Be the change, being a teacher

On the Need for Phone Free Classrooms

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.





17 thoughts on “On the Need for Phone Free Classrooms”

  1. Good luck with your cell phone hiatus. I’ve tried something similar in the past and realised that quite often something unexpected/spontaneous happened in a learning episode that would be perfect to capture with a mobile phone, eg a slow-motion video of an experiment. So as a class we collectively decided to put the devices in a box at the back of the room (including mine) and grab them when we needed them. What was interesting was that it sparked student questions like “what are you going to use your phone for?” when they went to collect it. I tweaked the question to “how is the phone going to enhance your learning?” – funny how teachers like to squeeze out every drop of opportunity for some metacognition :). Students say “hey, can you share that with me too?” – modelling appropriate use of the technology as a learning tool. We’ve now got to the point of nominating a ‘class photographer’ based on “X always takes the best photos and uses cool filters” and “Y can type so fast so should be the one to take notes on the video”.
    What I also realised is that asking them to leave their phone in the locker was me policing them, and took up their valuable time when moving from another lesson in which they were allowed to use it. When we had the box it became a habit for them to drop it off, and pretty much eliminated any confrontational conversations hinged around why they had failed to leave in their locker. There’s some research on merely having the phone (or somebody else’s phone) nearby causing a dip in concentration and increased anxiety (echoed in your post). I’ve not got any of my own research on it, but I’ve got a gut feeling that it helps reduce these. Just thought I’d share my journey on this. Again, good luck, I’m curious to see how you and your learners get on 🙂

  2. Hi Pernille,
    Once again you speak thoughtfully about a difficult issue. It is going to take much more research to work out a positive solution.

    There is another issue around phones that concerns me. I don’t know what the situation is in the US but here in Australia, the majority of schools forbid mobile phones in the classroom. This creates a paradox. BOYD schemes are very popular though mobile phones are excluded. Yet the only device that you can guarantee that most secondary students will have is a mobile phone. Regardless of their socio-economic background most students will have but one device, and it is the one device that is forbidden.

    I worry about the widening of an already unfair gap in education. Conversations with edtech people and education services who confidently claim that all students now have devices and access to technology make me uneasy when I know from talking to teachers at the coal face that this is simply not the case. In complete contradiction of snarky edtech companies complaints, teachers have embraced technology and seen its benefits, but the systems we work in haven’t been able to keep pace and more children are being left behind.

    There is a US product, ‘Clever’ I believe it is called that allows the school and classroom teacher to turn platforms on and off as needed. IT sounds good though I am not sure if it is everywhere. I believe it needs to be placed on district servers. We don’t have anything like that and the fear of all the things you mention make departments reluctant to change their position on mobile phones.

    I am sure there are much smarter people than me who are working on these issues but I don’t think we are going to come up with solutions anytime soon. In the meantime the concern of the classroom teacher is to protect their students while also limiting exclusion. Something else we can add to the list of things a teacher needs to do.

    Thanks for keeping us connected to the things that matter.

  3. I’m struggling with this issue myself- I feel like my students are just so *sad* more than they used to be, and I feel like this is the root of it.

    I love devices because they can get books on tape and e-books on them, and some kids thrive with those methods of reading in a way that they’ve never thrived in reading before. But after some recent events, I can’t feel like it’s a good idea to have them in the classroom anymore. The trade-off is too great.

    Basically, your article read my mind, then put it into words more eloquent that I had. Thank you.

  4. Pernille, you might be interested in a Douglas Rushkoff’s recent reflection at the beginning of a Team Human episode. He wonders why is it so easy for people to lose sight of the design and purpose behind these platforms? He argues that other than teaching media, social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc) should never be used by schools. I think that this crosses over to the smartphone debate.

  5. About a year ago I too came to the realization that cell phones could no longer be left on desks in a grade 7 classroom. As much education that we do with appropriate use, the dos and don’ts of devices in the learning environment, they are just kids after all and they do make mistakes. They make poor choices each and every day as they are testing out their decision making skills, as well as their independence. As much as we hoped students would not misuse their devices (they can certainly talk the talk) they have shown that they are not always able to walk the walk. Live streaming peers or teachers during class time, taking photos from underneath tables then using these photos inappropriately were just some of the issues we, as grade 6/7 teachers, faced last year.
    The phones are now put in a box when the students enter in the morning (I teach in an elementary school) and they have access to them throughout the day if and when needed. Since implementing this rule in the class we have not had to deal with the issues we did last year (outside of school misuse is still an ongoing problem). We also had tremendous parent support when we established the new guidelines – many felt that they were then able to set stricter boundaries with their children and the use of phones at home.
    I applaud your willingness to shift what is not working in your classroom; as educators we need to assess and reassess each and every day what we feel is best for the learning of our students.

  6. Excellent reflection regarding this issue; I have struggled along the same path. Early on my biggest concern was that with the constant input of back and forth just from texting, let alone social media conversations, students have time to reflect and process; everything becomes reactionary. I appreciate your efforts to create some sense of balance for your students.

  7. I concur, I taught for ten years and, know too well the damages of social media on a personal note… the safety, you nailed it, reduction of anxiety.. an all too common theme amongst youth unprecedented even by times of world war

  8. My classroom became a phone free zone at 2nd semester! and headphone,too (the big ones that they hang around their necks) And I LOVE it! And students that if I see it or hear it, I collect and the parent must come in to collect it! Picked-up one yesterday and it beeped, rang, or buzzed all day. Was waiting to see “mom” come up so that I could answer it and have a discussion with her about the problem!!

  9. My high school students would learn more without worrying about what is going on in their phone. I hate phones in the classroom

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