I want to tell you about Ezi Burns. And if it ends up that my memory is faulty and this story isn't about Ezi Burns, but about another person, I apologize to all involved. So anyway, back to Ezi Burns. Or whoever.
It was about 17 years ago and I was teaching an eleventh grade honors English class. The class was about 30 students strong in a quaint old building in Washington Heights and we focused on European literature. One day, as I was walking around leading a discussion on something or other, I noticed that Ezi was busy writing something in his notebook. Now Ezi was not always the most active participant in class discussions but his grades were good, his writing was well structured and when he made comments, they reflected thought and an awareness of the topic at hand. He continued writing and occasionally said something to the point, and I worked my way over. I also noticed that a few other students were looking at his notebook and were less engaged by the conversation than they were by whatever was going on over there. Finally I sidled up close and looked over his shoulder.
Ezi had drawn a picture of me as Frankestein's creation (I refuse to call him a monster...that is a matter of interpretation and labeling). It was good -- you could clearly see the bolts coming out of my neck and the physical shape of the creation (at least as represented in popular culture) and still clearly recognize the face as mine. It was really, really good. Ezi looked up at me and said, "I bet you are going to tell me to stop doodling and pay attention in class." I said, "Nope, as long as you promise to make a copy for me." Later I told him, "I have no problem with your drawing -- you are really good and I know that it helps keep your mind focused so you can really understand the class material. But please be aware when your drawing becomes a distraction for other students who can't multi-task like that." After that, he was even more involved in class and gave me a copy of that Frankenstein picture and one of three students in the back of the class complaining about studying Hamlet while represented as Beavis and Butthead types. I don't think anyone else had ever validated either his drawing skill or his learning style before. I think I did right by not stopping what he needed to keep him focused. I only regret that since that time, I have lost the Frankenstein drawing.
Students learn in different ways and some need to keep their hands, or eyes, or even ears busy in order to keep their minds on task. Some students study with music on, others focus their learning while playing video games. The fact is, the notion of "focus" in not one that exists to the exclusion of any other sensory input. While we would like to think that everyone listens best when the teacher has the class's undivided attention in a room devoid of all distractions, sometimes, what is a distraction for one is a necessary aid for another. Now, please, do not think that I am advocating the anarchy which would result if we were to let every student create the individual learning environment in a communal setting. A student with headphones on, listening to Metallica, cannot hear a class discussion or lecture -- that mode of split focus works best when his eyes do the academic work through reading, so I won't let a student have headphones on during class discussion time (though I have let students listen to music while taking certain tests). A student who can respond best while he is moving around still cannot be allowed to roam during class time. But what is clear is that we cannot remove every potential "distraction" and not every other sensory input is a bad thing.
Now, before I make my next statement, please understand I am not here to undermine, question or otherwise imply a vote of no confidence for the policy in place in my school and others. I simply want to raise a topic for discussion.
In my school, we have a policy -- no cell phones allowed in class. I am just wondering "why not?"
The cell phone signals a huge scientific and cultural change in our social interactions -- we can now be reached at any time and we also expect response more quickly. Gone are the days of "you just wait til your father gets home and he hears about this!" Now, we call dad up and tell him right now. And with smartphones, we can check facts, access information and respond to others on the go. We no longer have to load ourselves up with data (address, directions, money, names) and hope that we don;t require something for which we are not prepared. We, as long as we know how to get the information, can have anything we want, anywhere we end up. So on one level I could be making the argument that a class should stop teaching academic skills and should be focused on "how to use your phone more gooder." But I'm not saying that. I'm wondering about the nature of "distraction" that a phone might present and how different that is from any other potential distraction.
What can a student do on a phone which would be destructive to a classroom? A student might make or receive a phone call. Yes. That's a problem. But it is easily proscribed in the same way that chatting with your neighbor or deskmate is forbidden. One could text other people (the equivalent of passing notes, I guess). And why is passing notes bad? Because it takes attention away from the class material -- well, if a student's attention is diverted by anything, then that ANYTHING becomes a problem, but when a student passes notes, do we confiscate his pen and paper? We read the note out loud (at least they do on television) in the hopes that the public shaming will discourage further infractions. Video chatting? Well, a student can make faces at another student IN the classroom, no technology needed [side note -- we used to try and make Zev Itzkowitz laugh in class by poking him while Mr. Grossman was facing the board. Zev didn't laugh, my fingers weren't confiscated, I was kicked out of class and I did poorly in math while Zev aced the class. Just saying]. If a teacher catches a student clowning around, the teacher uses whatever disciplinary method addresses the behavior, not the technology used. And the same is true with drawing -- if the student is drawing and not paying attention, the teacher doesn't take away the pencil. So why, if the student can remain focused on the class content while playing a game on his phone (sans sound) should the phone be discouraged any more than Ezi Burns' pencil and notebook.
All of this is compounded by two aspects of modern life. The first, as mentioned, is the shift in the expectations of availability. Carrying a phone means that whoever has to contact you will, without looking at the clock. For good or for bad, parents will text students during class and expect responses. As a responsible parent, I would never do such a thing. Fortunately, I am not a responsible parent. I should be able to tell a student, "If someone feels it is so important to contact you during school, then please respond quietly, or else you will be more distracted by the unknown message and that person will be more worried by your lack of response." I don't like having my students' attention split but life intervenes sometimes. Trust me -- A student will be more distracted by trying to hide a cell phone and text than by quickly texting while the phone is in full view. I recall participating in The Principals' Center through teh Harvard University School of Education. During this summer program, we were hit with hours of frontal lecturing reminding us that frontal lecturing is an outmoded form of instruction. The first rule was "Be Here" and to that end, cell phones were forbidden. It was fun watching grown men and women, teachers, principals and superintendents, sneak looks at their phones in order to combat the boredom of listening to a lecture about how to be more professional.
The second major shift is the ubiquitous presence of other technology in the classroom. isn't it the slightest bit comical that we make a rule outlawing phones while we establish a classroom with a one-to-one student to iPad ratio? And if not iPads, we allow laptops for note taking and often require them for collaborative projects or research during class time? What stops the tablet or laptop from being as much of a distraction if not more? There are even classes which require the use of a phone to take a quiz or respond to a poll or a prompt. If we see the value of the phone will we start drawing lines and saying "use your phone NOW but then put it away because it isn't useful"? The student will see through that, especially one for whom the use is a focusing aid, not hindrance.
The fact is, anything can distract a particular student -- the noise from the air conditioner, the perfume another student is wearing, the cars outside (I mean, why are students so excited by a police car driving by, or snow? SNOW...like they have never seen snow before...but the second a flake falls, I have lost them), a game of tic-tac-toe and, yes a phone. But some of these same things could be the best thing for that student's learning style and environment and some we simply can't get rid of.
I advocate a different approach which requires that a teacher be more aware of the particular needs and habits of each student. Simply watch them. Let them choose their behavior knowing that the consequence of being distracted is not knowing what is going on which the teacher is sharp enough to notice. See what behaviors really pull their minds, not just eyes away and call them out on those while letting them use whatever other means keep them invested mentally. It won't seem fair to an outsider and it takes much more work for the teacher, having to monitor involvement every day instead of simply assuming it, but the results should be a class which feels respected and empowered and which knows the natural consequences of not living up to a reasonable expectation. This might just lead to real learning.
So in summary, if anyone knows Ezi Burns, ask him if he still has that picture so I can get another copy.