If you walk into one of James Flynn's social studies classes at Platt High School in Meriden, you might be shocked at what you see. Kids on smart phones, tablets, laptops. They're on Twitter, Instagram, posting messages on a Facebook-like program called Edmodo.
But, oddly enough, most of them are not distracted. Students at Platt use social media as part of their curriculum.
Flynn said they're going to use it anyway, so he might as well show them how. "Why not show them how you can use it for education?" he said. "How they can search a hashtag, and connect to students around the world. How they can actually do research using Twitter."
Most high schools, including those that focus on media and technology, don't let students use social media in this way -- let alone teach with it.
But social media and technology play a key role in Meriden's new approach to education. Two years ago, the district received a sizable grant to help the schools develop a student-centered learning program.
What is student-centered learning? For Platt senior Jasmine McLeish, it involved her developing her own class and curriculum, through what's called a "personalized learning experience," or PLE.
"If you want to take a class that isn't offered at Platt High School, for me, you are able to talk to your guidance counselor, or I talked to the principals or the administration, and you can get that class personalized for you," Jasmine said.
Jasmine designed an advanced piano class and she also learned how to direct a play, Lockdown, which premiered last November.
"We worked for 10 months, doing everything a director would do, which is beating out the script, dissecting the script, casting, rehearsals, everything from lighting to design to the actual performance," she said.
Of course, giving teenagers this kind of freedom can be a double-edged sword. Some students might try to take advantage, or become distracted. That's where basic classroom management skills come in, Flynn said.
"There is a temptation for Instagram and going on all these other things as they're using their devices," he said. "But also teaching them how to self-regulate. How to avoid the distractions."
Meriden's student-centered approach also involves what's called "blended learning". Social studies teacher Dan Corsetti describes it as a way to use as many tools as possible to engage students.
"In our case, blended learning is a way of reaching students, not just through traditional means -- like lecture and through questions at the back of a chapter -- it's allowing them to explore answers outside of the textbook," Corsetti said.
This means using technology, the Internet, social media, taking online courses, or even connecting to other teachers or students online.
Of course, there is a financial cost to creating a school that's centered around the student. But Flynn said that if a district has the will, they will find the way.
"I think any district can really do it," he said. "You have to have the teacher buy-in though, and you have to follow a vision. And part of that vision was having students having a voice, having a choice, having more of a say in their learning."
It can be tough for some teachers, who are what Flynn calls "technology immigrants," when many students are "technology natives." One way to get past this, he said, is to have students train their teachers. Platt kids taught their teachers about apps and web tools.
"I think when a lot of teachers see what it means to the students and how they use it, I think there was even more buy in, because it wasn't just me telling them, another teacher saying, 'Hey, I use this great tool,'" Flynn said. "It was their students. And when your students are telling you how great this is and how it helps them with their learning, how can you be turned off to that?"
Production assistance for this story provided by students from the Journalism and Media Academy and Wilfredo Rivera. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation provided both the grant money for Meriden's student-centered program, as well as funds for WNPR's education reporting initiative.