Call Me What You Will, I Want them Engaged

My wife dropped the big bomb on my yesterday. We were talking about the cell phone issue that seems to be surrounding the educational world lately–something akin to “I Love You, You’re Beautiful, Now Change,” replayed like “We love them, We all Have Them, Let’s Ban Them.” She asked me how I would use a cell phone in a classroom situation. I ran through my deal and my Flickr email address picture thing, and mentioned how Liz Kolb said this and showed that. And then it came. The words I have been expecting for some time:

“But you are not in the classroom anymore, and you think ‘in theory.’ How do I make that work for 90 kids over the course of 8 periods in a day?”

In actuality, I loved the question, because it occurred two days ago and I haven’t gotten it off my mind (which tells me it was a keeper, as is she). But man, it stung slightly when it was originally posed. I miss the classroom. I miss kids and their messiness as they figure things out. However, what I am doing now challenges me in ways that I am not ready to give up.

Classroom teachers are asked to do an inordinate amount these days. Between knowledge of IEP’s for students and the push to differentiate instruction AND infuse technology into their practice, there is little time for some administrator type coming in and saying that cell phones are the savior. I get that. I get that there has to be some example, some established practice that shows results.

My response to not only my wife, but to everyone who would have reacted that way, is simple. What are you doing to engage your students? What is making them talk about your class and what happened in your room in third spaces? It happened when I was in school, so as Barry says, it’s not about the technology. But it is about their motivation.

I taught history. Some teach math. Any subject area teacher, aside from anything associated with the present day, struggles with relevance. I spent the majority of my time creating references and comparisons to present day situations so that my students could see the relevance in the events of the past. This is what we do: we find ways to reach our students and motivate them to learn about things that normally would not garner notice.

Recently, Jonathan Glater’s article in the New York Times, “Welcome, Freshman. Have an iPod,” spoke of how universities are beginning to leverage mobile technology to both lure students to their schools, but also to engage learning:

“We think this is the way the future is going to work,” said Kyle
Dickson, co-director of research and the mobile learning initiative at
Abilene Christian University in Texas

I agree, and Liz Kolb’s recent projection of mobile phone capabilities backs that up: smaller, faster, even more ubiquitous. I don’t know about the lot of you, but as for me, I’ll take anything that engages my students in learning. Tech or no tech. This just makes sense to me.


6 thoughts on “Call Me What You Will, I Want them Engaged

  1. Wow, only 90 kids! That would be sweet.

    I have let kids use their phones when we do school-wide scavenger hunts.

    Your last paragraph was key, “I’ll take anything that engages my students in learning. Tech or no tech.”


  2. Jethro,

    Too often we, myself included, get wrapped in things that are not practical, but have huge potential. The fact that we can access others who look at the same situation and make it work still amazes me.

    People like Clarence Fisher, Darren Kuropatwa, Liz Kolb, and countless others out there who push the limits of what we can do in the classroom make the engagement issue with technology less of a stumbling block. I try to come at these tools from the point of view of a classroom teacher as often as I can, but your statement “Wow, only 90 kids! That would be sweet,” does keep me in check. It lets me know that practical and transcendent can coexist within the same classroom context.

  3. Patrick,

    Outstanding post – and not just because it sounds like something I would write. 🙂


    On the record, I’m not sure I understood what you meant by your comment.

    Off the record, you da man!

  4. I agree that engagement is important and cell phones do increase student engagement. But your post does not answer your wife’s question. For instance, do you know that pollanywhere does not work with many pre-paid plans? In my experience as many as one fourth of middle school students are on pre-paid plans. Please don’t get me wrong, that is not reason enough to keep the cell phones locked up, but there ARE significant challenges to implementation that must be addressed before we ask normal (not thrilled and excited by silly tech gadgets and gizmos) everyday teachers to jump into the fray.

  5. Mrs. Vance,

    Upon further review, you are right. We need further proof before putting this in the hands of teachers that are not sure of its worth. We need beta testers, which is what I think a lot of us are.

    We are surveying our students at the middle school to see what the numbers are in terms of cell phone ownership and functionality: some early numbers indicate that more than 75% of 6th grade students have a cell phone, and of that 75% that own cell phones, 70% of them send more than 20 text messages in a day. This may be a part of our demographics, but as cost goes down and functionality goes up, how do we keep this type of technology from our classrooms? When that critical mass is reached, I’d like to have the beta testers ready to lead the way with the methods you and I are talking about.

    So, while there may be some rough patches in some of the ideas, and my answer to my wife may not be enough for her to start handing out iPhones, the need to push forward with ideas and ventures, in my book, outweighs caution.

  6. I think your statistics are pretty representative of middle school students in general. Even in high poverty areas, where students have limited access to computers and high speed internet outside of school, cell phones seem to be common. Because of this, last year I delivered a series of ‘cell phone classes’ during my computer lab time. I expected to take my experiences from those classes to my principle as justification for revising our cell phone policy for this current school year. But in fact, I ran into enough problems that I placed that idea on hold, at least for this year.

    I keep thinking there is some magical bit that I am missing. And if I could just find what it is that I am missing, many of my technology daydreams would fall into place in the real world. I like your idea of looking at this phase in educational technology as beta testing. That gives some room and provides a reason for the errors and missteps.

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