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It’s Not About the Cell Phones

By Sue Channel and Frank Kovac, Co-coordinators for AVID
South Tahoe High School, California

You can just imagine what it was like to have been in the teacher’s lounge when the prehistoric teacher announced he had used cave drawings of hunting parties to enhance student learning in his Paleolithic classroom for the first time.  Comments would have no doubt included, “Cave drawings bad!  Grog no more use brain to remember hunt; he now only look at cave drawings!”

 “Grog no more listen in class; he only stare at walls!”  

 “Not fair; not all tribes have charcoal!” 

 “Must cover drawings when give standardized test!”

 “Is Friday yet?”

Grog’s innovative teacher would have undoubtedly countered the arguments with, “But me still teach hunt!  Grog engaged in learning and understand better!  Plus, it not about drawings; it about hunt!”

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Nike used fictional Spike Lee character Mars Blackmon in TV ads to try to explain why Michael Jordan was “the best basketball player in the universe.”  “It’s gotta be the shoes!” Blackmon insists. “No, Mars,” Jordan protests repeatedly.

The reactions we get from fellow educators and school administrators are often in the same vein.  We are sometimes thought of as the teachers who are espousing “Technology in the AVID Classroom,” with the emphasis on technology, pushing for teachers to invite students to use their gimmicky smart phones, tablets, Netbooks, Chromebooks, etc., (Student-Based Technology) in the AVID classroom.  But it’s not about the cell phones.

Ascribing Jordan’s dominance on the basketball court to his shoes is like celebrating the pen Mark Twain used to write Huckleberry Finn, or praising the brush Vincent van Gogh held to paint Starry Night.  It’s not about the tools; it’s about the skill and passion of the basketball player, the writer, and the painter.  In the classroom—AVID or otherwise—it’s about the skill and passion of the teacher and the students using the tools to create something powerful.

Of course we recognize the valid points of skeptics.  Do all students have cool technology at their fingertips?  No. But a handful of smart phones (and we’ll bet you have at least 4-5 in your classroom) can go a very long way.  Can smart phones, tablets and computers distract students from their work or provide opportunities for cheating?  Absolutely.  But where better to discuss, teach, and practice norms of behavior than the AVID classroom? 

We have witnessed phenomenal scenes within the walls of South Tahoe High School, an AVID National Demonstration Site.  In the last few years, our students have conducted amazing Socratic Seminars simultaneously with students across the hall, across the state, and across the country, all the time simply and efficiently linked together by their smart phones.  With relatively little effort and no outlay of funds, we have shrunk the world for our students while broadening our understanding of its people.

In May of 2012, our students in California sat face-to-face (screen-to-screen) with students at Jiangsu Tianyi High School in Wuxi, China, and compared lifestyles and study habits for about an hour in real time.  Price = $0.  How cool is that?  The geographical gaps that separate humans clearly shrink as the technological gaps also shrink.  We share the planet, and we will measure the success of the people in the 21st-century global society by their ability to communicate clearly, to ask tough questions that need to be asked, to work together efficiently and effectively, and to think critically.  Sound familiar?

Later this year, we take our conversation to the AVID National Conference in beautiful San Diego.  There we will discuss the practical and philosophical implications of student-based technology in the AVID classroom in front of the backdrop of current published research (Conley, Wagner, and Shirky).  We hope to see you there.  

Is December yet? 


Sue Channel (mathematics) and Frank Kovac (English) are Co-Coordinators of the South Tahoe High School AVID College Readiness System, a National Demonstration School.  They will be presenting “Linked! Student-Based Technology in the AVID Classroom” at the AVID National Conference this December in San Diego, CA.  Their presentation will chronicle California’s Capital Region III Student-Based Technology initiative’s development, an effort to leverage the power of student-owned handheld devices to augment WICOR and support rigorous content. Focus will include protocols for building institutional support, establishing academic digital culture in the AVID classroom, integrating Internet resources and social media with current AVID practices, and suggestions on how such efforts can be replicated on a global scale. 

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