Today’s Contributor: Matt Flickinger
Matt is in his 13th year teaching and 7th year at Bowie High School teaching Literature and Rhetoric.
There were rumors circulating for years. Even a date set one fall, which fell through. By the spring semester of 2018, however, the rumors were replaced by instructions and the shrugs of doubtful teachers turned to looks of confusion and concern as our COWs (Computers on Wheels) were rounded up and corralled in the hallways. They were to be transferred to a feeder middle school, never to be seen again. Soon after, our campus would distribute a chromebook to every student in the school in a new initiative called Everyone:1. Upon distribution of the new machines, teachers would then present an interactive lesson on digital citizenship. Oh great, many of us thought, even if we can somehow distribute 3000 chromebooks in a single day, the kids are not going to want to talk about how to be a better citizen online.
The day of the rollout arrived, excitement mounted, there was even a reporter from Education Week Magazine covering the event. Teachers marched our homeroom kids down to get the machines, and then…it all went smoothly. Kids got their computers and returned to class.
As CIC, I had the honor of hosting the reporter for the rollout. He interviewed a few kids about receiving the laptops, jotted down some notes about the distribution process, then settled at the back of the classroom for the lesson. He would later tell me the real story was to be about technology in the classroom and online ethics in the digital age. As I pulled up the presentation and activity on BLEND, I was nervous. What would the kids say? Would they engage at all? Talk to each other honestly about their behaviors online? Their digital selves?
Some background here. At Bowie, we only see our homeroom/advisory students a few times a year. We meet with them the first week of school to hand out schedules, walk them through first week procedures, introduce the freshmen to our confusing lunch schedule, and then say goodbye until the next time the administration decides something needs to be addressed in that setting. At the time of the Everyone:1 rollout, I had seen these kids a handful of times and only remembered about three of their names.
The first activity in the presentation challenged the kids to trace their phones, then write or draw word or picture associations to answer what their phones mean to them. I walked around while they traced their phones, wondering what—if anything—these strangers would write or draw. Did I mention my homeroom is 9th graders? Freshmen. As they looked around the room, thinking, or pretending to, I just walked around wondering what came next if they did nothing. The reporter was looking around, too, his fingers braced above the keyboard.. And then…they started. These kids wrote, and drew, and wrote some more. When the personal reflection time was up, I asked them to share with their groups and they did. I joined a few groups and talked about their feelings about their phones, about the new laptops, about how they use technology in and out of the classroom. We watched a video about technology as distraction and our digital footprint. I opened up the floor for suggestions: How do we keep technology from being a distraction? Getting us in trouble?
The answers were vulnerable, insightful, surprising. One brash little dude in the back of the room said, “I got in trouble for how I was using Snapchat, so now I don’t have it. It’s better, though. I used to waste so much time on there.” Another kid piped up, “My mom won’t even let me look at my phone after 7. It sucked at first, but I got used to it.” Another girl, “I put my phone across the room when I go to sleep. When the alarm rings, I have to get out of bed to turn it off. Plus, it keeps me from looking at it if I wake up at night.” Others shared their own strategies, self-imposed, and parentally-enforced. We laughed and nodded along to familiar tales of digital interactions and situations, and the occasional regret of some acquaintance’s online mistake (always someone they knew, never their own).
The next question received the same thoughtful responses, if not the same enthusiasm. How do we use technology as a tool?
“I have a dictionary app.”
“I use the calendar to organize.”
And, my personal favorite, “I use the notes app as a daily diary.”
More nodding, more agreement, the reporter took notes. I took some, too. These kids saw the application in apps. Knew the advantages of a computer in their pocket. Born into a digital world, they were already citizens.
A couple weeks later, the reporter called for a follow up. How was everything going? Any new developments?
I told him in the time since the rollout, as the campus gradually moved content from books to BLEND, assignments from notebook paper to online submissions, student chromebooks became the most important classroom tool. Teachers were encouraged to monitor students. Most of us did because we always monitor our students. I caught the occasional kid playing Tetris, or browsing amazon, or chatting. Still do. But mostly, I told him, what I see is people working. Independently or cooperatively, talking out their ideas, interpretations of class material and content. Like before, but with a digital tool to log their answers.
We’ve all heard the horror stories, so we worry. About the kid up all night on online games, while grades plummet. The kid enduring the terror of a retweeted embarrassing image. The suicides from cyberbullying. We worry about too much screen time and then give them more screens. So we have to worry they will behave, know when to use this new tool, when not to. But, maybe, we shouldn’t worry. Like with any classroom tool or content, our job remains the same: teach. Care. Worry or don’t, our students were citizens of a digital world before they ever entered our classrooms. Most importantly, at this moment, they are our students. Regardless of what subject we teach or tools we use, our job is the same. Make sure they’re a little more prepared when they leave our classrooms for their time as citizens of the world, digital and otherwise.