Recently I stood in front of my class, observing an all-too-familiar scene. Most of my students were covertly—or so they thought—pecking away at their smartphones under their desks, checking their Facebook feeds and texts.
As I called their attention, students’ heads slowly lifted, their eyes reluctantly glancing forward. I then cheerfully explained that their next project would practice a skill they all desperately needed: holding a conversation.
Several students looked perplexed. Others fidgeted in their seats, waiting for me to stop watching the class so they could return to their phones. Finally, one student raised his hand. “How is this going to work?” he asked.
My junior English class had spent time researching different education issues. We had held whole-class discussions surrounding school reform issues and also practiced one-on-one discussions. Next, they would create podcasts in small groups, demonstrating their ability to communicate about the topics—the project represented a culminating assessment of their ability to speak about the issues in real time.
Even with plenty of practice, the task proved daunting to students. I watched trial runs of their podcasts frequently fall silent. Unless the student facilitator asked a question, most kids were unable to converse effectively. Instead of chiming in or following up on comments, they conducted rigid interviews. They shuffled papers and looked down at their hands. Some even reached for their phones—an automatic impulse and the last thing they should be doing.