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Before class I play music, YouTube videos, that is when I’m not playing clips of goat yoga.

Several years ago by accident, because I was teaching four classes back to back in the same room, I discovered the magic of being present in the classroom during the passing period between classes.

It allows for what I now think of as a “soft open” to class, a period where we’re listening to music together or watching goofy videos, talking, engaged with each other.

James Lang, author of Small Teaching writes about the importance of “the minutes before class” suggesting a number of different dimensions that can be engaged in this period, including greeting students with a simple, “How are you?” or acting to, “create wonder” in which some intriguing picture or concept is shared in order to convey to students, in Lang’s words, “I find this stuff fascinating, and I think you will too; let’s wonder about it together.”

The music and videos I play allow for some combination of these small teaching techniques. As the videos play I greet students, and move to engage them in conversation. The past couple of semesters I’ve been starting conversations with the earliest arriving students, and trying to gradually expand the conversation as more people arrive, inviting them in midstream, often by summarizing what we’ve been talking about and soliciting additional opinions, a technique I picked up from moderating focus groups in my post-grad school job.

The subjects can be, though need not be, weighty. In a recent class, when I was indeed showing a video of goat yoga we started debating – as one will – which genre of viral video everyone finds most compelling, which video clickbait is the clickiest bait. I am partial to goats, not just yoga, but also goat parkour or even plain old pygmy goats

Others like kittens. Some go for those terrible videos where people have worms that have burrowed into their skin, creating a boil that must be lanced, resulting in a scene that I won’t even describe let alone link to in video form, but clearly inspired the Alien movie franchise.

Sometimes the conversations are more consequential, or more directly related to the course content, but the goal is to be conversing in a way that explicitly invites as much of the class as possible into the activity. At some point, we segue into more substantive matters.

This has all the benefits that James Lang writes about, but I’ve noticed another, unanticipated benefit.

Like a lot of instructors, I’ve struggled with my classroom phone policy. For a number of reasons, I long ago stopped trying to enforce a total ban predicated on punitive measures. It’s a bad fit for my pedagogy and primarily served as a distraction to me, as I’d spend some portion of my bandwidth making sure I was catching violators.

It didn’t help my teaching, that’s for sure.

I now use a “with great freedom comes great responsibility” ethos. If students want to look at their phones, it’s up to them, but they can’t be a distraction to others.

Still, I’d prefer if students were engaged enough with class to not want to check their phones and to resist giving in to the urge to see what’s happening elsewhere.

The pre-class opening conversation seems to help. I thought I noticed a difference, so I started paying attention and witnessing students joining in and in doing so, making that affirmative choice to engage in our conversation over the one they might’ve been having on their phone. Subsequent phone use during class seems to be less prevalent.

I have only theories:

1. Phone use often has a social/connected aspect, i.e., “What’s up on Instagram since last I checked?” but relative to live, participatory interactions, the phone is less compelling. If they’re explicitly invited to have an opinion – particularly a low stakes, outside the scope of class, yet still interesting opinion – they are eager to share.

2. The soft open conversation allows students to finish whatever business is on their phones on their own timeline. Rather than a sudden, “stow your phones” order, they get to wrap up whatever might’ve been urgent or compelling and switch to the classroom space. That unfinished business isn’t gnawing at them during class.

3. The conversation reminds us, perhaps subconsciously, that the classroom is a community, subject to norms and requiring mutual respect.

I don’t know. I could also be engaging in selection bias as I gather my impressions, but I think it makes some sense.

What I’ve come to believe is that students using their phones in class is not a character flaw, or if it is a character flaw it is one shared by lots of people who are not college students. Even a cursory look at the world around us shows that phone-based distraction is ubiquitous. Check out your next faculty meeting if you doubt me. Clearly something interesting is happening on these devices.

It’s also not my job as their instructor to judge (or make assumptions about) students’ character anyway.

It also isn’t my role to juggle flaming chainsaws in front of the class in order to hold student attention. But that’s what I’ve realized, attention is cheaply won and easily lost. (Thirty seconds of frolicking is great, but 90 minutes of goat frolicking gets pretty old.)

Engagement is more valuable, and it’s relatively easily won through conversation that demonstrates mutual curiosity and respect for student opinion and agency. Starting class this way is good for me to, a reminder that I want the learning to be collaborative, rather than a forced march to the beat of my drum.

We’re still social animals. Our phones haven’t changed it. In fact, they’ve reinforced it. If students are allowed to be those social animals, the choice to not look at the phone seems natural.

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