Cell phones. I want them out of middle school classrooms (and elementary school classrooms if by some chance they've made their way into the world of K-6 students). And no, I haven't always wanted them out. This is tech-loving me, doing a 180 degree reversal of where I stood a mere months ago. I once believed that phones were instructional tools that if managed correctly could enhance learning. But the research plus my experience this year has dramatically altered my thinking. Because I care about kids, about teaching and learning, about school communities, and equity, I want these cell phones gone - put in lockers from the moment the first school bell rings until the end of the day. So why the sudden change in my thinking?
Reason One: Distraction
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that kids lack impulse control. I'm in my 40s and I sometimes can't keep my hands away from my device. How is a kid supposed to do it? They can't. It doesn't matter if I tell them to put it away, they can't help sneaking a look at it. It buzzes, rings, lights up with alerts and they are drawn to it, the way I am pulled to my morning coffee. It isn't their fault. In fact, I'd argue that it's ours for putting them in the position where we are asking them to ignore something that they can't. And because it is ever present, this need to check to make sure that they aren't missing something on Snapchat or Instagram (or some other app that the adults in their life haven't heard of) they aren't fully engaged in the world of learning around them. The evidence bears this out. The mere presence of a phone (even in a classroom cubby or teacher designated cell phone holder) results in decreased achievement. I have to work really hard to make my lessons engaging for teens -- and I'm pretty good at it -- but I am no match for the tech that to them is an extension of their very existence.
Reason Two: Equity
More and more school districts are relying kids to bring their own devices to class for learning. In my district, we call it BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). More and more, textbooks are online and apps are used to enhance student learning. Some classrooms aren't even provided with textbooks. Everything is online. And yet, we don't have one-to-one (one device per learner). This means that we are creating inequity in our classrooms. Those who have the best phones have the best access to content, while those with older phones or no phones at all are left in the cold. Sure, the teacher might be able to check out some iPads to close the gap, but when the entire faculty is competing for the same pieces of tech that isn't always going to happen. The result: we send a message to students that money gets your access. It isn't right.
Reason Three: Privacy
Students take photos, record conversations, and put everything happening in a room onto their phones. I've been turned into a meme more times than I can count. And honestly, I don't mind. I have very meme-worthy facial expressions and for me, it's all in fun, but the kids didn't ask if they could take my photo. They just did, secretly. And I didn't know it. What if this happens to a teacher and it's mean spirited? I've already known this to happen on several occasions to colleagues. Heck, what do I know? Maybe mean spirited things have happened to me online and I don't even know it. Worse, what if it happens to another kid? What if one of my students gets themselves into trouble because of bad judgement and it's something that they can't erase from the internet. I often tell kids that I expect them to make mistakes. That's what middle school is about. But what if they make a mistake that with technology can't be undone or forgotten once the lesson is learned? Yes, we call these kids digital natives. All that really means is that they click around without fear. But that doesn't mean that they know the first things about how to use tech respectfully and with care. If you ask me they are a little too fearless. We should be teaching them how to use phones in a school setting before allowing the phones into classrooms. Middle school should be the time that the training happens prior to phone use in high schools.
Reason Four: School Community
When you let the phones in, you give kids an out. They don't have to deal with the students and teachers in front of them, because there is the safe haven of the digital world right there in the palm of their hands. I walk through the lunch room and see kids faces staring at their screens when they should be socializing with one another face-to-face. Yes, middle school is hard and I am sure I would love to escape into my phone if I had been given the chance. But what vital people skills are our students losing when they don't have to talk and relate to each other? I realize social media is not going away and that they have to navigate it, but that's what students use every waking hour that they aren't in school to do. When they are in school they need to be developing 21st century skills -- learning how to collaborate, communicate, innovate, and relate to one another. I see our school community suffer from lack of engagement with each other in a non-digital platform.
Reason Five: Health
We've all doubled down on the phones before we really knew the risks. What is this doing to our kids vision? To their posture? To their brain development? Perhaps most important, what is it doing to their mental health? As adults we know when people get together without us -- when we don't get the invite because we see it as we scroll through social media. But hopefully, as adults we don't let it impact our self-esteem or friendships. But to ask a kid to do that? The research supports our biggest fears. It hurts them and lowers their self esteem. I feel badly for students that they have to grow up in a world in which they can see in real time that they are being left out. Trust me, FOMO (fear of missing out) is real in middle school. The thought that cell phone use in classrooms could exacerbate FOMO hurts my teacher heart. We should be fostering a space in students lives that builds up their self-esteem rather than assisting in creating an environment that wreaks havoc on it.
In Closing; Please Leave a Message
I don't have all of the answers, but I do know that we need a healthy debate about the impact phones are having on our students. I think that's part of the problem -- the tech outsmarted us -- it advanced so quickly -- and we accepted it -- without really figuring out the long term impact of our actions. But it's never too late to go back to the drawing board. That's what teachers do. When something isn't working, we rethink it, rework it until we get it right. I've always prided myself on doing what's best for kids. Right now in this landscape, in my building, in my classroom, that means telling Siri and her smartphone friends that she is no longer welcome. If she wants to talk it over, my students and I will be available for a talk after the last bell rings. Until then, we'll be learning, building community and focusing on what matters most -- the real people right in front of us.
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