How teachers complete with phones, laptops for kids’ attention

from New York Times News Service

Now that computers are a staple in schools around the country, perhaps the machines should come with a warning label for teachers: “Beware: Students may no longer hear a word you say.” Today 80 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet access in at least one classroom, according to Market Data Retrieval, an education research company. Among colleges, 69 percent have classroom Internet access and 70 percent have wireless networks. Students start tapping away behind laptop lids with no way for teachers to know if they are taking notes or checking Hotmail.

“I’ve never been in a lecture where I haven’t seen someone checking their e-mail when they were supposed to be doing stuff,” said Bill Walsh, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instant messages, news tickers and games like solitaire beckon too.

Joe Huber, the technology coordinator for the public schools in Greenwood, Ind., said that teachers routinely complain about gadget-distraction among students. “It is a huge problem with anyone who teaches with any kind of technology,” he said.

Even in rooms without computers or Internet access, students have other devices to draw their attention away from academics. Cellphones may be prohibited at many schools, but that doesn’t stop students from putting them on vibrate and trading text messages under their desks. That is, when they aren’t fiddling with their organizers or music players. Teachers have started to fight back. All agree that the best weapon against attention deficit is the same one that worked before the dawn of computers: strong teaching. But new strategies don’t hurt, either. Some teachers have found, in fact, that the best defense against the distractions of technology is other technology. Here are five examples of teachers who are fighting fire with fire.


Anyone who stepped into Mark Greenberg’s class at Camelback High School in Phoenix last year probably saw an entire class of students immersed in computer games. That’s the way Greenberg wanted it: He designed the games to keep his students focused. Greenberg, who will teach English at North High School in Phoenix this fall, has written dozens of games. He said that when he gave them to his remedial students last year, their scores improved on the state’s English test. His library also includes “Jeopardy”-like games to train students for the Academic Decathlon, a student contest. Greenberg said he had heard the criticism that educational games are nothing more than “drill and kill.”

“But now we’re finding we’re not drilling the kids enough, because they don’t know the vocabulary or don’t have the computational skills,” he said. “So there is a resurgence back to drill and practice.”

When he sees a skill in need of polishing, he works over the weekend to program a new game, like a multimedia quiz on comma placement or the multiplication of polynomials. One of his early creations required students to fill in blank speech balloons from Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, as a way of teaching dialogue.

One of his newest games is based on the role-playing card game called “Magic: The Gathering.” It requires students to “dress” historical figures with qualities that best fit their names (like adding the “poet” quality to John Keats). The game then pits one student’s character against another to do battle and see whose attire wins the day.

He can almost understand, he said, when students get distracted in computer labs where the machine is reduced to a “really expensive typewriter.” “There are a lot more discipline problems when you tell kids, ‘Now type this up on the computer.’ ” he said. “I mean, how boring can that be?”


Nancy Kemp, a drafting teacher at Cairo High School in Cairo, Ga., has been known to haul out some old technology to seize her students’ attention. A few years ago she set up a film projector and showed a 1956 film about the basics of drafting. She advanced the frames slowly, projecting the images onto a white board, pointing out techniques and making annotations with dry-erase markers. “These kids had never seen film strips,” she said. “I had that whole class in the palm of my hand for an hour and a half.”

“I don’t think I could do it as a steady diet because the newness wears off,” she added. But for those three days, she said, “it was just wonderful.”

A teacher for 30 years, Kemp said she doesn’t put much credence in PowerPoint – “all pomp with no circumstance,” she calls it – and she avoids showing anything on video. “They’ll tune it out,” she said, adding that the students are already inundated with television images, including scrolling announcements on the monitors at school.

She acknowledges, however, that computers are a must these days. The machines in her room feature AutoCad 12, a program used by architects and designers. Of course, the computers also offer the enticement of the Internet.

“I have to be vigilant,” Kemp said. When she notices students using instant messaging software, she waits to make sure that they have closed the program instead of simply minimizing it. But her most effective tactic, she said, is to threaten to reboot the computer without giving the student a chance to hit Save and keep the day’s schoolwork. “I’ll walk over and say, ‘Do I need to reboot?’ And they say, ‘No, no,’ and they do the right thing.”


To keep his students focused, Eric Hudson, an assistant of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has an ally in his classroom’s layout. Instead of tiers of seats, they are all on one level, arranged around 12 round tables. Each table seats nine students and holds three wireless laptops.

If those laptops were used in a conventional lecture hall, students could hide behind the screens. But in this room, professors and teaching assistants wander, keeping an eye out for students opening Yahoo Mail or 3D Pinball. “Stealth works,” Hudson said.

The classroom layout is part of a larger education project called Technology Enabled Active Learning, which was organized by another MIT teacher, John Belcher, two years ago. TEAL, as the project is known, uses collaborative work groups, hands-on experiments, computer simulations and remote controls for instantaneous quizzes and class-wide feedback sessions. Hanging on the walls are white boards and projection screens for discussions and presentations.

Hudson said he also deploys a high-paced lecture style. “I’ll try to cover topics in five- to 10-minute chunks,” he said. Anything longer, he added, and “there is more of a chance that they’ll lose what you’re talking about and will turn to IM-ing their friends.” Sometimes in his demonstrations he will make a capacitor blow up, with its bang reverberating down the hall. “You have to make loud noises once or twice to snap them back to attention,” he said.

Large physics lectures typically have a high rate of failing students, partly because so many enrollees never bother to show up. “It used to be that the fail rate for this course was 15 percent,” he said. “When we went to this format, it dropped to 1 percent to 2 percent.” And what about attendance? It’s up to 100 percent, he said.


It doesn’t take long for the students in Donna Lee’s class at the North Gulfport Seventh and Eighth Grade School in Gulfport, Miss., to realize that the computers at their desks are not under their control. Lee, who teaches keyboarding and Microsoft Office skills, uses networked software called NetOp to take over a student’s computer screen whenever she sees fit. Her desktop computer has a master control panel that enables her to see thumbnail images of every screen in her lab. If she spots an unauthorized Web site, she clicks a button to freeze the student’s screen. Using her mouse like a red pen, she writes “No No” across the screen. The scolding suddenly appears on the student’s screen too. “The kids turn around and look at me,” she said. “I give them a look, and they get off there real quick.”

Lee also uses the software to rein in all of her students at once. “If I want to explain something, I can freeze every screen,” she said. “And in big neon letters I say, ‘Pay Attention.’ ” Without the software, she said, she could ask students to turn to face her and turn off their monitors, but not everyone would obey. To Lee, the Web demons that beckon to her students are online chat rooms – “the horrible, horrible teenage chat rooms” – where people can post anonymous notes, sometimes in foul or graphic language, about anyone they know.

Using NetOp, she can record exactly what a student has been viewing and for how long. “I save it to my hard drive and put ‘No No’ on it and call a parent conference, with the student there,” she said. A student might plead that he just looked for a second. But, Lee said, she can open the file and say, “Let’s look where you went.”


When Greg Malone takes charge of his science classroom at Capital High School in Santa Fe, N.M., he takes a tip from talk show hosts. With a tiny microphone pinned to his collar, he walks between tables, asking questions about what he has projected on a 6-foot-wide screen in front. “If you can amplify your voice but still speak in a normal conversational voice, the children can actually concentrate better,” he said. “There is a focus.”

He carries a cordless keyboard and mouse so that he can project new images from his desktop computer no matter where he is standing. Using a list of Web sites that he calls up before class, he bounces from one site to another.

The projector’s zoom function is a favorite tool. Malone said he pulls up images from the Hubble Space Telescope and zooms in on tiny galaxies that would be a strain for the students to see otherwise. In texts on the screen, he zooms in on numbers and words. “I watch their faces,” he said. “They are absolutely riveted.” Malone, who used to work in the computer gaming industry, hands out remote controls, too. By pressing buttons, students can respond immediately and simultaneously to quizzes on the day’s lesson. Their answers are tabulated wirelessly, and the totals are projected for all to see. “We’ll suddenly stop, and I’ll flash a question on the screen and I’ll say ‘Respond to this,’ ” he said. “If there is anything that these kids relate to, it’s holding a remote control in their hands.”

Still, Malone said that working in a classroom with computers creates problems that even high-tech props cannot solve. Teachers, he said, have to be constantly watching for students who “drift off.” “It’s more than just e-mail. It’s looking at Web sites with cars, with sports, playing games,” he said. “As a teacher, you have to have those antennas up.”