When The Empire Makes The Rules

The “no-campaign” campaign

These images were created as part of an “appropriate use” campaign concerning mobile devices at my school.  Truth:  It’s not much of a campaign at this point.  In fact, I’ve just been throwing these things out there in hopes that something will stick to someone who cares.  I mean, I’d like to see these posted in key spots around our school, but this isn’t my battle to win or lose.  Frankly, if our staff decides to go back and ban all student cell phone access during the school day, then so be it.

Really, can my students grasp the structure and function of carbohydrates?  How many “F’s” do my advisement students have this week?  Can I skillfully facilitate a debrief of Monday afternoon’s collegial visit with two of my colleagues to a classroom across town?  Really…  those are the pressing issues for me.  Someone else can decide whether or not we go back on an experiment within our building.



Our school allows limited use of cell phones during the school day.  Students may use phone before school, after school, at lunch…  even between passing periods.  Instructional time, however, is considered sacred.  Instructors may also allow access during a lesson if the use of mobile devices is instructional in nature.  otherwise, phones must be kept off and out of sight during time in class.

That said-  for some reason, a debate rages anew this school year where many faculty members want an outright ban on all mobile devices:  cell phones, smartphones, iPods and other .mp3 devices, etc.  A current bogeyman seems to be the threat of drugs being hidden in cellphone cases.  Really?  As if those particular hidden spaces were somehow more magical than boots or bras.

Just perhaps

I would argue that giving away all legal access to phones will only push cell phone use into the hands of the “criminals.”*  I believe chasing down cell phones is a costly battle to fight in terms of teacher and administrator resources.  I would suggest that our administrators and teachers have far better things to spend their time on…  things that directly impact instruction, content learning and the overall management of a school.  Turning our staff into the “cell phone police” will only turn the focus of our building away from improving instruction.

Inappropriate use of cell phones in schools is not a technology, nor a safety issue.  Inappropriate use of cell phones is a management issue…  much like passing notes or catching a nap during a lecture.

Don't let it melt away - cell phones

In my opinion, throwing out cell phone access during the day is to throw out one of the more powerful and relevant tools for teaching responsibility and appropriate use.  If you want your city populated by rude people who possess zero cell phone etiquette-  put a complete ban on phones in schools.  School is a formal educational setting.  Therefore, school is a perfect place to learn and practice appropriate adult use of these tools.  It’s not rocket science…  to me.

Contrary to what some folks have mentioned, I don’t actually see this as an instructional issue.  I think very little instructional use of mobile devices is actually going on.  Sure, I use Polleverywhere in class.  Sure, I advocate whipping out a smartphone pretty frequently to run down a piece of trivia I can’t answer myself.  But really…  this isn’t about whether or not our classroom uses of mobile devices are instructional or not.  Do many teachers use cellphones in an instructional manner?  The answer is no.  However, to me, a ban will make certain that we never hone the skills to help students utilize mobile devices in education.  Among other things, I think it is an issue of vision.  I actually think too much time connected to digits will melt your brain in some way.  I’m forty years old.  But does this mean we should further alienate ourselves from a new generation?  If I’m not mistaken, I think we’re going to need them.

These posters were made as friendly reminders to be put up around the school.  We could all use a reminder now and again, right?  I guess the only thing that would bother me with regard to an about-face in policy is that we’ve never provided any solid instruction.  We’ve never really said:  “this is what it looks like when done correctly.”  We’ve assigned “appropriate use” (with consequences for not doing so) …  as opposed to taught “appropriate use.”  We’ve never made an attempt to educate our students.  We just hoped they’d comply with our ethereal wishes.  Wait-  aren’t we the professionals in the area of education?  Can’t we do better than this if we try?

Instructional time is SACRED - cell phones

What is “fair?”

In my classroom, I’ve always tried to follow an idea I remember taking away from a Todd Whitaker talk from a few years back.  In Whitaker’s book, What Great Teachers Do Differently, he asks administrators to consider the question, “What will the best people think?” prior to making any decision.  He also advocates doing the same with regard to our students in the classroom.  He makes the case that if we constantly make decisions via the lowest common denominator, we ultimately risk alienating the best of those around us.

Do we really want students who display model behavior and etiquette to suffer at the hands of those who do not?  Wherever you are, ask yourself who runs the place.

In related news

Have you seen Wifitti?  This is a pretty cool little web service that allows a digital bulletin board of sorts.  Participants can either send a text message to add a thought (or image!) or reply by typing directly via the web link.  I recently added one to our school’s wrestling network.  This app certainly won’t make photosynthesis any simpler…  but it is fun.  That’s all I’ve got on this one.  I’m battleworn.

Thank you, drive through………..

*I think that marks the first and only time I’ve personally used an NRA mantra in an argument.  I feel the need to shower.


All posters were created by me using CC artwork from Flickr.  The original images are explicitly credited on each page of the set.  Printable sizes are available for each.


Tinkering: A “Boys Only” Club?

Boys only?

According to the NCES, since 2004, girls have -in general- been shown to outdo boys in nearly every measure of academic success.  Girls outpace boys on nearly every one of our measures of “winning” when it comes to school.  And yet, when push comes to shove on earning degrees in engineering or computer science, boys still outpace girls by margins of 77% and 85% respectively.  The overarching assertion:  girls don’t tinker. Or at least, they aren’t often encouraged to.

Tinker. In nearly every published version, the origin of the word seems to trace back to an itinerant mender of kitchen utensils- and more specifically, those made of tin.  As a verb (of which we are obviously more interested here) it hints of clumsy, unskilled or experimental efforts.


After that little search, I’m even more interested than before.  Clumsy?  Haphazard?  Unskilled?  Somehow I have always elevated the word in my mind toward something more sophisticated.  I wonder why I so highly regard this word (and many of its associated meanings) when it seems this may not even be the general consensus at all.


Just last week I read an Education Week article entitled Teaching Girls to Tinker by author Lisa Damour.  As an educator of nearly twenty years and a father of two girls under three years of age, this article certainly gave me pause.  I’ve gone forty years (see how I slid that big number in as text) assuming that even if “tinkering” was not done with a specific purpose in mind, it was still a valuable effort.  The idea of tinkering being a valuable pursuit seems to be at odds with the definitions I found today.  And yet the truth remains…  at times, connotation means everything.  Think of how these two statements paint opposite connotations of the word:

He tinkered with the nation’s economy by regularly deregulating banks.

She tinkered with the lure in order to make it run deeper in the water.

Perhaps overall success… or gravitas plays a role here?  Of course my take on this comes through the lens of a teacher/instructional coach.  Before sitting here to type this evening, I even asked the Twitter crew what sort of off-the-top-of-your-head definition they’d give for the word.  Twelve of them responded with:

tweeps on tinkering

tweeps on tinkering

I see tinkering on par with the sort of purposeful play I so highly value in the classroom.  The kind of play we don’t do enough.  The sort of thing most NCLB required state exams force teachers to push aside.

I find it interesting that although some of the twelve Twitter responses speak of tinkering as simply “messing about,” most contain language that seems to elevate the activity a bit, such as: “investigate”, “modify”, and “explore.”  Several even mentioned it as something that leads to an actual accomplishment.  Is it perhaps that the vast majority of these people are educators?  Or is it that they are progressives?  Things got even weirder while writing this post tonight when I clicked a Twitter link to view the list of scheduled “conversations” at Educon2.2.  A quick scan down the list shoved me smack into a Sylvia Martinez presentation entitled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency.”  Her brief description of the session mentions that the content will surround themes she’s been exploring on her blog.  Networked digits provide digital serendipity, no?

Tinker vs. struggle?

Regardless of our take on the meaning of tinkering, apparently by some measures girls are not being afforded an equal share of the tink.  Damour points to the 1994 book Failing at Fairness which includes an observation that, “…teachers allow boys to struggle with mathematics problems long after they have rushed in and rescued girls from the same struggle.”  This seems certainly overlapped with the concept of “tinkering” mentioned here…  but it also seems to go in a bit of a different direction.  This quote speaks directly of struggle.  How much overlap do you see in these two words?

scientific struggles

I try to create struggles every day.  More often than not, it’s my classroom modus operandi.  In short, I try to engage students in a concept…  address the fuzziness between what we know and what we don’t know… point towards the structure we’ll be using to explore it…  settle on how we’ll evaluate our work…  and then allow the relatively safe struggle between learning and meaning to take place.  My role is coach.  My day to day mission is to support this type of tinkering with ideas within the framework of standards in which we work.

This tinkering takes its highest form when actually following a problem through to include actual harvesting and analysis of data followed by conclusions that lead back to more problems.  In line with data presented in the article, my females generally tend to outpace my males in achievement.  How do the numbers hold up by the time my students graduate from college?  Even with the dawn of social media, this data is still fuzzy.  So I’m left to wonder…  could I too indirectly contribute to the tinker-divide outlined by Damour?

At home

The bottom line for me is that any article that comes back to haunt me a day later is a good one.  In fact, just the other night I found this one still on my mind.  That night my two-year old approached me in the kitchen with toy troubles.  She had stuffed far too many toys into a little lunchbox that holds critters.  While holding it up to me with two hands and two big eyes, she asked me to “fix it, Daddy.”  I looked down to see both ends of the latch not quite matching up with the strain of the critter load.

the tinker box

My gut reaction was to reach right down and latch it right up for my little dollface.  However, I stopped short…  sat down beside her and coached her through it without touching it myself.  I wonder how that might have played out if Delaney were a boy.  I don’t consider these tiny struggles to be “tinkering.”  I do, however, consider them to be related.

And yes, I still open doors for women.  When you’re forty (twice in one post!) and were raised to be (roughly) a gentleman, it is just something you do as a kneejerk.  Heck, to me it is a courtesy thing toward other humans in general.  So yes, I treat men and women differently on a conscious level.  It’s the subconscious level I wonder about.


*Sculpture by iwishmynamewasmarsha on Flickr.
*Twitstream definitions by the twelve mentioned in the image.
*Classroom inquiry by me.
*Tinkerbox by me