Teacher Talk: Tech Policies that Connect Students with Humanity
Updated: Sep 12
As the new academic year commences, our teacher brains are swirling with a litany of questions about technology use—perennial ones like cell phone use and new ones like generative AI, whose arrival in the form of chatbots last winter upended schools as we all raced to figure out how to respond. A particularly punchy line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden frequently comes to mind every time I am in a conversation about ChatGPT or Google’s Bard or any of the other dizzying array of new platforms: "We don't ride on the railroad. The railroad rides on us." For Thoreau, the railroad was the technology of his day, and his words here imply that it, quite literally, has the potential to crush us. Live simply, Thoreau urges, and retreat into the woods. Well, Thoreau, that’s pretty much impossible, but thanks. Tech is here to stay, and I—along with my fellow educators—are far more optimistic about how we can attempt to harness its powers for good, even if we still have a lot of questions about how that might look.
In our last post, “In Your Own Words: ChatGPT and Other Intelligences,” Kate Schenck taps into many of these questions, reflecting in particular on what we are giving up when we turn our voices over to technology, and we encourage you to take a look. Today, though, we have invited a number of educators and school administrators to weigh in, asking them: What is on your mind, we asked them, as you enter this new school year? What role(s), if any, will technology, specifically cell phones and generative AI, play, in or out of your classrooms? How do you see tech policies supporting student well-being, academically and/or emotionally?
Note: To honor our school’s Honorbound tradition—and to acknowledge that these are all human voices, not AI creepers—all authors have followed the ritual of placing their initials next to Honorbound. 😀 Enjoy!
When the school year started a few weeks ago, I was excited about our two new technology policies. First, we had an updated cell phone policy—no cell phones except at lunch and if you’re outside – and a new, standardized AI policy—no AI use unless explicitly stated it could be used on an assignment by a teacher. However, it took some soul-searching to figure out why I was jazzed about these changes. I don’t think of myself as a Luddite, and I know kids will continue to use their cell phones (constantly) and AI (as a tool). So, why was I pumped about the new guardrails around these pieces of tech?
To answer this, I had to take a detour. In particular, the new cell phone policy forced me to evaluate my own tech habits. Like many, I mindlessly check my phone at stop lights, when walking, when I hear or feel that phantom buzz… Now that my students (and ideally I) do not have our phones during class, I’ve been trying to create more space away from my phone, too. Most concretely, I’ve started a “don’t touch the phone in the car” rule. I was SO PROUD the other morning when a text came in shortly after I left home en route to school, and instead of reaching for my phone, I spent the next 10 minutes finishing listening to a podcast and then had my car read the text to me.
So, why did this feel like a big win? It got me thinking—it’s nice to protect our attention and be reminded that not everything is urgent. We have become so used to a life of constant interruptions. Nothing matters because everything does—my attention is being diverted every 30 seconds. If this is the case, how can I, or my students, trust themselves? So here is my big takeaway—I’m hoping these two new policies increase student confidence. I don’t want them to feel like they need their phones, to check the like count on a recent post or because of FOMO on some viral thing everyone is talking about. Giving their undivided attention to things in the real world is important, and a gift!
The idea of confidence, being sure of yourself on your own, connects to AI use, too. I don’t want my students to feel like they need AI to think for them. Last year, I had a few cases of students plagiarizing with AI, and when I chatted with the students, they said they turned to this technology in moments when they felt overwhelmed and like they weren’t smart enough to complete a task. I want them to have confidence in their skills and knowledge, using AI when appropriate as a tool, and not as a crutch. The cell phone and AI policy together put more emphasis back on the human elements of school—and helping the young humans in my classroom to be more human.
Caitlin Rathe, History teacher
I remember back in 1974 BC (Before Computers), our class was assigned to complete a state book report. We chose a state, did research, and completed a book report. Our school library had a series where there were 50 books, one for each of the 50 states and that was our resource. Lucky for me, my parents were firm believers in education, so we had two sets of encyclopedias, Collier’s Encyclopedia and World Book Encyclopedia. I had my three resources and threw myself into researching California’s state flag, bird, flower, and motto. I crafted my book report using construction paper and Big Chief tablet paper binding it with three gold fasteners. Overall, I enjoyed completing the book report, and it did spark my curiosity to check out more state books from the library, but I wonder how much I really learned from that assignment after spending a considerable amount of time paging through the books for facts and figures. I wonder if leveraging generative artificial intelligence could have changed this assignment from facts and figures to a more interesting learning opportunity where I could have asked more thoughtful questions. Who have been the most influential people in California’s history? How are populations distributed throughout the state and why? Could generative AI inspire and motivate today’s students to get curious and ask deeper, thoughtful questions because it is no longer a laborious task to gather and filter information? In George Couros’ blog about Starting with the Question to Develop Curiosity and Better Solutions he discusses the idea of beautiful questions. He notes,
In “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger, he talks about how asking great questions is essential for growth and progress in not only the learner but society as a whole:
On some level, we must know – as the business executive knows, as the schoolteacher knows – that questions are important and that we should be paying more attention to them, especially the meaningful ones. The great thinkers have been telling us this since the time of Socrates. The poets have waxed on the subject: E. E. Cummings, from whom I borrowed this book’s title, wrote, Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question. Artists from Picasso to Chuck Close have spoken of questioning’s inspirational power.
Today, in the year 2023 AC (After Computers), our students have a tremendous opportunity to begin asking thoughtful questions that will promote even further curiosity and deeper understanding.
With all the flurry of excitement about these new tools, we must also question generative AI information and answers. Where did this data come from? Who wrote the algorithms to filter and generate this answer? Is this information biased toward certain populations or genders? Is this information current and relevant?
As a computer science teacher, I was instantly intrigued with this new technology and began to explore its capabilities. Could ChatGPT do complicated math problems? Could it write Python code? It could! I then pushed harder and asked MagicSchool.ai to write me a week’s worth of lesson plans to introduce drones and include formative and summative assessments. In less than a few seconds, the software completed its work and returned lesson plans with objects, activities, and assessments. But upon looking closer at these lesson plans and rating them with Microsoft’s 21st century learning design rubrics covering topics like Knowledge construction, Collaboration, Real-world problem solving and innovation, Skilled communication, Self-regulation, and Information and communication technology, the lessons fell short. Like my state book report, these lessons were based on traditional pedagogy where students were not asked to use skills they would need for life in a modern, rapidly changing world. Although this technology can help reduce some of the manual drudgery of sorting and filtering information and push us to ask better, more beautiful questions, we must not forget that the human mind is also a beautiful tool that can think critically, be creative, and most importantly innovate for the future.
Eve Juarez, Computer Science teacher
As a math teacher and mom of teenage girls, I am equal parts excited and apprehensive about the outsized influence that cellphones and AI are having on the Fall 2023 classrooms. I worry about my daughters’ screen time a lot. I am grateful for our new cell phone policy as I hope that it will create a habit of being present in school. As technology becomes more powerful, we need clear boundaries around its use and role in our lives.
Conversely, in mathematics I am excited to experience the impact that AI will have on the math classroom. Ironically, I see AI as a transformative tool that is humanizing mathematics learning. As math teachers, we are constantly challenging ourselves to find new ways to support our students in building problem-solving skills, developing resilience through struggle, and growing their curiosity for patterns in the world around us. Tools like our TI Nspire calculators transformed my classroom more than a decade ago. More recently, online tools like Mathway and Photomath have snuck onto student laptops and phones, pushing us as educators to rethink what we value in mathematics. Technology allows us to go deeper into concepts, enabling students to see and experience these patterns in ways that mean something to them. These tools spark questions—that with technology, we can now explore. It creates opportunities for students to see math for what it truly is: a beautiful and complex set of patterns that make sense of the world we live in. It is my hope that the advent of AI will empower our students to deepen their relationships with mathematics, owning their math learning in ways that were not possible before.
Claudia Mathison, Math teacher
When I think about belonging, I think about our connection with one another. Cell phones are in essence a great tool to stay connected and social media has the potential to make us believe that our connections are strong. This year, I am excited to start the year with the new policy in place to help students stay off their phones in every corner of our campus, with the exception of the cafeteria.
In today’s fast-paced and virtually connected world, it is easy to underestimate the power of face-to-face connection. Sitting in the classroom a few years back while exploring the intricacies of human connection, I learned about our brain’s ability to help the person in front of us regulate their emotions and foster connection with mere eye contact. This of course necessitates that we look at each other and stay off the screens. Belonging in any campus or any community begins with the ability to authentically connect with one another. Removing this barrier can only help us become more attuned to others by observing them, by learning about them, by engaging in conversation and staying present. For students who struggle to feel connected within the community, this sort of “forced” idea to stay present and engage with one another may have the potential to turn that around. For students who may feel chronically stressed and question whether they belong in the community, being physically seen and called in to engage may have the power to challenge their experience and feel seen. Learning how to stay attuned with one another is a skill that can be developed and fostered through the culture of any community. I am hopeful that by creating guidelines and yes, sometimes policies, we can help students see and experience the strength of creating real-time connections with their peers and people around them.
Estela Ayala, Former Spanish teacher and Director of Community and Inclusion
Last Friday, I stumbled, zombie-like, back to my cubicle after three rounds of thesis workshops. Step into any of my English colleagues’ classrooms on these days, and you are guaranteed to see a cool array of these workshops: musical theses, where students circulate the room to a classroom soundtrack; makerspaces, where students map out the backbone of their essays on desks or whiteboards, adjusting their main claims as necessary; or perhaps a class workshop in Collaboration Space, a shared online space in their Microsoft OneNote classroom notebooks. On that particular day, my students were in pairs, discussing their ideas on paper while I circled the room in a series of micro-conferences. At one point I paused, looked around the room, and just felt joy. Here were seventeen young women deeply invested in each other’s ideas—"no, the protagonist Edna did not have a choice,” “we should distinguish between stories of war and stories of drawing rooms,” “shift that ‘so what’ to the close of the sentence for more impact”—and not a cell phone in sight, nor any attempt to turn to ChatGPT. The real work of writing—and thus thinking—happens in these moments, so much so that my colleagues and I, even before the birth of generative AI, have been invested in ensuring we make space for the process of writing in the classroom.
Writing is hard and messy. The teaching of writing is, if possible, even harder—and certainly messier. Of course, it doesn’t have to be. My colleagues and I could just assign writing, not teach it. If teaching writing is the chaotic image of a classroom workshop, assigning writing is the clean, quiet image of handing students a prompt, reminding them of key requirements (thesis, topic sentences, evidence, etc.) and then sending them off to write alone, at home, until the essay is due. Maybe there is a peer workshop day or two, maybe not. Much of my high school writing was assigned. As an example, I give you a prompt from my junior year AP Language class: “After reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, write an essay about how the protagonist Janie’s three pieces of clothing—an apron, a head rag, and overalls—reflect three significant points of her development.” I would rather pull my hair out than give a student that prompt today: not only does it prohibit deep, creative thought and student choice—and thus student voice—it is definitely a prompt that any generative AI platform could answer with some level of effectiveness.
So much of my school’s policies on cell phones and generative AI reflects what we are trying to do when we teach, not assign, writing: cultivate empathetic young humans who have the confidence to engage in written and oral conversations about (sometimes difficult) questions that matter to them.
Young people who can look each other in the eye and offer honest, critical feedback. Young people who can (hopefully!) then accept that feedback with grace and discernment. Young people who see value in the messy, sometimes chaotic, writing processes where magic really can happen.
Megan Griffin, English teacher
Working at an all-girls school, we spend most of our time thinking about the formation and development of the teenagers with whom we have been entrusted. It is our responsibility to pay attention to research, data, and trends in education, especially regarding teen girls and their well-being.
When I was a teenager, the only questions adults were asking about technology were related to digital safety: maintaining privacy, avoiding harmful content, and not friending strangers. Now, our conversations about technology must also include digital etiquette and digital health. While social media itself can be used for good and positive interactions, we are aware of how time spent on social media correlates with higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, body dysmorphia, and suicidal ideation, and it disproportionally affects teen girls.
We know many of our teens spend large amounts of time on social media outside of school, and we know the burden of promoting balance and healthy digital boundaries cannot rest on parents alone. Following the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory in May on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, our school joined many others and made the uncomfortable decision to create more boundaries and limitations around cell phone usage during the school day. This is not about educators being against technology; rather, it is about us being for filling our time at school with things that will help us thrive as a community. As a school, we want to take proactive measures and create a culture of good practices that lead to better digital health and balance among everyone in our community, both students and adults.
Amanda Briones, Dean of Students
This summer, I attended a weeklong workshop for new admissions directors, as I am starting this school year as a new admissions director. During one of the sessions on marketing, the presenter asked us to jot down what we thought parents and students would say are the most important factors for choosing a school. Of course, many of us leaned into the buzzwords and wrote down things like “rigor,” “differentiation,” “state-of-the-art facilities,” and “college preparation” when we put ourselves in the shoes of prospective parents. As students, we noted “technology,” “cool classes,” and “nice teachers” among other things. However, when the presenter revealed the answers from the article she was citing, none of our parent or student answers made the list. And as she listed what parents and students are truly looking for when choosing a school, two words immediately came to mind—community and connection.
First and foremost, parents want a safe and caring community, whether choosing where their child will go to kindergarten or their teen will go to high school. Though parents and students may not be talking about the same kind of safety, students described desiring a place where they can be themselves, test themselves and make choices for themselves, which sounds like a safe and caring community to me. Both parents and students also described wanting a culture of connection; whether looking for values and mission-aligned school leadership or positive and productive relationships between teachers and students, they want to feel connected to the community. To be honest, I was relieved when I started synthesizing the factors into these two categories, because I thought to myself, if there’s two things I can do as Director of Admissions, it’s community and connection.
When our administration rolled out our campus cell phone policy and statement on the use of AI in the classroom, I was grateful, because, again, my department is in the business of community and connection and that’s going to be a tough sell if everyone has a cell phone in their face while replacing original thought with AI-generated shortcuts. Aligning the value we place on our students’ health and well-being with our policies on technology use only strengthens our community and reinforces connection, which prospective students and their families will experience when they are on our campus. Similar to the question the marketing consultant posed to my cohort of new admissions directors this summer, I like to ask all visiting students, “What are you most looking forward to about high school?” Every student’s response is a variation of making new friends, meeting new people, trying new things, or feeling a sense of belonging, which reinforces to me that we’re on the right track by prioritizing community and connection in everything we do.
Jessica Bailey, Former English teacher and Director of Admissions