Passing Notes to Stay Engaged in Lecture

I was working with a class of high school Juniors (17 year olds) and there was quite a bit of lecture introducing the project (I am thinking how to revise that). I noticed two students actively passing notes back and forth. They had good technique; always looking forward during the actual note passing, using a class handout as their notepaper, and generally trying to time the crucial note pass when my eyes were elsewhere. However, I did obviously see them do it and I wondered what I should do about it.

I thought that it meant they were ignoring me, and was tempted to confront them during class. However, later when I asked a question one of the girls raised her hand and volunteered a great answer revealing she was interested in the topic and had heard at least some of what I was saying.

So I thought, maybe note passing was just her way of interacting with the lecture. I know that an active reader should always have questions and connections, which we encourage them to write in the margins (if possible). Active listening might be the same. It is just prejudice which makes me believe that since passing notes is social it must not be about the lecture. In fact I know that often personal notes are not about the lecture (as the world of notebook doodles can attest).

The social and conversational aspect of learning is so important and so difficult to achieve with 30 teenagers. Partly because they do tend to veer off topic and off task when they become social. Also because some student’s asking questions and interacting with the content can be disruptive to other students. However, perhaps passing notes could be a way to have non-disruptive peer-to-peer interactions during a presentation. Being a teacher I would want to have some way to monitor the notes or at least to establish some guidelines. If they were paper notes would I collect them at the end of class? Is that kind of thought police activity destructive to true engagement? Maybe a classroom backchannel using cell phones and twitter (or other messaging platform, a wiki, a Google doc, Moodle forum), would allow kids to interact and socialize, but in a way that was understood to be open.

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