On a coffee break from marking provincial exams, I was talking to some fellow English teachers about the use and abuse of technology in the lives of students. One of these fellows recounted a conversation he had with a younger colleague who said that there is nothing wrong with texting while doing homework in that it only takes a few seconds to receive and reply to a text.

Wait, did I just become a codger? My students will say,“of course not, Mr. D. There’s no ‘just’; you’ve been a codger for a long time.” OK, but on this issue, I am not simply old-fashioned and inflexible.

I will concede that in many circumstances, receiving a text will cost you only a second or two, but there are times when the same text will cost 15 minutes in lost time.

The paragraph and your mind

On the other hand, an academic paragraph takes approximately an hour to write after the research and the thinking is all done.  At least 10 things are happening at the intersection of the paragraph and your mind:

  1. The paragraph will begin somewhere—where the last paragraph left off.
  2. It will end somewhere—where the next paragraph will begin.
  3. There is a relationship between this paragraph and the paper as a whole.
  4. The whole paragraph attempts to do one thing.
  5. Each sentence works with the others to accomplish that single purpose.
  6. Complex sentences must link ideas together logically.
  7. Words must be carefully chosen, considering both denotation and connotation.
  8. Punctuation is a tool to communicate meaning through emphasis.
  9. And then there are all the facts from your research,
  10. And ideas from your thinking all bouncing around in your head.

Losing a ball or two

All these must be considered almost simultaneously. It’s a little like juggling 10 balls. I don’t know how to juggle ten balls, but I’m thinking it’s hard. When I am trying to keep these ten balls in the air, and someone walks into the room and says, “Dad, can I get a pet snake?” all ten balls hit the floor. To get all ten balls back in the air again takes at least 15 minutes, and there is always the danger that I will have lost one or two.

If a student is writing a paragraph and giving the task all the necessary focus and concentration and then their phone chimes: “im ina mood for sushi ru?, ”  all her ideas hit the floor.

For some homework, you will need to turn off the phone, the TV, and the music.

And don’t take a break ’till the paragraph is done.