Handhelds in my Classroom: Rethinking Attentiveness

What does it mean to be attentive? Hands in lap, straight back, eyes fixed on speaker?

Perhaps a better question would be: What does it mean to be attentive in 2010?

Just like the meaning of ‘literacy’ and ‘intelligence’ evolve over time, I think ‘attentive listening’ needs to be reconsidered. Believe me, you have to rethink it if you allow students to bring their own technology into class.

Students need to learn that the old world which rewards compliance above all else is no longer waiting for them once they leave the bricks and mortar of schooldom. When you give someone your full and undivided attention, you usually do it because a) they are damn interesting; b) as a courtesy; or c) you are consciously or sub-consciously afraid of an external consequence if you don’t.

As a teacher, there is a voice in your head that says: “Your class is disrespectful and will turn to chaos if students do not always fix their gaze on you when you speak, and take turns raising their hand if they wish to speak. That other teacher down the hall who is good at this is a way better teacher than you. If others walk into your room and see students looking visibly inattentive, they will think less of you.”

Nevertheless, perhaps you should also let this voice have a say: “Your students can’t possibly ignore everything else they are doing or thinking and stare at you quietly all the time. You can’t possibly be that interesting. If you do have a Mentalist’s power to achieve this you are a very skillful brainwasher but not necessarily a teacher of a student in 2010. This isn’t to say that the ability to command attention is not a vital tool of a classroom teacher. On the contrary, so much of teaching is performative. But you should know that it’s not all about you.

But it’s hard. After all, we all have bad dreams.

My wife, a former chef, often tells me about the classic chef nightmare where you’re getting order after order and everything’s falling to pieces. I used to have the recurring teacher dream where I am doing everything possibly to get to school on time, but absurdly disastrous events like elephants on the road and car keys made of jello keep stopping me (not funny while dreaming it).

Still, if you were to survey 100 teacher candidates asking them to honestly admit what their #1 fear entering the classroom is, surely at least 99 would say, “I’m afraid the students won’t listen to me.”

The problem is that knowing whether a child is listening is a task fraught with so many variables. Culture, ethnicity, personality, disposition, the list goes on and on. That’s partly why we’ve suspended disbelief for so long by, well, forcing students to suspend disbelief themselves and act like good little teacher pleasers. We never even questioned the inherent defeatism in this goal, considering that in order to recognize and reward our teacher pleasers, by definition there must be ones that don’t exhibit this behaviour.

It’s even hard for me, Mr. iPod Man, a guy who’s TOLD the kids they can type on their cell phone while the teacher is speaking. My first impulse is to admonish. “EXCUSE ME, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE …” But I have to resist it.

As for backchanneling, I’ll let you know how that’s going in my next post (I’m still trying to get my own head around it;-)

On another note:

The first official week of allowing students’ own tech in the room has been a surprisingly easy one. Not as capital-B Big as I anticipated. There are definitely some bitter students in the school who (understandably) do not comprehend why it is happening in Mr. Lee’s class and not their own. And I’m not sure how even I feel about my classroom being a living, breathing advertisement for Apple product consumption. But the challenges have been relatively minor so far in a logistic sense.

I did have to remind some students the either day to not play the ‘I hid your iPod’ game as, and some are having difficulty avoiding the ‘OMG check this app out’ game as well, but let’s be a little understanding. I seem to recall that in the last workshop I went to teachers too were immersed in the same kind of iPhone fervour.

I guess the biggest challenge will come if and when the first kid loses or damages their device. Funny, though. They take really good care of their electronics.



  1. Interesting. Most schools I’ve worked in have a “no cell phones in plain sight” rule, but the students have all got them in their pocket. In the state of New Jersey, it is against the law to have any kind of “electronic signalling device” on the premises during school hours, a hold-over from the 1980’s “drug dealer beeper” days.

    I don’t have a problem with students having personal electronics on hand. What I do mind is that they’re growing up in a world where it is commonplace and totally acceptable to have the attention span of a gnat. Students are so used to “multi-tasking” that they can’t successfully focus on one activity for longer than 30 seconds or so without becoming agitated. This is especially true at the middle school level.

    In my subject area, music education, I teach attentiveness and focus as part of my curriculum. To perform a piece of music, you have to be attentive to multiple details simultaneously in real time and not become distracted by mental noise or external distractions.

    Personal electronics can be good tools, but that privilege can and will be abused. Cheating on homework and tests, posting pictures or sound recordings of your classroom online if you do something they don’t like, even ordering food and having it delivered to the classroom are all things that I’ve seen happen to other teachers. Teaching students to use that technology responsibly is a must, and monitoring their use of it is a necessity.

  2. I totally concur with everything you’ve said. Especially about the need to teach focus. I think music is just about THE best vehicle to teach it, in fact.

    It saddens me that serious music education In elementary is a rare thing in our Ed system over here.

  3. Royan,

    What you are describing is something that can not be rushed. Too many people talk about “pushing technology into the classroom” as though teachers are all at a similar comfort level with it. I still struggle with back channeling. It’s a concept that I think can work, but I need to come up with some specific discussion points. Here is one activity that has worked for me (so far): I set up the back channel during a documentary I show in class. Give each kid a partner and the pair gets a laptop. I use backnoise.com. The key is that it still makes me comfortable that I can monitor the situation, but the students still feel the freedom to work with the technology. I constantly throw questions out during the movie to see how they respond. Either way, it allows for a comfort level to start off with.

    Keep plugging away.

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