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Can We Talk? Well, Maybe Not…

Three nights a week, I get a glimpse of the future. And I’m disheartened by what I see.

I teach two classes in the University of Nevada, Reno English Department—freshman-level writing classes—and I have taught there for 12 years. For the most part, I enjoy sharing my expertise with students, and seeing the light bulbs go on in their heads when they finally understand how to use a semi-colon, or what “passive voice” actually means and how to identify it. When I teach them the difference between abstract and concrete descriptions, and they see the benefits of using the latter whenever possible.

But I also admit that on many nights, when I return home from class, I feel blue. I pour myself a glass of wine, slump into a chair, and ask my husband for the millionth time, “Why do I do this again?”

Because after 12 years, I still can’t figure out how the heck to get students to actually participate in class. I divide them into groups and have them collaborate on answers. I make up games. I have them do skits, lead classroom discussions, and prepare answers ahead of time in class. I even created a rubric showing EXACTLY what “classroom participation” means (it’s not just attendance, contrary to what my students come in believing) and exactly how to earn maximum participation points. And, mind you, participation accounts for 20 percent of their grade.

And after all this, I still get nothin’. I’m not kidding you when I say that I will literally sit, staring, in a silent classroom, for minutes at a time, waiting for them to respond to even my most softball-type questions. Things like, “What was the essay about?”

Turns out, even that one is often too difficult for them to respond to. Lack of preparedness aside, much of the problem is a simple fear of verbal communication.

As time passes, though, I find the problem is growing worse. Not only do they not like public speaking or talking to me–a common and often understandable problem–but they don’t talk to each other. And because I try to keep up on my profession and read about ways to engage students, I’ve discovered that this phenomenon is occurring on campuses everywhere, and the problem is worsening. Yes, among the many damaging things that technology is doing to our kids, it’s also eroding their social skills.

Research done at Oxford University says that constant use of technology is actually rewiring our brains, causing attention deficits and lack of empathy. Although they may send and receive more than 100 texts a day, the nuances of face-to-face communication are slowing getting away from them, affecting their social skills.

I see this in my classroom. My students are often silent as I enter the room, each of them staring at a smartphone or laptop computer instead. They avoid eye contact, and often feel too much anxiety about speaking in class to answer a question thoughtfully. When assigned into groups to perform a collaborative task, they work alongside each other, each answering the assigned questions independently, rather than working together and simply talking about the questions in order to jointly answer them as a group. In peer writing workshops, they don’t talk to each other, but instead silently mark up each others’ papers and hand them back stealthily.

This is going to be a big problem when they go on job interviews, are asked to work with professional groups to solve problems or complete projects, or just need to get through life. And it’s a problem in my class, where most of them are scoring poorly, mostly because of a lack of participation and failure to ask simple questions that would clear up confusions for them. There’s a lack of resourcefulness, a failure to go to the right person and ask the questions necessary to accomplish a task. And mostly, when I probe the students to find out why they hesitated, they express anxiety about the simple act of talking to people.

I’ve written about the danger of smartphones on this blog before, mostly in the context of how it erodes family time and causes parents to miss out on so much with their kids. But I think parents also need to think of the long-term repercussions of allowing their kids to spend innumerable hours using gadgets—video games, smartphones, computers, and TVs. I’m seeing these repercussions first-hand, three nights a week. These kids are so used to staring at screens, they don’t really know how to look at each other, to engage one-on-one with peers and adults. And I shudder to think of what this will mean down the road…in the workplace, and in day-to-day life.

If you want to prepare your kids for my college class and others, and for a future career, what you do today matters, even with the littlest children. The following rules are enforced in our home, and I’d recommend them for yours:

  • Look your children in the eye when you talk to them, and ask that they do the same.
  • Turn off the TV or any other techno-gadget when important conversations are taking place.
  • Encourage a habit of mindfulness in your home—one thing at a time. It’s been scientifically proven that multitasking doesn’t work. Focus on just one thing, and give it your whole attention, and foster this behavior in your kids.
  • As soon as they are able, encourage your kids to speak to adults, and to politely ask relatives, friends, and teachers for what they need, rather than simply doing it for them. It’s not only about good manners; this is a life skill.

I’d even recommend that when your kids are mature enough—in their teens—you get them in the habit of making important phone calls and asking questions of authority figures. For instance, I hated that my parents made me, when I was 17, call my college financial aid officer and ask questions about my financial aid application. I thought, “That’s a parent’s job!” and dreaded it. But because I was forced to do this, I became empowered to oversee my own financial aid accounts, and I felt able to take on similar tasks. I grew accustomed to being resourceful, which has served me well. And this is a skill I see less and less among my college students.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology, and rely on it for my livelihood. But it can’t be a substitute for good old fashioned face-to-face communication.

I’m no child development expert. But in my experience, my brightest stars, my most adept communicators and strongest students are those who are independently motivated, resourceful, curious, and unafraid to look me in the eye and ask me a question. So do a poor English teacher a favor: Prepare your kids for life by turning off the gadgets now and then in order to foster those important social skills.

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About Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina
Jessica Santina’s love for writing started the summer when she was 11. She and her father created their own hand-bound book of poetry that they’d written together, which they called “Pop & Kid: Collected Writings.” It’s this love of the written word that fuels Jessica’s business today as a freelance writer, editor and university instructor, as well as spending countless hours sharing beloved books with four-year-old daughter, Olivia. When she has a few minutes to herself – a rare gem – Jessica loves to cook, read chick-lit novels, watch cooking shows, and take long, leisurely walks that allow her to come up with blog ideas. Check out her blog for words of wisdom on writing and more.

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