The Struggles of Teaching the Snapchat Generation
This article was written by Jane Morris — the bestselling author of the book: Teacher Misery. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.
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*This article was written by a guest author. It has not been vetted or endorsed by Bored Teachers' editorial staff.*
When I first started teaching in 2007, most kids did not have a smartphone. We also did not have smartboards in any of the classrooms. It wasn't hard to hold their attention. A cartoon on the overhead projector or a discussion about the pressures of the college application process was enough to keep most of them engaged. Ten years later, the lengths teachers have to go to in order to hold a student's attention is almost comical.
Sometimes I feel like a circus monkey, juggling flashy GIFs and funny memes before their eyes, hoping they forget about their phone for two minutes. More and more, teachers have to relate everything to students personally and make it "hip" in order for kids to care at all. Trying to make Shakespeare cool? Don't even bother with that hip hop artist who uses Shakespeare as lyrics. They've seen it before and they're not impressed. Perhaps try pointing out that in Hamlet, when the main character asks to put his head in his girlfriend's lap, he calls it "country matters" which many experts believe is a form of the word c*nt! They just might lift their head up and ask what you just said for a moment. I once had a student tell me that he will never forget that one detail. That's nice, but did he absorb anything else? Probably not.
I feel the pressure to keep everything I do cool and it's hard to keep up. But if I don't, I will lose them completely, like many of my much older colleagues. I don't ever want them to view my class as completely useless, and I fear that is how many of them view school in general. Sometimes, no matter how flashy and edgy my lessons are, it still doesn't hold their attention. It can never be as interesting and relevant as the bullshit their friends are posting on snapchat. "Why don't you just take their phones away?" you ask. I often do, and that is the point when many of them simply put their heads down and cash out for the rest of class. Once I even shouted at a class that I could be showing porn in class and they would still be looking down at their phones because they have better porn on their own phones! A few kids laughed, and one or two heads popped up. "Did she just say something about porn?" But most kept their heads down.
Sometimes when a kid is on their phone I will just ask them what they are doing.
"No seriously, I want to know what is so engrossing. What exactly are you doing?"
Nine times out of ten, they are on snapchat, where they post pictures of what they are doing in real time. But what are they doing? Not much of anything. One time I gave out donuts for whatever reason and at least five kids snapchatted about it immediately. I don't know why their friends would care that they are eating a donut. When I'm about to show a movie, many phones come out to document the excitement of movie time. It's ironic that they don't even end up actually watching the movie.
In fact, I wanted to reward a class by choosing the movie they would watch. I gave them a vote and it was very heated. They fought adamantly for whatever film they thought was worth watching. When we finally came to a consensus and I played the film, about 75% of the class began watching netflix with headphones. I couldn't believe it.
Do I need to be more strict about the phones? Sure. But that is not the point. The point is that the phone addiction is so extreme that it might be one of the biggest challenges a teacher faces in secondary ed. Why should I have to fight so hard, every day, to keep them interested? Why should I have to take a portion of every class to convince my students that what we do in class is relevant and worth staying awake for? What will it take to get kids to actually want to learn?
I taught undergraduate and graduate courses at a major university for many years, throughout which time I have been saying that academics are in competition with the entertainment industry. Now we are in competition with the communication and the entertainment industries. When the bridges start falling down, the airplanes drop, and people no longer remember how to write a simple complete sentence, maybe academics will be taken more seriously.
The cell phone addiction is at the epidemic level. Exacerbating matters is that some districts don’t allow teachers to take phones away from students or even write referrals to dean’s for using cell phones in class. Teachers are being completely undermined and the students know it! I also want to add, there are many very powerful tools these devices have that can be utilized in the classroom. We should capitalize on those. However, to think that an interactive formative lesson on factoring polynomials, properly aligned to common core and SAT standards, will ever compete with netflix for a teenagers attention without some proper established classroom norms and responsibilities, enforced by the school, is simply foolish.
I have found that giving group tasks dramatically reduces the amount of phone time students use in class. Sure, there is still some but if there is a task where they already have to interact with other classmates the need to interact with friends on snapchat is far less. Just make sure there is something that requires each person in the group to be accountable for something or else you’ll get a bunch of free loaders who don’t participate.
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