Utah school welcoming smartphones to art class
Woods Cross • Yearbook students sit in front of computers, their drinks and snacks at hand. They glance at their smartphones as they work, occasionally taking a break to check Pinterest or text.
It's up to them to track their work hours and make sure they complete projects. Woods Cross High School teacher Shon Feller doesn't stand over them and nag.
"At the beginning of my career, I used to take away a lot of cellphones just because that's what we did as teachers," said Feller, 30. "Then I started to realize they were a powerful tool they could easily look up an image on or look up a fact, so I said, 'You know? I don't want to do that. I'd rather teach them how to use them appropriately than take them away.' "
Feller's attitude toward technology and his ability to teach kids how to use it are part of what won him one of five KUED-The Salt Lake Tribune Teacher Innovation Awards this year. At a time when many educators are still learning how to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms, Feller has been a leader.
Like Feller, teachers across the state are progressing past the idea of forbidding student handheld devices and other personal technologies, said Rick Gaisford, educational-technology specialist at the Utah Office of Education.
"Once we get past the idea of banning them," Gaisford said, "it's how do we embrace them and use them educationally?"
Plus, being allowed to use their devices can often make students feel more at ease.
"It helps with the learning process," said senior Hailey Call. "Technology is not going away, and we need to know how to use it for learning purposes instead of just for fun."
Feller, of course, didn't win the $500 award just for letting kids use their smartphones in class. He also teaches students how to use various design programs as part of his photography, commercial art, 3-D design and other classes.
He allowed his beginning photography students, for the first time this year, to take pictures exclusively with their phones. For many students, the highest-quality cameras they own are on their phones, he reasoned.
And his commercial art students use the video-creating and -sharing app Vine to create 6-second videos.
"Just like when you're working with a client, you have a set of constraints you're working with," Feller said of Vine's 6-second limit. "It's more real world to work with constraints."
And he has helped the school, as a whole, move forward with technology. He helped organize efforts to raise money for the school's electronic marquee near Interstate 15, helped design the school's new logo, and converted its newspaper to a website.
On a recent school day, he worked with several students designing electronic posters. Why use cardboard, they wondered, when they could use the televisions throughout the school?
"It grabs more people's attention," said senior Taylor Willis. "I don't read or notice the posters often, but if I see them moving or changing, [I do]."
"He just comes up with ordinary things," added senior Brady Stahle, "and makes them amazing."
Psychology teacher Annette Nielsen, who nominated Feller for the award, said Feller has done much to bring the school up-to-date.
"If we don't keep up as a faculty and don't have leaders who can teach us to do these things," Nielsen said, " ... kids won't want to take our classes, and they'll fall behind."
Feller knows some teachers are intimidated by technology. He said for many teachers, it's just a matter of not being familiar with it.
But not everyone grew up with a dad who, like him, was into computers. Feller has always loved gadgets and has four computers at home. He even named one of his four children Mac, after the Apple computer ("I tried to fight for Pixar as a middle name," he said, "but my wife wouldn't go for it.")
Last year, he taught a technology class for educators at Brigham Young University.
He believes it's important to let kids use their phones and other devices in class so they know how to use them appropriately when they enter the real world.
That's why he tries to avoid calling students out during class when he sees them checking their phones. If they can do it and finish their work, great. If not, then he talks with them later.
"If it gets in the way of learning, then I might mention it," Feller said. "But I'd rather not. I'd rather they learn how to make those decisions.
"I'm trying to get the kids used to the idea that if they don't do it," he said, "it's not going to get done."
Innovators profiled in documentary, airing Thursday
Five Utah teachers have been selected for KUED-The Salt Lake Tribune Teacher Innovation Awards, which celebrate their creative use of technology in classrooms.
The awards were given in the categories of arts, math, language arts, science and social studies.
The winners will be profiled in a continuing Tribune series this week and in a half-hour documentary airing Thursday at 7 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.