For the first time this year, my entire 9th grade class is on-task. Raina and Evan have stopped their awkward dance of first love, which for them involves one incessantly trying to stab the other with a pencil. Brittany has traded her lip-gloss for a pen and is intently filling out my graphic organizer. The group of boys in the back have stopped fidgeting. No gossip is being exchanged by the breathless girls who’ve claimed the large corner table. Everyone is, miraculously, working on the same thing at the same time. The room is almost silent.
Almost, because as I peer over each of my students’ shoulders to check their work, I can oh-so-faintly hear whatever they’ve cued up on their iPods. Sometimes the tinny beats are clear enough that I can guess the song; others are so quiet as to be indistinguishable. A few of the kids bop their heads. But none has to be reprimanded to quit goofing off and get their work done. When I tell them to wrap it up, about two minutes before the imminent bell, several look like they’ve been roused from a deep reverie.
My school does not allow the wearing of headphones in order to listen to a portable music player. I have to admit I wasn’t aware of this policy until that day, when I tried to allow my students to listen to my radio—while they worked—as a Friday afternoon treat. I’d never tested this cheap piece of equipment out, and unfortunately, my second floor corner classroom got hideous reception. I shrugged and apologized for getting their hopes up.
“Can we listen to these?” Nearly every kid in the room held up one of those shiny, sleek rectangles.
“I don’t know.” Even as a first-year teacher, I should have known better than to waver. They smelled weakness. Begging, groveling, and promises of stellar work ensued. I relented, with a few stipulations: Only one ear bud allowed, during independent work only, as a privilege that could easily be revoked if I decided a student wasn’t working diligently enough. I thought it would be a one-time incidence of rule tweaking, but it worked so effectively that it became a Friday ritual that we all looked forward to. I appreciated the tranquil environment and productivity of my students during a time that could easily be lost to early weekend syndrome; my students simply enjoyed listening to their music. But still, I knew I was opening myself up to a potential problem. A veteran teacher confirmed my suspicions when I asked for her consult.
“It’s a distraction, and you can’t control what they’re listening to. PEDs are not allowed.” She spoke with an urgency usually reserved for much more threatening acronyms, like WMD or SARS. She sighed at my apparently blank expression. “A personal electronic device?”
And that was apparently that. I stopped letting my students listen to their i-Pods, grudgingly, because I think the arguments against what I’d been doing are pretty flimsy. I grant that some people need absolute quiet to work their best, those that discover the library as a haven for study in college. But there seem to be just as many of us who can’t “enjoy the silence,” as the old Depeche Mode song would have us believe. Plenty of productive people work best with background noise, and as adults who can decide what’s best for us, we create such noise in a variety of ways: the radio during our morning commutes, the evening news as we cook dinner, the cozy chatter that envelopes us as we work or read at our favorite coffee shop. And how can anything be a bigger distraction than the 27 other warm bodies each of my students must avoid engaging with all day, every day, in order to stay on task? I can guarantee that iPods don’t talk back, no matter how much you harangue them.
The argument that allowing kids to listen to their iPods means relinquishing control of the content they’re taking in is admittedly a thornier one. Just as I cannot hear and censor my students’ thoughts, I cannot respond to an errant expletive or drug reference if I can’t hear it. But, since no one else can hear it, either, I feel this becomes a sort of tree-falling-in-the-forest argument. Again, I’m sure there’s some pretty explicit stuff rattling around in my students’ heads when they’re in my classroom, but as long as they’re not shouting it out for all to hear, they’re well within their rights. And despite all the hand-wringing about whatever musical styles the next generation adopts to shock us geriatrics, most kids listen to pretty innocuous, if obnoxious, stuff: top 40 pop, rock, and rap, mostly. And what’s the more pressing issue, anyway? Should I give up what has proved to be that most effective and elusive of rewards for good performance, one that my students actually care about earning, to safeguard against the chance of them hearing the same kind of language they already utter in the halls, the parking lot, and the restrooms?
The death of iPod Fridays saddens me. I’ve had to return to the old management standbys: cajoling and threatening. I’ve tried other rewards (granola bar, anyone?), but none hold the same allure that just thirty minutes of the freedom to listen to the music of one’s choice did. And ironically, without this music, Fridays haven’t been as quiet since.