Image: Rego Korosi
I've just completed my second full week of teaching literacy to what could only be described as 'challenging' learners: 16-17 year-old (mostly male) students enrolled in an 'applied' variation of the regular high school certificate which incorporates preparation for trades.
I wanted a challenge in taking on a new role like this, and I certainly got one: these lads can be really tough going. And literacy, in comparison to the more hands-on subjects they take, is by far and away their least favourite subject.
The classroom we teach literacy in has computers on every desk with full access to the Internet. That includes things like YouTube and Facebook. I've heard about and seen this issue of access to these sites discussed robustly in several places, and I might as well confess here and now: I have no major problems with my learners having reasonably unlimited access to these sites whilst taking my literacy classes.
Do these sites distract them from their regular work? Absolutely.
Would removal of access to these sites result in less distraction from their regular work? I seriously doubt it.
In essence, the kids I teach don't appear to be any more or less distracted from their work than my mates and I were in high school way back in the dim dark days before computers and World Wide Web in classrooms. In that respect, things like Facebook and YouTube appear to be easy scapegoats for people who want something to blame for the lack of attention and engagement on the part of students.
While I will freely admit that I really do wish there was some way to have my learners focus more on their set coursework, I think FB and YT represent far more benefits for the literacy classroom than disadvantages.
First, for YouTube, I love the fact that my students can listen to music while they do their work. Nine times out of ten, this is what they are using YouTube for in my classroom (with one headphone in). I often listen to music while I'm writing -- I'm doing so right now, in fact. If this makes them relaxed and comfortable, I'm all for it. I quite often like their selections, too!
Sure, occasionally there is the stupid clip being shown around and chortled at, but it doesn't usually get out of hand. No more than any other disruptive behaviour (like gossip or anecdotes) I can remember from my own school days. Most of the kids I teach, for all their roughness, seem to know there are boundaries when it comes to this kind of media in the classroom. Most don't appear interested in testing or stretching them too much.
This one fascinates me. Almost all of my learners have it open in the toolbar and check on it regularly between tasks. They don't 'stay on' there for very long at a time, unless there is some sort of major commotion in the FB world involving their social circle(s).
But beyond FB not being a constant or unacceptably prolonged source of distraction, one of the reasons I don't mind it being there is because... well it IS literacy!
Oh, I fully realise it isn't the sort of literacy the powers that be set out in our official literacy outcomes. But I've come to the curious realisation that my learners are actually quite literate and brilliantly effective communicators online - just not in the ways that a rapidly aging previous generation expects or mandates from a postion of qualification/gatekeeping power.
In many ways, the 'literacy' my teenagers exhibit in FB represents an L1 (first or native language) while the literacy I'm expected to teach them is an L2 (second language). Just as when I used to teach English as a second language (and I realised how advantageous it was to learn more about my students' native languages), in this role I'm seeing how important it is to know more about the learners' native literacy before I attempt to teach them the 'other' one (the one that determines whether they graduate or not).
I might even go so far as to suggest that a literacy teacher who mercilessly bans something like Facebook in their class is acting rather like the second language teacher who zealously ignores and never allows the learners' first language into the classroom.
But getting back to the central issue of 'distraction', essentially I think it really comes down to how engaging your classroom activities are -- irrespective of subject. I recently (and informally) calculated that my classes went from 40-90% of class time 'off-task' to more like 10-30% off-task.
What caused that change?
It had nothing to do with access to YouTube and Facebook (or lack thereof). That stayed constant.
That change and massive improvement in time on-task came about when I brought in activities more relevant to their specific trades and interests, broke writing tasks down into manageable 10-15 minute activities (instead of tasks lasting for hours or even days), integrated the tasks with things like video, and made almost everything screen- and online-based (removing the requirement for extensive writing on paper).
And all the while, those regular forays back onto Facebook help me to continue to get to know my students as young people. People who 'speak' a different kind of native literacy to my own.
A literacy I need to learn (about) if I'm to ever have a chance of teaching them mine.