Preview of iPad Classroom Management (or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Candy Crush")

There are about 75 school days left this semester. That gives me roughly 180 class periods to prepare myself for next year, when all the students will have iPads. While they aren't required to have an iPad until next year, they nearly all have something this year: smartphone, tablet, or laptop. That gives me plenty of opportunities to practice one aspect of this transition for next year: classroom management.

When I see a student on their laptop when they clearly aren't taking notes, playing Candy Crush on a tablet, or Snapchatting their friends, it's tempting to just take their device away from them or otherwise "punish" them. And I've taken more than a few cellphones and kept them for the duration of the class. But that "solution" has never sat well with me, especially if I'm thinking about next year. When all the students have purchased an iPad specifically for school, spending time collecting them during class feels counter-productive. And how does that prepare them for the real world? I have my iPad at every faculty meeting. When I get bored and start looking at Twitter, is my principal going to come take it away from me, to remove the distraction? Probably not.

Tuesday was a typical example of this in a class of juniors. There was a student clearly distracted by her cellphone, so I simply walked up, held out my hand, and she gave me her phone. Her neighbor, who is often distracted as well, though not at that moment, had her cellphone sitting on her desk. I held out my hand and she gave me her phone too. Student #1, now sans-cellphone, started playing Candy Crush on her tablet. Did I take her tablet as well? Nope. Did I call her out several times during class, highlighting the fact that she was trying (and failing) to multitask? You bet. Later in that same class, the students were working in groups, and Student #2 came up to my podium and asked for her phone.

Student: Can I have my phone back?

Me: Sure. You could've had it back whenever you wanted.

Student: Really?

Me: Yep. I was just trying to help you avoid distractions. But if you can handle that on your own, go right ahead. It's yours.

Student: Ugh, I hate when you do this. (She walks back, empty-handed.)

To be clear, I'm not claiming I handled this perfectly–or even particularly well. I'm still trying to figure out how I will deal with these situations next year. This is just one typical day of interactions.

When I notice somebody playing Candy Crush in class, I don't get angry. But I will, with a smile on my face, remind them of the choices they're making. Are they going to "get away with it"? Probably. But I remind them that the consequences are entirely theirs: they are the ones who are choosing to use their time that way, and they will deal with that when attempting the homework, taking the next test, etc.

And while I'm not above keeping a pile of devices on my podium, I rarely say, "Give me your phone." Since the beginning of the year, I've tried to ask them, "Is your phone helping you right now? Want me to keep it so you aren't distracted?" Now by this point in the year, they'll just hand it over when I walk by and gesture for it. I really don't want it to be punitive. (Yes, obviously there are times somebody is using their technology in completely inappropriate ways–like cheating–and there can be more severe consequences, but those times are rare.) Rather than have them think I'm punishing them, I want them to trust that I'm trying to help them do their best. That's usually their goal too, to succeed, and they respond well when they know we're on the same team.

I know several teachers who often ask the students to put all their devices in a box at the beginning of class. There are days I'm tempted to do the same, but I'm trying to resist that urge. There are certainly times and places when I'll ask for all devices to be put away, but I'd rather assume they'll do that when I ask, rather than require me to take them. I've also read about teachers who have a "stoplight" in their classroom: green light means it's OK to use the devices, red light means put everything away. Again, I understand the impulse, but I really want the kids to be engaged throughout class, and for some that will mean more technology, for others less. They're better off learning how to make those decisions themselves.

I've been very open with my students regarding my thought process on all this. I tell them honestly that I struggle with wanting to be strict and "make" them to pay attention to me, while at the same time trying to give them freedom and hope they'll learn to monitor themselves. Next year will have a learning curve for sure, both for me and, more importantly, for my students. But the technology isn't going anywhere, so if I don't help them think about how to use it effectively, who will? I didn't get to have these lessons in high school, which is why you can find me in the back of the faculty meeting checking Twitter.