Unplug. What does that really mean today? Is it even possible?
As an elementary school teacher, I feel that one of the most important aspects of my job is to teach my students social skills and relationship-building to help them be successful now and as they move through life. In fact, I believe that, in order for students to learn the curriculum, there needs to be a strong sense of community in the classroom; there's only one way to build that -- face-to-face. I spend much of the day engaging with my students socially, and seeing them engage with each other in this way as well. I find that, as the year progresses, there is a shift in the way students relate to and communicate with each other. They learn how to participate in discussions, that it's okay to have a different idea than someone else, and how to share their new ideas in respectful ways without hurting someone else's feelings. I also see a shift in the way they solve problems with each other. They move from instantly getting upset when someone does something they don't like to communicating effectively with each other about their feelings. These are all learned skills, which we work on as a class each day.
All of this sounds wonderful within the bounds of the classroom, but each year, teachers have to be more and more cognizant of the technology children are accessing both at home and at school. I began my teaching career as a primary teacher, in kindergarten and first grade for seven years. I decided that I wanted to make a change and work with upper grades and had an opportunity to teach fifth grade this year. I got used to how my younger students interacted with technology in the classroom, and I am quickly learning the critical role technology plays in the lives of our older students, especially at school. Some students talk about how, at home, they play video games, communicate with cell phones, and/or use tablets or computers. In school, the students use computers and iPads for various projects on a nearly daily basis: they take videos to share their learning and ask for feedback; they publish writing; create presentations; practice skills; and more. Someone walking into the classroom might see this and think, "Wow, these kids are lost in their screens!" But what that person may not realize is that they are engaged in meaningful learning, and that once those tasks are done, the screens go dark, and we return to each other.
My constant goal is to keep technology in its place, as another tool, not a replacement for quality face-to-face teaching. I know that the way I am incorporating technology is engaging and, in many cases, necessary for the students, and that it is imperative that they have these experiences to help them build technology literacy...But where is the line?
How can teachers ensure that we are doing our jobs by helping students to build personal social skills, teaching them digital citizenship skills (being respectful, responsible, and safe) while using the Internet, AND giving them access to technology available in the school? How are teachers modeling for students the importance of "unplugging" when we, as teachers, almost ALWAYS have our computers with us? I use mine for almost everything, from projecting Google Slides, to taking notes, to researching with students throughout the day.
My goal this year, and every year, is to build relationships with my students and provide families with avenues to continue this at home; part of this is finding that perfect balance between technology as a tool, and not as a replacement for a good teacher. Here's how we keep it in balance in my classroom. There is screen time, and there is non-screen time; when there is screen time, it is purposefully planned, meaningful, and deliberate. I am also deliberate in crafting opportunities that help us examine our thoughts, feelings, and ideas through the use of a "quote of the week," which supports my efforts in character education and social-emotional learning with the students. I choose each week's quote based on the social needs of the class from the previous week(s), and we dig deep in our discussions surrounding the quote and how we can use each quote relate to others in positive ways moving forward
I also send the quotes and a brief synopsis of our weekly discussions to the parents of my students at the end of each week so they can continue the conversation at home. Additionally, I make a concerted effort to engage with the students during non-academic times of the day, like when they arrive in the morning, during lunch on Fridays (we eat in the classroom!), and at recess. This is a snapshot of what unplugging and "hugging" looks like in our classroom, and it is my hope that it transfers to how the students engage in their use of technology, both at home and at school.
Digital screens are a fact of life, and a challenge for all of us teachers is figuring where that "line" is: to know the right amount of digital engagement, and when we've crossed the line. We can be purposeful in how we take advantage of all the amazing things technology has to offer in positive ways, while still recognizing the critical importance of fostering non-digital interactions in our classrooms and homes.
Unplug. To me, it means being present with the people you're with. And yes, it's possible.
Lauren Rodriguez-Gregg is in her eighth year of teaching in Fairfax County Public Schools. She received her BA from Elon University, North Carolina, where she majored in Elementary Education, and she recently graduated from George Mason with a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Transformative Teaching. She is passionate about advocating for equity and access for all students in schools and providing a safe, happy, and warm learning environment for those who enter her classroom. She has taught first grade as well as kindergarten/first grade multi-age, and she currently teaches 5th grade at Flint Hill Elementary School, where she is also the Equity Lead. Lauren believes that strong and trusting relationships in the classroom are where learning begins.