Frank Franz’s history and government classes are one of the few times at Madison High School where it is okay for students to use their cellphones.
Toward the beginning of each class, Franz asks his students a question of the day, which usually is multiple choice and focuses on the lessons planned for discussion.
Both the questions and answers were projected from a PowerPoint presentation onto a screen in front of the class.
“If you have your phone and wish to vote, get ’em out,” Franz shouted over the shuffle of students eagerly pulling their cellphone phones from backpacks.
Heads down, students texted responses to Poll Everywhere, a live-response application available for free to audiences smaller than 30 people.
As answers are texted in, responses pop up on the projection screen showing how many students had responded and what answers they favored. For those without cellphones, Franz encouraged them to just think of an answer.
Out of the 29 students in the class, 17 used cellphones to vote last week.
“Depending on their texting [phone plan], it’s usually free. If they don’t have texting it’s 8 cents,” he said.
Students also can use laptops to submit answers on the Poll Everywhere Web site.
Attracting students’ attention and getting them to focus early in the class is the whole point, said Franz, who began using Poll Everywhere three years ago after seeing it used at a teaching conference he attended. He said neither he nor the principal have received a complaint from parents about students using cellphones in class.
Cellphones are a simple communication technology that has made a big difference in his class, Franz said.
“All you do is you load up a question,” he said. Franz creates questions or they come from the textbook, previous tests or other teaching tools.
“What I get out of it is [knowing] do they know the answer? Are they listening? Are they doing the readings? ... It’s not a distraction for me. They like it because they get to take their phones out in class. I think they find it more engaging than if I was to put a question up and wait for [vocal] responses,” he said.
Students said the question of the day is one of their favorite parts of their school day.
“It gets you into it,” said senior Michael Zapata, 17.
Fellow senior Morgan Cooper-Okerchiri, 17, said: “It makes him seem more relatable because he’s not a regular teacher who would yell at you for taking out your phone. … It’s more fun because it’s more interactive.”
For years, Fairfax County public schools has encouraged increased use of technology in classrooms. This year, several high schools across the county made the switch from hardcover to digital textbooks, which are accessible to students through laptops handed out during classes.
To fully utilize the availability of laptops, Hayfield Secondary School teacher Ken Halla, whose class was among the first to use digital textbooks, has created blogs on class curriculum.
Halla said this technology has allowed him to better connect with students as well as to share teaching tips with other educators. His blogs about government and history receive about 10,000 hits per month.
“Teachers are collaborating much more. When I started teaching, you shut the door and collaborated with yourself,” Halla said. “I thought we could do more, not just across the county, but across the state, across the world. That’s why I started” blogging in April 2008.
“What I didn’t anticipate is that it’s kind of blown up.”
With his three blogs combined, Halla has posted more than 2,060 entries.
“To me, it’s just a way for me to be a better teacher and connect with the kids,” he said. “We are talking about [political action committees] and something called super PACs.”
To help explain the difference to students in a language they can understand, while also being entertaining, Halla pulled a video clip from Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report.” The Comedy Central satirist recently interviewed Trevor Potter, a campaign and elections lawyer who formerly served as commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
High school students would not usually have access to someone like Potter, but through the blog and using video streaming they can, Halla said.
“No one asked me to do it. I’m not getting paid more. It’s just me being me. It’s changed the way I’m teaching. When I started teaching it was film strips and movies. … I think teachers should be changing and evolving,” he said.
Hayfield photography teacher Deirdre Forgione also is using blogs as a way to connect with students. Last May, she started a blog called “ArtLikeWhoa,” on which she posts students’ works from her class.
“I thought it would be cool for the kids to see their work out there and know other people outside of the school could see their work,” Forgione said. “I had middle school [students] last year and they loved it. Hits went sky-high, so I know the kids were showing their parents.”
This year, Forgione is preparing to post art from her high school students on artlikewhoa.wordpress.com.
“It’s sometimes a struggle to decide what goes on there,” she said. “If a kid’s work is strong, I put it up there, or if it’s a piece the kids are really proud of. … It gives the kids a sense of pride to be able to say, ‘Oh, my teacher picked my work to put on the Internet.’ ”
Forgione also is looking at Twitter and other social media to promote her students’ work and connect lessons with pupils. Using social media to connect with students is important, teachers said, because it’s a medium that speaks to the youth.
“I think it shows that we’re not stagnant in our use of technology. That we’re trying to do more,” Franz said.