Taming the Student Cell Phone

https://www.flickr.com/photos/afsusa/9284763561I love Facebook as a professional development tool, if only for the way it encourages easy conversation and the spread of ideas. Teachers in our district have embraced it as a way to easily reach their audience- students, parents, and peers, and I’m no different. It’s a great way to distribute ideas and tools that relate to my job as a technology integrator.

A colleague recently shared an article to our Tech Goodies page called How to Manage Cell Phones in the Classroom. In it, author Ben Johnson suggests that teachers decide on a classroom cell phone policy, get support from the administration and make expectations clear to students- even posting the policy on the walls as a constant reminder. Consequences need to be clear and enforced. He also suggests creating an environment where there is little downtime so students are more engaged in learning and less apt to check out by checking texts.

It’s all good advice and it’s what many good teachers already do. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The degree of success of a cell phone policy often is in direct response to the relationship the teacher has with students.

Think about this from a student perspective. We lay down all the rules, and we are as tough about enforcement as our management style allows. They, in turn, have been trained through however many years they’ve been in school to assess the risk- and then do what they want. This is business as usual for them.

Many schools are shifting towards a student-centered learning model, yet our policies still read like  court judgments. Legally we do need to have broad policies in place to ensure student safety and comply with federal law. Outside of that, however, we have some leeway. Because our school culture hasn’t kept up with our students’ digital culture, we have some catching up to do. It’s work that might better be done without a “top-down” edict.

What about if we included students in the process of developing a classroom cell phone policy? I’m not suggesting this from a “student-council-input-into-policy” discussion. I’m talking about a classroom by classroom policy. Think of it as a whole lot of social science experiments taking place, collecting data on what works and what doesn’t.

I can hear the feathers ruffling from here. “We need consistency. We already have a ‘no-cellphones’ policy. The rules have to be the same for everyone building-wide. The kids just have to comply or face the consequences.”

The idea of different rules in different rooms is a hard sell- but truthfully, don’t we already have it? Some teachers accept late students, some don’t. Some require seating charts while others allow free seating. Classroom management has ALWAYS differed from room to room- thank goodness!

As a classroom teacher, I was always ok with the overarching guidelines of our building. It was the details that sometimes made me a little crazy. One principal outlawed any food at all in the classroom. I thought the student who skidded in late with breakfast in hand stood a better chance learning while eating than he did having to sit in the cafeteria and missing half of class- or worse yet, sitting in class hungry and unfocused. A modification to sit away from the computers until he was finished suited us both.

And so it is with cell phones. We can’t pretend they don’t exist- but we can’t allow free range. Where’s the middle ground? I propose that we ask our students what they think is reasonable. Sure, at first they will say they should be able to have them out and use them whenever, wherever. Explore that idea! It will open up many topics of discussion as you develop the framework of your classroom culture:

  • respect for a space students can work in
  • management of distractions
  • accountability for work in a timely fashion
  • ethical conduct and personal integrity (cell phones are widely used for cheating)
  • real world workplace expectations
  • reflection and revision of what is working/not working
  • how their cell phone use meshes with the school’s code of conduct guidelines

Students that have ownership of their classroom cell phone policy are more apt to work within the parameters they set for themselves. You might ask them for ideas for formative assessments of how the policy is working at certain times throughout the first couple of weeks of school, with ways to adjust the policy until it is a functioning part of their classroom workflow. Making students an integral part of that assessment piece is critical for continued improvement.

What about those that just can’t comply? Perhaps they are not ready for the responsibility of having a phone available in class. For those without the skills to manage the tool, separation from the device may be the only answer. That said, their policy should provide them a way to grow into the skills necessary to be successful within their classroom rules. Keep in mind that you are asking them to change a deeply ingrained habit. In some cases, it’s one of continual and constant contact. Habits take time and strategies to change.

You’ll notice I left out the concept of punishment. I’m a firm believer that the consequences that students set for themselves will always have more weight than detentions or other punitive actions we set up. Time in detention teaches a student NOTHING. Time in a reflective intervention with you (and/or peers) can help students identify the issues that cause them to move from the learning environment to a distracted realm. This is the time to find ways to bridge the gap and keep them moving forward.

Finally, look at your own habits. Are you modelling the cell phone use you want your students to employ? Students don’t miss a trick and will be more apt to buy into change if you are setting the example for acceptable use.

The Shifting Role of the Tech Integrator

Here’s a snapshot of a typical day in my life as an integrator:

Zip down to classroom 1 to put out apple TV fire. Respond to 3 emails from students who can’t remember their Educate passwords. Touch base with teacher using GoogleForms for feedback. Respond to text from assistant principal to check student’s use of laptop. Show up late for meeting with a teacher about how they can improve collaborative techniques using technology. Beg forgiveness and begin the “tool pitch.” Return call to frantic 7th-grade parent who is concerned about Facebook activity…

You get it. More often than not, an integrator’s job is to  react to change. Sometimes it’s big change- a new LMS or a new model of teaching. Most often it’s small, “just in time” help that gets a teacher or a student over a small hump and back on track. We listen to teachers when they say “I wish I had a tool that…” and review new tools with an eye to where they might best fit in different content areas and learning environments.

My job description tasks me with improving teaching and learning through the use of technology. This means I have to stay on top of the tools available to enhance the learning process, stay educated about best practices in pedagogy and the district’s direction, and develop professional development for teachers that is largely voluntary and rarely attended. This isn’t to say that teachers don’t want to learn- on the contrary, they often speak about wanting to use technology to improve engagement and understanding. What they lack is a 30-hour day within which to fit me in.

Technology has played a large role in our change and I am proud of our staff for the way they have embraced change and learned new skills in order to provide better opportunities for their students to have “voice and choice” in their learning. That said, my job has gotten harder and harder the deeper we get into proficiency-based learning.

It used to be easy. Teachers who were doing days of whole class instruction had the luxury of allowing me to come in and demonstrate something like Kahoot as a review tool or how to properly use presentation software. Now it’s different. In a class of 20 students, you may have four or five different levels and learning targets going on at once. The teacher is now a facilitator, students are working on personalized learning pathways, and I am on the outside looking in.

When a school changes, everyone changes. How the administration uses their integrators needs to change as well. Here’s why:

Integrators are teachers first

More often than not, integrators have been classroom teachers. We understand that tools and strategies just have to work. Because of our classroom experience, we can “vet” tools for ease of use and come up with strategies that will lessen issues – like developing password protocols and recognizing tools that might not work well with networks. And, because we are teachers first, we have the necessary understanding of pedagogy and scaffolding when it comes to finding tools and resources that move learning forward rather than merely entertain students.

Integrators know the staff

By the very nature of the job, integrators develop personal relationships with almost all of the staff. We know their interests and their classroom struggles. Some even let us in on their fears. For the most part, teachers trust us to be on their side. Most everyone knows who is resistant to change on a faculty.  Integrators often know why. Knowledge of this resistance provides insight into how we can structure professional development prior to the implementation of changes so we have more buy-in.

Integrators are collaborators

Most integrators have a curated personal learning network of innovative educators who are available 24/7 to vet ideas and offer advice and experience. This wealth of experience saves time and frustration as we learn from each other’s successes and struggles. Very often, integrators enlist teams of students to vet tools and provide feedback about how they think they will work in the classroom.

Changing the role of the Integrator

Most integrators are both small-change agents (at the classroom level) and reactors to systemic change at the building level. Rarely are they involved by administrators at either level to look at how they could become contributors in meeting the larger scale yearly goals of districts and individual buildings.

Here’s how it usually works: September comes and everyone is full of energy. I’ve been to a conference or two and have some ideas of ways I think technology can help in a couple of classrooms. I meet with teachers and offer my pitch. They are enthusiastic as well but already have their plans in place and this new idea feels like an add-on. “I’ll think about it,” is about as far as we get.

Here’s how it COULD work (and I risk the wrath of integrators everywhere with this one). What if my 180-day contract could be fulfilled anytime between one September and another? What if I could sit down with teachers as they are planning in the summer and work to turn technology into teach-nology? September is a bad time to make changes. July and August are GREAT times to look at how to do things better.

Teachers can receive professional contact hours during this time so they don’t feel as though they are working “for free.” I adjust my contracted schedule to reflect the number of days I work during the school year (there is no sub when I am out). No cost to the district.

We should be working closely with our curriculum coordinators to see how teach-nology fits best with district goals. If improving writing scores is a building or district goal for the year, what are the tools that will support that best- and how do we provide professional development that pairs pedagogy with tool mastery for resulting best practices? What scaffolded learning activities can we support with technology at each level so technology use becomes more effective? By focusing our efforts at a more global level, we create a community of practice that works to support all learners- even teachers.


Is Your Planbook Holding Your Students Hostage?

(Originally posted at CompetencyWorks.org, May 12 2015)

In a traditional classroom, the calendar and the teacher’s planbook are essential tools. They drive the pace, the resources, the instruction, and the assessment in a classroom on a day to day basis.

With small adjustments for snow days, these planbooks become archives of the curriculum and pace of instruction within a particular classroom. They can be used year in and year out. For some, this means that instruction doesn’t change unless the curriculum does.

In the SBSC (Standards Based, Student Centered) environment, students aren’t held hostage to the planbook. They can move ahead when content comes easily or take the time necessary to master more difficult tasks. This means teachers have to have larger amounts of content and resources available from the beginning.

At first glance, this seems like it requires more work from teachers. Truthfully, it does. The payoff comes in that it provides a way for teachers to better see the big picture of the connections between standards in their class and what they need to provide for each student. It also showcases the necessity to provide sound foundational skills in order to help students reach proficiency on more complex goals.

The process of designing proficiency-based learning begins with a focus on a broad learning goal. This goal, the standard, needs to be “unpacked” in order to determine two things:

  1. The ultimate learning goal (What will students end up knowing or doing?)
  2. The skills students need to have in order to achieve the learning goal

Not all standards are created equal. It is crucial that teachers have a clear understanding of the scope of the standard and are able to scaffold learning activities so students can reach overall proficiency. This means teachers will need to use any means available to determine students’ prior knowledge as they design learning activities.

How to do this? By using the data that is in front of them. This might be data from standardized test scores that indicate reading and numeracy skills. It might be data from special education testing that indicates strengths and weaknesses in student processing skills. (Very often the same modifications and teaching strategies that help special ed students will be beneficial for everyone.) Depending on the time of year, it could be data they have collected about student work ethic and successes to date. Unit pre-tests will provide information on prior knowledge, but when they are used as the starting point for planning, they leave you scrambling if you guessed wrong about where students “should” be.

Teachers also need to have the necessary pedagogical knowledge about their content area. The SBSC model allows you to provide content across a larger swath of the spectrum so you can fill holes in foundational knowledge. A strong understanding of the appropriate scaffold for your standard is crucial and can’t be overlooked.

It’s important to understand that the goal of scaffolding is not just to provide information in an organized fashion. It’s more than “learn this, then this, then this.” The scaffold provides a way to offer information to students in such a way that it encourages strengthening of foundational skills in order to support more complex learning. It involves frequent informal assessment opportunities for both students and teachers—meaning that students have the opportunity to try out their new skills as they work toward proficiency. This differs greatly from what many of us experienced in our traditional classrooms. The end of the unit test was a bad place to figure out that a student hadn’t mastered the content, yet it often was the only time a student knew that things were worse than they thought.

Done well, scaffolding also creates an environment where increased independence in thinking and autonomy in learning becomes available. This allows for students to customize the ways they choose to apply the knowledge they’ve attained and use it to create new connections.

Quality scaffolding will require a firm knowledge of differentiation, and here’s where you have a little heavy lifting to do as a teacher. In a self-paced environment, providing content at a variety of levels and media forms can pay dividends in saved time. Some of these will be in digital form, and some will be classroom resources or manipulatives.

In the past, teachers would use their daily lesson plan to create learning opportunities for their students. There were fewer activities, and all students completed all assignments regardless of whether they already knew the content. Teachers knew the goal but might do planning day to day, causing students to wait for teachers in order to access new content.

In an SBSC classroom, a unit overview will serve you much better. The unit plan needs to be based directly from the standards to be learned. Your plan will need to cover foundational knowledge as well as that content and those skills necessary to reach proficiency. A sample overview might look like this:

Foundational Knowledge

Skills for Proficiency

You’ll find that your unit plans become dynamic documents. You will add to them as you find new resources, create new (or improve old) supplemental materials, and create better assessments. Don’t panic about making it perfect. Start where you are and begin to build. You’ll find it becomes a “cafeteria plan” for learning, providing students the elements they need to build a path to understanding.

No longer do all students have to do all assignments. In the SBSC classroom, teachers can customize based on student need. By looking at the foundational knowledge students need and comparing it to what you know they already have, teachers can personalize learning to help move students ahead.

A caveat: Make sure your resources provide opportunities for students to create their own understanding. “Packet-based learning,” where you just take the handouts you had in the planbook and put them in folders so students can access them at will, is NOT a best practice when it comes to standards-based teaching and learning. Tossing out content and then asking for it back in a similar form does not show understanding—it shows memorization.

Teaching is always a work in process, and the move to standards-based learning is no different. Try resources out, adjust plans, confer with students about what works and what doesn’t—but keep the standards out in front.


March Madness: 4 Time Management Tools for Students

time-92897_1280Time moves differently for students than it does for teachers. Once March gets here teachers clearly see how little time is left for students to make up all that work they have left undone in the name of working at their own pace. Students, on the other hand, view the spring as an eternity within which to get work done. Relax, they say, we got this.

If we are honest we can understand their thinking.  More than once you may have asked yourself, “How did I spend an hour on Facebook? I just sat down!” If this has happened to you you’ll understand how your students can insist that they are not wasting an entire class period fiddling with Spotify.

How can you hold them accountable without eating up precious teaching time? Whoever has that answer is sitting on a goldmine. In the absence of a magical fix, here are some ways you can use technology to help students see the scope of the work ahead of them and create a way to get it done…or at least some of it.

Reminders: Students in middle school and high school are rarely separated from their phones. Capitalize on this by having them enter assignments and deadlines into a reminder or notification app on their phone or laptop to keep them organized. Getting them to click “snooze” rather than delete will make the notification continue to appear at regular intervals. In some cases, the reminders can be synched across devices.

Calendar features – It’s not the use of the calendar that’s important- we all know that if students were of a mind to check a calendar, they wouldn’t be behind in their work. It’s what the calendar can with their entries that brings value. Google Calendar will send text or email alerts to students when an event is ready to happen. Again, leverage the power of the phone. iCal will send a message with or without a sound, send an email, or open a file that needs to be worked on.

Daily goal/exit ticket– One of the most often used excuses for lack of work completion is “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” Using a daily goal helps students organize their time. Start with small, do-able pieces that are easy to assess- they did the work or they didn’t. Keeping track of the goals digitally in the form of an exit ticket will help hold students accountable- and keep the goal from being a perennial.


Rescue Time– This tool, available for computer and Android devices, logs time spent online and categorizes it by productivity level. Even the free version is customizeable so teachers and students can differentiate it by student. RescueTime logs only active time- browser tabs that are open but not being used are not recorded. Students can access an up to date log regularly during the day to monitor the amount of time spent on different tasks. It’s eye opening and takes the excuses out of the mix.

Through a New Lens: Negotiating Release

This article was originally posted at Competencyworks.org on January. It talks about the need to assess our student’s ability to be self directed learners- specifically when it comes to technology. It contains a tool that teachers can use to assess the level of self-direction and the skills that need to be taught in their individual classrooms. Read on:


Wee Tweets: Second Graders Join the Twittersphere

Walk into Jill Ouellette’s second grade class and ask how many writers there are. Every hand enthusiastically shoots skyward. 16 self proclaimed adventurers and explorers who come up with ideas while reading, playing with legos, riding their bikes. They tell me they have millions of ideas-and my question to them was this: Who knows about all your ideas?

Their answers were strikingly similar. Mostly it was their parents, sometimes a lucky grandparent or a friend. Never anyone out of their small social circles. I thought them ripe for expansion.

I have to admit that what follows is NOT my original idea. I was inspired by Kristin Ziemke, a second grade teacher from Chicago who was a speaker at this year’s Leveraging Learning Institute in Auburn, Maine. Kristin spoke about how she used Twitter to help fan her student’s interest in writing and sharing their ideas. She gave examples of their skills when they started and their skills as they became more experienced. I was totally convinced that this was a great idea.

What I didn’t have was a classroom of my own to try it in so I had to hijack one. This is where Jill came in. Jill’s new to our school but not new to teaching.  She’s had experience in technology rich classrooms. She doesn’t cringe when she sees me coming – in fact, when I approached her with the idea, she jumped on it. It helps that she’s in her twenties and familiar with Twitter.

I started by having a chat with the students. I asked them to tell me the story of their classroom. I didn’t frame it much. I wanted to hear their words. That’s the first and probably the most important thing in using Twitter or any sort of microblogging. The students need to know that it is THEIR ideas that are important. This is not a formal assessment.

I shared Kristin’s feed (@OurKidsTeach) so students that are not familiar with Twitter can see what it’s all about. I said we’d be reading, seeing, and listening to the story of her students’ classroom. We picked apart the timeline so students had an understanding that they could share via photo, text, or video. We looked at all the different ways this classroom shared information. They had things they wondered about. They had impromptu book reviews. They had photos of artwork and classroom show and tell items. There was no “theme” other than ideas that went through the students heads.

What’s the benefit to having these early writers tweet? Here’s just a few:

  • students show their engagement with content in a personal way
  • students learn to share ideas more freely. Punctuation and spelling will follow
  • students get an authentic audience for their writing
  • ideas spark more ideas
  • students learn the concept of digital citizenship and digital footprint early on. I touched briefly on what they would want to include in their classroom story and what they would want to leave out. They were spot on, even at 7! It also provided a great way to begin addressing online safety. We decided as a class that initials would be a great way to identify each student safely.


The second graders were excited to start. As with anything, practice is important so I had come equipped with paper tweets. I asked them what part of their classroom story they’d like to share, and how they’d like to represent it. Could they draw a picture, they asked? Of course. Did spelling count? Not a bit, I said. Get your ideas down and post them for others to see.

Talk about 100% participation. Some wrote quick notes and brought them over to me. No spell checking, no “take it back and fix this” in this exercise. I took each tweet and posted it on a “feed” on the wall as it was finished. Some students took great care in drawing a picture to represent their idea (multimodal learning works well!) The responses were varied, ranging from “How do you build a spaceship” to “I love Fun Friday.” Students were very interested in reading the ideas of others. Conversation broke out all over the room.

The next step was to hand out laminated Tweets. These are their “real” everyday Tweets and can be written on with dry erase markers. I made them to fit on 11X17 paper to make writing easier for little hands. (Blank Tweet templates are available here. Please feel free to share them). Jill allowed them to put them anywhere in the room as long as they were easily visible. Students wrote and hung their first official tweets and it was time for me to leave.

I checked back with Jill a week later. She said they were still excited about tweeting and were updating them regularly. She created a classroom account. You can follow it at @missoulette88 to see their progress. Here’s one that one of her students posted after a lesson on fractions- visual proof of the connection the student made with the content.

IMG_1543 2

Note: It’s important to get parental buy-in for this process. Draft a letter explaining the purpose of this tool and the process students will use when posting. (Most teachers do the posting.) Be sure to have a signed media release on hand prior to posting any photos or videos of students.



Branding Your Classroom: What’s Your Story?

twtMy colleagues are probably getting a little tired of me touting the power of Twitter as a tool for developing a personal learning network. I won’t be swayed, of course, but I may be shushed just a bit…but only because I’ve come across an even better idea for how to leverage social media in the classroom.

I’m a bit of a podcast freak and I’ve just discovered Talks with Teachers, produced by Brian Sztabnik. Brian publishes regular interviews with some of the most interesting educators in the country. The podcast promotes itself as a resource for K-12 ELA teachers but truthfully it has something to offer everyone.

I chose two podcasts this week. The Power of Branding with Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo told the story of two administrators who used student interest in Twitter to build a visible digital “brand” that gave insight into what their schools were like and what they had to offer from a student perspective. Over time their tweets gave the community a public view of their school from the student stakeholders themselves. My thought was that this could provide great advertisements for schools as we move into situations where we may be vying for pools of students with expanded school choice options.

I followed that podcast with an episode by one of my favorite bloggers and presenters, Vicki “Cool Cat Teacher” Davis. She talked about using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to record those aha moments in the classroom- connections students make- or just documentation of what happens on a regular basis.

She took it a step further and suggested the use of Storify to create a weekly newsletter for parents and community members based on the week’s tweets and social media entries. I tried it- it’s easy! Here’s a sample of a quick one (10 minutes, I promise) based on our Hour of Code in early December:

There are several take-aways here:

  • Using social media in this way gives students an introduction to blogging… and blogging enables students to connect with content on a personal and authentic level.
  • It’s the epitome of student voice.
  • Learning becomes transparent.
  • Allowing students to create the newsletter adds choice to their voice.
  • Your classroom suddenly has a story that’s being actively told.

Like it or not, your classroom is already “branded.” Is it the one you want? If not, how can you change your practice to change the story that can be told?