I’m a young teacher—I graduated high school in 2009. The year after I graduated, my high school announced that it was piloting a one-to-one device program (leading to lots of sarcastic grumbles from us alums about missing the digital revolution). The following year they moved to all of their students and faculty utilizing iPads. I was in the last grade at the school to learn the “old-fashioned way,” with notebooks for each subject, my “multi-purpose folder” for returned quizzes and forgotten communications to parents, an air of mystery around grades that wasn’t resolved until you had your report card in hand, a computer lab that I used simply for Microsoft Word and to write LiveJournals (which was blocked half the time), and the like.

I’ve been teaching in a one-to-one iPad school for three years now, and I have found it a challenging adjustment. Though so many of our teaching strategies come from graduate courses, professional development or online research, a lot of my lessons still rely on the twelve years of experience I had on the other side of the teacher’s paper-riddled computer-free desk. And now, most of that can and should be thrown out the window.

It’s difficult teaching in a classroom that’s different than the one you learned in, even when you’re less than a decade out of high school and fairly fluent in the day’s apps and abbreviations. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for teachers who aren’t.

Recently, my middle school students were working on a graphic design project in which they created a poster—or were supposed to, anyway. I walked around the class with the franticness of a student playing a touchscreen version of whac-a-mole (which is one of the only games I haven’t seen). For one minute, just a brief minute, I start providing a student individual feedback on how his poster could better use design principles to make an impression on his audience. During that minute, the following all start happening:

  • Johnny’s in the corner and can’t be pulled away from the bright lights and colors of his game “Slithr.io,” an online multiplayer variant of classic arcade game “Snake,” except with racist online usernames.
  • Ally and Jessy are making faces at their iPad using an app called “HouseParty,” which allows you to video-conference up to eight people at a time.
  • Ralphy is using the “TextMe” app to send a bunch of emojis to the three people. If I were to call it a chatroom, which it is, they’d never use the app again.

Then, the neighboring teacher enters my classroom and politely requests my students to please stop airdropping clown photos to members of his classroom. It was a middle school phase for about a week—any iPad connected to “Airdrop” and within shouting distance would get the photo. I set my iPad’s name to “Innocent 6th Grader Please Don’t Airdrop Me” (a foolproof way to ensure you’d get Airdropped) just to monitor the images going around to ensure none crossed the line.

Now, this was a particularly rough minute, and a perfect storm of a variety of factors. The students had worked on the project for a good twenty minutes (or, a “middle school eternity”), and some had finished, which seems to amplify every temptation other than “complete  work for other classes.” The students were new to the school and thus the iPad program, and were going through the inevitable growing pains of having large amounts of online access. My class is taught by a rotating series of teachers, and it was my second day with this class—they were still in a testing phase, and adjusting to my teaching style and routine.

There are technological answers to these problems, of course. Our technology department is working to implement Apple Classroom, a software that gives an instructor monitoring and locking privileges on all of the students in the class. We’ve discussed an app “whitelisting” policy instead of our current “blacklisting” policy—tell students the apps that are okay, rather than the ones that aren’t. And all of those can help.

But I also think some of those policies undermine a larger learning objective, for my students to develop the ability to self-regulate. Life doesn’t come with an instructor that can lock you out of Netflix during moments when you can exercise instead. It doesn’t let you select only the foods that are healthy at the grocery store, or only the websites that are healthy for your mind. We need to learn how to develop our self-control, perhaps much more than we need to learn design principles.

So, while we consider technological solutions to these issues, I’d like to work through some pedagogical ones, which at best can help us be better teachers, and at worst, tide us over until whatever technology comes next.

I’ll note, these solutions are crowdsourced from the faculty at my school, and I couldn’t have done it without them. I recently delivered a very brief PD session, and received a large response from the faculty of strategies that they use to take advantage of the iPads as a learning resource. They didn’t disappoint!

Design a Consistent Routine

It’s a small percentage of students that enter a class looking to get distracted. The majority of them are happy to learn and do work, and it’s only when there’s idle time that they start to seek these distractions. Of course, they aren’t particularly good at realizing the type of work that can benefit them, reviewing of notes, or getting ahead on a reading. More than ever before, I try to ensure every single second of the class is blocked out.

I have written on my board “Devices On/Off” and have one circled or covered all class.

There’s such a huge benefit in starting every class with some sort of “do-now” activity, to ease kids into the class. Or to have running projects that always can be worked on in downtime, perhaps self-driven “anything goes” 20% projects.

Swarm Students with Half-Finished Tasks

I try to design a slow buildup in my units. Learn one concept, apply it in a fifteen-minute exercise… but provide five minutes. Learn another concept, apply it in an exercise… but provide five minutes. New exercise that puts them together. Over a couple of classes, there tends to be a buildup of exercises for students to work on. Then, I can help them triage which assignments are most critical to their learning, which due dates are up soonest, which assignments they should work on first.

The act of starting something taps into that nagging human desire to complete it, so then you’re using their own wiring in their favor.

In addition to swarming them with quantity…

Make Your Assignments More Difficult

If we’re integrating technology effectively, our students should be learning more advanced concepts faster, and they should be able to apply their learning in deeper or more impressive ways. I flashed the following completely unscientific chart at my presentation, but it feels right to me.

Let the iPad represent whichever technology you’d like… your Chromebooks, your use of NoRedInk or other ed-tech tools, even a new textbook. After an initial adjustment period, technology should be allowing us to teach better, harder concepts—that’s why we invest in these tools, after all—and  students should be able to keep up. There should be an “intelligence creep” in our students—just as today’s athletes are (for the most part) bigger, stronger and faster than those in the 1970’s, or even the 90’s and 00’s.

I’ve been setting a higher bar this year, and scaling back when I see the kids struggling. But when the students see a higher mountain to climb, they feel more urgency to get going and to remain focused.

My students are working on an infographic project. In the past, they’ve needed three charts, and they tended to put it off and work lackadaisically because they knew that ultimately the three charts wouldn’t require long. Now they need seven, everything needs to be connected visually, and design principles need to be followed. And they’ve upped their game accordingly.

Set the high jump bar higher, and the kids will try harder to reach it. And even if they don’t make it, you can always scale it back later. But that seems better than setting the bar low, and a student looking at her or his phone while trotting up to it.

More Group Projects

Collaboration and teamwork get frequent nods on the “skills our kids will need in the future” power rankings. An added benefit is the pressure the students place on each other to supply an equal amount of the work. When it’s their friend they’re harming, they tend to stay on task. Or if it’s a peer who says, “Johnny, get off that game,” it has added social repercussions. Compare that to when a teacher tells a student to get off a game, and for some reason, the kid gets bonus social points for displaying apathy and anti-authoritarianism… we live in a weird culture.

Also, in the words of one of our faculty, “All the kids tattle on each other.” Who needs constant vigilance when the students are vigilant for you?

Have Something on the Board. Anything.

When I read this colleague’s suggestion, I couldn’t believe how brilliant it was. If something is on the board, a drawing, a projection, it gives students somewhere to look. If nothing is there, then they’re picking between looking at you (certainly something we should be teaching them to do), or their iPad.

It’s like the DVD screensaver, with the ball that moves around the screen, and you’re always waiting to see if it hits the corner.

Project something, anything, and kids start looking up. And then if you want to motivate them…

Project Timers

I discovered the magic of these last week. Project a timer on the board, even Google’s simplest of timers, and kids transform. Whether it’s “have books away in thirty seconds,” or “ten more minutes until we’re presenting,” it’s an absolute game-changer having the added pressure of that objective, ticking clock. I always used to say, “ten more minutes,” and then as the ten hit I would hear the “please one more minute” pleas.

Now those are gone, because the timer can’t be emotionally bargained with. Not that sharing emotions is a bad thing…

Communicate Your Emotions

For some peculiar, bizarre reason, once in a blue moon my students try leaving headphones on as class is starting. In the past, my communication approach was, “Johnny, are you kidding me? Please take the earbuds out.”

I’ve switched it to, “Johnny, you realize that hurts me, right?”

With younger students, I’m not sure there’s a realization that being on our phones or iPads with earbuds in are symbols of being in a different place. And until we all live in a virtual paradise, they need to learn that that can offend people.

I try to be transparent in class about having their best interest in heart, trying to create projects that I think are engaging (and often asking for their input on how to modify them to their interests, when possible), and having discussions that are worthwhile. And though I know that I won’t always succeed, my students (over time) should learn that there are better ways to communicate that to me than by sticking their heads in a game. And while you discuss your emotional needs with them…

Have Students Discuss Their Feelings on Technology

Just as technology should provide us the benefit of getting to teach more difficult material, it should also allow us to get through that old material faster. At which point, I think we should take those saved minutes and spend some of them discussing their use of technology, regardless of your discipline.

In my experience, they always want to talk about it. No kid wants to be a slave to their devices, no kid wants to have their head buried in their phone and miss the world around them. If anything, our technology has made kids romanticize interactions more, to have friendships worthy of Snap-streaks or memories worth putting a pretty filter on. They talk about family vacations where they didn’t have their devices and they enjoyed being in the moment, or the peer pressure of being at a lunch table and one person pulling out their phone, and feeling that you need to just to keep up.

I think empathy is the big way to counter the technology use. And that starts by modeling the conversations you want the students to be having with them.

Build a Frequent “Engagement Grade” Into Your Grading

A lot of us teachers, especially at younger levels, factor some form of participation into our gradebooks. Most of us do it at the end of the grading period.

I think that’s too late. Firstly, because it’s often the last thing we insert into our gradebooks, we don’t really grade their participation in the class. We use that as the tiebreaker to push a B+ up to an A-, or vice versa.

But more importantly, it just doesn’t provide the sort of instant feedback necessary to give students the chance to readjust. A student may start a second semester with a good class or two, the disappointment (or parental disappointment) of a bad participation grade fresh in their mind, but within a week they’re back to their old bad habits.

I do a weekly engagement grade (I used to do daily, and it really worked well, but just took up too much time on my end). In this engagement grade, I start a student with a base of 100. Then I deduct points for off-topic use of devices—gaming, texting, video-chatting. I insert these penalties into the grade comments: -10: device on during iPad free time, etc. I’ll take off points for poorly done classwork that I’m not specifically grading as a larger assessment, or disrespectful comments to peers, and reward exceptional responses and helpfulness of peers. The system’s not perfect—I often fear it’s too punitive and doesn’t focus enough on the good. But on the whole, especially at a school with kids hyper-concerned about their grades, it works as a staple of my classroom management.

Regardless of Your Strategy… This is Worth Figuring Out

I find it fascinating that, due to the exponential growth of technology, the rate of change in classrooms is only going to change more dramatically. Which means that the experience of being a student in a classroom is no longer going to have quite the same benefits to a teacher. Our role, then, shifts to being a designer of effective systems and creators of interesting content.

As teachers, we’re going to have to get used to more frequent technological disruptors. Those charts from above are only going to come up more often. And though those are going to feature temporary dips in the “student learning over time” model, each of us has to figure out how to work through the challenges in that dip quicker. Then, we can move up the exponential growth piece even faster. It requires a style of thinking we’re not used to, and never learned in a classroom.

So perhaps we should start teaching that style of thinking in our classrooms.