“Are you texting or doing something else I’d rather not know about under your desk?” I said and stopped class. My general rule for cell phones is that they be off and stored away. The penalty for cell phone use is that if I see you doing anything with the cell phone, the class stops and we all turn to stare at you until you realize you aren’t paying attention and put it away. It’s rude, poor manners, and you aren’t learning when you aren’t paying attention. And, yes, I teach adults not children.
There are times, though, when embracing the cell phone for some engaged activities can be good. Everything in moderation after all – even cell phones in the classroom. There just needs to be some structure and, no, I will not be listing any activities that involve replying to Facebook statuses or using the opportunity to text a friend. There are reasons other teachers tell me that I’m stricter than the nuns they grew up with.
Agreeing on the definition of terms is a great way to start a class debate. When a definition of a term might be more subjective than objective, it can be fun and even necessary to divide up the class into pairs or small groups and have them come to their own small group consensus on the word's definition. The smart phone then becomes a small group, in-class research tool. Who needs a book in class when they can Google, select, and read from many different sources within the strictly set time limit?
When teaching immigration issues, there are many loaded terms that need defined at the start of class (illegal, legal, documented, undocumented, et al.) I could stand at the front of the room and go over these but, really, in this case how I define these terms might too strongly reflect my own more liberal leanings and dampen the conversation I want the class to have around the issues. I want everyone in the class to come to their own definitions of these words. Good teachers aren’t interested in making students into copies of themselves, they want students to learn to think and come to their own conclusions. Using their cell phones, students can research, select, and pick apart how these terms are defined before coming to their group’s decision.
After the time limit, each group reports back their definitions to the terms and we can have the broader discussion around what these terms mean as we enter the debate.
When students ask in advance, they can be allowed to tweet during the more information based classes. This involves trust on the teacher’s part and accountability on the student’s part. Decide on a hash tag for the class (#[ClassName], #[OrganizationName], and/or #[ClassTopic]) and ask your students to use it. Encourage tweeting memorable quotes from the lecture or other students, facts they found interesting, or reference materials suggested by the teacher. After class, you can then review and respond to the tweets with more information or keep the discussion going. It also tells you what struck the most powerful chords with your students.
This method of engagement turns tweeting into high-level note taking in a way. It also means that your students will be engaging the world outside the classroom and may get additional feedback from other sources – not just you or the other students in the room.
3. INSTANT OPINION PRESENTATIONS
Ready, Set, Google! You have fifteen minutes to research your opinion with examples or a story about Topic X. After time expires, students then have three minutes to present their opinion in a structured way that uses verifiable facts or through an applicable story that relates to the topic. The structure is typically the presentation of the facts or story, what the story or facts mean, and then presenting the conclusion opinion statement.
For the immigration class again, “Undocumented workers take away or do not take away jobs from U.S. citizens” would be an example of a Ready, Set, Google opinion topic. The student would go into the Google search, pick up facts or relatable stories and form their opinion – if they didn’t already have it formed going into the Google search. After the time expires, they would then present the facts or stories, say what they mean, and then offer their opinion statement – in this case, they would either say, “Undocumented workers take away jobs from U.S. citizens” or “Undocumented workers do not take away jobs from U.S. citizens.” The classroom is then opened up to debate. Yes, cell phones are back out as classroom members look up facts and stories to argue against or for the opinion just presented.
Think about your overall class topic and come up with the issues that could be divisive or make good student presentations. The time limit can make this fun or frustrating – be mindful of the makeup of your individual classroom.
4. ONLINE QUIZZES AND TESTS
If everyone in the class has a smart phone, you can setup a SurveyMonkey (or other survey website) and use the link as an easily distributable test or pop quiz. Why waste the paper if you don’t have to? Put the website link on the board and have students take the test or quiz on their phone within a set time limit. Of course, make sure they have adequate time and that the questions are related directly to what you covered that day. You would be surprised how fast people can type on their phone.
Of course, people will have access to Google this way – this is why I suggest making the questions directly related to what you just covered during the classroom activities that day. These answers would be more “were you paying attention" specific as opposed to general knowledge questions.
I would be remiss not to mention polling since it’s the first way many teachers embraced the cell phone. Students text their answers to the question the teacher has asked and the results are displayed visually on the screen. There are some great services out there that allow you to do this – Google “classroom cell phone polling.” Some services will remind you more of American Idol with students texting a phrase or number code to a special phone number. Others have students browse to a website to enter their answers. The visual result is an aggregate of what percentage of the class said A, B, or C as the answer to your question. There are fees associated with this so check out your best options.
I much prefer Four Corners or Human Graph activities for classroom polling. Getting students up and moving helps with knowledge retention and makes for a different and fun experience. When your class is lecture hall size though, the cell phone poll may be a better way to go.
Can You Really Assume Everyone in Class Will Have a Smart Phone?
The assumption here is that everyone in class will have a cell phone. Since I teach adults who are all over the economic and age spectrum, I do understand incorporating the phone isn’t always an option but these techniques can be a clever way to make learning more student-centric using a device most people have quite handy in their pocket.
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