Is there an app for that?

“Can you get this, Ms. Broadbent?”

He’s seventeen. He’s very tall, with impossibly big feet and hands he has to grow into, like they’re gifts from a birthday he hasn’t had yet.  He has a tattoo on his arm, of what? A lizard? He also swears a lot, skips class regularly, and is rumored to have been in trouble with the law a time or two. He’s squinting intently at the cell phone in his hand.

“Take off your hat, please. And put your phone away.”

“Yeah, yeah… but can you, like, get this? I’m stuck and it’s drivin’ me crazy.”

I sigh. It’s going to be yet another cell phone battle.

As I approach his desk I wonder what it is he’s doing… playing some violent killing game? Some monotonous animated bird thing? His text won’t go through and he wants the wifi password?

I do the cell phone boogie every day in class. Some days I end up with five or six of them confiscated, buzzing and flashing on my desk, a collective distraction that impedes my instruction and makes me into the Mighty Oppressor.

No wonder they can’t pay attention to me.  That pile of cell phones on my desk generates enough static to power a small village, and they are usually in the kid’s pockets or hidden, hot, furtively texting behind the novel they are pretending to read. It’s hard to concentrate on Shakespeare when your phone is buzzing in your pocket and you know it’s so-and-so wanting to talk about such-and-such.

“It’s got five letters, but I don’t get the connection between the lemons and the pie.”

He’s playing a word game.

Mr. I-don’t-gotta-folla-yer-rules-no-how-no-way… is playing a word game?

I am totally impressed.

Four pictures, one word. His fingers are so big they dwarf the tiny keyboard.


“Slice. I think it’s slice.”

“Whoa, thanks. What about this one?”

We spend a few minutes bonding over a tiny screen. It’s fun. He smiles. I smile. We both get seriously bogged down by “overkill”, but another kid comes to the rescue. Other phones appear, playing the same game. Shakespeare rolls over in cyberspace. I really, truly, enjoy my teenage charges. I have a warm glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, there is some use to the technology I usually see as a hindrance. Was this… an educational moment? My god. I think it was… for me!

Over the next few days I am approached by several students playing this game.

“Whaddaya think this one is? An elephant, a suitcase, a tree and a car?”


I am surprisingly good at this game, and it gives me a strange kind of usefulness in the classroom that I enjoy. I’m good at Shakespeare too… but ya know… whatever…

There’s a suggestion that in the very near future all of the students in my classes will have some form of tablet in their hands. Not just the lucky few, but all of them.

I will have one too. And I will have to know how to use it.

Teaching with technology.

Meeting them on their level.

Engaging the 21st century learner.

Great. Angry Birds all around.

I am a cynic. I am…what… old? What will these young darlings do with free access to the internet… in class?


Temple Run.

Or… 4 pictures 1 word?

I know there is educational value to be found online. I get the whole “app” revolution. But please, how I am going to monitor and motivate and instruct when my class of thirty-two are all fixated on a screen is still a mystery to me. Then again, I remember a time when I was suspicious of bank machines and word processors, yet we seem to still be surviving as a species, so I suppose we will weather the “app” storm as well.

I tell my kids: “When I rode my triceratops to school, we were expected to read, dammit!”

“Is there an app for that?”

I have a theory.

I’m sure it’s not new.

I worry that as our children become more and more technologically independent, (or is it dependent?) they are potentially losing the building blocks to respect, perseverance, responsibility and empathy that younger generations had to develop in order to get what we wanted.

Perhaps I am an extremist. Or too conservative. Or a high school teacher.

When I was a kid, if I wanted to watch a movie, an entire series of events would have to happen first. I was responsible for all of them.

First, I would have to get permission from my parents. The only way I could see a movie was to go to the theatre; the VCR didn’t exist then and we only watched “The Walton’s” and “Lorne Green’s New Wilderness” on television. In order to get permission, I would have to behave myself at home. I would have to do my chores, be polite, do well at school… all of the things that had to happen to avoid a grounding.  Groundings were easy to come by. Manners were paramount.

If I was allowed to go to the movie, I then had to pay for it myself. I had to anticipate the expense and save the money, or there would be no movie.  Then, I had to arrange with my friends to meet, face to face, coordinate and discuss so we could all go together.

Then, I had to walk there. I don’t remember my parents ever driving me anywhere, and I never had the family car. My dad didn’t teach me to drive. (I still had a tricycle when I was ten, but that’s another story.)

So, the simple entertainment of watching a movie involved good behavior, fiscal responsibility, social interaction, and physical exercise.

Nowadays? These kids?

I wanna watch a movie… click. Done.

On the device they often don’t pay for themselves, with no restrictions, no effort.


And not just any old movie. We’re not talkin’ “Casablanca” here.

When I was about fourteen years old, I wanted to see “The Blue Lagoon”.  My parents freaked. It was a battle. I had to be angelic for weeks, and then they only would let me go to the matinee.  I really just wanted the popcorn. They were concerned about the sexual content.

Young people today can access porn online with distressing ease.


What do our kids need to do today to be able to watch a movie?


So where are those lessons being learned now? Manners, responsibility, relationships, health?

Ok… hopefully they have to behave well at home to be allowed to have that hand-held-device that gives them access to everything under the sun. Maybe they have to pay for it themselves. Maybe they have to go outside sometimes. I hope so.

I really hope so.

When I am told that as a teacher, I will be responsible for engaging my students using technological tools… I take a deep breath. I sigh. I go online and try to figure it out.

Since I can’t get apps on my phone, because it cost $69 from the grocery store, and I haven’t actually mastered texting yet, I googled “4 pictures 1 word” and what did I find?

Cheat sites. Answers.


I was excited about this moment I had with my kids, this eagerness they showed over a game that involved vocabulary. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was with my googling. I wanted to check out the vocabulary development, the educational potential, the mental benefits… cheat sites?

So… if I try to use this app in my high school English class, to build word development skills, critical thinking, problem solving… they can google cheats?

Now, to be fair, my little lovelies… “I got it! It’s “overkill”! Deal with that!”… were not looking up cheats. They were working together, happy, challenged, endearingly engaged.

So… how do I channel that? How do I tap that? Not to mention… connect that to curriculum outcomes?

I look at the four pictures my tattoo’ed young student shows me and I try to meet him on his wave length.

“Is it… minute?”

“Yeah! Yeah…‘cause it could be time, or like really, really small! That was a tough one!”

Yes. Yes, young man, it is a tough one.

Please… please… put your phone away.

Check out my novel: That Thing That Happened: Available on kindle now for $1.

2 thoughts on “Is there an app for that?

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  1. Another fabulous blog, LIbby. I’m a conspiracy theorist at heart, (and an unschooling/homeschooling parent in my soul.)

    Here on the chicken ranch, we do something crazy called unschooling – which basically means the kids design their own curriculum. The 17 year old has somewhere around 40 college credits under her belt. I didn’t push her. She just up and went – with me as chauffer, because, well, Virginia doesn’t allow twelve year olds to drive themselves to college. The other child, currently 13 years old, will probably take the odd college course when he decides he’s ready, but I can’t imagine him ever sitting through the lock-step mandates of a college degree, and Shakespeare? Bwahaha! He’s still trying to explain quantum theory and this whole Schrodinger’s dead/undead cat thang to his mother and sister.

    They’re not exceptional. They’re not “gifted”. They know how to push my buttons. But I think I may know a thing or two about how to push their buttons too.

    Gotta go for now. The thirteen year old has a film-making class across town and, usually impossible to wake-up, he is oddly present and awake on “school” days. What’s the name of that app? A mother’s gotta have something to occupy herself when waiting in the coffee shop while her kids follow their bliss.

    (Shakespeare. You’re too funny.)

    1. Thanks Sofie, your kids are lucky! I dont know much about homeschooling, but I do follow a few blogs which always have great idea I can adapt for my classroom, especially in Art. My four babies have all graduated and moved on with their lives and I cant help but be grateful that they avoided a lot of this techno-babble we are seeing in school. I long for simpler times! Enjoy your kidlets… if I was closer I’d love to sit in that coffee shop with ya and have a good ole yarn! 🙂

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