Be More Compelling than a Spinner!

Enhance your classroom engagement in order to keep students captivated and learning.

By Lee A. Williams, II and Laurie J. Carr
December 2017, Volume 41, Issue 4

If you google “fidgets in schools,” you’ll discover headlines like “Schools Ban Fidget Toys as Classroom Distraction” and “The Horrors of the Fidget Spinner, the Latest Classroom Menace.” Facebook is filled with memes and posts ruing the gadget’s invention. Schools throughout the country have repeatedly made the decision to eliminate the potential distraction and have created policies to rid themselves of the toys.

Typically, the response of a school or district is to attempt to remove any potential disturbance. For many of us, chewing gum was the fidget of our time. At Graham Middle School, we approach things differently. As a “fidgeter,” and a musician, I frequently find myself clicking on my pen, drumming on a table, or tossing and catching a ball; I recognize my personal need for sensory input as I think through complex situations. When I lead meetings, I observe staff members chewing gum, tapping the table, twisting their hair, using their hands to talk, rocking back on their chairs, and twirling their pens/pencils. I would venture a guess that this goes on in corporate board rooms across the country as much as it does in my middle school media center.

I encourage you to consider the true root cause of the popularity of fidget spinners at your school. Why have spinners taken over your classrooms?


Compelling Instruction

Recently, a new teacher asked me my policy on fidget spinners, and one of my veteran teachers quickly jumped in to share her experience and frustration with them. “It’s supposed to be a focusing tool, so [students] use that as an excuse, but unfortunately they get so focused on the fidget, they’re no longer with you.” I pushed her and asked, “How do you know they’re not with you?” Her response was immediate. “They’re starting to pass it around; it’s going on the floor. It’s become a distraction and you can tell the child’s not with you.”

At that point, I paused and chose my words carefully. “What’s more engaging –a spinner that has 3 prongs and can only go around in a circle, or a real live person who has a great story to tell?” The room got quiet, and I pushed further. “How are you going to let a spinner beat you out?”

If we really examine the perceived issue, it is not the spinner itself. It’s the lack of engagement within the classroom. If you haven’t set high expectations for your students, they know they can play with their spinner, refocus periodically on the low expectations that have been set for them, play some more, and get by. Again, the problem is not the fidget spinner. The problem is the lack of high expectations. When a class is engaging enough, a student forgets the spinner is even in his pocket.

A student pulling out a spinner can serve as a signal to the teacher–“I’m losing their attention, it’s time to show them I have better tricks up my sleeve!” It literally shows them it’s time for a transition for higher engagement.

Consider the cell phone. The immediate school and district response upon its introduction was, “We’ve got to ban all cell phones!” I remember it well; schools became the cell phone police–patting kids down and confiscating their phones. And now, how many times do we say, “If you’ve got a cell phone, pull it out and look up …” We use it as a resource. What if we were to view all the newest crazes as potential teaching tools and started adopting things into education that can enhance teaching and learning and stopped trying to remove everything? I believe we’d find that we have fewer struggles.

At Graham Middle School, we challenge teachers to be more compelling than the spinner in a student’s pocket.

Turning the Distraction into a Teaching Tool

I have three children, and my boys were initially fixated on their spinners, that is until I started playing with it and became the dad who made them uncool. I began using their spinners as a tool within my home to elevate engagement during homework time. I’ve used it as a timer for my oldest son, “You have until the spinner stops to answer these math questions.”

I have observed a teacher put numbers on a spinner and turn it into a learning game to enhance instruction. Our art teacher created a full lesson plan centered around the spinner; students put colored pencils in their spinners and spun them like a top to make designs. Despite being a teacher who joined our staff midyear, she has never had a problem with the spinner becoming a distraction or disruption.

The more we adopt students’ own interests and gadgets, the less they try to be combative with them. The question is, are we willing to adapt our practices to adopt their interests to further engagement. The more we ask ourselves how we can enhance instruction with these new tools, rather than take them away, the more successful we will become.

I challenge you, and your faculty, to be more compelling than a spinner this school year…because if you can’t beat a spinner, a kid doing a pencil trick or passing notes is going to beat you too. And I guarantee you, next year it won’t be a spinner…and I sure wish I knew what it would be so I could make millions.

Lee A. Williams, II is principal at Graham Middle School in Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina.

Laurie Carr is a school transformation coach working for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction.

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