March 21, 2011

Teachers cope with technology in classroom

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Students in Sarah Shmitt's classes take note: If you ignore repeated warnings to stop texting and put away your cell phone, she might toss it in the trash can.

"If they want to get me mad, they know that will do it," said Shmitt, an English and world studies teacher at Portland High School.

Shmitt's frustration reflects the changing atmosphere in schools across the country, where technology is taking hold in ways both positive and negative.

The overall use of technology in Maine classrooms has increased since high schools across the state issued laptop computers to all students last year, building on a middle school laptop program that started in 2002.

Many teachers, like Shmitt, teach lessons using computerized white boards and maintain Internet pages where they post homework assignments and other learning materials.

Students are connecting with an ever-expanding web of information online to get up-to-the-minute data for research papers, take tutorials or courses on special subjects, and form study groups with students who have common interests.

But the greatest contributor to a change in school atmosphere seems to be the proliferation of smartphones among students, giving them constant access to the Web, e-mail, texting and calls from friends and family.

Teachers, who have been the center of learning in the classroom, are seeing increasingly distracted students struggle to stay focused and succeed. Some, like Shmitt, are switching up their games to hold students' attention and teach the appropriate use of technology.

That's the proper response, according to media and education experts who believe the benefits of smartphones, other information technology and social media far outweigh the problems they create.

"These are necessary things for learning in the 21st century," said Michael Horn, co-author of "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns."

"The golden rule is correct: moderation in everything," Horn said. "And that applies to parents as well. If you're always on the phone when you're with your child, that's not good parenting, either."

While most schools ban or limit phone use on campus and especially in the classroom, many students admit to using cell phones in class. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 64 percent of teens with cell phones said they had texted in class and 43 percent said they texted in class at least once a day.

Akari Ishii is a Portland High School junior who has sent as many as 8,000 texts in one month. Inevitably, some of that texting happens during class.

Ishii and her friends said parents try to limit texting but rarely ban phone use as a form of punishment. In many families, cell phones are tethers that give parents a sense of control. Often, the text messages or calls that students receive in class are from parents checking up on them or confirming after-school plans.

Many students mistakenly believe that technology allows them to do several things at once and do them well, said Maureen Ebben, a lecturer on communication and media studies at the University of Southern Maine.

"The human mind can only focus deeply on one thing at a time," Ebben said. "Yes, you can fold your laundry and watch TV. But when we're working on something seriously, we really need to focus on one thing at a time."

"It seems that students don't spend any time just thinking anymore," said Shmitt, 54. "Maybe that's fine. But with the constant distraction of technology and their already short attention spans, their reading and writing skills have suffered significantly and their vocabularies are shrinking."

The informal tone and spelling that's common in texting has infiltrated schoolwork, and even good students don't seem to recognize the difference, she said. In a recent essay, one student described Hamlet as a "girly man" and used the term "freak out" for getting upset.

Concerned that her perspective may be skewed by her age, Shmitt asked one of her younger colleagues to share his views. Stephen Atwood, 32, teaches English to sophomores and juniors at Portland High School.

Atwood agrees that students are struggling to learn the appropriate use of technology, especially hand-held devices.

To head off plagiarism in research papers, Atwood and Shmitt show their students how to find reputable sources on the Web and how to cite them properly. Shmitt has a Web page that she's in the process of upgrading and has altered lessons to eliminate "busy work" and reduce the likelihood that students will lift answers from the Web.

Now, Shmitt's students read literature such as "Hamlet" in class, at times acting it out and reciting several lines from memory. For homework, she assigns essay questions, which they begin working on in class so she can monitor their progress and make sure their answers are organic.

"I'm rethinking how I assign homework and why," Shmitt said. "And when I have their attention in the classroom, I don't want to lose it, and I don't want to compete for it."

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