A friend of mine who is a parent of two teenagers asked me why schools do not have stricter rules about cell phone use. In other words, why can’t the students check them at the door? This is not the first time I have fielded this question. It is a question that I have considered from a teacher perspective on more than one or a thousand occasions through the years. There is not an easy answer here.
The truth is phones are in the hands of just about every teenager on the planet and that is not going to change. We can all try to control access and control use, but from my experience young people find a way to access what they want. What does not work is taking the phone away unless teachers, administrators, and parents have hours in their days to negotiate that game. The best answer is education at home, at school.
Every day that I stand in front of one of my high school classrooms, I do have to remind students to put the phone aside, to look up and engage with content. Believe you me the reminders are many throughout the class period. You might say those phones have become quite distracting. I cannot imagine this will stop anytime soon. Phones no doubt have impacted students’ focus in school, and I know that they have changed how young people interact at home.
The reality is that cell phones already are in students’ hands; adults put them there. Now it is the adults who have to take a step back and create opportunities for real discussion. We all have to put our phones down and have the conversations. What are you reading today on your phone? Where do you get your news? What did you learn today on Snapchat? How do you know what you read is true?
Several years ago, I had a conversation with a parent who did not know how to help her son improve his grades in school. This parent was worried he was going to fail a class he needed for graduation. Besides the typical teenage distractions, his mother said that all he ever does when he gets home is play video games and text his friends. At this point in the conversation, I wondered how many times she asked her son about the games or about his communication with friends. She said almost sheepishly that she just wants to give him the space he needs at this age.
Here is the tricky situation with the teenager. He needs freedom to grow as an independent thinker, learner, and decision-maker; however, at the same time she needs more support than ever to know that she is heading in the right direction. Teenagers most definitely act like they want all the freedom and that they want us out of the way - teachers, parents, family members, etc. I see this every day when I stand in front of class asking how students are doing. I am met quite often with groans, especially during first period, blank stares or, most commonly, the tops of students’ heads as they stare zombie-like at the latest snap.
It seems strange to say that I have grown used to this routine, but considering my audience it really is not that odd. Adolescents, in the wireless age and long before the iPhone, are always testing the adults in their midst. They seek to do what they want but still crave approval, whether that approval is negative or positive. They act distant and can appear uninterested in anything we have to say, but if we move too far away and do not offer feedback on anything they do or say they lose confidence, they might rebel, and they actually do not excel as well in school. They may even gravitate to all things negative. Students pretend that any kind of structure is a drag. They will say they hate reading and writing; they will even suggest they hate thinking their own original thoughts. Trust me. I teach writing classes.
The more my students complain about the length of a novel we will be reading or the fact there is writing on the next test, the more passion I bring about what they are about to gain from reading that novel and writing that in-class essay. Instead of helping them build that bridge they so painstakingly want to build between themselves and the learning process, I create a structure in the class that is consistent, inquisitive, and challenging. I throw out my lures and include them in discussion daily. I use cards with their names on it, so no one can hide behind a phone or tired teenage disposition and drown in a pool of inertia.
After a few weeks of getting used to the fact that I will not stop asking questions and being curious about their opinions, a wondrous new reality settles in: they start raising hands without me having to pull their cards. They remind each other to put down the phones and listen. They start to engage. They begin making decisions about their own learning and it starts paying off. Snaps and messaging friends on the phones still happens. It won’t stop. I know that. They know that. But now they also know that they are accountable in class, that maybe this learning thing is OK. That maybe, just maybe it feels good to think, to read, to write...
I still lay the ground rules everyday. I find consistency is key for the adolescent creature, who is mired in so many inconsistencies. I tell my students that I like to be repetitive, that it is a part of my charm. They are used to me now after almost a semester. I am used to them as well. So I still start class the same every day. Happy [insert day of the week] class. Kindly detach from your devices and join me in the real world. There are still a few holdouts who respond with what’s happy about it? Now, however, they say it with a smirk. I think they, too, are showing off how consistent they can be.
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