use psychology and outright trick your students.  I believe in this wholeheartedly.

Below are “Reilly’s Rules for phones in class”.  Perhaps some of these can be helpful to you in managing this new reality we all share.  We don’t have to like students’ habits, but we have to work with them in some fashion.

Tech policies: State, repeat, and follow through

First things first, you have to decide your plan of attack.  What can you see yourself putting up with on the daily?  Are you really as technophobic or technophilic as you think?  Whatever boundaries you pick, you are committed to for the rest of the semester.  How much can you put up with for 14 weeks?  The obvious exception to this are students using assistive technologies.

Once you decide on your boundaries for non-assistive tech, outline them in plain language on your syllabus.  Then revise again for clarity and small words.  Students tend to love technology, so you don’t want to end up splitting hairs with them.  Be clear, be direct, and make them meet your expectations.  

Make techies look up pertinent information.

If it’s going to be in the classroom, you pay as well use it.  My personal policy is to ask students with phones to look up info in-class and report.  If there’s a word, concept, or process that is not common knowledge, but can easily be found with a quick google or wiki check, make them do it.  

Use tech metaphors when possible, or the tech itself.

Meet them where they’re interested.  Know how various popular technologies and apps function.  And use that knowledge in your storehouse to make metaphors students will understand.  If students don’t quite understand the point of including outside resources in their essays, present the quote or paraphrase as a form of link.  The citation is there to support their main work, and present a “link” of sorts to a larger body of work.

Learn to use a variety of platforms and apps.  

This is not just professional development for you, but also builds your word-hoard to reach out to students.  But be careful, and consider privacy. If you’re going to, for instance, build a social media page or account for your class, be sure to model the behavior you want your students to have, and use it to illustrate information related to the lesson.  However, I will caution you against making social media essential to your curriculum, unless you are ready and willing to walk your students through making “professional” accounts.  Do not ever demand your students use their private profiles for your class.  

Why fight it?

My personal policy is “don’t fight them when you can make them work with you”.  Personally, I can live with technology, as long as it is employed usefully.  My policy is phones, laptops, and tablets are allowable, but I reserve the right to “get nosy” and check out what the students are doing.  I make it a bit of a joke, but I follow through.  

I move around a lot during class, around the room and up and down the aisles.  I frequently make students group or circle so there’s not much opportunity to hunker down behind a screen. This approach requires a delicate touch - I don’t want to appear aggressive or violate a student’s personal space.  But I find that after one or two check-ins, I don’t need to do this much.  Students will start to self-police, and the bulk of them will understand that they must engage.  

Build the lesson assuming that someone’s going to have a phone or computer in hand - don't give them the opportunity to hide.  They’ll have to look up from that screen eventually.  Emphasize that this is what they’ll be doing in their careers, working this simultaneous screen/face presence.  They may as well know how to do it smartly.  And you may as well have one less aggravation in your classroom!

Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College.  She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.

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