Monday, January 12, 2015

Screens and Sacraments: A Prologue

            As schools everywhere prepare to begin a new semester, it’s a perfect time for teachers to take stock of the year, re-evaluate their goals, and, if needed, try to start over.
           That’s something easier said than done for those of us teaching full-year courses, for no matter how fresh our ideas are at the beginning of the second semester, we’ll be face-to-face with the same students we had in the first, who are in no mood to hop into some new wineskins in the middle of January. It’s very difficult to change a classroom dynamic after the first few weeks of the year…cue the flashbacks to my first year of teaching. Despite the discouraging prospects for effecting change, however, I am entering the second semester with a few goals in mind, the most pressing of which concerns my students’ use of technology.
            Let me preface this by saying that I’m no luddite. Well, perhaps a modest one, but I’m certainly not reluctant to make the internet part of my class. In fact, I use it quite frequently, most often to listen to audio recordings of stories or poems, or show videos on topics relevant to what we’re reading. It’s irreplaceable for those kinds of things. I’d be an irresponsible teacher if I didn’t give my class a chance to hear T.S. Eliot reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or watch John Huston’s film adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood after we read it.
            What I wish I could do in the second semester, though, is roll back some of the brazen ease with which students pull out their phones or iPads at any lull in classroom action. I know what goes through their minds. “We’re finished a quiz and the teacher put a question to write about on the board? Well, let me just check my email and play a few games, since really, I don’t have to do anything right now.” For anyone who has taught in a high school in the last five years, you know exactly what I mean. It’s become a benchmark of adolescence: their bodies will stretch, their clothes will grow small, and their handheld devices are more interesting than you.
            I admit that I bear some responsibility for the phenomenon. After starting off the year by saying that no electronics were allowed in class unless specifically noted by me (e.g. for a research assignment or to read an open-copyright work not found in our textbook), I should have laid into the first rule-breakers of September and given them three nights’ detention. But would being tougher have made much difference? The students carry around their phones in their pockets, have tablets and laptops in their bags, and it’s a law of physics that those devices will eventually spill out onto their desks during class time, no matter what the teacher’s efforts may be to keep them at bay.
           Educators lack an adequate framework to sort out the conundrum of technology. Those who argue for paper-free classroom and those who argue against it can claim studies to support their points. Without an overarching vision of what it means to educate other than to give students “skills” (or worse, “information”), we are without a transcendent standard by which to adequately judge whether new methods or tools actually help students. All we have are statistics, which are insignificant without a framework, and that means that the educators who argue for “progress” usually win, because, well, what's the alternative? Retrogression? That “progress” often is a veneer for powerful interests, which, politics being politics, helps it sweep through state boards of education. Call me a pessimist, but I think all hope is lost for stemming the technological tide in public schools, though I'd love to be proven wrong.
            Catholic educators, however, have a case to make against the overuse of technology in the classroom, and we should make it. In short time, I hope to have better clarified points up here that draw upon our understanding of sacrament and Christ's example as a teacher to argue that a pedagogy dependent on personal devices not only harms students but is utterly un-Catholic. Stay tuned!
            For now, though, I’d love to hear some experiences and opinions on this issue. Give that comment box some action!


  1. Mikey,
    When you say, "overuse of technology in the classroom" what exactly does that mean? What kinds of technology are you referencing? I ask because our social studies department is in a textbook adoption year and one of the main discussions has been the implementation of a digital classroom. I could provide you with a list of reasons, both from a financial and educational standpoint, for why this is beneficial. If you are referencing personal devices then I would agree 100% that public schools have lost that fight. I only hope that, as a public educator, my colleagues and myself can find a way to better manage the use of personal devices in our classrooms. And when I say manage, I mean responsible and respectful use of those devices. In my classroom I struggle with the same issue, downtime in class equals cell phone time. In response to this dilemma I have forced myself to engage with students on other topics during those "dead times" in the classroom. My philosophy with the students is, history may be done for the day, but our engagement with one another as people will continue until the end of class.

    Love the blog (at least the parts that I understand),

  2. I'm still trying figure out exactly what I mean when I talk about the negative effects of technology, or its "overuse." I certainly don't mean just any use of it. I guess I'm thinking of those times, for me, when it noticeably gets in the way of classroom focus and the kinds of slow, serious thinking required in a humanities class.

    The big culprit here is the accessibility of the internet and other things on a personal device. Pretend for a moment that we're in a school that doesn't allow students to use phones or tablets or whatnot in the classroom. If our class is discussing a novel, referencing passages, etc. and one student wants to do his math homework or study his biology definitions for a quiz next period, he needs to physically bring that material onto his desk, run the risk of me seeing him and taking it away. Or if he wants to check his messages, he needs to risk bringing that phone out of his pocket and getting it taken away. Unless he's really bold, he probably won't do either one, as the classroom rules will serve as a check against the natural inclination of high schoolers (esp of boys, in my situation here) to get distracted. Kids will always daydream and doodle and whatnot; that's obviously not what I'm trying to eliminate. I guess by "overuse of technology" I mean when a personal device is doubling as a reader or as a notebook and providing a non-consequential avenue to distraction. I've noticed, too, that it's the middle-of-the-road kids who are the ones whose performance suffers most from the ability to use laptops and ipads at will, because they're often the ones who would benefit from having a natural check against their wandering minds. I find that most of my higher achievers have the self-control to use their devices for their intended purpose.

    What kind of program is your dept trying to implement? My biggest frustration is mixing your reading/writing tools with internet access. I do think that reading and writing on a screen is less than ideal and actually restricts your ability to comprehend (see the recent study mentioned in this article At the same time, though, I probably wouldn't be arguing as wholeheartedly if the issue here was simply giving kids screens to read/write on. It's the internet that's the problem, and our inability as teachers to really see what the kids are doing on those screens.

    One of the things I want to try to work out in the next few posts is the importance, like you say at the end of your post, of teachers interacting with their students as human beings, the primary medium of which is conversation. If the central foundation of our classes is not one human conversing with another, we've lost the essential element. When abused, old fashioned paper worksheets can get in the way of that, just as more recent technology can, but I think our devices can put a wedge between us and our students in a much more significant way.

    Food for thought. Thanks for reading.