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These God-Danged Cell Phones
Where and when to start rebuilding boundaries?
Being as I am back in the trenches, my view becomes more shallow, more local (in addition to my being too tired to write). But that is okay. The day-to-days in a school are important, almost overwhelmingly. The school year is different from the year that other adults inhabit: September’s honeymoon and energy has by November begun to feel like a slog. December is filled with weird, conflicting urgencies: the approaching time off, teased for months by OMG IT’S CHRISTMAS AGAIN! messaging; the pressure to wrap up courses, right during this distracting month; and the social stuff, the parties and trips and Big Holiday Pageants. I don’t mind any of this – in fact, I build my life around this schedule.
The phase we’re entering now is – for a semestered high school teacher – kinda great. My courses are wrapping up, which is either happy because the class has been a great success, or it’s happy because it was a fail and now it’s over. All’s well that ends.
My return to the normal semester was interesting and memorable, but it was not easy. The kids are – depending on the grade and type of kid – kinda broken. You know that thing when a kid realizes their own power? Like when a kid decides he doesn’t care about coersive forces? Like Bender in The Breakfast Club? Not giving a shit is very powerful. Well, a fair number of my students sort of don’t believe in school anymore: they’re not interested in trying to impress or succeed; they’re hanging with the friends they missed and that is their only real concern. They don’t work a lot, and often don’t really try at all.
I’ve checked with teacher friends from other schools: it’s not just my school. COVID’s impact on schools has had a tremendous impact on students. Theories of how to get “back to normal” are all over the place, as you can imagine: some teachers think the hammer has gotta come down, that a bunch of kids need to fail if they refuse to work in order for them to relearn the rules. Some think we should give the kids a break, let go of some work, be patient, and build back, ahem, better. I think the answer is in the non-coercive middle: teachers should meet kids where they’re at, and kids shouldn’t be punished for being themselves, but they should not get the message that their current state can go on and on. I’m marking lightly this semester, but I intend to begin this coming semester very differently, more sure about which boundaries I am going to enforce. Not to “get strict” suddenly, but to provide the structure that I think some kids are aching for and others just need. More predictable and important deadlines, and a higher expectation for engagement. Which will mean no phones.
Phones in Class
I truly meant to enforce a clear, solid No Phones rule in my classes this semester.* I know it’s the right thing to try. I know kids need the experience of being away from them. I know being present is one of the best things I can teach right now. And I know that the things I teach – English and film studies – are about communication, and when the phone is around, it is the dominant force, the tone-setter, the attention hog.
I failed, so badly. I’ve taught for a long time, so I’m not berating myself. Making up rules on the fly** is something we don’t look at enough: it is hard, and necessarily includes lots of missteps.*** Phones wound up being all over the class, all the time, in part because it was the lesser of many powerful distractions and personalities.
But I’m going hard this time. I’m going to let them know about it before they enter. We’re going to study the ideas of addictive tech, of attention, of mindfulness and being present, and if we have to spend a week or two doing just that, cool. I’ve spent the morning looking for solid, clear videos and articles illuminating the subject, and I’ll share what I find here, and share what I encounter in the classroom as we go.
I’m surprised this is so difficult, but also not really. Everything is this difficult right now.
To be continued. Hope you’re great.
*Something more nuanced than a blanket ban. Phones clearly have a place and a use. My control will be something like putting them in a box, and having students be mindful about engagement. If they need it, they can tell me; this will allow a bunch of opportunities to consider why before picking the device up. I think that’s a good step. Explain your intention, use it for what you meant to, and then put it back.
**I would love to spend some time thinking about the way teachers and schools of each generation struggle with “banning” things from school, usually because they are too popular (see Pogs, Beyblades, Tamagotchis, Magic Cards). It’s an odd phenomenon.
***Missteps – don’t even get me started. I fought pretty hard to have cell phones allowed into classes. I thought that we needed to teach kids to live with their tech. I/we didn’t know how shit-headed the tech would be, how lousy the Silicon Valley boys would turn out to be.