In order to provide personalized feedback, I need to be able to get most of the class working independently or in small groups while I work one-on-one with a struggling student. This works really well with some classes, but some classes have decided that since I'm not taking points off for poor behavior, they don't actually need to do the work when I give them time to do so. I started the year not banning cell phones, and some of my students have taken this to mean that they can text friends and play cell phone/iPod games when they should be thinking about the difference between where you are, how far you've walked, and how far you've gotten from where you started. These are mostly kids who can't quickly answer "If you drive 60mph, how long will it take you to drive 120 miles?" I don't expect them to be fascinated by the distinction between speed and velocity, but rates are hardly unusual outside of school. (Is this how people end up deeply in debt, by not understanding how many hours it takes to earn what that shiny toy costs?)
So... What to do? I think part of the problem may be that I'm not using the cell phones constructively in class. I had plans to use polleverywhere.com, but the promised district accounts haven't (yet) materialized. (I'd like to use a backchannel in class, but I don't know how to get started or which one to use.) I think using the cell phones constructively would help my students understand the difference between using the phone to focus and using it to distract from the understandings.
Part of the problem is also that I haven't spent enough time talking content one-on-one with the students who are ignoring the work. When most of their interactions with me are about behavior, it's not too difficult to understand why they're less interested in the content. On the other hand, when they don't engage with the content, it's hard to discuss the content with them.