Sad news and bad news in English class

So much badness where cell phones in the classroom are concerned.

I mentioned that a couple of years ago I had a classroom cell phone problem so oppressive I actually considered leaving my job.

Of course, I wasn’t going to leave my job, but what I did do was assign “cell phones in the classroom” as the final paper topic–the final paper happening to be, fortuitously, the “simple argument” assignment. (Simple argument in my department: write a 5-paragraph essay arguing for or against X.)

Unfortunately, assigning cell phones in the classroom turned out to be a misfire since more than one student took the position that cell phones in the classroom were A-OK,  the only problem being that we instructors were too boring to compete. Being more riveting than a cell phone, one student wrote, was the professor’s job.

So that was annoying. Since my policy is never to be annoyed by a student opinion, I regretted assigning the topic.

That said, the papers were a revelation.

Continue reading

App shmapp

It wasn’t so much that the new app … didn’t work. It was that people were struggling to even log in or download it in the first place.

‘A Systemwide Disaster’: How the Iowa Caucuses Melted Down By Shane Goldmacher and Nick Corasaniti 2/4/2020

This is reminding me of my friend who teaches in the city.

Last fall, word came down that this year teachers were to provide 21st century learning. Which meant Google docs. Everyone had to use Google docs in every class.

My friend teaches a combined SPED/gen ed middle-school class, and not one of the students could remember his/her password. Not one. So every day there would be 40 password crises, all of which had to be personally resolved by the two teachers in the room.

In case you’re wondering, the teachers couldn’t just have all the kids use the same password on one big shared Google doc (I asked) because my friend had already tried that the year before. A couple of the kids wrote bad words in the shared doc, so every student now had a document peppered with bad words, then admin saw the words and raised a fuss, plus a couple of parents might have seen them … I’ve forgotten the story now, but the upshot was that assigning the same password to an entire middle school class yielded exactly the kind of trouble anyone who has ever lived with a middle-school child would predict.

This school year the problem wasn’t just that none of the kids could remember their password. The possibly bigger problem was that they all freaked out when they forgot. So on top of individually logging 40 students into Google every day, the teachers had to talk 40 students down off the Forgot My Password cliff.

All this just to get into the system.

It took hours to get anything done. The class was taking 3 days to finish a lesson that had taken 1 day to complete the year before, and the kids were begging for release.

“Can’t we use paper? Please?

A couple of months in, the school did its usual quarterly testing, and the best teacher in the school had dismal results. After that the whole thing went away.

And see:
Blackboard shmackboard
Cell phone agonistes


I mentioned in Friday’s post that I spent years being paralyzed over the question of collecting students’ cell phones at the beginning of class. Embarrassing, but true.

My breakthrough happened last summer, when I taught at an ESL school near my house.

New teachers all had to take a series of standardized exams that were given under strict testing conditions: no cell phones, no watches (no analog watches, even), no bathroom breaks in the last half hour.

So there I was, the person who had been longing to take cell phones away from students, suddenly having my own cell phone taken away.

It was a revelation.

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Collecting cell phones looks harder than it is

For the longest time, where cell phones in the classroom were concerned, I was paralyzed. I wanted to take them away, but I didn’t think I could or should.

My students were adults, what business did I have taking their phones?

And supposing I did collect phones, what would I do with them? Where would I put them? I teach college, not K-12; I don’t have my own classroom where I can hang cell-phone pockets and the like.

Even worse, what if someone refused to give me his/her phone? Wouldn’t everyone else refuse, too?

Then what?

Basically, I had a mental block.

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Cell phone bans that stick

To date, I’ve met one instructor–just one–whose students keep their cell phones stashed in their backpacks. 

“I don’t have a cell-phone problem,” he told me.

“You don’t?”

“I tell students, first time I see a cell phone out, it’s a 5-page paper on a topic of my choosing.”

“Second time I see a cell phone out, it’s a 5-page paper for the whole class, also on a topic of my choosing.”

“I’ve seen a cell phone maybe once.”

“I don’t have a problem.”

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Please put that away

Katie and I were talking yesterday about cell phones in the classroom.

She reminded me that she’d recently listened to a recording of a college class in which, every couple of minutes, the professor interrupted himself to say “Please put that away.”

It was striking, Katie said, hearing the words “Please put that away” without the visual, a much more jarring rupture in the flow. Then hearing the same request again–and again and again–brought home the dimensions of the problem in a way sitting in the classroom listening to “Please put that away” live would not.

Inside a class, everyone habituates, which is why everyone keeps getting out their cell phones, and why the teacher keeps repeating Please put that away even though putting it away leads directly to getting it back out again. The whole stop-start-stop-start to-and-fro recycles itself.

That’s the trouble with banning cell phones. You have to enforce the ban.

And enforcing the ban, unless you’re willing to take more drastic action (drastic action post t/k), means you have to interrupt the proceedings a lot.

Not fun, and not good.

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Class without phones

Best in class, part 1

Last September, for the first time, I collected cell phones at the beginning of each class.

I’ve always banned phones, but a phone ban without an enforcement mechanism is like a trade agreement without an enforcement mechanism. It’s not a ban.

When you ban cell phones things start off well enough, but one by one the phones make their appearance, and pretty soon you’re staring at the tops of people’s heads instead of into their eyes. You tell students to put their phones away and they do, but once they’ve broken the ban there’s no turning back. Before you know it, you’re spending your time monitoring cell-phone use while also trying to teach college composition and gin up classroom discussion of the readings. It’s miserable.

It’s so miserable, in fact, that two years ago I considered quitting. Over cell phones.

Continue reading

Best in class, part 1

This semester’s class was the best I’ve ever taught. Far and away the best.

It wasn’t me, it was the students. They were great. They all came to class all the time (that may have been a first); they paid attention; they learned; they progressed; they were cheerful and engaged … they were a fabulous group. Every week I would marvel at how well they were doing and how much fun they were to spend time with.

For most of the semester I assumed this was a simple case of random variation.  Sometimes all the stars align and a class gels, I figured. 

But as time went on, random variation lost its punch as an explanation, mostly because it didn’t actually explain anything. What is happening when a class “gels”? Plus it didn’t seem fair to the students I’ve taught in the past, who were also terrific young people I looked forward to seeing each week–and who all got on well with each other and with me. 

So what was going on?

Why was this class so different?

Then, just before semester end, it hit me.

No cell phones.

More t/k

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Blackboard shmlackboard


There. I’ve said it.


This fall my department has purchased a new, online grammar-practice program that has to be integrated with Blackboard: integrated by each individual adjunct, not by the department or the vendor.

In theory, the program is a good idea. We need a grammar-practice program, and if the new one we’ve got were on paper I would be ecstatic.

But it’s not on paper. It’s online.

And it has to be integrated.

As horrifying as that prospect sounded to my ears, I have, amazingly, managed to integrate the new program with Blackboard completely on my own, sans any instruction or help-desk help whatsoever.

But now that integration has been achieved, I have to deal with Blackboard, a task I’ve avoided for years. I’ve always used a class blog with no log-in; no password; no multiply-nested, counterintuitive pathways to whatever you’re looking for; and easy to find on Google to boot. I could send out a class email with a single, solitary link, and with one click my students were exactly where they needed to be, not on a landing page with a mile-long menu bar in need of perusing.

These days, though, most of my students seem to have gotten used to Blackboard, and would like to see class content on Blackboard.

So Blackboard it is.

Thus far I’ve spent …. is it 2 hours now (?) …. dealing with Blackboard, at the end of which time I have successfully: loaded a picture of myself.

Two hours, one photo.

Photo-loading accomplished, I experienced a ray of hope that help, or at least intelligible guidance, might be available when I came across a page informing me that I can receive in-person Blackboard training here in the town where I live.


But no.

Not fantastic.

The appointment link is broken.

And why not?

Apart from the (broken) link, there’s no other means of reaching the promised live-instruction humans: no email, no phone number, no Chat. So live instruction has turned into yet another issue to troubleshoot. Maybe YouTube will have a video.

Then there are the grammar exercises themselves, which, albeit integrated with Blackboard, continue to reside on their own site.

Which is a labyrinth. Page after page after indecipherable page, with links that aren’t located in obvious places and aren’t labeled with obvious terms.

So yesterday I spent two hours on the phone with the publisher’s tech person.

She was a saint.

By the end I was so frustrated I could hear myself becoming cranky and short, something I try never to be on the phone. Or in person, either, but somehow cranky and short seem worse on the phone with a complete stranger who is only trying to do her job.

The phone connection didn’t help. The tech person could hear me, but I couldn’t hear her, and no amount of polite requesting made it better.

“Could you say that again?”

“Could you say that a little louder?”

“I’m having trouble hearing you, could you talk a little louder, please?”

Which gradually gave way to modal-free eruptions like “I don’t know what you just said.”

Also to modal-free, one-word responses like:

Help-desk person: “Can you hear me better now?”
Me: “No.”

Another problem: half the site’s pages seemed to be named the same thing, so the customer service person and I had recurring episodes of thinking we were looking at the same page when we weren’t.

Throughout all this my interlocutor remained calm, friendly, and encouraging, finally confiding in me that the site is indeed difficult to navigate but gets easier after you do it for a while.

I did pick up one useful bit of information: if I want to build my own test, I can’t use the “Test Builder” function to do it.

Good to know!

Test Builder does not build tests. That I’m going to remember clear as a bell next time I work up enough nerve to attempt a feat of online test-building.

The Test-Builder-doesn’t-build-tests rule reminds me of our old campus password system, which required us to change passwords every 90 days.

When you got to the change-password page, there were 2 options: one that said “Change Password” and another whose legend I forget.

If you clicked on “Change Password,” it locked you out of the system.

I didn’t realize till today, thinking about it, what an oddity that was.

Aside from the obvious illogic of “Change Password” meaning “Lock me out of the system,” why would you have a “Lock me out of the system” feature anyway?

When does anyone want to be locked out of a system?

Do people ever want to be locked out of their car or their house?

Or their office website?

Has Lock myself out of the system ever appeared on anyone’s to-do list, ever?




I wrote this post at least a week ago, thinking I’d edit the next day, then didn’t get to it.

Between then and now I’ve made friends with Blackboard.

It’s a pretty easy site to deal with, as work sites go (and I dealt with a doozy last summer–or with what I took to be a doozy, given my blessedly limited experience of workplace websites.)

Meanwhile the online grammar exercises, which my students are actually doing (!!), need a user manual.

And see:
App shmapp

How it works: the technology boondoggle

I’m hearing the same story from friends in other districts.

  1. A teacher in your district is selected by Google (or perhaps by the publisher of a reading curriculum, a variant I heard from another parent) to work for them as a “presenter.” 
  2. The teacher is then flown around the planet by EdTech Team, Google “partner,” making presentations to audiences of other teachers.
  3. These presentations, while billed (and paid for) as professional development, are for all intents and purposes a sales pitch in the guise of continuing education. 

Districts pay EdTech Team to pitch their teachers.