Finding Focus in the Classroom

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THE PROBLEM: Every year, Roberta Valentine, an elementary school teacher in New York City, encounters a few students who cannot concentrate for more than a few moments. As a girl from her class once said, “Sometimes if I have to sit still for one more minute, I just can’t stand it.” The child who is distracted cannot learn and may distract others, said Ms. Valentine, who has taught first to fifth grade for 20 years.

THE SOLUTION: For years, Ms. Valentine did what many other skilled teachers do. She determined which children had serious problems, like attention deficit disorder, and referred them to specialists. She often found herself reminding the others, repeatedly, not to fidget, jump out of their seats or make noise. Over the years in her work at the East Village Community School, on 12th Street in Manhattan, she has tested various tactics: setting a timer for 10 minutes to help children break up their work time into manageable chunks; giving a child a stuffed animal to hold during group discussions (a common strategy for cutting down on fidgeting); and even enlisting other students to help daydreamers stay focused. Still, every year, she felt these efforts were not good enough.

A few years ago, Ms. Valentine read a book by Mel Levine, an expert on learning disabilities, about schoolchildren who have trouble focusing, and came across his term “mind trips” to describe such moments of distraction. She felt that it offered a clue about how to proceed. Meanwhile, like many teachers in the last decade, Ms. Valentine decided to update her use of technology in the classroom by learning how to make PowerPoint presentations, and teaching the children to do them as well.

It occurred to her that she might have stumbled upon a way to help children tell others something interesting about their distractibility, rather than simply trying to hide or suppress it. And so she would help some of the children make PowerPoints about their “mind trips.” Ms. Valentine asked six children to describe what they thought about when their minds were wandering, and wrote down everything they said. Then, each child illustrated their sentences. Finally, Ms. Valentine recorded the children saying the sentences. Together she and the children put the written and spoken sentences onto PowerPoint, along with the illustrations.

Each child’s work became a multimedia slide show about his or her daydreaming. One child said: “My problem is concentrating. I think about my dad. I think about Titanic. I think about G. I. Joes. Sometimes my mind tells me to stop thinking about things on my own. Sometimes people in my class tell me stop thinking about things, and that helps me.” Another wrote: “I am a slow writer. It takes me a long time to write. Sometimes I think about watching TV. I don’t like the way I hold my pencil, it feels funny. My teacher says, take a break. When I tell my mind to focus I write more.”

Another wrote: “Sometimes I can’t sit in my chair. My teacher says, ‘Angela, sit in your chair.’ Sometimes I fall off my chair and sometimes I even lay down. Sometimes I walk around the classroom. I say to myself, ‘Angela, you have to stop.’ The kids in my class say ‘Angela, sit down, please,’ and that helps me. If you have this problem you could ask your teacher or the kids in your class to help you, like I did.”

The children showed their PowerPoints to other students. “It doesn’t solve the problem entirely,” said Ms. Valentine, who has used these presentations for two years. “Kids whose minds wander become adults whose minds wander.” But by describing their daydreams, she said, children are “able to figure out not only what went wrong, but what kinds of thoughts and tricks could help them concentrate.” continue reading

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