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3. Inside the Wireless English Classroom

Published onApr 10, 2020
3. Inside the Wireless English Classroom

Why in the Classroom?

On a warm Monday in May, I handed out an iPod Touch handheld device to each of the seventeen ninth graders in my third-period English class. Throughout the school year, we had experimented with student mobile devices in class, and in these final two months, I planned to focus on an in-class initiative with all students using the same devices in similar ways. Students showed the kind of excitement I’d hoped they would have for undertaking this experiment with me, and I left school that day feeling optimistic about the journey that we were embarking on. After I finished my work at South Central High School, I headed to the grocery store and was about to enter the store at 4:04 p.m., when I received a text message from Holden. His iPod had been stolen (but he had hidden his own phone, so it wasn’t taken).

Figure 3.1 A text message from Holden explaining that his new school-provided iPod was stolen during third period

Holden’s text was the first in a series of disruptive and troublesome events that changed my thinking about technology in the classroom. After less than a day, and my students were already down one iPod. Although many schools now provide students with highly durable protective cases for digital devices (perhaps distressing Apple designers with their disregard for aesthetics), such precautions cannot ensure that all devices are going to survive from year to year. Perhaps the biggest limitation on widespread implementation of mobile media in schools is the lived realities of many urban youth. The story of Holden’s stolen iPod above was not extraordinary in terms of the challenges my students faced with mobile media within their campus and school community. A week later, Jay came to class visibly upset. As the bell rang and the students took their seats, Jay asked me if he could talk to me outside. He explained that his locker was broken into during physical education, and his backpack and iPod were stolen.

Thefts were reported throughout the quarter. When I collected iPods from my seventeen students on the last day of school, seven were returned in functional condition, two were cracked, one displayed a frozen screen and was not usable, six were reported as stolen, and another one was missing (the phone numbers for a student who was withdrawn from school were not functioning). The low percentage of devices returned was worrisome for me as a teacher, particularly because the budget for this project was small. As a researcher, however, the data suggests the rich ways that mobile devices provided in classrooms may enter into the daily lives of campus and community members. Sure, kids can lie, and some students might have falsely claimed their devices were stolen, even while they continued to possess them. However, I took my students at their word, realizing that trust can go a long way for some students in a school space with a 60 percent dropout rate in any given year. Considering that only ten of the seventeen iPods were returned (and three of the ten were damaged), my attempts at integrating technology seamlessly into my classroom often fell short of my intended goals. I messed up frequently.

Why should I have bothered? As discussed in the previous chapter, SCHS was saturated with mobile devices, and youth socialization was augmented by the use of these devices (both in class and out). Much time was spent pressing, swiping, and posing with these devices, so it may not seem necessary to include phones as a deliberate component within the classroom. Further, these devices are not precious, even though they are costly and can break easily. When we spend time and energy fretting, fussing, and overprotecting mobile devices, we have less time to use them meaningfully.

If you bring up the topic of mobile devices in classrooms with any educator, you’ll get a passionate response either validating or villainizing them. Mobile devices and participatory media are contentious topics within the field of education.1 For some individuals, mobile devices are valid, necessary tools for equitable education, and for others, they distract students from academic learning. My experiences in my classroom moved across this spectrum and included unexpected challenges (such as thefts) and powerful moments of engagement. For every technical blunder on my part—such as attempting to lock students out of access to certain aspects of their devices or trying to lead the class through online research on the day the school’s Internet was out (again)—there were promising moments of student growth. For all of the emphasis that my research placed on the mobile devices in my classroom, class members actually spent more time looking at each other than they had earlier in the year. Collaboration and in-person discussions were key parts of how the classroom changed. Today, I have even more reservations about how mobile media can positively impact English education and disrupt traditional learning practices.

Throughout this chapter, I detail specific ways that classroom life can be transformed by mobile devices. As schools globally are embracing one-to-one device programs within classrooms, teachers are expected to master the teaching challenges that come with these changes. This chapter is a slice of my personal story learning from and with my students in this new era of education.

Mobile devices might indeed be “Personal, Portable, and Pedestrian” (as Mizuko Ito and her colleagues suggest),2 but they are significantly different from the traditional whole-class and small-group engagement that is typically found in classrooms today. I spend most of this chapter discussing the key participants that construct classroom experiences—students and teachers. Rather than describing what students should be doing in classrooms, I offer a look at what actually happened inside my own classroom. To do this, I first review what research with phones looks like when done in collaboration with students and detail what we did and why we did it. The rest of the chapter dives into the kinds of experiences that students had during our research projects. Although mobile phones were initially the focus of my inquiry, student voices became the most important part of the project. (I return to the role of adults in chapter 5, especially the struggles I had with parents and substitute teachers during the project.)

Reckoning with Research

My class needed to have a critical conversation—before I handed out the iPods and connected them to SCHS’s Wi-Fi; before my students texted their homework to me, edited the school’s Wikipedia page, and documented topics of inequity around the school space; and definitely before Holden’s iPod was stolen on the same day that he received it.

Because I’d noticed how multidimensionally students used their phones—they listened to music on them, took photos of class notes, and texted me questions about class work—I was not interested in nonpervasive uses of mobile devices. Based on the data I shared in the previous chapter, I knew that mobile phones were valued by students and contributed in powerful ways to the school’s culture. And so rather than focusing on the individual needs of students, I wanted to see what classwide implementation of a mobilized curriculum could look like.3

However, before I developed this curriculum and handed out these devices, my students had to understand that in this undertaking, we all were going to research the possibilities of these devices in schools. This was research we were doing together, and it followed the same content standards as any other unit I taught during the year. Further, I take my learning with students seriously. Their intelligence and capacity to educate and orient adults’ thinking about learning in today’s digital, participatory age were necessary to the success of this project. Although I’ve made mistakes in building trust, I have spent much of my time as a researcher doing this kind of work alongside young people.4

In preparing for the classroom inquiry on the use of mobile devices as tools for learning and engagement, I told students that our collective insights would help frame recommendations for what wireless devices can do for classroom practices. I was also honest about my own uncertainties about the results. Even though I had done some research, come up with some hypotheses, made some haphazard experiments with devices in classrooms, and conducted some interviews with students across campus (including most of the students in my classroom), I could not predict if our work would create more opportunities for distraction and disruption than for learning and innovation. Like a new teacher, I felt uncertain about whether I would be able to control the classroom. In hindsight, I realize that the issue of control—a central debate that swirls around the potential role of mobile devices in learning—reinforces and restricts the agency of young people. Eventually, my attempts at control were usurped, and similar issues are presently unfolding around the world in schools today.

As I handed out the seventeen iPod Touch devices, students excitedly started them up and I felt the buzz of possibility moving throughout the room. The class had come up with norms for the devices (“Put ’em down when we aren’t using them,” “Mr. Garcia can take them away if we’re not respecting them,” “Don’t lose it.”).5 I jotted down notes, feeling like our research was going somewhere powerful. Students even suppressed the sarcastic eye rolls as I showed them how to send text messages, take pictures, and use the other basic features installed on their devices. The first casualty to theft was still hours away, so my hopes for the research were not yet dampened, and I was excited to see where this collective journey would take us.

Despite all of the research into and enthusiasm about mobile phones, I chose to use iPods rather than iPhones. There were two reasons for this decision. The first was financial: I had a limited research budget that could cover the $199 price tag for iPods and not the cost of pricier iPhones and their monthly usage plans. The second was relevance: the phone part of a mobile device was less interesting and necessary for my purpose of looking at the value of mobile devices in schools. Most people do not use their mobile device very often for making phone calls.6 Nearly every other popular feature that mobile devices offered could be found on the cheaper alternative. As is discussed later in this chapter, virtually all of the one-to-one mobile technology implementation programs that are taking place in schools globally hand out tablets and laptops, not phones. Further, as I discuss later and as I have looked at in previous work,7 the meaning of a phone is an important sociocultural factor to consider when engaging with personal devices in schools.

About the Study

So I handed out a bunch of mobile devices, and we did stuff. But it wasn’t really as simple as that.

As much as this was a codesigned study—student interests and questions shaped this work just as much as my own questions—I still maintained a responsibility as a teacher to ensure that this work was meeting the academic needs and standards of the students I was legally responsible for. I designed a sequence of learning that relied on the devices.

First, because these devices were a new part of the classroom, our class began by focusing on whom these devices were for, what they did, and how they shaped what can happen in classrooms. This was a week-long inquiry into what mobile devices do in schools. Students were able to experiment, ask questions, and collaborate around the kinds of practices that allow these devices to support learning. For me, this was a time for the class to work out the academic and pedagogical kinks of mobile devices together. I also had an ulterior motive: with all of the experimentation, talking, and project-based learning, students were strengthening the classroom community. Relationships were forged in the moments of helping students connect to the school’s Internet or add information to a digital mindmap. In considering the conversations that emerged after this initial week, I think that relationships grew stronger largely because playing with mobile devices and, later, playing an alternate reality game stopped feeling like school for a little while. Rather than business-as-usual interactions within classes, this effort at melding in-class research with connected learning put relationships at its center.

Writing, reflecting, and experimenting with mobile devices continued throughout the rest of the class. After the first week, however, the class moved the use of mobile devices to the side as we focused on Ask Anansi (a game described in detail in chapter 4), the novel I had assigned, and various forms of writing and analysis. The class was still an English class, and I wanted students to work on considering how these new devices were augmenting class when they were not the main focus. In short, we were moving the focus away from these devices and toward each other.

Although I encouraged forms of mobile media use within my classroom, my students and I mutually created boundaries and ways to utilize these devices when reading books, discussing poems, and writing (or audio recording) daily reflections. Throughout the time we used the iPods, we sought small areas where these phones could augment traditional classroom structures. Students used their devices to look up information on the California Basic Educational Data System, Wikipedia, and the Los Angeles Unified School District “School Report Card” database in order to identify inequities within their school. As students began searching for various resources online and I helped facilitate sites for research, I noticed that Katherine and Holden bookmarked the sites I suggested and sites they encountered through their own online information searches. Holden often pressed the two buttons on the iPod simultaneously to take screenshots of relevant information instead of writing it down. After they told me why they were bookmarking and taking screenshots (“Because it’s faster”), I had them explain their strategies to the rest of the class. By sharing student research practices as they emerged—like bookmarking data and taking screenshots of pertinent information—students helped each other invent new critical practices and productivity skills that could be applied regularly in other classes and beyond grade nine in high school. Consultants, book authors, and educational software companies don’t necessarily have all of the answers for how these devices should be used. Mobile devices and their pervasive use are largely a new phenomenon. The fact that most schools do not involve students as “consultants” speaks more to issues of trust and assumed expertise than to anything else. When I highlighted my students’ innovations, they could see their agency enacted in the classroom, which further strengthened classroom relationships.

Although there are many ways that classroom pedagogies can shift positively when adults acknowledge the cultural impact of mobile devices on youths’ lives, mobile media continue to be forced into the marginal spaces of traditional pedagogy. The numerous limitations and disruptions already imposed by schools like SCHS signal that the educational landscape has not yet been able to contend with the very different landscape of learning and engagement in which the world is now immersed.

Curating Youth Research

Before diving into some of the moments of innovation in this project and the many blunders I made throughout the study, I want to touch on why I approach the research and design process collaboratively. The model of civic-focused research I engaged in is called youth participatory action research (YPAR).8 At its most basic, YPAR involves young people in understanding and developing research questions about their world. Working alongside adults, participants in a YPAR project collect data and develop empirical research findings. Unlike some models of research, however, this is not the end goal. Instead, YPAR asks the coresearchers to consider the purpose of research and ask about the outcomes and civic actions that can emerge from the process of researching. For example, in a separate YPAR project with high school students from across Los Angeles, students presented research on issues of school equity to LA policy makers (including their principals and the mayor), who applied some of the students’ findings in academic settings. Based on student findings, for instance, the principal at SCHS at the time changed a tardy policy.9

YPAR is not a curriculum. Throughout the weeks of this study, I wanted students to engage in academic research while thinking critically about the products we were using by asking questions such as “Who profits from the devices and apps we utilize?,” “Who has power?,” and “How does power change as a result of these devices?”

In the first few weeks of this study, students were invited to see themselves as experts and were encouraged to ask the questions that interested them. In the following weeks, their research and relationships shifted toward a social critique of SCHS and its surrounding community. We used our expertise in creating and questioning to reimagine the school space and the things that it means for its students every day.

Students as Experts

Students are assumed by peers and family members to be experts at using mobile phones, and the data on student use of iPods within my classroom shows that this expertise became evident within the classroom community. A week after handing out the iPods to my ninth-grade English class, I needed to add a PDF and set of audio files to each student’s device to support the classroom curriculum. During silent reading, I took my laptop to each student, who plugged his or her iPod into my computer, but an error message appeared on my computer, and I was unable to transfer the files. After watching me growing increasingly frustrated with the computer and iPod, Dante called to me:

“I can fix it,” he said without looking up from his iPod, on which he was typing something.

“It’s not accepting my computer or recognizing it, I guess,” I said, frustrated.

“Lemme see,” Dante said, rising from his seat and walking to the computer.

Taking over the space in front of my computer, Dante asked me which files I needed transferred and quickly showed me how to transfer the files that I had been struggling to add to the iPod.

Although I consider myself technologically literate, I needed to rely on Dante’s expertise. And though a passing moment early in this study, such an exchange was important within our classroom’s community of practice10 because Dante’s expertise shifted how students in the class understood power. He continued to sit quietly in class, his eyes often glued to his own device, but whenever I had yet another technical difficulty with the iPods, I asked him for his assistance. In brokering our dialogue around mobile devices, Dante became used to me asking him questions, engaging him in dialogue, and bringing him directly into classroom conversations. (In chapter 4, I dive more fully into Dante’s journey as a digital expert and classroom leader.) When devices that are a central part of youth socialization are used in the classroom, benefits can come from relying on youth expertise and thus dispersing power. Having Dante assist me brought him more fully into the classroom environment and allowed me to learn from the knowledge my students possessed long before they walked into SCHS. When focusing on academic content, I often assumed the role as classroom expert to begin our work. However, when the class was troubleshooting the school’s wireless network and iPods or investigating historical inequalities within our school, student expertise guided the classroom work.

One aspect of using these devices that students were not familiar with involved having them create quick response (QR) codes to communicate and participate in a classwide game. QR codes are square, barcode-like pieces of text occasionally printed on products and advertisements. The general public doesn’t seem to use them regularly in the real world, but they are easy to create and read with mobile devices and became a useful tool in our class. QR codes are essentially a personalized text and are a productive tool like those that grant users the ability to create a text message, an essay, or a photograph.

Figure 3.2 A student’s QR code for “I miss my dad”

The QR codes for this unit added feelings of exclusivity and strengthened the class community. As I printed out and posted on the classroom walls the numerous QR codes students sent to me in response to daily quickwrites and class discussions, our walls became encoded with the sentiments and frustrations of the class: “I miss my dad,” “[Jay] is the best at dis,” and “Its not fair when they call home when Im late to school.” These are examples of QR codes that proliferated in the class and that students scanned with their iPods to decode. As I prepared before the class bell rang, I could see Tess and Marjane scanning codes and nodding knowingly. The codes helped illustrate the ease with which students created and deciphered QR codes, and they also allowed the humanizing sentiments of being a student at SCHS to be shared and accepted by others within the class. Even though QR codes are used as marketing tools in mainstream media advertisements, magazine covers, and even business cards, the students in my class and in the focus groups I conducted did not recognize them or know what they were called. They seemed like a secret language that my students were able to detect, create, and use for dialogue with their classmates. Like a digital pig Latin, QR codes allowed students to communicate with each other, with me, and with those who found their clues in a way that was occluded from the dominant public gaze.

Wresting Away Adult Authority via Youth Expertise

Like computers today, iPods allow users to set a password to deter unwanted users from accessing and deleting content. Additionally, users can (wirelessly or via a USB plug into a computer) load their iPods with applications that customize each device based on their users’ viewing, listening, playing, and productive dispositions. Prior to handing out the seventeen iPods to my ninth graders, I created accounts for each student using my own computer, installed several applications on the devices that I anticipated we would use in the classroom, and used my own administrative password to install additional applications, music, and other media content on the devices. These additional programs included a text-messaging app, a mindmapping utility, and the Wikipedia app. Even as I set the administrative password to control the devices, I recognized that this severely limited the social practices that these devices richly enable. In fact, in work I did after concluding this study, it became clear that the meaning of a phone is lost when it is no longer tied to personal identity and control.11

As a teacher, my principle concern was the learning that took place in my classroom. As much as I attempted to build community, empathy, and trust as core values in the classroom, my emphasis on technology blinded me to the potential repercussions of locking the devices. Even though I attempted to cordon off how mobile devices could be used, I installed ways for students to communicate socially with each other, including the text-messaging app and the popular Facebook app. Further, I acknowledged to my students that they were likely to use their own mobile media devices to install applications and “be social,” but I noted that my intentions were to apply these devices as tools for shaping pedagogy and learning. I also reminded students that this was an experiment we were conducting together, so their thoughts on learning with mobile devices would be important for the class. However, again, myopic assumptions—that two phones are better than one or that having a “work” phone and a “social” phone would work for students—clearly thwarted the personalized value of having personalized devices in classrooms. Holden’s protection of his real phone in this chapter’s opening is perhaps the clearest indication of this myopia.

This acknowledgment leads to one of the major limitations of this study. By providing students with an additional, teacher-provided device, I collapsed the natural familiarity that students have with phones and ended up making them an impersonal imposition. It would have been much more natural for students to use their own mobile media devices during class activities because the devices would be familiar to them from a technical proficiency standpoint and also ascribed with personal value. Some secondary schools and universities have embraced a bring your own device (BYOD) model for proficiency, personal value, and economic reasons. Additionally, my students were informed that if they created a password on their iPods to limit others’ use of the devices, they needed to share the password with me so that I could administer and add information relevant to the class. Again, this imposition of adult authority is a break from the personal meaning placed on these devices. I intended to control how students used mobile media in classroom contexts. However, within a day of handing out the iPods, I realized that I had (of course) underestimated the ability of my students to overcome my digital mandate.

The day after handing out the seventeen iPods, I noticed students coming into class transfixed by games, music, and customized backgrounds on their new mobile devices. Within this twenty-four-hour period, students had figured out how to install applications on the iPods, including the game Angry Birds, pirated music, and even a program that acted as a local police scanner. Students coopted and personalized their mobile devices in ways that weaved social value with academic value. Of course this is what students would want to do with their phones. This was a valuable step toward ensuring these devices remained a relevant part of their lives. And yet I initially saw these adaptations as a security failure: I hadn’t controlled these devices enough. I had not yet realized that in bringing mobile devices into the classroom for academic purposes, my biggest oversight was not planning for students to include social uses for them.

Personalization and Ownership

When my students broke through the passwords I’d established in the classroom, they were participating in an extension of the usual kinds of cat-and-mouse authority challenges that play out with mobile devices in schools. Prior to handing out these devices, my students frequently hid phones and iPods beneath their desks or in their backpacks when using them during class. It is the type of behavior—discrete reading and sending of text messages and swiping in the middle of class—that I now see carried out in my university classes. And again, I’ve been guilty of such behavior, too, and have sent a quick response to a query while sitting in a meeting. The subterfuge with which we engage with our mobile devices has become a common (and problematic) part of adult culture. After my students received their new iPods, they flaunted the latest additions and modifications they made to the devices on loan to them. For instance, during the second week of class, Ras showed me the background image he had installed on his iPod.

Figure 3.3 Ras’s customized iPod screen

The fact that Ras demonstrated his new background while also showing me the pages of games and applications he installed suggests that he saw the iPod not solely as an educational tool but also as a portal for entertainment and identity construction. During the thirty-minute advisory class that I taught, Ras sometimes allowed other students to use his iPod to play games. As Ras sat at his desk turning the pages of a book or talking with a classmate, he seemed pleased that his device was being used by others. By borrowing and using his device, peers accepted Ras’s iPod as a demonstration of his curatorial choices. Watching Ras circulate his borrowed iPod, I was reminded that the content that he and other youth curate on their mobile devices does not simply reflect personal tastes but also caters to peers for acceptance, socialization, and affiliation. Ras’s screen demonstrates a preference for a colorful backdrop for his device and a predilection for gaming, but it also signals his familiarity with mobile-device use. By looking at his screen, peers can glean that Ras can quickly and—based on the titles of many of the displayed apps—freely add content to his phone.

The image of Ras’s iPod also highlights an important theme within the data I collected during this study. Students personalized their devices in significantly different ways. As I kept an eye on student’s iPods over the weeks of the study, I noticed that nearly every device in the class had been personalized. Students created screen backdrops, placed the iPods in cases that glittered, and used bright green earbuds instead of the standard white earbuds provided with the devices. Their devices never looked quite like those that I initially handed to them. Although some students, like Dede, did not add additional programs, their iPods were still customized with images that were imbued with personal meaning and value. Dede’s iPod background showed a stock image of a rose, which personalized her device. Even as a tool that was not her primary means of socialization or communication, Dede’s iPod was personalized so that it signaled to classmates aspects of her identity.

Dede, Ras, and the rest of my students took personal ownership over the appearance of their mobile media devices and the content included on them. They illustrated to me that by ceding adult authority over mobile media use in my classroom, even involuntarily in this instance, student voice and student identity were naturally included within the classroom. Although not all students were as eager to share their iPod modifications with me as Ras was, they comfortably displayed and shared their content choices with each other in the classroom community. As students shuffled into the room before class began, they exchanged tips on where to download specific images, which songs they were listening to, or how to beat levels of certain games. In this way, the social talk between students about their iPods seeped into the participation in the class.

There are two considerations here for schools and educational policy. First, by stifling student use of mobile media, many teachers also cut off students from the social networks within their communities and from outside resources made available on Internet-enabled devices. They essentially remove the cultural value of mobile devices and coopt them for academic purposes.12 Second, stifling student use of mobile media also stifles how students express and behave within a classroom setting. As I continued to look at how students “act out” when texting or utilizing mobile devices, I saw these actions primarily as efforts for students to demonstrate aspects of their identities. By displaying something as innocuous as a digital flower on the screen of an iPod, students imbued their school space with personal meaning and value.

Entertainment Portals

In this chapter, I am owning up to some of my mistakes, and I now want to look at the elephant in the mobile media room. Although I initially hoped to present a picture of my mobile-engaged classroom as a utopian, distraction-free space, that simply was not the case. It was never the case, even before I handed out iPods to my students. Subterfuge with devices has become a regular part of life at Los Angeles high schools and schools across the country. One notable exception was New York City, where until recently13 mobile devices were prohibited in public schools. This curtailed distractions but also created avenues of profit on the backs of students, who paid daily fees to keep their devices in “cell-storing trucks” while they attended classes.14

I would have preferred that my students power up their iPods solely to guide them toward continually engaged, focused learning experiences. However, the devices often impeded learning and focus in my classroom. In attempting to note these incidents while also teaching the class, I tallied times that distractions from student devices affected the classroom environment. I wrote down times when I noticed students were focused on using their iPods in ways that were not tied directly to the classroom activities, times I asked students to stop using devices, and moments when students talked with one another about content not related to classroom material. Additionally, each day I reviewed my audio recordings of these classes to see if there were lapses in my notes about these instances of distraction. Were there times when I was frustrated by the lack of focus in the classroom? Of course. I clearly faltered at times as an educator and felt frustrated with how technology use in the classroom distracted my students. Over the course of seven weeks, I tallied 138 instances of mobile media as sources of distraction. This included both the iPods I provided and students’ personal phones. This averages nearly four instances of class disruption per day for one class period.

Digging into these coded instances of distraction in my classroom, I noted that there were three general categories of disruption—socializing and communicating, listening to music, and gaming. In addition to noting the types of disruption, I also tallied times I intervened and times I let disruptions go unaddressed. Corroborating the findings discussed in the previous chapter, most “disruptive” student mobile use in my class was for social purposes (82 of the 138 coded instances). Additionally, my efforts to stifle these distractions by intervening generally had mixed results. Between 38 and 50 percent of the time, students continued to use their mobile devices even after I asked them to stop.

Although this data is specific to my own classroom, it suggests that my attempts at reigning in mobile-device use for academic purposes found resistance in the student interpretation of school time as fluidly social and academic. Looking at both student behaviors and my own actions in the classroom, the patterns of disruption and adult intervention reflect blind spots in classrooms. Even though my study of the entire SCHS campus confirmed that teachers stifled students’ primary purpose for using their devices (to socialize with one another), I ended up replicating this same process in my own classroom.

Minerva and Nondigital Production

If we’re going to embrace connected learning and wireless classrooms, we need to think critically about what this means and in whom we invest our attention. Much of this chapter highlights the things that students do with mobile devices, but nondigital tools also support student learning, relationships fostered in classrooms, and the fundamental civic purpose of public schooling. With this in mind, I want to share a vignette of a moment of classroom work that was almost entirely divorced from the digital devices that started my inquiry.

After my class and I moved beyond the typical enchantment with new devices, there were moments when digitally connected youth produced multimodal content, collaborated with peers face-to-face, and generally learned wirelessly. Below, Minerva illustrates that a culture of participation does not always rely on tools that blink, flash, and need to be recharged.

Throughout the year, I saw Minerva in the halls of the ninth-grade academy building during my conference period. Frequently, she’d inform me she was in the halls because she was kicked out of class. Her language and decisions not to participate in classes contributed to these frequent hallways appearances. In group discussions in my own class, Minerva regularly weaved together curse words with academic language. Her mastery at this profanity-laden vernacular impressed me but significantly limited her academic growth by frequently getting her kicked out of other classes. In her first two quarters of high school, Minerva failed most of her classes. She earned a C in my English class and in her social studies class. In the vignette that follows, Minerva and I discuss ways for her to engage with media deliberately and personally. Highly personal, Minerva’s text and her initial hesitancy in producing it are an example of how classroom innovations often come not from charging and utilizing electronic devices but from investing in trust and relationships:

“I’ve got stories to share, but I think they are too much for kids.”

This is what Minerva tells me in class after I ask students to continue their work. She is quiet and introspective as she often is when she and I speak quietly by my desk or in the hallway. As other students work on developing an autobiographical children’s story, Minerva brushes the dark hair out of her eyes, which are welling with tears. Although this is one of the few assignments in the quarter that I’ve asked students to complete with paper and colored markers, Minerva’s response to producing this media product is similar to other assignments I’ve asked her to complete in the class—reluctance coupled with personal investment in producing authentic and meaningful work. If Minerva is going to complete this assignment (and at this moment, it’s a real “if”), she is going to need a real audience that can learn from her. Minerva’s engagement with producing media products related to her research topic (“the absence of love in South Central Los Angeles”) has resulted in highly emotional reflections on her life.

“So you mean my story doesn’t have to be a happy one?” Minerva asks.

I respond, “No, it doesn’t have to be happy—if you think that’s the best way to convey your story and your experience with the research theme you’ve investigated. Of course, there are happy children’s stories, but this is an opportunity for you to share the knowledge you have in a way that would be understandable for young people.”

As Minerva and I discuss the powerful role and responsibility of being a media producer, I recall two sentences she wrote while I guided students through the process of producing quick response (QR) codes. During one of the lessons on using the QR app in the class, students were asked to write any single sentence, create a QR code with the sentence embedded within it, and send it to me. Minerva’s two sentences were “I hate school” and “I miss my dad.”

Minerva shuffles back to her seat, folds several sheets of paper in half to make the pages of a book, and begins to write.

Pausing occasionally to punch responses to incoming text messages, Minerva completes a draft of her story, which she hands me with a cheerful, “Here you go,” before bouncing out of class for lunch. Each page has text carefully written in only the bottom third of the paper, saving space for forthcoming images. There are no crossed out words. Although the draft has some grammatical and spelling errors, it appears to me as though it is written in a single coherent thought from beginning to end:

Once upon a time there was a girl named Jessica. She loved her mom with all of her heart. They were so close like pb&j. They were like best friends, sisters, anything you can name they told each other everything good or bad and always stuck by each other. What a good mother.

So one day, little Jessica was in the park enjoying her day with her love, then she gets home everything falls apart in her life. She can already feel it. She got some really bad news about someone she cared about so much. She can feel her heart fall all the way down to her toes.

Well guess what her mother had got into some trouble with the cops and the cops went crazy looking for her. One day, they decide to break into our house. They throw everyone on the floor and handcuffed us. What a terrible night to remember.

So the very next day Jessica’s mother finds out about what happened and she decides to take off and that day Jessica dropped so many tears, she felt like she had lost everything she ever had. No one could make her feel better. She had lost her mother.

Ever since that day she feels really lonely especially when she sees mothers and daughters together. All Jessica does is think about the past and every moment she spent with her mother. But deep inside her heart she knows her mother is by her side.

What a sad story. So yeah, hopefully they could reunite one day but for now that’s about it. We should all enjoy every single day with our loved ones because you never know what can happen. The end.

Unlike many of the other narratives constructed by her peers, Minerva focused on issues of loss. In producing her own narrative for an audience of younger children, Minerva illustrated a history of pain without consolation. The way that Minerva’s story was processed and reinterpreted as children’s literature pointed toward her understanding of both literary structure and interior turmoil. The line between fiction and nonfiction was intentionally blurred in her story. There is regret and anger in her story—not at her mother but at the exterior tensions that crashed in on the private sphere of family life.

There is an unintentional slip in Minerva’s narrative that was revised in future drafts. The story begins as a third-person tale about “little Jessica” and her mother later and becomes a first-person account of a negative encounter with the police: “they decide to break into our house. They throw everyone on the floor and handcuffed us.” By the next page, Minerva resettles the narrative back into the comfortably distanced space of a third-person point of view. The moment at the crux of this story that ends a childhood of happiness is highlighted by this narrative slip-up from third person to first and back again, like the bumping of a record player: it pulls readers uncomfortably out of one place to reinterpret the narrative.

In most children’s books, there is a lesson or moral, and Minerva offers a trite statement at the story’s conclusion: “We should all enjoy every single day with our loved ones because you never know what can happen.” But there is a deeper insight to be gained from this story. Although this final paragraph suggests that the story is about losing a loved one, Minerva’s text predominately critiques ways that she is powerless before the forces that affect her life (such as the police and “a terrible night to remember”). In Minerva’s narrative, family and happiness are deracinated in ways that adhere to children’s story tropes. In her advice to readers about enjoying every day with our loved ones because we never know what can happen, Minerva shares guidance for a world that she distrusts. She makes the familiar environment of home and community unfamiliar as she invites readers to shuffle through the corridors of her memory. There is no warmth in these final sentences of advice. This is the conclusion of a story about separation, loneliness, and estrangement.

It is worth considering how digital tools could enhance Minerva’s media production here and how they could get in the way. On the one hand, Minerva’s powerful narrative could be amplified for peers, youth, and the public at large, acting as a powerful familial narrative within South Central High School. This story could be linked to, tweeted, and shared. However, complicating the potential benefits of media production with a culture of participation, this work may not have been produced if it were written for a public audience that Minerva did not necessarily trust. What moments of trust and community building do we lose by assuming that things are better and made more complex when they are typed and tweeted?

Weeks after Minerva turned in her story draft, I revisited my transcription of one of our final conversations during the study. Sitting across from each other a few minutes before the bell rang for lunch, I asked Minerva, “Do you think you’ve changed how you see your role in the school?”

Minerva turned the answer away from herself and gave a response that discussed the ways games, technology, and research affect students in general: “Now, you can start talking about it, telling people about it. You can just point things out more.” She paused for a moment, inspected a cuticle, and said, “You’re a teacher that understands us. … I don’t know. Probably I got so much done because you understand me. Before you even kick someone out, you try and understand.”

Building civic-focused instruction has to start with building trust and supporting classrooms as safe spaces to exhibit vulnerability—for both teachers and students alike. Storytelling can function as a tool for student agency and as a means for students to speak about lived experiences in ways that empower social participation in the future, but these tools must be coupled with the cultivation of community, trust, and safe spaces in schools. By writing a children’s story that describes her anger and sadness about how her family was broken apart, Minerva claimed a space for action and advocacy.

Minerva’s narrative highlights how classroom trust can support student learning, but I don’t think that trust and the student expertise afforded by mobile devices are mutually exclusive. A classroom that utilizes mobile devices can (and should) be a humanizing classroom, too. This story came out of a class that began with a warts-and-all inquiry into mobile devices, and Minerva’s personal voice found strength and courage through the opportunities that these digital tools encourage. When we think of wireless classrooms of the present and of the future, we need to consider how trust and relationships work in tandem with and are supported by devices—not the other way around.

Conclusion: About Disruption

For teachers, the word disruption signals a problem within the classroom. The ways I have used the word throughout this chapter illustrates what all teachers know: disruption is a major problem in classes and needs to be avoided at all costs. Entire teacher education courses are shaped around “managing” classroom disruptions. However, outside of the classroom, when people discuss developments in technology, a disruption often is seen as positive. Startup firms often look at ways to disrupt existing markets. Uber and Lyft have disrupted the taxi business, Airbnb the vacation housing market, and online streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music the online downloading business. A disruptive device—like a smartphone or an iPod—changes how people interact, behave, and produce work. Disruption reframes how knowledge is shared and produced. In this sense, globalized economies are disrupted as a result of advances in digital technology. Nearly everyone today is interacting or working in ways that have been disrupted by mobile devices—everyone except people who spend time in public schools.

When we invest in technology in schools, we do so in rudimentary ways: we pay a lot of money for devices that we hope will fix the persistent problems of public schooling. Minerva reminds us that wireless classrooms need to be about trust and expertise. I hope my blunders here remind us that teachers are fallible participants in classrooms and need to work alongside young people. Maybe investment in disruption should look to the people in classrooms rather than the devices.

In discussing the kinds of successful attributes we see young people exhibiting today, educational researcher James Paul Gee describes them as “shape-shifting portfolio people.”15 With a suite of demonstrable skills (that can be displayed online in a portfolio), Gee sees young people use skills in one context and then quickly switch to use those skills in another context. This seamless “shape-shifting” means that today’s young people might work in varied industries and leave behind traditional models of labor where workers toiled in a single profession for decades. Mobile devices, as we see in this chapter, disrupt and help with this shape-shifting process. They bisect the traditional places where text is consumed, produced, and analyzed. They make the place of learning even more contextual. Likewise, communication now can be disrupted by both place and time. My students texted their class updates to me even when I was away from the school building and a substitute was teaching the class (as is detailed in chapter 5). Similarly, my experiences using social networks like MySpace and Facebook in my classroom16 have shown me that conversations do not need to happen in “real” time. A conversation on a space like Facebook can continue through comments and updates over weeks, offering new narrative modes of discussion and means for online public performance and privacy.17

Traditionally, school-based learning has been anchored to classrooms, desks, and specific uses of academic space. By documenting lived realities, facilitating discussion, and allowing for collaboration with individuals both in and out of schools, mobile devices help teachers and students to recontextualize the contexts of school-based learning. How space is read and how space changes learning18 are key areas of mobile-device use for schools (as is shown in the following chapter). I am also wary that this attribute of mobile phones can frustrate how educators “manage” classroom discipline. Although I believe that the disruptions of mobile devices can be funneled into strategies to reshape classroom practices, I also know that schools can’t have it both ways. If we want innovative classrooms that incorporate the affordances of technology, we have to acknowledge that the square pegs of authentic uses of such technology cannot fit easily into the round holes of existing schools.

When I look back at how I communicated with students, I’m reminded of how my experiences as a teacher evolved. For instance, although Katherine was usually a quiet student when she was in the classroom, she sent me contributions almost daily via e-mails and text messages. Some of these were received during the daytime hours when the class was held, but I also received e-mails of her work in the evening. For instance, during the third week of the class, I asked students to reflect on how outsiders might view see the students’ South Central community. I received an e-mail from Katherine that begins as follows:

May 19, homework; I think our community has a bad rep. Because we kinda make it look bad but unintentionally. & then we realize that people judge our community because of us but in reality we can change this because we’re not really bad as people we’re just human beings. I could’t really get the pictures because idk [I don’t know] what proves my statement

Although Katherine points to the shortcomings of her work, her comments allowed for an opening dialogue the next day in class. I asked Katherine if she would mind if I shared her sentiments with the rest of the students, and her homework became the lynchpin for an ongoing discussion about perceptions of South Central Los Angeles. In this case, a quiet student like Katherine, whom I often gently prodded to participate, emerged as a natural leader. The iPods expanded the engagement options available for students for submitting work, voicing ideas, and engaging in multimodal inquiries. Katherine flourished as a student in the hours after school. In her own home and at times that were convenient for her, Katherine’s traditional expectations of learning were disrupted.

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Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important topic. As a teacher, I can definitely relate to the challenges of having students with mobile devices in the classroom. On the one hand, these devices can be incredibly useful tools for learning, allowing students to access information, collaborate with their peers, and engage with interactive content. On the other hand, they can also be distracting and disruptive, pulling students' attention away from the lesson and causing them to miss important information.

I appreciated the way you emphasized the need for clear guidelines around mobile device use in the classroom. By setting expectations for when and how devices should be used, teachers can help students stay focused and engaged while still taking advantage of the benefits that technology can offer. I also appreciated your discussion of the potential negative impacts of excessive device use, including social isolation and decreased attention spans.

Overall, this was a really thought-provoking post. Thank you for raising awareness of this issue and providing some practical tips for navigating it in the classroom.

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