Chapter 1: Be Present

“We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”  -poet T.S. Eliot


As a teacher, do you demand your students be “in the moment?” Chapter 1 Key points For those who have gone through education programs, this is what is commonly referred to “on task” behavior.  How do we encourage our students to “be present” in any situation, but especially in the age of mobile devices and digital distraction? This is a new age of classroom management and yet it will seem familiar at times. Can you tell when a student is daydreaming? Can you tell when a student is lost in the device? Can you recognize “iPad eyes” or that moment when a student is off task on their iPad?  As a parent, do you allow phones at the kitchen table? This is a new age of parenting and yet familiar.  Do you have a sense of how much time gaming takes up each day? Can you sense a stream of constant interruptions from pop-up notifications?  Do you model the behavior you want to see?

Avoiding Distraction

The human experience is, in part, unique as we are some of the very few animals on the planet that employ tools to accomplish work.  Human societies have evolved as new tools emerged-think the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Industrial Age, and now, the Information Age.  Take a moment and think about the evolution of the phone in your lifetime.  What was once a wired device with one function (voice communication) is now a wireless mini-supercomputer capable of hundreds of functions!

Our focus here is not on the type of tool but the type of interaction we want in any given moment.  We have a conscious choice every time we pick up a tool whether or not that tool will enhance the interpersonal experience in our home or in our school.  For example, if as parent, you want to have a family meal and encourage family members to share experiences from the day, will a smartphone or tablet enhance or diminish that experience? If your son or daughter can connect to the outside world and “leave the table” mentally, then the experience is diminished much like watching TV while eating. However, what if your son wants to share a YouTube video clip of a classmate performing in assembly? If he connects to the outside world and displays it for the family to enjoy, then the experience is enhanced. In each case, there are different expectations for the shared experience.

As adults who work with young people, we are more often than not responsible for setting up “the learning environment.”  Regardless of the activity and the technology used, you need to set the expectation (and model it) that students “be present.” Being present means being in the moment and fully engaged with an individual task or those sharing an experience.

Even if you set this expectation with the students, understand that there may be a generational difference in what “being present” represents to each of us.  Being present may mean totally disconnecting in some situations.  You might ask the students to put the iPad mini in airplane mode or do not disturb mode to eliminate push notifications or iMessages that would distract them.  Being present in other situations may mean a student is reading from an iBook, but moving between apps to look up and share information with you or other students.  Being present may mean closing your screen in the theater while the Head of School shares his goals, but being present may also mean you are looking up a Google Doc during a meeting to reference the minutes from the last meeting.  The important distinction is whether what you are doing enhances or improves the experience or whether it diminishes the richness of the experience.

Digital_Citizenship_Resource_GuideUnderstand that IF students allow themselves (choose) to be distracted by the school-issued device or their own phone during class, it is because they are likely bored or curious.  If they are bored, perhaps you can reconsider what you might do to make your lesson more active or engaging (student-centered).  If they are curious, it could be they are off an a interesting and relevant tangent and not gaming or checking out the latest postings on Instagram.  Here is a great, short piece from NPR on a recent experiment about “digital distraction.”  What does this study mean for you as a teacher? Should you focus on the device, or the reasons behind “the wandering mind?”

Research is exposing “The Myth of Multitasking,”  but students and teachers will often try to do more than one thing at a time.

Read this NPR transcript on “the myth” or try this short video clip on the topic.

Address this myth head on at the start of the year and discuss it with you advisees or students.  Consider having them access the resources at The Brain Rules website.  In particular, work through the material under Brain Rule #4 on attention.  It is important to help your students expose non-productive behaviors and help them set the expectations for productive behaviors in a shared workspace.


Take Action

Practical ideas that help you use the information above in your classroom. 

Before class

Plan in advance for transitions and set clear expectations for use.

  • Course expectations/Display Signage.
    Did you discuss and publish your expectations at the start of the year or semester? Did you discuss what “be present” means in your room? If there are some rules for iPad use in your classroom, clearly display them. Keep it simple.  If you can involve your students in setting the expectations, even better (may vary by grade).
  • Plan warm ups. Put a prompt on the board for students to start on when they enter your room until all are assembled and you call roll.  How do you get students engaged from the start (a “hook”)?  Perhaps you can start with a Socrative app quiz that is a formative assessment of last night’s reading?
  • Plan “check in” time.  Do you mind if kids briefly check email or messages? If not, give them a “check in” time at the start of class. Put a timer up on the screen.  Make it clear when this time ends.

During class

You first duty as a teacher is supervision. Are you actively supervising students and establishing natural and logical consequences for off task behaviors?  If students are not engaged and escaping into the iPad, what can you change about this lesson or their behavior?

  • Airplane Mode, Do Not Disturb, Notifications (off). Technical solutions do not get to the root of the problem (lack of engagement), but these are options for students who get distracted easily by alerts or leave the app to surf the internet. In Settings, you can ask students to…
    …turn on Airplane Mode. This will disable wireless access.
    …turn on Do Not Disturb mode. This prevent sounds and vibrations from incoming texts, face time, etc… (could be their parents)
    …go to Notifications, and turn off “allow notifications for Messages, Facetime, or other bothersome and distracting apps
  • Take it and keep moving (punish in private).  If a student is off task or not meeting a class expectation/rule, just walk by and take it without any drama and set it on your desk. Talk with the student after class and/or discipline.
  • Apples up.” Notice the Apple logo on the back of the device. A quick, easy, non-threatening way to say “time to be present” is to say “apples up.”  This means flip the iPad over!
  • Proximity. An old teacher trick. Stand near the person off task and make eye contact-don’t say a word.  They say you can’t teach from your desk!
  • Model the behavior you want to see.  Leave YOUR cellphone in airplane mode or in your desk/office.  Do not make calls in class or in the hall between classes.
  • Challenge the “myth of multitasking.”  Show this video from The Brain Rules.  Then, ask a student to say the alphabet as fast as he can and time it.  Then, ask the student to count from 1 to 26 as fast as he can and time it. Then, ask the student to say both as fast as he can and time it (A, 1, B, 2, C, 3, D, 4, etc…).  Discuss how this relates to what brain must do in order to accomplish “two things at once” or “switchtasking.”  Here’s another short (5 min) YouTube video exercise you might try.

After class 

Take time to process what is going on in your classes. What can you control? What do you need help with?

  • Why do you think students were off task? What can you do in terms of lesson design? Does everything revolve around you? Can you design lessons that are more student-centered?
  • When to call an Admin? Do you see a trend developing with a certain student regarding the inability to monitor their iPad?  Have you already disciplined the student? If you find yourself repeatedly issuing a consequence to a student, it is time for your to call your backup.
  • When to call the counselor? Some signs of iPad addiction can range from deception to missed opportunities.  Are you noticing students who are deceptive about their iPad usage? Are you observing a student who withdraws from social opportunities and demonstrates a clear lack of control with their device?

Bottom line…have a plan A, B and C!

How do you take action? Share your ideas here. 

Suggested media & discussion starters


5 Ways to Help Students Manage Digital Distractions

It’s no secret that students today face the ultimate paradox: The same devices that help students complete their work are also their biggest distraction from getting work done. Over the last seven years, I’ve visited schools around the country that have implemented one-to-one computer and tablet programs and personalized learning models. In many cases, schools have successfully focused on the technology and implementation of their programs, but are still searching for successful ways to promote organization, time management, and overall wellness.

Common Sense Education

How & Why Students Use Technology Podcast

What is new about how teenagers communicate through services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? Do social media affect the quality of teens’ lives? Youth culture and technology expert Danah Boyd talks with The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin about what Boyd sees as the major myths regarding teens’ use of social media, exploring tropes about identity, privacy, safety, danger, and bullying.

-Danah Boyd & Hanna Rosin, The Atlantic
           Aspen Ideas Podcasts

Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction

“Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.”

-Matt Richtel writing for the NYTimes

Striking a Balance: Digital Tools and Distraction in School

“How do we teach students to integrate technology into their schoolwork and their learning while also making sure that they’re staying focused on the task at hand?”

– Mary Beth Hertz, Edutopia

How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn?

“But evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention.”

– Annie Murphy Paul on KQED Mindshift blog

5 Tips for Classroom Management with iPads

“Often, people believe that managing a classroom that has employed technology requires a whole new approach and skill set. However, I have found that many traditional methods of classroom management readily translate to the technological rich schoolroom – with some slight modification.”

– Jennfier Carey , Director of Educational Technology, Ransom Everglades School

Tools to Help Eliminate Digital Distraction

Huffington Post article lists 11 tools to help reduce or eliminate distractions.

– Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post

Coping With Distractions: 6 Ways You Can Boost Your Productivity

Business article that shares ideas that are applicable to classroom and schoolwork.

– Yaacov Cohen, Forbes Online Magazine

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