Teaching unplugged: my week without tech

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Tech-free teachers
Some teachers are iPad evangelists, while others cling to their chalk. But if you took all tech away from a teacher, what would happen? Stephanie Keenan goes back to the old school – in the name of progress

It’s 11.52pm on a Sunday. I hit “publish” and my anticipatory “Life Without Tech” blog is launched. I publicise it on Twitter. I check my Facebook, my work email, my personal email. I have eight minutes of technology left.

I am head of English at a large secondary school and I am conducting an experiment: experiencing life as a tech-free teacher. No big deal. I only have to give up technology (including computers, printers, photocopiers…) from 12.01am on Monday to 3.30pm on Friday. Teachers taught without it before – they managed to communicate with each other and plan and research without it – so how hard could this be?

Sure, I love technology. I consume it and seek it out, personally and professionally. I blog, I tweet, I WhatsApp. I use tech in my teaching every day, be it a smartboard, YouTube clip or simply a resource scavenged from the internet. I believe that when used well, tech is essential for schools. But I can hack life without it, I know I can…

A creeping anxiety reminds me of a saying about addiction being the ability to “give something up at any time – as long as it’s next Tuesday”. But before I can conduct a quick Twitter poll on coping strategies, my time is up. I am unplugged.

Monday

I avoid early morning tweet alerts attracting me to some edu-Twitter amuse-bouche by employing an old-school alarm clock for my wake-up call, rather than my phone. First challenge: success. Alas, while congratulating myself over a coffee, my phone pings. It is a message from my #TeamEnglish WhatsApp group. Under the rules of the challenge, I am allowed to see what the message preview says in case of school-related emergencies. This message is flagged as such so I open it up: two teachers are down with illness. Cover needs sorting.

I have been awake barely 30 minutes and I have already failed to live a tech-free teacher life. I am disappointed, but I have not broken the rules.

I start my commute to work with a newfound respect for my distant predecessors, pondering how things were organised before mobile phones.

I get my first “I’m doing jobs for you that you’re not doing because you’re not on email” face as soon as I enter the school building. To be honest, it isn’t just the face, it is pretty much that whole exact sentence. We try and avoid being passive-aggressive in our department. My poorly teachers need me to sort out their cover. I generally use Outlook to organise myself, but this is obviously off limits. So to arrange cover, I walk around to actually talk to people. I end up having spontaneous, serendipitous and fruitful conversations with a whole range of school staff. These are illuminating conversations that I would have missed by sitting in my classroom trawling through emails.

And then it is time to teach. I had planned my tech-free lessons with vim and vigour, envisioning my classroom as a heavenly literary oasis, or a desert island on which book-loving castaways would imbibe the radiant warmth of learning. So it proves. Teaching with no technology? It is a win-win for a book-loving English teacher – and I love it. Returning to the original texts enables students to experience the feel and structure of the whole book rather than poring over a photocopied extract.

Read the book, discuss, write about it in an exercise book: simple but effective, especially with quality literature as your starting point. And in that wonderful way, the day passes without incident.

My cheats

  • SIMS system for registers (mandatory exclusion from the challenge).
  • WhatsApp for the illness message.

My reflections

  • Teaching without technology is great when you have great books.
  • Not using email is great for me. My not using email is very annoying for others.
  • Where are my boundaries between work and personal time on Twitter and WhatsApp?

Tuesday

The most noticeable aspect of day two is the amount of marking that I get done. Not logging on to social media means that I fly through the books of two classes in my free periods. Handily, this means I also plan my next Year 10 and 11 lessons, as I know what they need to improve.

And yet, this is the day when the first cracks in my utopian book club-style lessons appear. For one of my classes with a greater range of needs, a whole lesson based around a book is a stretch. Without any scaffolded print-outs, smartboard prompts, pictures or video to engage or explain, concentration limits are tested.

I also begin to miss live modelling: I enjoy working with students’ ideas live on the smartboard and find that turning my back to write on the board loses time and focus. Also, some aspects of lessons, such as a Spag (spelling, punctuation and grammar) starter or quiz, are better pre-prepared and delivered using technology.

My cheats

  • I sneakily printed off a poem for an EAL student who was in the midst of retaking a controlled assessment.

My reflections

  • Email is incredibly distracting, instantly fragmenting the mind with its diversionary nature. In my everyday life, do I subconsciously use it to get “quick-win” admin tasks out of the way, surfing the shallows to avoid the deeper focus required by marking? Could I perhaps take more control (eg, only answer emails after 3pm)? Or maybe I should seek whole-school action on email (eg, banning evening and weekend emails)?
  • Are my expectations too low for “difficult” classes? Do I entertain them at the expense of building concentration, or am I right to support and engage classes with more complex needs in ways that technology can facilitate?

Wednesday

Without my brain buzzing with the noise of a thousand emails, I begin to teach and think differently. I am far more “in the moment” in the classroom. Without planning via smartboard or lesson plan, I am more present in lessons, truly listening, mediating, reflecting, questioning. I think about teaching more and seem to have more time to talk: both to explore ideas in class and on the way in and out of class, in the corridor, staffroom and canteen.

But I start to realise how technology makes you more flexible as a teacher. I generally use a real variety of resources, which offer currency and engagement, such as news or current affairs articles, images and videos. For example, in the previous weeks, I had updated a lesson based around the 7/7 London bombings with resources about the Paris attacks the day after they happened. Without technology, it would be incredibly hard to be this reactive.

Also, students exist in a technological world: we need to use the tools at our disposal to engage them. As much as I love books, I am starting to miss the range of resources and the immediacy that the internet provides.

My cheats

  • I peeked at my inbox to check the number of emails: I saw a parent email requesting a call back.

My reflections

  • I organise myself digitally and I don’t have a consistent method of written organisation. Post-its and scraps of paper litter my desk just waiting to be misplaced. What techniques could I use to take more control and responsibility over my tasks and schedule?
  • Email anxiety is building. I sneaked a peek at my inbox: 142 messages. Probably considerably lower than it would be if I hadn’t told people about the experiment. The enjoyment of an email-free life is tempered by the fear of what will hit me on Friday at 3.30pm.

Thursday

The marking I did in my Tuesday frees planned my lessons for me on Thursday: they are based on improving previous work. No tech is required – though modelling on a smartboard or using the visualiser would help me out a lot in this lesson.

I had also planned some library-based lessons for today, focused around reading for structure with Year 10 and exploring the gothic genre for Year 8. Letting go of the classroom setting and allowing students to choose their books, and respond to them (planned with our librarian), is enjoyable and enlightening.

However, I am now very worried about my end-of-week workload, particularly regarding missed deadlines for tasks. And I am starting to let people down in a big way. Having missed numerous email reminders, I miss a scheduled after-school detention duty (though it was also on my calendar). It is unprofessional.

My cheats

  • A Year 13 student came to tell me that she had emailed me an essay. I printed it off, along with the mark scheme.

My reflections

  • My anxiety about deadlines and the invisible mountain of work I expect upon opening my inbox suggests that I am routinely set tasks with deadlines of under a week, none of which are anticipated or on the calendar. I don’t think my school is unusual or has a particularly heavy burden of such tasks, but they are expected of all teachers. Getting sent a task on Wednesday with a Friday deadline may, to the sender, seem perfectly reasonable – until you balance it with all the other reasonable requests drip-feeding into the inbox and the recipient’s two back-to-back five-period days, plus after-school clubs, revision sessions, meetings or parent phone calls.

Friday

The day passes in an analogue blur of expectation about what awaits me. My trigger fingers are definitely twitching to start blasting through my inbox. At 3.30pm, I plug back into my online life. First stop: work email.

Number of emails: 171 (not as bad as I thought).

Emails I would have received had I not informed staff of the experiment: I usually average 30-50 a day, so the total would have been nearer 250.

Important emails missed: eight (parent contact, cover work, meeting reminder, key information or deadlines).

The time I spend on emails requiring action: 1 hour per 20 emails, on average.

Back to the future

I expected my week without tech to be tough. I realise that I’m far from the most tech-dependent teacher in the staffroom, but I am nevertheless from dawn ’til dusk attached to some form of technology: from smartphone, to desktop, to smartboard, to smartphone again. I suspect that this may be the case for many teachers.

Stepping away from the “wraparound” technology, banned from accessing online media morning and night, was the biggest challenge, as this felt like my choice of “downtime” was restricted. I haven’t bought real papers for years, so all my news sources are online, along with a good chunk of my social life.

For an English teacher whose day is based around texts, as I anticipated, teaching without technology was entirely doable and, apart from a few handy tech tools I missed, thoroughly enjoyable.

I think of technology as being something exciting to experiment with, creating new virtual environments and feedback loops for students, yet it was the “invisible” tech that I missed most: who thinks of email as technology in this day and age? However, it is technology, and email is the communication engine of any school. It’s one example of the daily tools that we take for granted, but that are very quickly hard to live without; we adapt so quickly to new forms of technology that we hardly realise that we are even using them.

What I decided after my tech-free week was that, yes, technology is hugely valuable in the classroom in myriad ways, but it should not be used at the cost of precious learning time.

Tech must be the servant, not the master. Like the humble pen and exercise book before it, technology is merely the tool we use to teach with. Ideally, it would not be used for any other purpose than that which serves student learning. Justify all use of tech by that golden rule, and you won’t go far wrong.

Outside of the classroom, I found my week without technology challenging in quite a profound way that reached far beyond teaching. I immersed myself in literature, reconnected with people away from the screen and had to face up to the fact that I had become utterly dependent on technology.

Do I seek distraction? The internet offers the perfect compulsion loop, providing endless diversion, hinting at the possibilities of discovery and knowledge beyond our wildest dreams. This is its seductive power. But, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Marvell, technology is a coy mistress, distracting us from the sound of “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” and the fearful truth that “yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity”.

There is a vivid, beautiful, if sometimes difficult and painful, world we are missing out on by constantly staring at our screens: the beauty of nature, the touch of loved ones. My time away from the screen led me to Keats’ Ode on Melancholy:

“Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.”

Sometimes, we all need to look up; to feed deeply upon the life we are living. When we log on, we must take care not to “log off” from the people around us, which allows our technological connections to disconnect us from our immediate present. Take a leaf out of E M Forster’s Howards End: “only connect” – with real people, while they are still here in the moment – with real life, before the “exquisite moment” has passed.

 

Five things a tech-free week taught me

  1. Don’t let the tail wag the dog. Put technology in its place. Remember that its purpose is to serve the education of our students. If you do not take control of it, it will take control of you. Have set times to deal with email traffic or it will seep into every moment. Follow simple ‘techiquette’: never have email open in a lesson – or have your phone on at supper!
  2. Be present in every moment of your teaching. Don’t let tech distract you. Truly listen to, respond to and mediate student answers to probe explanations and ensure understanding, rather than thinking about moving on to the next slide or activity. And if you believe your classroom deserves that kind of presence, so does your home life.
  3. Don’t waste time on Powerpoint or smartboard presentations. Use these for: a) pre-prepared resources such as Spag (spelling, punctuation and grammar) starters, revision quizzes or example answers; b) live modelling or joint construction or c) relevant visual or topical material online.
  4. Ensure you are happy with your social and professional boundaries. Technology has facilitated a blurring of the personal and professional, real and digital worlds. Colleagues become friends, but should we be talking shop out of school? Is tech our social and emotional glue, or an unhealthy over-spillage of work leaking into home life? Set strict boundaries so that your personal life is protected from your work life.
  5. Communicate consciously. Choose carefully when, how and what you communicate. I was worried about how the no-tech experiment would affect others, but most staff stayed positive.

 


Stephanie Keenan is curriculum leader for English and literacy at Ruislip High School in London. She blogs at mskeenanlearns.wordpress.com and tweets at @stephanootis

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