How a “no devices” rule forced a teacher to modify her approach, with unexpected results.

I was back in my school after decades, this time as a teacher. The school had always been considered “alternative” — small class sizes, no uniforms, no exams until high school, no fear of teachers, and so on. A new No had been added over the years — no digital distractions. Every parent gets a copy of “Toxic Childhood” by Sue Palmer, and the school strongly discourages the use of all gadgets. Students are asked not to use computers, smart phones or the internet, even at home and not even for research. When interacting with students, teachers limit their use of computers to movies, documentaries or presentations shown in the music hall – no digital devices in the classrooms.

I’ll admit I chafed at these seemingly archaic rules. After all, technology had been my bread, butter and cheese all these years. As a new teacher, I was brimming with ideas and wanted to use all those excellent online educational aids. But lovely Anna, the unflappable and unofficial Queen of the Teachers, gently but firmly nudged me away from the digital and towards the real. It was a revelation.

The music hall was occupied the day the news about President Abdul Kalam’s death broke, and my disappointment at not being able to show my 7th graders an inspiring video about him quickly dissipated when I started off by asking the children what they knew about our phenomenal past President. Hands shot up all over class and the children vied with each other to share their bit about him.

A vigorous, often rowdy discussion was soon under way, driven by the children. In between, I read out short snippets from his autobiography, Wings of Fire. An incident from his childhood where a teacher tried to separate Abdul Kalam from his best friend (a Brahmin priest’s son) and send him to the back benches, sparked a discussion about social injustice and how it would feel to be discriminated because you are perceived as different and therefore unequal.

As I walked out of the classroom that day, I was thankful I hadn’t been able to let the children passively watch a slickly produced video. In a way that I had not foreseen, this ad hoc, loud and often runaway interactive session turned out to be the best possible tribute to President Kalam. Instead of the mother bird feeding her fledglings a pre-chewed and regurgitated meal, the fledglings had assembled their own meal. Of course, it was haphazard and not as polished or complete as a professionally prepared meal, but it was their own creation and engaged their senses and thought processes in a much more active manner.

Not being able to rely on digital crutches also made me a more creative and thoughtful teacher. It forced me to engage and stay engaged. I had to watch for opportunities to guide class discussions, though they often progressed on their own. Sometimes I challenged the children to think for themselves and question blind habit; other times they challenged me to justify my stance. I had to prod, nudge and sometimes holler, which certainly required much more energy than keeping them occupied with screens and digital content. It is well worth the effort. The inevitable digital world can wait a while; let the children stay in the real world for now.

Devyani Savakoor is a writer and teacher with a past...