“They can finish the paragraph they’re reading. They can carry on their conversation a bit longer. They can cruise through the day without urgency because they know you’ll repeat your directions—and anything else important—over and over again. You’re actually doing your students a disservice by repeating the directions so much”
Don’t rely on willpower to do your work. Block out noise, set priorities, and use systems to get work done.
This year, my students and I read an excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which he lists all of the virtues that he believes will lead to a successful life. A common thread running throughout these virtues is moderation or self-control. And though Mr. Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence 240 years ago, controlling our impulses is still an essential skill for living a good life.
Ben Franklin had far fewer inputs battling for his attention, though. The modern teacher faces a daily war of mental energy and focus.
Here are a few habits I practice in order to teach English and write consistently without working much at night or on the weekends.
- Write out the six periods of the day and 1-3 words describing how I’ll spend that time. This can be a class period or a prep period. Even though I’ve already got my lesson plans written before the week begins, this list of six items helps me visualize the day and stay focused. It is especially useful for the prep periods, where I am prone to reading articles researching for stuff in the future that doesn’t need to be done now. If I had to choose just one item on the list to use, this would be it.
- Check email 2 scheduled times during the day. Get to inbox zero unless absolutely impossible. This one might feel uncomfortable because it seems that all sorts of important pieces of information will be missed if we’re not glued to our inboxes. For the most part, that’s just not true. The constant checking of email is a distraction from the work that is important but hard. We run towards a quick mental fix of checking email we so we can deal with someone else’s priorities instead of our own. You don’t have to check email as often as you think you do.
- Use Google Keep to capture the ideas, links, checklists and other text that is important but doesn’t have a specific place to go. I use Google Keep to write temporary checklists or long-term goals that I’d like to review every once in a while. Along with Clipboard History, Keep is a place to save comments that I use when providing feedback to students during class discussions or common types of writing. The notes can be colored-coded, exported to Google Docs, turned into dynamic, and shared like a Doc. Keep is the unsung hero of the Google Apps, and it’s probably the only “productivity app” that I need.
- Take short walks during work times. During a prep period or when I’ve taught a few periods in a row, I’ll make sure to take a quick walk to get a drink of water, pop my head outside the door for a few seconds of fresh air, or even just do a lap to the end of the hallway and back. You need exercise to keep your brain stimulated.
- When I enter my room in the morning, I don’t turn the computer on first thing. Instead I walk around, straighten up the chairs, pick up anything that’s left on the floor or lost & found items, peruse my professional books or classroom library, then make my way over to my desk and computer. That’s where I write down the six blocks of time for my day.
- Do a “complete shutdown” at the end of the school day. Another idea that I’ve put into practice from Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Newport’s logic, as far as I took it, is that we need our brains to devote intense focus to one task, and then we need to shut off that focus and leave the work behind, restoring our brains for the next work session. This cultivates a more balanced, present-state life. The complete shutdown is a quick ritual to allow the brain to truly recharge when you leave your classroom or office. There are three parts to the work shut down: Scan the email inbox for the last time, ensuring there are no urgent messages, clean off the physical work area (the desk, for example), and review the task list to make a rough plan for tomorrow (I use Trello to keep track of upcoming tasks, it’s an incredibly powerful tool).
- Review the excessive notes that I take during conversations, meetings, and readings. I may have a case of hypergraphia, and often times the notes and scribbles go unused. However, taking a few minutes out of the day for review helps me to keep track of the lesson ideas, connections, and other inspirations that cross my mind during the school day.
- Do a weekly teacher reflection. This is one that is more about the act of writing and less about reviewing or reading the text later. After I’ve built up a few years of these reflections in my Google Form, I’d love to look at the trends and patterns, but for now the act of reflecting at the end of the week is cathartic in itself. It reminds me of the positive and negative trends happening in my teaching and in my life, and helps me return all things back to the baseline and towards improvement. Here’s a link to a copy of the form.
Even though the word “habits” is mentioned above, it is a constant battle with my willpower to maintain each of these. It’s like the meditator who notices his wandering mind and brings his attention back to his breath. I’ll notice myself leaving for the afternoon with a super messy desk or notice that I have no plan for a prep period and then correct for next time.
None of these individual tasks is a cure-all. Some of them won’t work for you, and some may. For me, these actions help to calm the mind, get more done, and read, write, and think in our noisy teacher lives.
No, a student hasn’t asked me that question. But I’m waiting for the day it comes. Scan any Facebook newsfeed, and you’ll find a low average quality of information shared. One of the 21st century skills that educators need to work on is obvious to see: source reliability verification.
This is apolitical. There are dubious memes and murky articles from the far left and far right with few to zero links to source material, cleverly hidden biases, and “remixed” images that demolish the original context of the content. The ease with which we can create and share information has plummeted the average quality of the information that we see. We have a new set of responsibility to ourselves and to our students if we want to maintain the quality of our democracy and society in general.
Consider how the process of gathering information has changed for us, without anyone undergoing much of a formal education on how to deal with this change:
Then: We read the newspaper or watchedTV and learned about current events happening locally and worldwide.
Now: We have a torrent of information propelled at us. This requires us to have a specific plan for selecting the sources we consume, saying “no” to an infinite number of other sources, and constantly vetting the information presented to us for accuracy and objectivity. We don’t understand how Facebook tailors the information we see and we can easily become stuck in an intellectual echo-chamber if we don’t seek out perspectives that are different than our own.
Just as the modern physical education teacher must battle the pervasive Standard American Diet and sedentary lifestyle that is part of our culture, literacy teachers must face the Standard American Info-Diet and passive consumption of media that has seeped its way into our students’ lives.
This is a new frontier with many unknowns. Here are a few questions that expose the realities of teaching literacy today:
How do we manage to help students see that a plethora of misinformation exists online, so that they can learn to sort through it and become well-informed citizens?
As the title of the post suggests, this is the one that is most pressing to me right now. When students are completing a research task in class, it is relatively easy to give them parameters for their sources and ensure that they encounter reasonable information. But when they leave the classroom, both this year and after graduation, how do we reduce the likelihood of them blindly sharing memes that alter reality and present it as truth? Instead, we want students to get in the habit of doing the hard work of sifting through multiple perspectives and coming to their own conclusions.
How do we help students to develop the self-control and self-awareness required to do the Deep Work required of meaningful literacy tasks?
Most adults need to work on this as well, myself included. Notice the boom in mindfulness, habits and productivity shared all over the Internet over the past few years. Our self control has never been more important.
We give students deadlines, ask them to work together, and encourage proper behavior. We do this because our job responsibilities include helping students have the technical and soft skills they need to be successful in their next stage of life. Teachers must develop approaches for encouraging students to manage the barrage of distractions they face while trying to do their work.
(A P.S. on this one: Do we realize that we have to model a new thing now? Just as we show our students what it means to be a well-informed, literate adult by doing the reading and writing, we’ll have to show students what it means to be a well-informed literate adult who can focus on one task for a sustained period of time. Time for me to close a few tabs and turn off my cell phone.)
As I mentioned in my last post, what do we know about reading and writing on devices?
I know it matters, but I’m not yet completely sure about how and when we should use paper-based texts or digital texts. Sometimes, there’s a clear answer. But there’s a big gray area where we need more research in order to make a good decision.
How do we get district and school leaders to see that introducing devices into a literacy classroom is a neutral act?
Inherently, a wheely cart filled with 25 Chromebooks, 15 iPads or 3 MacBooks does not help or hinder instruction. Sure, with proper training, clear expectations set for students, and an adaptable curriculum, teachers can use devices in class to connect students with each other and the outside world like never before. However, if these new devices are simply inserted into an existing curriculum and pedagogy with no further considerations, it is more likely to hurt than help.
Seriously, though, does MLA 8 include anything about citing memes? (Asking for a friend.)
As literacy educators, it’s more important that we teach students to be great readers, writers, speakers, listeners and thinkers than great technology users. I’m sure about that.
But as we speak, the amount of information and the number of distractions grows. These are what stand in the way of the meaningful reading and writing that we want students to do. So, considering that, we now have to become experts at navigating the intellectual spinach that our students need, and teaching them the self-control to stay away from the intellectual junk food.
How do we do that? I’d love to hear your thoughts here.
Last year, I was lax with my cell phone policy with students in class.
So by the end of the year, it wasn’t much of a policy at all. It was yours truly, nagging at students to put their phones away and focus on their reading or writing, without a clear set of rules or consequences. And even though it’s important to have clear expectations for behavior in class, rules and consequences aren’t the foundation of motivating students or classroom management.
A reason behind our actions, a “why” as Simon Sinek would say, is a more powerful motivating force. The why behind my words of “put your phone away,” was an implied…because I said so.
After discovering Cal Newport and his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a much more clear reason emerges for things like a strict cell phone policy. And it applies to the lives of teachers as well as students.
Teachers are distracted, too
Have you ever done these things?
- Quickly, or not so quickly, check email while students work independently on a task
- Jump back and forth between social media, work email or personal email while reading student work
- Sit down during your prep period and flounder between a few meaningless tasks, eating away most of your time
- Lift your head in a meeting, feeling a digital haze, after staring at your phone for 10+ minutes
Newport acknowledges that these behaviors are symptoms of living in our distracted world. And, he says, there’s only one way to combat this distraction and success. The answer is “deep work,” or sustained, focused effort on a single task. As we try to achieve deep work, there is something called attention residue that eats away at our ability to focus on a single task at a time and succeed at working on that task productively.
Newport says, “When you turn your attention from one target to another, the original target leaves a “residue” that reduces cognitive performance for a non-trivial amount of time to follow.”
Newport cites research on attention residue but also points to a reader example. One of his readers noticed that whenever he paused his video game for a quick interruption like checking his phone, he was much more likely to fail in the game shortly after returning to the game after the interruption.
Doesn’t that sound like the few minutes it takes to get the mental motor running when you stop reading papers to check your phone?
The Insidious Danger of Task Switching
There’s almost a high that comes from multitasking in the digital age. We fly around the computer, with seven tabs open: articles, grade book, several Google Docs, email. We zip from one task to the other, quickly editing this doc, replying to that message, skimming this text. The end result is the quick passing of time, and a sense of full engagement. After all, technology is meant to be engaging, and the constant dopamine hits that come up with task switching mean that we never have to be bored. The other end results, though? We do less meaningful work.
I’ve started the education process by simply sharing the definition of attention residue with students, reminding them that I will be vigilant about ensuring that they are focusing on the task at hand, and asking them to be mindful of their impulses to check their phones or open a new tab.
All of this might sound a little trivial to some. You might argue that this is simply the world we live in, and there is no going back. And that is correct. There is no going back to the pre-digital age, but there is certainly a going forward, as we develop new tools to help students adapt to the world they live in.
Next week, I’ll talk about strategies to manage digital distractions for personal lives and the classroom.
Do you notice attention residue in your students’ or your own life? How have you tried to “clean up” the mind from digital distractions?