The Red Herring of Technology in the Classroom

In one of the classes I teach we spend the better part of three class periods learning about logical fallacies. Straw man, red herring, proving a negative, ad hominem, etc. I PowerPoint my students to death on the first day (sorry, constructivists), and then have them quiz each other the second. On the third day, I quiz them. The idea is that they avoid logical fallacies in their arguments, as I only half-facetiously tell them, “from now until the end of time.” As part of my teacherly song and dance, I point out to my students that, armed with the list of logical fallacies, they’ll be able to pick faulty arguments out wherever they find them: in advertising, in politics, in parental commands (I”m still waiting for a phone call about this last one). And so it is with great delight that I point out an example of a logical fallacy I have identified from my own profession. For me, the debate about technology in the classroom is a red herring: it misses the mark entirely.

Should we teach Macbeth from textbooks or from iPads? Should we have students respond to the questions we pose in class on paper or on e-polling software? Should we ask students to turn to a peer and discuss or to turn to an iPhone and tweet? I’d like to respond to all of these questions with a resounding, “Who cares?” I’m not saying it makes zero difference whether we incorporate technology into our classrooms. Might technology be a wee bit more engaging for our teens? Perhaps. Might there be a time during which we rely on technology more than we should? Sure. But arguing about technology in the classroom, about who is using it and who is not, about one-to-one initiatives and iPods is like debating the color of military uniforms when there’s a war going on. And yes, if you must you can call me on my false analogy fallacy, but I don’t think I’m far off.

Instead of spending so much of our precious and limited energies and funding on technology, I humbly advocate that we spend it elsewhere. Teaching is tough. We could be talking about best practices. We could be collaborating on how to bump that sophomore boy out of the orbit he’s now on, the one we all know will lead him to dropout and despair. We could even be talking about the technology we use in our classrooms, but with the knowledge that it only matters when it matters, and that all of the shiny brilliance of new gadgets and gizmos have never, not once, made a weak teacher shine brilliantly, nor their lack a strong teacher fade into darkness.

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The Power of Calm

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that during my first year of teaching I was nervous all the time. This may surprise those who know me. I’ve been described as “laid back,” “chill,” “mellow.” I recently had a conversation last week in which I asked someone her definition of a Type A personality. Her response? “The opposite of you.” And yet there I was that year, all nerves, all day. I held my breath every time I asked a roomful of kids to take notes, complete a worksheet, or discuss something with a partner. I half expected mutiny each time I asked for attention.

Anyone who teaches knows a classroom is a minefield of potential tension, for the teacher if for no one else. Commanding two dozen teenagers is nothing if not stressful. And that’s exactly why I see the most important non-curriculum related move I make as simply staying calm. That first year I think I mostly managed to keep my outward composure, and in that regard I was part of the way there. But I have realized that my inward sense of calm is just as, if not more, important. Staying calm — not just functionally calm, but genuinely calm — enables me to enjoy my students and enjoy myself in their presence.

In my fifth year of teaching, I haven’t come close to mastering my craft. And I know that I will never entirely master it. But I have come to internalize something one of my college professors told me many years ago: that in the small universe of my classroom, my own mood makes the weather. And if I’m consistently calm, the skies are clear.

“Rachael” and the Purpose of Public Education

It was only the second day of school and a girl in my second period English class – let’s just call her Rachael – was already calling my bluff. Rachael stared around the room, her eyes narrowed in a practiced show of teen angst, looking for someone, anyone, to commiserate with. This is so dumb, her eyes announced. Why would anyone do this? She didn’t look up at the “Do Now” on the board; she didn’t so much as crack her composition journal. Rachael didn’t ask the question out loud, but it was no less there, hanging between us in the tension: would I make her work? Would I give her a reason to care?

Let me give you a little context: Rachel’s class comprises my biggest challenge this school year. She is one of thirteen freshmen who belong to “general English” according to our curriculum guide and “the dumb class” according to the students who take it. Rachael and her peers have been told all of their lives that they weren’t smart enough, that they didn’t behave well enough, that they weren’t good enough to matter. Of course, they were never told this explicitly. They were told with zeroes and cold teacher stares, with poor test grades and detention slips. Her class, more than any other, makes me think – really think – about what it is we’re doing here, about what my job as a teacher really is. Is public education about cattle-prodding students through curriculum, or is it about something more?

This is my fifth year as a classroom teacher. I haven’t taught for nearly long enough to know everything about teaching or even about myself as a teacher, but I have taught long enough to know, in broad strokes, who I am as an educator. I know that I bear more resemblance (in character and in hairdo) to Dr. Phil than to any doctor of curriculum. I’m not naïve enough to think that the touchy-feely stuff is everything, but I am naïve enough to believe that it counts for more than a little. I want my students to learn the rules of grammar and the steps to write an analytical paragraph, and I set up every structure for them to do so, but I also care that they feel cared for in my classroom. And the truth is that if I had to choose between the two, I would opt for the latter: not because I’m such a softie, but because I don’t believe most of my students will care enough to learn about semi-colons or analysis essays unless they know their teacher cares about them.

So back to Rachael. She did eventually open her journal. In the name of honesty, it was mostly out of coercion. As so many teachers do, I borrowed a phrase from a teacher better than I and explained to her that spectators weren’t allowed in my classroom. Rachael rolled her eyes, sighed, and picked up her pencil. And in the weeks and months that have passed since I’ve found every opportunity to pepper her with genuine praise – sometimes for her work, but mostly for her willingness to work. When I think of what public education is supposed to be about, I think of the tens of thousands of students in our country just like Rachael, students who don’t want to care about school, who are untouched by curriculum, however well-intentioned, however creative. Call me naive, call me a softie, call me Dr. Phil, but I believe to my core that we will not reach the Rachaels of the world without a human connection. If teaching was just about delivering curriculum I would work in another field. Because, for me, it more than anything else is about the changing power of human connection.