Yesterday I was leading the class through a class discussion when a student starts blasting music from his phone. I remind the student several times "Please put the phone away".... he ignores me. I speak with him individually and he starts to mock me- "Ok whatever you SAY Ms. Tsai blah blah blah BLAH" **makes a weird face
Both the student and I start to feel angry. I feel like I want to grab this kid and shake the immaturity out of him (don't worry I don't actually do that.....but if I could.....)
Teaching is unique in that my emotional reaction to day to day situations has a real impact on the students that I serve. More generally, my mindset has a ripple effect through everything I do. In this situation, I have a few choices to make. Do I respond to the anger first? Or do I respond to the situation first? The choice may seem obvious, but I find that in practice making the right choice is easier said than done. In practice, I find that it's easier to default to a place of fear-- If I don't show this student how angry I am, the student won't understand he's in trouble, and I'll lose control of the class. Therefore, I need to assert my authority as the one in charge.
But....what would it be like to practice separating myself from fear (fear of losing control of the class....fear of letting kids "get away with" cheating or breaking the rules.......)
I was listening to a podcast by Angela Watson, an educator and author, and she introduced me to this idea of radical acceptance. Radical acceptance means dealing "realistically with the facts of the situation and sitting with the discomfort of the present moment instead of insisting it shouldn't be happening". Radical acceptance does not mean "suck it up and muscle your way through it". Radical acceptance is a way to conserve energy in order to actually focus and make change towards the situation at hand. Like mindfulness...but applied in a practical way.
Going back to the scenario I wrote about in the beginning of this post, there are two ways I could have responded.
The way I see it, radical acceptance can help us to pause long enough in the present moment when upsetting things occur in school in order to 1) identify our fear and 2) react from a place of confidence. And I'm not saying I'm an expert in actually doing this....but it's something I want to practice going forward.
In my student teaching, it was common for me to see teachers shame students, kick them out of class, lecture students harshly, or even call students names. What would happen if teachers were more sensitive to not just how our students are feeling...but how we're feeling? Maybe it could help us stay present, stay engaged, and meet students where they are. Maybe it could help us lead students in the right direction from a place of confidence rather than fear.
I don't police cell phones as strictly as most teachers because I really think the benefits of cell phones outweigh the harms. I know this is an unpopular opinion, and while I don't think students should have total freedom with their phones (everything in moderation, yes) I do think there is a place for smart phones in the classroom, especially a science class. The amazing thing is....when students are actually engaged, most of them can police their own use of cell phones without my help. If I can train students to self regulate with technology, that not only takes the stress off of me, but it makes the students feel less irritated from having an adult constantly berate them for being on their phones. Figuring out how to design a lesson that engages students productively with their smartphones is the hardest and most rewarding challenge of teaching for me this year.
Here are six ways to use smartphones in the classroom
1. Gimkit and Kahoot
While training students to be responsible with technology takes a lot of effort, I do think it's worth the effort to get students to self-regulate rather than banning phones all together. As a fellow Gen Zer/Millennial I actually agree with the students on a lot of their smartphone habits. I too take pictures instead of notes. I have my notes organized into photo albums on my phone. I look the periodic table up on the internet rather than carry a paper copy around with me all the time. Trusting the students to use their phones productively is a big leap of faith, but worth the effort in the long run.
Active listening - aka listening in a way that actually engages with the person you're talking to. One reason why I used to hate doing "class discussions" is because the students never actually listened to each other. What was supposed to be a conversation always ended up feeling like a back and forward between individual students and the teacher, rather than a dialogue between everybody in the room. I wanted to explore complicated and important issues with the students, but we couldn't do that if the students weren't benefiting from each other's ideas.
So what would happen if I could somehow break down the elements of a rich conversation into a set of concrete skills that I could teach the students? Turns out, such a structure already exists. It's called active listening and we can learn to be active listeners by practicing these four steps.
4 steps of Active Listening
Step #1: Repeat back what you heard
I used the following sentence starters to help students understand and practice each step of active listening.
First, I modeled for students how the sentence starters can be used in a conversation.
Here's the first conversation we had as a class.
Next, we had individual students take turns to be in the "hot seat" and propose a controversial opinion. Students came up with all sorts of interesting topics......from school lunches, to music, to whether porn was a good thing or not. After the "hot seat" student shared his/her controversial opinion, the audience used their active listening skills to probe the person in the "hot seat" and create a richer conversation. Students had fun with debating about things they care about. They were also excited to actually have an engaging conversation with each other for once!
Finally, we steered our conversations towards topics more relevant to the content we were studying in class. Students worked in small groups to practice the four steps of active listening using scenarios related to gene therapy and bioethics **disclosure these scenarios were not written entirely by me.