Our school had a Device-Free Day this week, a twenty-four hour period from 6 PM on Monday to 6 PM on Tuesday when all faculty and students were asked to refrain from using cell phones, tablets, and computers. There were two stated goals for this day: to connect with people in person instead of through technology, and to reflect on the role that technology plays in our daily lives. Twenty-four hours is a lot of time to reflect, so I’m going to break this into two posts. In this post I’ll share my own experiences and reflections on the role of technology in my life as a boarding school teacher. In a future post, hopefully tomorrow, I’ll touch on the larger lessons we can learn from how the day was implemented.
I should start by saying that I was wildly enthusiastic about this day, much more so than many of my colleagues and approximately all of my students. If nothing else, I will take any chance I can get to remove myself from e-mail. That being said, much of what I do that isn’t in the classroom, and a decent amount of what is, is done on a computer. Without the ability to do this work, I was forced to decide what needed to be done before 6 PM Monday, what was so important that I would need to do it without technology, and what could wait until Tuesday night or Wednesday. It made Monday a little stressful as I kept thinking of other things to do – like remembering to wear a watch on Tuesday so I could time a quiz without the timer on my phone – but once 6 PM hit I was ready to go.
I enjoyed the day quite a bit, and I was actually a little sad to see it come to an end. My work prioritized and completed in advance, I was able to dedicate a lot of time on Tuesday to the things I never get around to during the week. I read a couple chapters of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, and I went back through some math history that pertained to the work we were doing in class. I rearranged my bookshelf, finding a couple things I’d forgotten I had in the process, and I sorted through a backlog of conference handouts, meeting agendas, and business cards that had accumulated over the last couple years. For me, it was a fabulous day, one that I’ll have to make time for more often.
The day also emphasized some things that I’m aware of but don’t think about that much. I graded some quizzes on Monday night, but I couldn’t record the grades in my electronic grade book so I was unable to return the quizzes on Tuesday. I had to hand write my notes for class, something I haven’t had to do since I started teaching with a tablet PC and OneNote almost a decade ago. I use electronic textbooks, so my students couldn’t do any homework without printing pages out in advance (and wasting a bunch of paper in the process). A colleague had to take her son to the doctor and needed me to fill in for her with community service, which had to be handled through a quick conversation at lunch rather than a text or e-mail at a more convenient time. None of these challenges was significant because none was a challenge for more than 24 hours, but taken together they paint a clear picture of how much technology has integrated itself into my life as a teacher.
I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with this. I am a better teacher because I am able to provide my students with more and better resources. I like that my students can access their textbooks from anywhere in the world and are spared the future chiropractic visits that would come with lugging around a full backpack every day. I also appreciate the time and convenience that texting colleagues and an electronic grade book provide. Stepping away from all these things for twenty-fours has helped me think about the ways in which technology might be keeping me from doing my best work, and it’s reminded me of all the ways technology has replaced things I used to do. If nothing else, reevaluating how I spend my day to keep what’s valuable while recapturing lost activities that are important made the Device-Free Day a productive one for me. As for the institution as a whole? I’ll tackle that question next.