Slice of Life 30: The Pencil Conference

Last summer, I attended my first ISTE conference. (In case you’re not familiar, ISTE stands for the International Society of Technology in Education.) At one of the sessions, educator and author Will Richardson shared his feelings about all the vendors in the convention exhibit hall—and those feelings were of disappointment and even a little disgust. The problem, he argued, was that too many of these tech vendors seemed more driven by self-interest (i.e. profit) than by education. How many of these reps, he wondered aloud, had ever stepped foot in a classroom? In what ways have teachers blindly accepted the maxim that the more technology the better? Could technology actually undermine rather than improve instruction?

He went on to question the fundamental focus of the entire conference. Why, for example, is the conference focused on technology? What if the T in ISTE stood for teaching instead? Technology itself is not the goal; technology is a tool—one of many—that should be used in the service of learning. We wouldn’t have a conference on the pencil, he quipped. 

I ended up at Richardson’s session because I was already familiar with his work. I had read his book Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts several years ago when I first started integrating more technology into my instruction. I was then reminded of Richardson’s session a few days ago when I saw his latest article for The Huffington Post, “Stop Innovating in Schools. Please”  pop up in my Twitter feed. In it, Richardson again argues that the focus of schooling must shift back to the learner:

The real innovation that we need in schools has little to do with technologies or tools or products designed to improve our teaching. The real innovation, instead, is in relearning why we want kids in schools in the first place. As author Seymour Sarason says, the overarching purpose of school ought to be that children should want to keep learning more about themselves, others, and the world when they leave us. Yet, Sarason writes, that purpose is mostly ignored. I’ve yet to find a school that has created an assessment to see if, in fact, students leave at least as interested in learning as when they entered. In all likelihood, they don’t want to know the answer.

No amount of technology is going to be effective if we don’t think about—and honor—the learner first.

Ironically, I was reminded of Richardson’s stance at the same time we’re implementing two major technology initiatives in my district for next school year: a new LMS (Schoology) and 1:1 laptops. As much as I’m excited about the new possibilities that these technology initiatives will bring, I have to also keep in mind the possible drawbacks or costs. For example, while a new LMS will certainly be a more efficient system for delivering instruction, that delivery requires students be connected and online more often than they already are. But isn’t there such a thing as being too connected?

This was just one of the many issues we discussed at our district technology committee meeting today. With teachers from across the district, spanning all grade levels and disciplines, these meetings are always a welcome—and much needed—opportunity to hear from other teachers, to think through issues both inside and outside our classrooms.

As we hashed out the rollout of the new LMS and 1:1 initiatives, we considered the separate but equally important issues of digital citizenship and digital health. Students may be so-called digital natives, more adept at navigating certain online spaces, but they’re also still kids. And kids make mistakes. And kids need trusted adults in their lives to help them get through those mistakes—or better yet, avoid them. What does it mean to be a good digital citizen? What do those specific behaviors look like? I’m not sure that students really know what those behaviors are. Too often, their need to socialize through their technologies—to connect to one another—trumps their judgement.

The digital health piece of technology use is also important—in what ways are our students so connected to their technologies that they’ve become addicted to them? Once, when I asked my students how many of them sleep with their phones next to them, several smiled guiltily. A few weeks ago, one of my students wrote about how groupchats on his iPhone have become a type of imprisonment. When he doesn’t check his messages—like when he tries to focus on his homework—he knows that hundreds of missed messages await him. Worse yet, if he doesn’t keep up with the groupchat, he then risks not knowing what his friends are planning or talking about the next time he sees them. It’s a no-win situation.

As I drove home tonight, I listened to a podcast that one of my colleagues on the district technology committee recommended.  Note to Self with host Manoush Zomorodi focuses on the effects of technology on our lives and explores the “essential quandaries for anyone trying to preserve their humanity in the digital age.” The particular episode I listened to ended with a few experts sharing their own strategies for unplugging, for managing the information overload that technology has inflicted on their lives.

Of the strategies they shared, two stood out to me. The first was to keep your phone in another room when you go to sleep. This simple move prevents you from checking your phone immediately in the morning, something I admit I have started to do more and more often.  The second strategy shared was to take a 20 minute walk outside. Research has shown that something as simple as a brief 20 minute walk inspires greater creativity. I believe it. Some of my own most productive thinking time is when I can’t use any technology—like when I’m taking a shower in the morning or when I’m driving to/from work. Not being connected to an external device actually allows me to make better internal connections, to synthesize ideas in a way that I can’t when I’m constantly distracted by my device.

And so with the spring weather upon us, I guess there’s no better time for a quiet walk around the neighborhood.

slice of life

This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit


  1. I appreciate so many of your questions here. The walk thing – I believe in hugely. I walk to work every day. Honestly it saves me. Time to let there be space to think.

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  2. We’re discussing Transcendentalism in my AP Language class right now as we edge toward reading Into the Wild – I love the points about nature and the connection we feel. So many of my students admitted to feeling so present when they’re outside, that sometimes they just stop what they’re doing to look up or look around and appreciate the world. I think walking around always staring at our phones makes that possible less and less. I have made a point to start saying to my students that my asking them not to check their phones in class should be them giving themselves permission to take a break from being constantly connected. As they get ready to leave class each period, they stand and pull out their phones in one fluid motion, as if the checking is part of standing and walking. It’s incredible and a bit scary sometimes. I found myself even silencing my phone yesterday so it wouldn’t even vibrate. I just wanted a break from the planet yesterday. I intend to take a walk today since it’s no longer snowing – definitely a good weekend for a break!

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    • I hear you! A great resource is also Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. I’ve shared small excerpts (I think it was also previous AP prompt) and Ss really responded to it. If you haven’t already, you should also consider taking PAWLP’s Literacy in Bloom course at Longwood Gardens – that was the last PAWLP course I took and it was a great way to finish up my +60. 🙂

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