Just a few weeks ago I had a great conversation with the assistant principal of a nearby school centering around how to manage devices in the classroom. “What do we do if the technology distracts our students?” she asked. At one time, not so many years ago, my answer would have been different than the one I gave her. In 2003, I begged, borrowed, and stole computers and parts of computers from every nook and cranny of the high school where I was teaching. All of the staff had just been given a laptop and the old desktops that were in each room were, in many cases, dust magnets that were never turned on. So, I snagged them and rebuilt about 25 computers that would serve as the basis of my “paperless classroom” and give my students the opportunity to create and interact with digital materials in ways that they hadn’t been able to before.
Each semester when I got a new round of students, I went through the process of thoroughly threatening them if they did anything inappropriate (I may have used the word “stupid”) while on the internet and on these machines. This was a different time in the world of technology and online tools were not nearly as easy to use as they are now. But my fear was still there. What would happen if something went horribly wrong? How would I handle the fallout from a student who didn’t abide by my rules and guidelines? During those first few years students were clamoring to get into my English 10 class because it was different. They got to be on computers. They published their work online. They learned how to code HTML. It was not your typical English classroom and word spread quickly that there was something different happening.
As an introduction to this new found world of technology in school that my students were experiencing, I felt as though I had to hold something over them if something went wrong. So, each semester, I assured them that if they did something inappropriate, I would revoke their technology privileges altogether and the rest of the semester they would find themselves doing all of their work with a pencil and paper. This seemed like the appropriate thing to do at the time. After all, students wanted to be in the class because they wanted to be on the computer. In order to manage my classroom, all I had to do was punish them where it hurt most… the ability to use digital tools to learn and create.
As I look back at that now, I realized how flawed my logic was. If I were really interested in their learning, removing access to technology was not going to help them succeed or learn more effectively. This is even more the case today with so much information, tools, and opportunities that exist online. So what would I do now if I were in the classroom and faced with the same question? Well, hopefully my district and administration would have thought about this in advance and recognized that taking technology out of the hands of students does not help them. Instead it puts them at a disadvantage because of the many learning opportunities can be found online.
So what is to be done? If I were to do it all over again, I’d refer to the code of conduct that is found in every school and try to find parallels between the digital and analog worlds. If a student is playing a game on the computer instead of his work, what approach would I take if technology wasn’t a factor? I would either find a way to keep them on task or give them the appropriate consequence. If a student posts something inappropriate in a message board, I would have to approach this in the same way as if they said or wrote something inappropriate in class or in a notebook. I most certainly wouldn’t take away that student’s pencil.
The tools of technology have changed the way we teach and approach instruction, but too many times we feel that these tools are not integral to the learning process. Technology tools are quickly becoming essential for classroom teachers but many still give the same threatening speech that I gave almost 10 years ago. We would never dream of taking a textbook away from a student because of behavior, but in many cases we don’t think twice about limiting their access to a system that has more information than any textbook or library could ever hold.
If I were back in the classroom today, that speech would look dramatically different. These technological tools are the new paper and pencil, learning tools which I would never dream of taking away. There are other ways to manage student behavior, removing the tools of learning should not be one of them.