Technology & Focus

By Alissa Hansen

Let’s Focus: wait,…was that a squirrel? (If you have wee ones, chances are that you have seen the movie Up, and if you have seen this movie, I am sure you can visualize this reference. For those of you who have not, to make a long story short: the talking dog, Doug, has absolutely no attention span and just the thought of hearing a squirrel is enough to take the dog’s attention away from the task at hand. Sound familiar… in the classroom?)

When I think back to this adorable film and this particular scene, I can’t help but to see the similarities between a lack of attention span and students. Students are used to getting information swiftly with all of the gadgets that are at their fingertips, so as teachers we need to hit the ground running every class period. Wow, now talk about a rather grandiose task?! It takes me about three seconds to Google just about anything about anything and about five seconds to map directions (my goodness, does anyone know how to use, and I mean really use, a map anymore?). Now do not get me wrong, I am a huge advocate of utilizing technology for learning because it truly DOES benefit our students. However, I am struggling with a phenomenon that is becoming more and more pervasive as students get more used to using technology in the classroom, and as more schools move 1:1–and that is student focus. Despite the time-saving ease that technology has brought to the classroom, it is not without challenges and those challenges have been making me question my own teaching practices/strategies and how I use technology in my English classes. I have been using Chromebooks in my English classroom in the following ways over the course of the past seven school-year months:

  • Peer-editing and the writing process using Google Drive and Google Classroom
  • Charts for vocabulary (I usually have students research terms, define the term in their own words, then locate an image that represents the term), reading comprehension questions, journal responses, etc. are all done via Google Classroom
  • Review games/study using Kahoot and Quizlet
  • A Google a Day to practice research skills, Google Drive has some great tools too! Try opening a document, Click on Tools and Research. When you pull information or an image from this research tool, it automatically cites for you. There are a number of Add-ons you can get too. Students like the simplicity of EasyBib Bibliography Creator, but it does take away that important skill of putting together pertinent information into a works cited formatted in MLA or APA.
  • Daily grammar practice using NoRedInk and Grammar Crush
  • Reading nonfiction using Newsela– you can even have students change the lexile to better meet their needs as readers
  • Online discussions via Padlet– this is a great tool to conduct fishbowl discussions where both the inner and outer circles can collaborate and discuss the content. I have used Edmodo as well, but like Padet for the ease a bit more.
  • Students use my Google class site on a daily basis to access the daily agenda, helpful links for class, the class calendar, etc.
  • I use text message reminders with Remind.com to remind students of upcoming due dates.
  • I use the SmartBoard often to get students up and moving by coming up to the board and playing a review game or editing a paper. They enjoy it and it gives students a change to get out of their seats with their eyes on something other than the Chromebook screen.
  • I use quite a few other tech-resources to help motivate students to learn and to better meet the needs of students, and I am never afraid to try something new. And when I do, I am more than happy to share it with you all. In fact, that is what this blog is all about.

Needless to say, my students use Chromebooks 98 percent the class period; however, I have noticed a decline in focus with students and they tend to give up more easily when a task is difficult. I have found myself saying, “CLOSE your Chromebooks!” multiple times in order to get students refocused and to move on to the next item on our agenda. For some students, they are so enthralled with their screen, they need me to repeat this a few times before it really sinks in and sometimes proximity is a step that also needs to occur in order for them to refocus their attention. And all of these steps, just to get students on the same page. What I am noticing with the more frequent use of the Chromebooks is that students will either:

1) get done with work early and then start playing a game,

2) rush through the work in order to play the game, or

3) try their hardest not to do the work, so they have more time to play a game instead.

Not all of my students are like this, but I have a number who are and it makes me question what I am doing wrong, what I need to incorporate to help students, and what I need to do as a teacher to utilize technology but do so in a way that benefits students and enhances learning. So, my goal is NOT to use technology just for the sake of using technology…my goal is always to benefit students and enhance learning altogether, but lately I have been questioning if this is possible and I am trying so hard to be optimistic.

Once students start playing a game, can they stop abruptly, and truly refocus their attention on the content being covered in class? And if so, do they retain any content from class if gaming is at the forefront of their minds? Should I loosen up a bit if students play games for a bit? I am not one for “free time”, it’s just not the type of teacher I am. My thought is that there is always something to do, learn, read, revise, discuss, and learn. (Actually, just over holiday break, I picked up a Nerf basketball hoop for the back of my classroom. This is my holiday gift to students. My thought is that if we complete all of the tasks at hand, why not reward students by shooting some hoops the last three minutes of class. I hope it works! Plus, there is a lot of research out there that states that movement helps with true learning.) I have been thinking that gaming is something these students are used to, it’s like obsessive texting; however, I am learning that as quickly as students lose information as it is, some technology is making it even easier for content to slip out of the window. YIKES! How does one incorporate technology effectively in this day and age with new gadgets popping up daily and oh so many resources? Students are so used to getting information quickly and without much effort, so, we as teachers need to up the ante…but how? No, I am asking; I don’t have an answer and I want, let me rephrase that, I need some help. I have been thinking on this often, so I am just going to keep on moving and “shake it off”, in the words of Taylor Swift.

Part of me thinks that technology has made the work load too easy for students. They just don’t have to work as hard to gather information. Search term in, answer outputted, DONE! That took 3 seconds, so has it sunk in? Probably not, so we’ll repeat it over and over. Without proper application of all of these incredible technological resources out there for our students, can we be sure that they are truly learning and gaining from these tools? How can we ensure this with the technology that we use in our classrooms? Well, I feel like I am leaving this blog entry with more questions than I started with…

I love using technology, and thankfully I work in a building and district that welcome technology all the same, but the goal here is to augment the learning in our classrooms, making it purposeful, relevant, and exciting for students and use technology as a tool to make it so. Technology should never be a hindrance or an obstacle. And on that note, here are some ideas that I am going to be trying out to keep the ball rolling and to help me as I continue to investigate this issue of focus:

  • The Flipped Classroom model with my Honors students-I am going to try this out with background information relating to The Odyssey since it has a tendency to be pretty complicated.
  • Trading Cards of Odyssey Characters using http://bighugelabs.com/deck.php
  • Students are going to be writing a paper where they combine their already written personal narrative on an obstacle he/she encountered and combining what was learned from that experience with the obstacles that Odysseus faced in The Odyssey. I am going to have students use Magisto to create a movie where students combine these things from their papers, along with images and quotations that relate.
  • I would like to start using EduCanon to watch inspiring TED talks and discuss the content meaningfully. This is a wonderful resource where you can upload movie clips from almost anywhere. You can add your discussion or comprehension questions right into the movie itself to create natural stopping points!!
  • I would like to set up a class Twitter as well to use occasionally as a way to formatively assess students (using it as an entrance/exit card). Let’s face it, I know I struggle with getting my 14 and 15-year-old students to get through a short story and write a paper, so why not create a powerful assignment with something that they are already good at? They can write a statement in 140 characters or less, but can they write an analysis or summary in the same way? Now that would take some thought and it would be an assignment that they couldn’t necessarily look up online.
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About alissahansen

This is my third year in the Davenport Community School District, my second year as a freshmen academy English teacher and my sixth year in the teaching profession. Before entering the field of teaching, I earned my bachelor's degree in journalism and anthropology from The University of Iowa, where I was also an arts and entertainment reporter for The Daily Iowan. From this experience, I became editor and publisher of local (Johnson County) arts and culture magazine, Little Village. I later entered the Masters in the Art of Teaching program at the University of Iowa and graduated with my M.A.T. in English education with endorsements in reading and journalism. I worked for three years at Clear Creek Amana High School in Tiffin, Iowa as the yearbook adviser, and a reading and English teacher. Teaching is my love, and I cannot imagine doing anything else in the world, except for becoming a parent! My husband, Wade, and I had our first son, Rhys Michel, in 2012. He is growing fast and it is a pleasure to watch him bloom before our very eyes! We are both enjoying the joys of parenthood; it keeps us plenty busy, especially now that Rhys is a full-blown three-year-old who loves to dance, especially when it's Bruno Mars or Pharrell, swim, play with cars, and read books. He is a spunky guy who loves to be on the go! We had our second son, Ellis Lee, in 2014 and we are amazed at how fast he has grown already. He is 1 and is quickly settling into his funny personality. He loves watching his older brother and mimicking everything he does as well as watching "The Little Einsteins" and dancing to the theme song. I am also due at the end of April with our first girl.

One thought on “Technology & Focus

  1. infowhiz

    I have been reading about comprehension as it relates to the use of electronics for reading, and typing/computers for “handwriting.” I am consistently coming across articles that say that comprehension is better when reading an actual book in print. In an article I found today:

    ” …psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.

    Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

    ‘When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,’ said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. ‘There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

    ‘And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,’ he continued. ‘Learning is made easier.’

    Konnikova, Maria. “What’s Lost As Handwriting Fades.” New York Times: June 2, 2014.

    I think focus is a major concern and my question is, “How do teachers help students to focus?” It has been insinuated that electronics will be the magic bullet for this purpose, but experience is proving otherwise.

    See also: Book News: For A Deeper Sleep, Forgo The E-Reader Before Bed from NPR

    Another question: do electronics hold student focus less for students who do not have a repertoire of other types of experiences?

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