getting a phone: part one

This is the first in a summer blog series.  Each week I will feature one technology tool and how well it worked integrating the technology into this fictional nineteenth century classroom.

"I think you're making a bigger deal out of it then it really is," Mr. Brown tells me.

"Think of the possibilities, Brown."  I have a bad habit of dropping the titles in names, as though we're on a ball field.  "My students can connect to students in other locations instantaneously. We're no longer confined by our own four walls."

"That's great.  Really it is.  But I'm still skeptical.  I think it's a teacher-centered piece of technology."

"It doesn't have to be.  I can have students take turns all day making phone calls and interacting with students in other places.  You know my friend Paul the Pre-industrial Poet?  His class is partnering with me in a phone-integrated project."

"Interesting.  I hope it works out well.  I'm just skeptical, that's all. I'm picturing a day when all the classrooms will have phones and the only one allowed to use them will be the teacher."

"Why are you so cynical about it?"

"If every child had a phone, it would get too noisy.  Even if phones became cheap, teachers wouldn't want that stress.  Plus, they can call the police or the fire department.  So, teachers will do what they can to keep the phones near their desks."

"Maybe.  But I'm thinking phones will be so commonplace that schools will have to let students use them."

"I don't know.  Even if there were tiny phones, the size of a pocket watch, schools would still find ways to keep students from using them. Even if there was a silent way to communicate on a phone, a blend of phone conversations and shorthand messages, they'd still ban them."

"Wow, you really do have a cynical view."

"It's a legal issue.  Schools are designed to mitigate liability.  Nobody's ever sued a school for failing to protect a child's freedom.  But they often sue if a school fails to protect a child's safety.  You can go on and use the phone in your room.  It's the early stage of classroom phones where there's still the possibility of it being used as a learning tool.  Perhaps you can prove that they aren't all that scary. I just imagine that in a few years when we all have classroom phones, the district will create rules preventing students from using a potentially valuable tool."

What would Socrates think of my factory school?

I don't enjoy most contemporary authors for the simple reasons that they are long-winded and preachy.  Take Dickens.  I get it, Chuck, debtor's prison sucks, but do you have to make your case in such a one-sided, heavy-handed novel?  Or Thoreau.  Yes, your pond is pretty and all, but you don't have to turn every nature walk into a platitude about enlightenment in an industrial era.

I enjoy Mark Twain, because he is able to see from multiple perspectives.  I like his raw cynicism.  It makes it more realistic when hope breaks through.  I enjoy his ability to see every social institution honestly, because he has an honest view of humanity.  I don't get the sense, as I read his novels, that he is trying to reform me.  He's the anti-Tolstoy.

I'd love to have a chat with Twain about education.  Sometimes I get really tired, and I mean physically exhausted, when I read the commentary on education in the papers and the magazines.  Each pundit has an idea on how to move forward, with no thought about what we're leaving behind.

I rarely mention this, but I sometimes miss elements of the one-room school house.  True it was a little paternalistic, but there was a community.  The, subjects blended together.  Students helped one another, despite the age difference.  We were a social unit, rooted in our rural community, an extension of the local politic. I'm not suggesting it was perfect (our teacher thought that a paddle was better than a one-on-one conversation) just that in moving forward, we left a few good ideas behind.

*     *     *

So, I'm having a pint with Paul the Pre-Industrial Poet. I tell him, "People assume that I am a Progressive Educator.  I'm not much into -isms, progressivism included.  I just want students to learn to think well about life."

"If that's progressive, I'm a bit surprised.  It seems like that's an old idea.  Socrates?"

"I'm not so sure.  It seems that Socrates would have liked the current factory model.  When I read The Republic, I'm struck by the militarism of the ideal education.  Not only do the children and the parents have no voice in education, the military seems to be raising the children in a strict disciplinarian framework."

"It's scary, huh?" he adds.

We talk about Tolstoy and Dickens and the reform-oriented factory educationists and how it all connects to this idea of the society forming the perfect child. We talk about the danger of treating children as talking points in arguments about education reform.

After awhile, though, he takes a deep breath, chugs from his pint and adds, "I think Socrates says a lot about the perfect education because he has to prove that he is providing Athens with something better, something much more Spartan in nature. But my guess is that he would have hated the system he proposed.  When I read the Socratic dialogs, I get the sense that Socrates would want a conversation - a conversation outside the walls of a factory.  He'd want kids engaging in their world, asking and discovering."

"I think he'd want mystery and paradox instead of this new factory system where teaching is an assembly line."

I think that's what I want for my own students and that's what Paul wants for his.  I wonder if we're both just putting words into Plato's mouth.  Neither of us are reformers, really.  Yes, we have pencils in our classrooms, but neither of us are interested in developing some new, cutting edge system.  We just want our students to think well about life, with the help of a pencil or two.

letters to technology

This blog post was based on an activity I did with my class last week.

As we shift into an industrial age, it seems that we are more intimate than ever with technology.  While one used to spend the day connected to the land, toiling in hopes for a better crop, we now spend the days connected to the assembly line, a mere cog in the machinery. With that in mind, I had students write letters to personified technology.

At first, the class seemed skeptical, but over time they warmed up to the idea. Many of them chose to write multiple letters.  Something about the personal tone of a friendly letter allowed the students to think more creatively about the pros and cons of technology.  While we have analyzed media before, I noticed that the letter format encouraged my students to think deeper about the human side of technology in society.

Dear Automobile,

You will never replace the horse.  Although you might be faster, I can't imagine that mankind will choose convenience over relationships.  Besides, our city might be crowded, but where would you possibly need to go that you couldn't access on horse back?


Dear Light Bulb,

You have replaced the sun in providing warmth and illumination.  Your small filiment might be weak, but you have already managed to fade our sense of seasons.  I stood outside last night and stared at the stars and the universe felt small and manageable. Although I appreciate you, I wish you would take a few nights off so that I could have an evening of awe.


Dear Telegraph,

Maybe I am too hopeful, but I think you have the ability to spread information instantly around the world.  I'm hoping we can have a more democratic world.  Perhaps there is something we can learn from other countries and they can learn from us.


beyond the hype and hysteria

Even though my school is considered "poor" (though not really poor, because the really poor kids are the ones working in the factories) more than half of them have mini-tablets.  Apparently the mere possession of a mini-tablet is a divisive issue on campus. The first crowd hates the mini-tablets and the second group loves them.  We'll call one group the haters and the others the hopers. Not surprisingly, today a verbal battle broke out in the staff lounge (or as I like to call it the "staff vent and gripe location")

"All they do is write shorthand messages. It's ruining grammar.  It's ruining poetry.  Some day we'll replace rhyme with free verse and all Hell will break lose. We'll have poets who don't even capitalize letters."

"At least they're spending their free time writing," Mr. Brown responds.

Another teacher jumps into the conversation, "I had two kids throw wads of paper.  One kid threw a paper airplane.  Do you know how dangerous that is?  I don't want to get sued when a kid pokes an eye out or gets an infection from a paper cut. I never have projectile issues when I teach with slates."

"So incorporate airplanes into a lesson on velocity. Who knows, maybe this is what will start the first glider that will lead to human aviation."

"I will do my best to add human aviation to my lesson on the War of 1812. Seriously, today when I'm lecturing, I see a whole row of them doing origami."

"If they weren't doing origami, wouldn't they be just as checked out?  Their issue might be that lecturing is a bad strategy for them."

The first teacher joins the discussion again, "I don't know how many times I've had to take away a mini-tablet because a student was playing hang man. And seriously?  Hang man?  Can children's games get any more violent?"

"So, design your own classroom activity that can incorporate student mini-tablets. You are taking away a tool that might revolutionize learning because a few people use it wrong."

*     *      *

The truth is that I'm in the middle on this one.  Yes, we can use mini-tablets. However, they are not the fix-all for education.  The truth is that multitasking is not a good thing.  Novelty is decent, but fades quickly.  Mini-tablets feed the need for novelty, multitasking and entertainment.  Sometimes deep critical thinking runs against the mini-tablet as a medium.  So, looking toward it as a "revolutionary device" is a bit extreme.  Sometimes a kid just needs a book - a really interesting, deep-thinking, fascinating story.

On the flip side, mini-tablets have some great potential uses.  Banning them for classroom management reasons is absurd.  After all, who would ban chalk because students have been known to bang erasers and create dust clouds?  The real issue is one of fear.  Teachers are afraid that they won't be able to keep students interested in the subject. It's a bit humiliating to lose out to a sheet of paper.

So, I'm hoping for this: that students will find philosophical conversations more interesting than hang man.  My hope is that they will use mini-tablets to send messages and manage information as they engage in problem-solving.  My hope is that I will see the mini-tablet not as the hero or the villain of education, but as another tool - one that should not be banned, but also one that does not belong in every lesson.

Is your PLN too big?

I have a friend Ed who invites educators to chat with him through our pen pal networks.  The conversation is deep, but sometimes the viewpoint is too similar.  A few hundred people will join in and say essentially the same thing.  It's not that I learn anything different, but that I get a new vocabulary for the nuances of what I already believe.

I also have about a hundred plogs that I read.  I get the journal updates and flip through stacks of paper.  Sometimes I hold my binder and it feels heavy.  Pages go unread and I feel guilty.  I scan them quickly, attempting to extract a new idea.  Extract.  I'm pulling apart another's thoughts with reckless abandon, clear-cutting the nuances of language in my pursuit of knowledge.

I'm holding my heavy binder one morning when Mr. Brown walks in.  "How many pages are in that thing?" he asks.

"I subscribe to over a hundred plogs?"

"I admire you.  I can't read that many.  I stick to ten."

"What about developing your PLN?" I ask him.

"I'd rather have a deep conversation with five to ten teachers than try and speed-talk in a crowded room of a hundred.  I'm much more of a wallflower."

"Don't you feel that you are missing something?"

"Yes, but I would be missing something if I had a hundred plogs that I read.  The difference is that, when I read ten plogs, I know the people.  I've shared a pint with most of them.  Our conversations go deeper.  Sure, I miss out on learning the latest pencil developments, but that's a small sacrifice for depth."

"Can't you just subscribe to more and read less?"

"More options don't always mean better choices.  I'll stick to the tiny community I have and limit my numbers deliberately. I do the same with books.  I read about a book a month and I subscribe to only one education journal.  I keep my PLN small on purpose."

It has me wondering if maybe my PLN is too big.  Perhaps I need to step back a little from the crowded room and move closer to sharing a pint.

A Note to the School Board

Dear School Board Members:

I appreciate your desire to keep our students safe from bullying, disruptions and "anything that gets in the way of learning." However, I am concerned that your efforts have not gone far enough. You banned the Pen Pal networks and now mobile pencil devices. I get it, those tablets were very disruptive, what with kids sending shorthand messages and all.

At first, I had a negative reaction. After all, as a teacher, I would deal with the behavior rather than banning the medium. If a student is disruptive, I have a conversation with the individual rather than punishing the whole class. I've even been known to get introspective and ask myself why the student was disengaged. Can I incorporate something different in the lesson plans?

However, this approach is much more efficient and fool-proof. But why stop at mobile devices and Pen Pal networks? I heard a student insult another student on Thursday. Perhaps it's time to ban speaking in school? I've noticed a ton of students disrupting class by blowing their noses. Is it time to ban tissues? Chair-tipping has also become both disruptive and dangerous.  When will we learn?  Will it take a student's cracked skull to teach us to ban chairs?

At recess, I noticed students kicking balls around.  One team refused to share the ball with the other team.  Perhaps this is potential gang behavior?  Bullying? Or maybe, like other schools throughout the nation, we just ban recess (or as I like to call it child-centered anarchy) altogether.

My issue is not with your banning of items, but with the fact that you have not gone far enough.


Tom Johnson

*     *     *

Okay, I lied at the end.  I wasn't all that sincere after all. Then again, I'm not sure they are all that sincere when they speak of developing "holistic life-long learners."

reconsidering games

"I'm thinking of quitting the Pen Pal networks, Paul."

"I think it's a mistake.  It's imperfect, I understand.  But you're imperfect.  Hell, sometimes your verb tense is imperfect, do you abandon that?"

"It's just that it's become a place of games.  Join my Agribusiness.  Engage in organized crime with me.  Tell me where you are and we'll play four square together.  I joined the Pen Pal networks to engage in a conversation about learning."

"Do you want to know the people your so-called PLN?"

"On some level, yes."

"Then you have to play.  Think about it for a moment.  In your neighborhood, do children meet together and sip tea or do they play first?"

"They play."

"Why is that?"

"It could be emotional immaturity. Or it could be that they learn something from each other.  Maybe cooperation.  Maybe decision-making.  Maybe it's what helps them clarify roles."

"Exactly.  So consider this: what if games are a natural phenomenon?  What if they are a part of how we train for life?  And what if adults still need some training?  And what if it is a part of how we get to know each other?  Wouldn't that deeply human process be a part of a Pen Pal network?"

"Games just seem shallow."

"So, sit out and stay on the sidelines.  Enjoy your philosophical interaction.  But don't get elitist about games. There's a depth to them that you miss when you dismiss it all as shallow."

For what it's worth, I have no intention of joining a make-believe mafia or a pretend agribusiness. Still, it has me thinking about my class. It has me wondering whether there is educational value in using games in the classroom.  Don't get me wrong, I don't want to use another Word Search or Tic Tac Toe.  Both are pencil-based, but based only on rote skill review.  But I'm wondering if there is a value in playing pretend, interacting with one another and using a pencil-based game in learning.

So, PLN, I'm curious about your take on games in the classroom.  What games do you use in the classroom?  What games allow for deeper thought?  Is there a danger in competition?  Or can competition be a valuable tool for learning?  Is there a difference between games and simulations?

when workshops work

As a way to say "we appreciate teachers," the district assigns us a professional development day.  For what it's worth, the best show of appreciation would be to give me some autonomy and trust me to make decisions in my own classroom.  Or a candy bar.  Either one would do just fine.

I stock my notebook full of paper, grab a few extra pencils and prepare for a day of doodling sketches while a presenter drones in front of a Powerslide presentation.  I anticipate a day filled with dark rooms and humming Edison projectors.  We call them "workshops," which is a bit of a misnomer.  I've never gone to a workshop where someone spends an hour and a half gushing about how great the tools are while never using the tools to create anything.  

As I sit through the first workshop, I find my cynicism fading.  True, the presenter uses an interactive chalkboard (a projector / chart combination) and we each use paper and pencils as we plan out reading strategies.  We use shared documents in brainstorms.  We also talk and read. In fact, the presenter is far from a presenter.  She is a teacher who respects our own insights on the topic.  

In the math workshop, we use the same SmartCharts and Edison Projectors, shared documents and personalized pencil plogs.  However, we also use manipulatives and discuss how we might use chalk and slates to enhance a lesson.  

It's easy to slam workshops as being too short, too random and too irrelevant to be beneficial. However, today I felt like I entered a true workshop.  I had the chance to be an apprentice to a couple of masters.  We used the pencil-based tools, but it was the learning that felt transforming.  

*      *      *

As I walk back toward my horse, I eavesdrop on a conversation.  The first man says, "I'm glad that I learned some practical strategies, but I can't do that in my classroom.  We don't even have paper."  

The other teacher responds, "I was disappointed for the opposite reason.  I wanted some practical advice on how to use the slides and chart paper.  Math is okay, but I need step-by-step instructions on how to use my paper more effectively. I can learn math strategies by experimenting and feeling my way through it.  What I need is concrete advice on paper skills."  

"If they don't train you, then you won't use it, right?" 


I'm struck by this word "train."  We're not pets to train.  We are professionals.  It is our job to face our fears and learn.  Paper might be scary, but unless it catches on fire, it's not all that dangerous.

*     *     *

When I tell this to Paul the Preindustrial Poet, he disagrees.  "We're all on a journey, Tom.  True, they need to get over it, but the more they see it in action, the more open they will be."  

"Can't we just tell them they have to change?"  

"You just said that they can't be trained.  You talked about teacher autonomy and self-directed learners.  What if that means they need to go at their own pace?  Let them feel their way through it for awhile.  Change is slow.  It's organic.  Most growth happens underground."  

"Thanks for the agrarian metaphors, Paul."  

"Seriously, Tom.  They have every reason to be scared.  The role of a teacher is changing.  Imagine being an artist and learning that you can't use a canvas and paints anymore.  You'd get a little edgy.  You'd be a little skeptical, right?"

"I guess so."

"So, things are changing.  We're getting Kodaks in classrooms and now phonographs. Schools can connect to the world with a few clicks.  At some point each kid will have access to a telegraph.  Then there are the pencils and the paper and the portability of knowledge.  The teacher isn't the source anymore.  The issue isn't reluctance of changing tools.  It's the reluctance of losing one's identity." 

an initial sketch-up idea

Here is an initial sketch-up of the book concept.  It's odd, but sometimes I have to keep a book title and cover in my head as I approach the construction of it.  Very strange, I realize. 

your chart wasn't all that smart

Before I ever went all-out on pencil integration, I went through this paperphilia stage where I believed that the medium was the answer.  If I could get my hands on more pencils and better paper, I would have better pedagogy.

So, I'm standing in front of my SmartChart and flipping through the slides.  If you've never used a Smart Chart, it's essentially an Edison projector that shines on huge chart paper, where I can write notes.  So, I'm scribbling notes and flipping through slides.  The students are nodding their heads and I'm offering a passionate lecture on Jacksonian Democracy and whether his human rights violations toward Native Americans nullifies his hero status.  (Some teachers would allow the "other side" argument, but human rights violations probably don't need another side)

Mr. Brown stands up in the back for awhile and observes.  It's his prep period and he's hiding from Gertrude the Language and Academic Achievement Cognitive Development Learning Specialist.  When I pass out the paper and pencils, students begin scribbling their thoughts.

"What did you think?"

"I saw a lot of heads nod."

"Yeah, they seemed really into it."

"They were falling asleep, Tom."

"I knew it.  I practically wrote a novel on some of the chart paper.  I should have gone with the three by three rule and the slides could have had more . . . "

"No, that wasn't the problem.  Your problem wasn't your paper but your pedagogy.  You stood and lectured.  You failed to interact.  I've seen you lead discussions.  Slides could have enhanced the discussion, but you allowed a projector and some ginormous paper replace you as the teacher."

blocking pen pal networks

"Tom, I need to talk to you about a bullying situation," the principal explains.

"Is it about Eunice and Gladys.  I think we have that taken care of," I answer.

"It's the aftermath.  Apparently some of the bullying was pencil-based."

"Yeah, I know about that."

"Well, we need to ban the pen pal networks.  We can't have bullying occurring on our campus."

"But some of the bullying happened in the cafeteria and we're not banning kids from visiting the cafeteria. Just yesterday I saw bullying in the library.  Better ban books as well."

"But this is permanent.  This leaves a record. Verbal and written bullying are different."

"True, so doesn't that mean we have some evidence of the bullying when it occurs?"

"Parents are worried, Tom.  There was a new report that children are using pencils for social reasons.  They're sending short-hand messages, doing pen pal letters.  It's scary to many of the parents."

"Really?  Students are using pencils for social interaction?  So at an age when they are naturally social, when they are exploring conflict and relationships, they use the media that are available? Sounds incredibly dangerous to me."

If it's verbal, blame the student.  If it's written, blame the pencils.

For all the talk of a twentieth century classroom, I find the biggest barrier to change is fear.  We need leaders rather than liability managers.  In addition to asking, "What will we risk if we do this?" we should also ask, "What do we risk if we don't do this?"  Apparently public relations is more powerful than a learning tool.