Bringing the Phone Tree out of the Moth Balls

Never having played sports in school (or ever, really), the phone tree, as I understood it being used by soccer moms, never really entered into my life. I got the concept, but never needed.

When talking to a music teacher a few weeks ago about how he was using technology to care for students, the phone tree became suddenly relevant.

After a marching band gig, the teacher had sent a mass text to all of his musicians thanking them for showing up and performing. A simple act this teacher hadn’t thought much about until I’d worked to underline the importance of the ethic of care in the classroom.

It was a simple act that, after the instruments had been packed away, reminded the students that what they did mattered to other people and that they were valued.


It also got me thinking about a possiblity for phone trees in the classroom. Apps are great and I’m all for welcoming kids to bring tech into school spaces. Oftentimes, this transitions to a mandate or a platform requirement.

Enter, phone ring.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. At a class’ opening, each student is linked to another. A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until Z is linked back around to A in the end. (More of a phone ring, I’m realizing.)
  2. Working on anything – homework, projects, whatever – if C has a question she can’t quite figure out, she gets ahold of D via whatever means necessary. It can be text, IM, e-mail (gasp), phone call (double gasp). D and C work together find an answer.
  3. If they can’t, that’s cool. The ring continues. D says, “I think we need another brain,” and gets ahold of E. The ring continues.
  4. Knowing the system is in place, the teacher begins the next class asking if any questions or troubles made it around the ring since their last meeting. It’s a formative assessment gold mine.

Student are practicing social skills, it’s low-threat collaboration, it values the asking of questions. It’s low-cost and allows for the use of mobile technologies without requiring them or the installation of new functionalities.

P.S. In putting together the chain, I’d probably take personalities into consideration and try to build in as much student choice. The easiest way I’ve found is starting with a conversation of what it means to be connected to someone who supports your learning and then asking each student to write down the names of three students they know would support their learning if they were linked and one student who would probably derail their learning. After that, it’s up to teachers’ professional opinion to make matches that foster student growth.


Things I Know 183 of 365: It’s entirely possible I’ve never thought of what circle you’re in

Will the circle be unbroken?

– Ada R. Habershon

My junior year of college, Katy and I were in an argument. I didn’t know it at the time. The details remain a bit sketchy, even now. I do remember a discussion of being best friends and what it meant to me compared to what it meant to her. The values we each put on the idea of best friends versus friends differed.

I’d honestly never considered how those terms might have differing meanings in my life. I certainly had paid no mind to the idea that these terms might hold deep and abiding meaning to someone else. I learned a lot from that argument. I felt parts of how I see the world shift by the end of it.

Luke and I have known one another since I was in eighth grade. We have never lived in the same town. He is one of the people I know I can call who, if need be, will have his flight booked before we hang up. Our interactions, our social networking, take place with remarkable inconsistency.

Last week, Google threw its hat into the social networking ring with the release of Google+. Each day, I’ve been receiving e-mails notifying me of my addition to this or that person’s circles. It’s restarted the 21st century game of categorizing those I know into lists or groups or circles.

“This person is connected to you,” says the site, “wouldn’t you like to cement for us exactly how y’all know each other?” (I imagine Google+ to speak to me with a folksy southern twang.)

More than a few of the conversations feeding through my Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts have centered around how people were organizing their circles. They wanted to import contact groups from their Gmail accounts or replicate their lists from Facebook. Now, they needed to come up with a whole new version of how they were connected. Some, I’d imagine, even split-screened their monitors to make sure the connections were the same across platforms. I’d hate for Katy and me to be best friends in Illinois, but only friends in Philadelphia.

I’ll admit to currently having a dozen circles in my account.

The whole thing began to feel like an empty version of that argument with Katy 10 years ago.

I see the meaning of grouping those to whom I am connected online. Putting all the names in one place at one time makes the collective that much more daunting. It has value on the site, but that value isn’t something I carry around with me in life. When I get the chance to share a meal with Bud, I don’t think to myself, “Bud lives in my friend circle as well as my PLN circle, I will restrict conversation accordingly.”

The best moments are when those circles break, when the people with whom I’ve forged relationships exist in the ever-shifting cloud of relativity, when how I know you isn’t a categorical imperative.

Things I Know 48 of 365: It’s okay to leave the classroom

Today’s the day.

– Joan Cusack, as Sheila Jackson in Shameless

I once heard people who live in apartments are less psychologically sound than those who live in houses and condominiums where they can walk out their front doors and be outside. Something about instantaneous access to the outside world, an immediate exit, makes things ok in their brains.

After years of apartment living, I live in a rowhome now. I think there’s something to the claim.

All my evidence is anecdotal, but my theory is the same is true for classrooms.

Forget the argument that teaching with your door open opens a literal gateway to collaboration and being a part of your larger school community. Ignore the touted benefits of talking to those around you. I’m claiming here and now, that stepping outside your classroom is good for your brain.

We’re having what I am taking to be a false positive on Spring’s arrival in Philadelphia right now. Today’s high was in the mid-60s. I took a walk to get my lunch.

I taught better the rest of the day.

My colleague Matt Kay took it a step further. He took his last period class down the street to a park near the school, and they read. Then, he circulated among their literary clumps and peppered them with questions for discussion.

Yeah, yeah, it was good for the kids.

But, I saw Matt walking down the hall after he’d entered the school. The man was glowing. He’d dared to step outside the classroom, outside the school, and it showed on his face that he was all the better for it.

Too often, I meet teachers who see the hallways outside their classrooms as Tron-like rails leading them perhaps to the office but definitely home.

They shouldn’t.

Our classrooms are connected. Beyond anything electronic. Our classrooms are physically connected. The world connects not just virtually, but physically as well.

My friend Jeff teaches middle school students history. Today, they were squirrelly (as is their wont). He took them on a field trip – a walk around the neighborhood. When he got back, he was a better teacher. What he knew was good for his students turned out to be good for him.

I’m not suggesting all teachers need to take their students for a walk (it’s not a terrible idea).

Tomorrow, I’m going to eat my lunch outside, maybe with another teacher. You should too. If it’s too cold, go out to a restaurant that has cloth napkins. Step outside.

Crazy cat ladies die in apartment, not houses or condos (I did a Google News search). Let’s not be the crazy cat ladies of our schools.