Plan B

During my Masters studies at Western New Mexico University’s Gallup Graduate Studies Center (Go Mustangs!), I was lucky to have an excellent educational technology teacher. Her mantra, as sound today as it was in 2005, was always have a Plan B. On the rez, this made sense because wind might knock out the power, or the six year old Macs might just blink out, out, like brief candles. But here in shiny Switzerland, land of clockwork efficiency and whole cream, why bother? We’re one to one, baby. There are tablet laptops, iPad, smartphones, Skype chats with experts, Facebook study groups, Youtube channels, Smartboards, wireless webs of connectivity connecting us to Google Docs, blogs, Twitter, you name it. I regularly exhort the values of Google Documents over Word because it’s always there, documents don’t get lost, or ruined, or deleted. Always there. Almost always.

When an air conditioner starts bellowing smoke into the server room, when coolant sprays out into the room, when the fire department screams up to the front door, when a roar of chatter is followed by a hush signifying a collective awareness that this is not a drill, when the evacuation is over and we’ve shuffled back into the classrooms, it’s time for Plan B.

No Google, no email, no network drives, today was an ongoing exercise in the recognition of how connected we are and how invisible so many connections are. During prep time, I simply shifted to grading papers – analog papers. The grades, however, were impossible to enter into my electronic gradebook. I couldn’t copy rubrics because our copy machines require a login. Students arrived to class with presentations prepared, to school ready to print revised essays, and to club meetings that were announced over the intercom since our announcement blog was not accessible. In my classes, we shifted to texts and put off due dates or guided practice in writing that is stored online or on network drives. Plan B was an easy pivot today, but this was also well-timed for me. If this happened on Monday, Plan B would have been much weaker. Also, if I wasn’t well-stocked with texts and materials outside of the digital realm, today would have been a total wash. So Plan B may rely on possession of some physical copies of texts, an array of manipulatives, sets of data on paper, printed case studies, or whatever tangible thing is relevant to a classroom.

A good Plan B should fall within the arc of curriculum relevant to the classroom moment, but it can be a shift to something a little different. I found today that kids appreciated the situation because they were affected, too, even if the focus changed a little. A good Plan B can be:

  • an opportunity for students to explore content together in an unusual or creative way – if you’re stuck, why not do skits about pi? What is there to lose?
  • to work within existing cooperative structures to some purposeful end – make teams and give them some task. In a worst case scenario, students are learning to work together if they aren’t learning content or content area skills.
  • a chance for extension activities tangentially related to content or skills focuses – whatcha got? What fascinates you about your current area of study? Delve into it for a class period, do some document review from texts, go to the library and find historical fiction, line up pencils on the floor like divisions at Gettysburg and fight it out. Again, there’s nothing to lose with Plan B.
  • extended discussions of content allowing students to connect opinions to classroom material (or ideas beyond the classroom). My AP Literature class had a great discussion about transgression in part one of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go that focused on the “brainwashing” at Hailsham, student self-policing, and connections between being raised by parents and what students call “brainwashing” in the fictional setting of the novel. It was pretty awesome. I had scheduled a split between discussion and a team writing activity in Google Docs, which could have been done on paper, but I pushed the writing to the last 10 minutes of class and pared down to simply writing a thesis over the weekend, probably 10 minutes of homework, for discussion and revision on Monday. In this case, Plan B led to a nice, interactive discussion in which kids were paying attention to one another and digging into ideas of importance to them and to our world.

Flexible educators can usually salvage valuable learning from the ashes of a technological brushfire, and many more ways than this brief list exist. Still, today was a reminder and a lesson that we’re always just a broken hose or a stalled fan away from Plan B.

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