Last month a conversation about a common four-letter word incited unusual etymological interest in one section of English IV. Hearing several folk theories about the origin of the term in question, some kids were dubious, others annoyed. I directed a student to the dusty volumes of the OED lying sideways on the bottom shelf by the center window. The class prattled on while Brian thumbed the pages of the massive tome he selected, humming his ABCs as he looked. I tried to keep the conversation moving, not wanting to succumb to “down time” while we waited for him to find the right entry on the right page; before Brian began to clear his throat, Nick read three plausible origins of the term from the Wikipedia entry on his smartphone. At least as useful for our purposes as the dry OED definitions “based on historical principles,” the digital research came out twice as fast. Nick knows that smartphones “shouldn’t” be used in our school, which bans “cell phones” use by students “on school days between 7:30 a.m. and 2:45 p.m.,” but he also knows that I have encouraged students on many occasions to capitalize on the research power latent in their pockets.
It is time for us to rethink the 2001 policy from the Student Handbook. I don’t mean that faculty concerns are unfounded about texting to complete drug deals or about archiving notes to cheat on exams; I mean that it is time for us to revisit the benefits as well as the liabilities posed by the powerful new technology available to so many fingertips—including ours.
Teachers’ hands and minds are a good place to begin, because I think that part of the reason we hesitate to welcome the possibilities inherent in new tools is that we are less competent with them than are our students. I get it. Like you, I have been the new teacher (or the more experienced teacher with the newer topic) faced with the unpalatable prospect of answering a question with “I don’t know” and maneuvering any which way to reroute the discussion. But also like you, I’ve recognized that I’m at my best when I really do allow students to teach me new ways to read words and worlds. (A lot of imagination, of course, begins with “I don’t know.”) We are not going to be better at technology than our students—or, if we were born recently enough to be digital natives too, we are not going to be better than they are for very long. This part is healthy, I think: I teach you Tennyson; you teach me Tumblr.
Our students have smartphones, so why not let them use them in class? Well, you say, they don’t all have smartphones. It’s an affluent district, but not all families can afford smartphones. Isn’t there an equity issue? I hear you. But what about using this topic as a means to address some of the equity issues that many find so difficult to talk about in Westfield? It is true that not all students will have smartphones, but neither will all students have the latest leather riding boots, or an SUV on their seventeenth birthday. (Even in schools with uniforms, some uniforms are better accessorized than others and adorned by dearer jewelry.) How about a frank conversation along these lines: until we can supply an iPad for every student, we’re going to do the best we can as a learning community to integrate our literacy practices in this space with yours in the larger digital world?
All last year there was that poster outside the Main Office with the picture of a brain beside the text “turn it on” above a cell phone (“turn it off”) and the clincher (“any questions?”). I do have questions. When I have several students who spend half of their waking hours on Tumblr—one with almost 7,000 “followers”—how can I as an English teacher ignore the literacy possibilities of blogs? They research and post, write and reblog all day long—yet all this interesting language work can seem utterly disconnected from anything they do in class. What if they were allowed to do it in class, and we were able to think together about why one website might provide more reliable information than another, and which one to use when?
In late winter, Project ’79 launched its new website on Tumblr—because that’s where the kids are. I posted a quotation from Tony Kushner’s speech accepting The Nation magazine’s Puffin prize (“The whole point of citizenship is that one admits to a personal stake, and to the potential benefit, in giving to and sacrificing for the community”) and within 20 minutes, three students had reblogged it. Yes, I am surprised and delighted that so unsexy a quote caught on. No, I don’t know exactly how much they thought about it; I’m just learning how best to engage students about what shows up in their own blogs—and really how the site works in general. But they’re happy to try to teach me and let me struggle with it. And I like that.
Obviously I don’t have all the answers; I am only proposing this as a topic for shared consideration. The (possibly nefarious) distractions of texting in class, or of video games during discussion need to be explored with our students as well as among ourselves, just as the medium of video games—and, before that, movies—has been important to explore as we continue to promote the value of books not as superior to other media but as different from them. Books require different attention, they offer different intangible benefits, and they connect us to older traditions of inquiry.
But if you want to throw some trenchant insight from class up on the web real quick so anyone could be talking about it tonight, well then any student with a smartphone can help you out. Let’s let them.