I teach 7th grade and if there is one thing I have learned about 7th graders, it is that sometimes they do goofy things. Sometimes they see a hole in a chair and stick their head in it only to find that they are now stuck. Sometimes they say something that unintentionally makes their peers laugh. Sometimes they take a risk but fail miserably.
And for the longest time, it was no big deal. For the longest time, we laughed at our mistakes, used them to create a community where we could fail together, laugh when things didn’t work, and then go home knowing we tried.
But I have noticed in the past couple of years that this feeling of security in our classroom, that this sense of community where we can take risks and not care as much if it doesn’t work seems to be harder and harder to accomplish. I thought 7th graders were hard to get to trust me, but it turns out they have a much harder time trusting each other.
I am starting to think cell phones have a lot to do with it. The pictures. The videos. The instant access to everyone you know.
Now before the onslaught begins; yes, cell phones can be powerful tools, yes, cell phones can bring the world in, yes, we have to help children learn how to use their cell phones well.
But…let’s be honest here for a moment, how many of us adults have said or thought how we would not want to be a child growing up these days due to the lack of privacy? How many of us would hate having all of our missteps and mess ups blasted across every social media channel we know? How many of us are over-connected to our phones and then wonder why we are exhausted every day? How many of us are so thankful that there isn’t evidence of all of the stupid things we did when we were younger and didn’t know any better? And that’s it for me. I try to create a classroom environment that is safe and accepting for all of our students, but the moment cell phones enter the classroom, that feeling shifts.
Because we have a BYOD policy in my school, kids bring their cellphones to our classroom and while many don’t use them, I know that many of our students feel the weight of the phones in the room whenever we do anything remotely risky, such as public speaking or more physical work. And while I tell kids to please not film each other or take pictures, they still do on the sly and they share, and they make fun of, and they then forget about it. But the person ridiculed doesn’t. And so instead of taking risks, instead of trying new things, I get to teach some kids who are seemingly constantly wondering what others will think, and not just the others present in the room but the others out there in the world only a click away.
And it is exhausting for them and for me. To constantly feel watched. To constantly be on alert. To constantly have to know that every little thing they do could potentially be the next big meme or Snap or Insta post.
I know that I have pushed the use of phones in our classrooms before on this blog, how I have written about using them purposefully, but I will no longer subscribe to the notion that when kids use their phones it is only because they are bored. It is too easy to say that if teachers just created relevant and engaging lessons then no child would use their phones improperly in our rooms. That’s not it, all of us with devices have had our attention spans rewired to constantly seek stimulus. To instantly seek something other than what we are doing. To constantly seek something different even if what we are doing is actually interesting. And not because what we seek out is so much better, look at most people’s Snapchat streaks and you will see irrelevant images of tables and floors and half faces simply to keep a streak alive. It is not that our students are leaving our teaching behind at all times because they are bored, it is more because many of us, adults and children alike, have lost the ability to focus on anything for a longer period of time.
And their brains don’t get a break. They are constantly plugged in, constantly searching for stimuli beyond what is there right in front of them. They wonder why they are exhausted and they don’t see how their device is playing into that. How this hyper-connectivity is draining them rather than firing them up.
Yet, it’s bigger than that. I worry about the mental health issues that I see my students struggle with because of how their mistakes are amplified. How they worry about what they are wearing even when they are in small groups of friends because someone might not “like” their outfit. How they worry what they look like when they are doing something because someone may be capturing it on film. How a great moment captured on camera can turn sour because of other people’s comments. How they worry about how their friends will react if they say what they are really thinking.
And they don’t get a break from it either. The phones and the social media follow them home, for good and for bad. There is no longer little chance to leave your mistakes at school. Instead, they can instantly be replayed over and over for anyone that has it shared with them.
So as a teacher, I feel we need to do better. I feel we need to step in as the adults in the room and create the types of learning environment we all need; ones that are calm, accepting, and safe. Ones that lend themselves to experimentation, to face-to-face connections, to working hard but also to getting in the optimal zone of thought.
So after spring break, I am declaring our classroom a cell-free zone. I have done it before, but that was because of distractibility, not because of this. I am asking students to please leave their cell phones in their lockers, mine will be put away as well, during our 45 minutes together so that we all can let our guard down and take risks together. There will days where phones are welcomed as a way to amplify their voices, but most, if not all, of the projects we do, can be created using Chromebooks.
And I will tell my students why. It will, in fact, be one of the first conversations we will have together as we gear up for our final quarter together. A conversation I think that is long overdue in many of our classrooms. Yes, cell phones can be sources of good, but not always. Our students deserve to feel safe with us, not wondering who is watching beyond our classroom walls. The least I can do right now is start the conversation.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.