More tech, please!

A mimeograph

A mimeograph

Let me see if I can connect three separate little moments over the past week, related to tech and the organizational life of a middle schooler. I think, when they are pulled together, they give me something to say.

  • First, an email exchange with one of my son’s teachers about a handout. When I asked if he could email us a software version of the handout, he said that he could not since he was not near a scanner. A scanner!? Does that mean that there is no software version of this handout, as if it is some mimeograph copy from long ago?
  • Second, my wife’s comment that our son’s binder, when opened, produces “a confetti of handouts;” it’s rather mind-boggling the number of single sheets of paper that he gets each week – and has to keep track of.
  • Third, I was in two Ohio schools recently that have very open policies about technology, with one-to-one Chromebooks in one. That same school has a BYOD policy, and kids do not need to power down their phones when they come to school. In my brief time in that building, during one of the passing periods, kids were not huddled in a corner, looking at their devices; they were walking down the halls chatting with each other. All seemed perfectly normal.

OK, so here’s my point: Why is it that kids still get handouts, particularly middle schoolers that are struggling with organizational issues? Why aren’t all of these handouts online (most are but not all)? And why do these kids actually have to write on these handouts, rather than use something like Google Docs for the composition and handing in of homework, etc.? I find it mind-boggling that these kind of technology-related solutions are not taught to kids from the get go.

I asked Wes Weaver, the principal of one of the schools I visited when I was in Ohio, for his thoughts, and he struck another note about the “confetti of handouts:”

My beef with worksheets is that students will do them methodically, for the most part with remarkable rates of compliance, which gives the appearance of content coverage and feeds the work/reward-work/reward-work/reward mentality that is symptomatic of traditional grading. That works right up until it doesn’t. For some students, it stops working when they realize the worksheets have no relevance to real life, whatsoever, which is to say at ages 14-16. To our most compliant students who believe our hype about college, the time spent on worksheets is just a few more minutes on the mouse-wheel of academic “rigor,” another boring exercise in the death march we call school.

Yes, Wes has strong feelings about this subject (!!), and he runs a darn good school. Give him a shout when you’re next in Newark, Ohio.

So, two things: Worksheets can impede the organizational issues that many middle schoolers struggle with. They do not allow a middle schooler like our son to organize his life digitally, “in much the way,” as Wes also wrote, “he will have to do for himself in higher education and the rest of his life.” And worksheets, for the most part, are compliance-oriented busy work, again as Wes described. Ugh.

Now, I will say that there is some light at the end of the worksheet tunnel, as one of our son’s teachers has started using Google Drive and Docs, and he has taken to it pretty well, his first venture into that territory. I’m glad now that he can write things at school or here at home and not have to email what he’s written to himself, so that he has the latest version. And I like what he did with a classmate, as they shared a Google Doc around a project and worked on it together, even from afar. Like I said, that’s a start – towards more technologically-driven organization and more authentic work.

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