I’m the kind of person that uses little gimmicks to help me remember things. I particularly like alphabet gimmicks. My morning routine is the first 5 letters of the alphabet, my evening routine is based on the letter L. Sometimes I have to use two languages to make this work. L’s include things like “lavar platos” (wash dishes) and “laundry” and “leer” (“lay-air,” to read – NOT to look at people funny).
So I’m playing with one to help me remember how to help my teens (and myself, frankly) with their attention span. It’s based on the letter “A.” The habit of attention is all about 5 “A’s.”
tmosphere– Yes, even discipline is an atmosphere, and even teens need their environment controlled. A basic routine goes a long way towards securing attention, because your kids’ minds aren’t trying to figure out what comes next. I daresay that it is too late to impose a schedule within your household if you haven’t had one all along, and my kids’ outside commitments tend to drive the schedule anyway. Yet given a *basic* routine, they do have clipboards with their weekly assignment sheets up on the wall, and their books are more or less easily found. I’m still working on turning off the distracting devices – particularly as a lot of their work resides on said devices. Sometimes, atmosphere requires moving school to another location – the library, the coffee shop, or grandma’s house. A distraction free atmosphere does not mean “no noise, no stimulus at all.” A background of music, clattering of dishes in a cafe, soft conversation – those can actually help a teen focus on their own tasks because they are surrounded by people focusing on theirs. Atmosphere can be something of a crutch, though. I would hope that my kids can carry on with good habits even if the environment is not so conducive. The best habits are internal.
ccountability- This has been huge. I had a German professor in college who was a master at this. The hour was very fast paced, and woe to you if you did not read the lesson prior to class. He rarely lectured, but called upon the students to recall elements of the reading – in German – instantly upon being called on. He was brilliant.
There are two ways accountability has worked for us. One aspect of accountability is my own watchfulness. Kids whose attention wander need to know that someone is there to catch them when they become distracted. Hence, the teen who is easily distracted from work has not yet earned the privilege of taking their work to their room. Just as when they were small, they need to feel my eye on them, my newest student more than my oldest. This means that I have to be very aware and focused myself. I have to be ready for them.
The second way is through narration. Students who know they will be accountable for the information will read the assignment with more care than if they think they’re going to hear a teacher lecture on the very same material. Slowly, slowly P.A.’s narrations have improved – there are more proper names (Henry I, vs. “there was this king.”), they are a wee bit longer, and they even occasionally include his own thoughts. (Ask him someday about Spartcus’ horse.) Sometimes I have thought to focus his attention on the text further by asking an open-ended question ahead of his reading, so that he can engage his mind in looking for the answer. I’m not sure that is as effective as it could be, it’s an idea we’re testing out, but I worry that it will inhibit his forming his own relationship with the text.
ttitude- Initially, I had this first, thinking it most important. And sure, I would love it if I felt we were on the same page, I would love it if they enjoyed their work and their books so much that an article like this is unnecessary. It would make life so much easier. Certainly, Mason was all about being sure that the chid was on board with the new habits, but she was not adverse to arranging things so that the alternative was not pleasant. While I find myself much more transparent my teens, and I listen to and reflect their thoughts, they do not have to agree with me. What they tell me is that they still want their attention to be “won,” but they also realize they miss something by allowing their minds to wander. Teens don’t like to feel they’ve missed something. One passionate comment to my son was enough: “How could you be blind to the treatment of Isaac the Jew [in Ivanhoe],” I told him once, “and then turn around and say you would never fall prey to racism?”
Truly, I am more likely to get their attention if I show respect to their preferences, perhaps more so than when they were little. This does not mean that I am at their mercy when it comes to curriculum choices. Mason assigned subjects that she knew would fail to excite interest in her students, grammar in particular, and expected discipline to take over where delight was not to be found. She cultivated a sense of “must.”
bbreviate- Short lessons! As I mentioned in my prior post, research shows that the average attention span of a 13 year old for direct instruction is 20 minutes. Mason would not allow a lesson to continue if she lost a student’s attention. In the same way she never let them linger over a misspelled word, she never let their minds get used to the feeling of wandering. Like my German professor, I need to be prompt and expect the same from my teens.
ctivity- Teen bodies are growing and changing and need to move. This week my son was between the fall session of crew and his winter conditioning class which starts next week. We noticed the difference in his concentration. He needs his exercise.
dderall–Oh, good grief, how did that get in there? 😉 Well, while it’s here, I think I’ll post a link to an article from Time about “performance enhancing drugs.” My son and I had a conversation comparing ADD meds to steroids. I’m not sure what to think, and I’d love your feedback. http://healthland.time.com/2010/12/21/adderall-may-not-make-you-smarter-but-it-makes-you-think-you-are/