INSIDE OUR SCHOOLS: Helping students to use technology to build, not destroy


Michelle Campbell teaches English at Squalicum High School.


It's 7:40 in the morning and a river of sleepy-eyed teens pour into the school and stream into their classes. Some have eaten a healthy breakfast, either at home or in our cafeteria, and are ready for the day. Others chug Monster Energy drinks (not exactly the breakfast of champions) and still others are inured to a feeling of emptiness.

At 7:45 I have 30 students in my room. Seems a little early to be discussing William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" and the heart of darkness that resides in each of us - child, woman, man. But we bravely soldier into the jungle and with pencils, rather than spears, overcome evil and outline hope.

Books. Paper. Pens. Teachers. Students. These are the constants in education. What is also unchanged is the mission: education is the key to a better future. In my graduate program at Western Washington University, one of my professors talked about a shift in education. In the past, teachers were seen as the "sage on the stage." From their ivory podiums they poured their vast knowledge into the empty vessels before them. But now teachers are "guides on the side." We are coaches rather than marvelous mystics. We provide opportunities for each individual to stretch their thinking and apply their learning.

My eighth year of teaching has just begun and though I get better at reaching more students every year, I still have more to learn. There is room to grow. I wish I could say that I had 100 percent engagement in all of my classes. I wish I could say that I have figured out a way to convince my students that what is happening in the classroom is more important than what is happening in their virtual world. The majority of my students have a smartphone in their pocket; a personal computer that, with a silent and sly swipe of a finger, can access YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, you name it. Long gone are the days of clumsily passing notes in class. We are immersed in the world of instant access to endless entertainment. Sometimes the newest, cruelest gossip on a news feed beats participating in even the most compelling in-class discussion.

Before this new school year began, a group of teachers from all disciplines met to share our big goals and dreams for the year. My dream for the students at Squalicum high was that they would use technology to build rather than destroy. Our challenge as a community is to help our young people understand the awesome power of carrying a hand-held computer everywhere they go. With power comes responsibility and many students have yet to develop self-control, self-respect, empathy and restraint. Students believe that they can be immersed in their phone but still present in the real world. We know this is not possible.

As adults we can all be "guides on the side" and model how to be fully engaged in our world. We can demonstrate self-control and put our phones away at the dinner table, park, museum and restaurant. We can demonstrate empathy and only post respectful and constructive comments to online forums. We can ignore internet trolls and refuse to respond to their pointless vitriol. We can build positive online communities where critical thinking and debate is open and honest. We can stay out of the shallow end and help our young people swim in deeper. It's difficult for us to condemn teenagers for using technology "inappropriately" when many of us are guilty of the same sins.

If my dream comes true, by the end of the year when we are discussing "Hamlet," all of my students will be engaged and fully present. Not one will be tempted to SnapChat their friend in honors chemistry or update their Facebook status: "Hamlet is tragically lame." Not one of my students will be a victim of cyberbullying and each will understand that they have a voice and can engage in civil, constructive conversation and spirited, respectful debate online, and in the classroom. This vision is only possible if we all work together - community members, parents, administrators, teachers and students. We can guide each other through the jungle of sites and apps and grab hold of the ones that will allow us to build a brighter future.


This is one in a series of columns by area teachers exploring education today. Michelle Campbell teaches at Squalicum High School in Bellingham.

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