The New York Times recently published a lengthy article entitled “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/technology/21brain.html?_r=1&ref=education). If you’ve been around kids recently or have felt the effects of a diminished attention span yourself, you don’t even need to read the entire article. It’s an important issue to put out there – we’re all operating differently in our increasingly technology-centered, wired existence.

My biggest pet peeve as a teacher was student use of cell phones. Some of my students even had not one but TWO phones. Texting – especially when done by nimble fingers well trained in the placement of letters on the phone’s keyboard – is extraordinarily hard to control when you have a class of 30 kids. On more than one occasion I would swipe the phone from the offending student’s hand mid-text and rewrite their message to say, “hi, this is ____’s Spanish teacher. Put your phone away and pay attention to your teacher!” Or, if I was feeling especially cheeky, I would write a message in Spanish.

Not that my students’ constant use of cell phones was ALWAYS a problem. One of my favorite stories to tell comes from a day I stayed home. A student texted me from my class to say “where are you?! The sub is awful!” I decided to see what would happen if I called her. She picked up, and we had a nice little conversation while she sat two rows back from the oblivious substitute sitting at my desk. I asked if everyone was doing their work, and she said “yes!” And of course, the students near her realized she was talking to me and started shouting “hi miss!” so that I could hear them. It was actually very cute.

Back to the subject at hand, though. I know that I feel ever closer to diagnosable attention deficit disorder now that I a) sit in front of a computer all day and b) own an iPhone. Like my students, I often give into the temptation to get on my phone during moments of down time when I really ought to be resting my brain. We aren’t doing ourselves any favors.

Cell phones started to become commonplace while I was in high school. When I graduated in 2003, most of my friends had access to one family phone that they took with them if they went out in case they needed to make an emergency call. We all got phones when we went to college, but the texting craze didn’t start until about two years later.

I am thankful that I am not in high school now. Between texting and Facebooking, I would have a very hard time paying attention.

When I would further attempt to enforce my no cell phones rule, I took phones away. Usually I could do this by simply sticking out my hand while standing next to the student; I got pretty good at taking phones without stopping instruction. Inevitably, though, someone would make the argument that he or she needed the phone. “My mom might need to talk to me!” I would then explain that in “the old days” parents would just call the school and have a message sent to the student or teacher. Whenever this conversation came up, students never bought that argument. They (and as far as I can tell, their parents) believe that it is their right not only to have a phone with them but to use it.

Enforcing a no-texting policy takes quite a bit of work. Unlike other negative behaviors, students usually can’t (or won’t) acknowledge the rationale behind putting phones away. “Everyone’s doing it” is a lot harder to counteract when you aren’t talking about an obviously destructive behavior like smoking. I personally believe that enforcement here has to go beyond the usual method of reinforcing positive behavior and/or assigning consequences to violations of the rule; I think we need to just take phones away from students so they’re not tempted to text.

Some schools are starting to explore this, but it’s logistically complicated. Even if I were to collect all cell phones at the beginning of each class, there are lots of things to figure out: how do I know that I got all of the phones? What if I catch someone using one later – what’s the consequence? How do I make sure that each kid gets his/her cell phone back rather than taking someone else’s?

Teachers are up against a culture war of sorts. Today’s students have a harder time understanding why they should bother to read the whole book for English class rather than just using SparkNotes to know what happened. Motivation to learn – and what learning actually means – is getting lost in translation to the digital age. I applaud teachers who incorporate technology into their classrooms, but that’s not the answer for this underlying problem. Students need more intrinsic motivation, and from where I sit, that means they should be more challenged – make it harder for them to sacrifice those ten seconds of attention if they are to understand the lesson; grade them on the details of a book, not the basic plot line.

To start with, though, maybe teachers should just reserve the right to text the student’s mom if the kid isn’t paying attention…


About educationescritora

I'm a former high school Spanish teacher and central office employee. I believe that excellent public education will be a catalyst for positive social change in our country and that we cannot wait any longer to deliver the teachers, knowledge, and skills that our students need.
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