Secret diary of an Irish teacher: I love physical books and always will

Secret diary of an Irish teacher: I love physical books and always will

So, I put a link to a short story up for my students the other day. The story was by Michael Morpurgo and I was delighted to find an online copy. It can be challenging when you are relying on non-paper texts to teach.

What I hadn’t noticed was that it had been published in The Sun. Midway through the lesson, I glance into a student’s device. Along the margin are images of bikini clad women. These are first years: they’re always first years when I do things like this.

My error was not checking the source properly. My bigger error was in worrying they’d even notice. They didn’t so much as blink sideways. Twelve and thirteen-year-old boys and girls and there wasn’t a single snigger. At first, I thought this was a positive thing. Maybe we are like the Scandinavians now, free in our bodies, no longer hemmed in by Catholic Ireland.

Then another thought surfaced. They didn’t react because they are completely and utterly de-sensitised! Gone are the kids of the eighties, the boys longing for their mother’s lingerie catalogue or a sight of a character on TV in their swimmers.

Part of me grieves for the innocent excitement of the past, repressed as we may have been. A more significant part of me worries that these kids aren’t reacting because they live in a world where porn is totally accessible – and they know it.

Without a doubt, teenagers in Ireland are watching porn and they’re watching a lot of it.

Porn is just one of the reasons I’m not comfortable with iPad schools, but technology does offer educational benefits. Kids with learning needs can find it immeasurably easier to type and use screens and there are wonderful online resources to help with literacy and numeracy. Quizzes like Kahoot save my life on a weekly basis. The apps available are incredible. Kids can make movies, professional presentations and conduct academic research for projects.

Teachers can also mark work online, providing immediate, even voice recorded feedback. Simple sites like thesaurus.com can help kids to explore language at the touch of a button. I can just look at a word in a kid’s notebook and ask them to look up a better one without having to drag a colossal dictionary across the room. Music and film are wonderful too. Technology is undoubtedly a powerful learning tool.

But we need a balance. By using Apple classroom, I can keep an eye on what kids are doing in school. When school finishes however, those devices go home with them and it becomes the parents’ job to monitor them.

And what a job! Nowadays, your kid may have all their assignments on the iPad, but how are you to know what they’re really doing as they complete their homework? If your kid is accessing porn, you know they’re damaging themselves and the lives of other young people around them. Research suggests that 70% of young men watch porn in Ireland, 58% seeing it before they turn 13.

It is also a question of the type of porn being watched. This is porn that is damaging to boys and girls, porn that threatens one’s ability to understand what a healthy relationship looks like.

Schools need to teach young people what consent and sexual safety look like because they aren’t going to get it from porn.

When we establish iPad schools we must shoulder some of that responsibility. Parents must play a role too. Children aren’t necessarily safe in their own bedrooms anymore. Irish internet providers have been very clear that they won’t ban pornography, so parents must set physical and virtual boundaries in the home. But from conversations I have, there are plenty of parents who don’t feel they can ever separate their teenager from their devices. Ever!

If I’m honest, I think we should question the development of iPad-only schools. I understand their benefits, but I have seen too many teenagers freeze when I ask them to look up, engage, put their devices away. Kids like these are going home and spending hours on screens so we should at least protect them in school. Even with Apple classroom, it is sometimes unmanageable to monitor the online behaviour of thirty kids in a room. The school wifi protects them online but it doesn’t protect them from going completely off task and topic.

Unfortunately, parents are sold the iPad with the promise that they will no longer have to buy physical copies of textbooks and there are obvious benefits to kids no longer having to carry gargantuan bags on their backs. But I tire of kids forgetting to charge it or forgetting it altogether. I tire of the wifi not working. I also miss marking physical work, circling words and putting stickers on pages. Of course, research suggests that we learn better from books than screens but who knows, maybe we’ll evolve beyond that too. I secretly hope we don’t; I love physical books and always will.

In my ideal school, we would have iPads at our disposal. We would have technology in a class maybe every week or so. This is a digital world and as educators we must develop digital literacy. I’d just like to keep them in a cupboard.

Keep them for the good. And minimise the bad and ugly.

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