My 8th students and I gave cel.ly a try this week--essentially cel.ly is
a website that enables an individual to create a "cell" for
conversation. Students can use their cell phones to text responses and
participate in classroom polls.
I chose to use curator mode. This sends all text messages to the teacher first--I was then able to choose the best (appropriate) replies and release them out to the rest of the phones in the classroom and to the display in the classroom.
First impression and lasting impression--a little clunky but full of positive possibilities.
It took a good 10-12 minutes to walk my students through the process of sending a text message to the correct "cell"--I was surprised by how many students experienced difficulty performing what I consider a simple task: text "@samplecell" to "1234." This should have been the same experience as texting a vote to American Idol, but many of my students grappled with the execution.
In the name of safety, I chose to make the "cell" private and I also wanted the students to need my "permission" to join. Immediately, I learned that I had to explicitly demand that they do not use their name (or full name as some tried) as their user name. Students were immediately willing to be trusting of the technology and none offered any reservations about entering a name. Without my guidance, I know I would have had many who entered their names. Now, I believe the site was private and I believe the owners of the site when they say no one else will see these cells, but this demonstrated the importance of having these types of conversations with our kids--whether they are our classroom students or family. Just for this lesson alone, the experience was worth it.
The teacher is allowed to either hand click permission as each user requests access to the cell, or the teacher can use commands on a cell phone to admit all with one key stroke. There was lag time between this key stroke and students entering the cell. I felt the impatience build in the room as students wanted to immediately jump in and start using technology--the 10-12 minute setup took some of the starch out of the room.
As I had planned ahead, I had a poll waiting for students as they entered the cell. A poll in the form of a text message was sent to students as access to the cell was granted. Built on the homework from the night before, I asked students to select one of four possible answers to a question on plot structure. The direction in the text is to enter a 1, 2, 3, 4--the corresponding number to each response.
I had students who struggled with the concept--some wanted to type the answer in, some wanted to type an "a" or a "b" instead of a 1 or a 2 (matter of habit from school testing), and others did not trust their ability to read the text and follow the instructions, choosing instead to ask me, "what do I do?"
While students took the poll, I displayed it on the Smart Board--we watched the percentages leap and build in real-time...and then I started a discussion on the percentages. Finally! the technology led us to a discussion about literature and our perceptions of the plot structure...more than 15 minutes into the class.
After a brief discussion, I wanted to try one more feature--the curated text.
I asked students to send a text as an answer to the following question, "What is the change in the protagonist that the author wants us to consider?" Again, students struggled with the execution. Some expected to have to reenter a code or recipient, some looked for a number choice (from the last exercise)--I had to reiterate, just type your response and press send several times.
The answers started scrolling across the screen of my phone--by pressing a 4 digit code I could release the responses I found most accurate or interesting to consider. A bit of a tangle occured--as 30 students are thinking and writing text message responses at different rates, my ability to monitor bursts and floods of answers was challenged. Just as I would read one response and begin to type the code associated with it, another three of four answers would appear, pushing the code I needed for the previous response out of sight. Yes, I could scroll back to find it...but that allows more time for more responses to scroll in. It became a new management skill for me.
Now, as I'm reading and deciding which texts to send back out the entire class, what are the kids doing who already sent a text. Again, there is a clunky disconnect in the tool and the lesson.
It also dawned on me, what if I wanted to create a poll in the middle of a class discussion--this would take some time to type out. Not a lot of time, but time nonetheless.
My experience reinforced that no digital tool takes the place of good pedagogy. I really had to plan to use the digital tool, and if I were to use it again in the future I would have to modify the plan--this digital tool, the use of cellphones and texting, is a departure from what I have normally done over the course of a seventeen year career. Yet, I did find a lot of value in the day.
The PEW research group, in their study titled Writing, Technology, and Teens, notes:
Teens write a lot, but they do not think of their emails, instant and text messages as writing. This disconnect matters because teens believe good writing is an essential skill for success and that more writing instruction at school would help them.
lesson reinforced the need for meaningful professional development for
teachers. I would say I am very comfortable with using digital tools in
the classroom but I also believe I am very far away from using texting
and cellphones seamlessly and efficiently in a lesson. It takes
practice but it also takes training.
I can envision the cel.ly tool used in a middle school setting during a short film or reading selection in a Social Studies, English, or Science class--it could be a way to engage students in thinking as the video plays or as they read, and it strikes me as an interesting way for teachers to monitor student understanding. Teachers could send out polls or questions (the time is there as students are engaged in viewing or reading) and all students would have an opportunity to respond.
There is definitely a use for this type of tool--and I know new tools and apps emerge everyday--I hope more teachers try them and share their experiences (even if it is just with their own colleagues).
A far cry from the traditional one-room American school house, digital tools such as cel.ly do remind me that the time for a national focus on digital literacy and digital tools in education is upon us. These tools can actually bring the teacher another level of understanding of the literacy of their student population. It condenses the classroom--imagine being able to monitor what your students are thinking as they engage in an activity or reading--imagine being able to redirect your class or your lesson based on what your students are understanding (not what we think they are understanding). I really felt that with more experience and some training that using cel.ly or something like it would provide me a more immediate, accurate, and ongoing snapshot of the developing knowledge of my students in that specific lesson.