Cell Phones in Class?

If you are discussing the subject of students and appropriate phone use in the classroom, you’ll love what Allisha Blanchette has to say in this week’s #slowchathealth guest blog post. Like you, I have been there, teaching my students to identify the fine line between appropriate use and distractions that can hinder learning. Allisha’s journey has allowed her to find a strategy that works for her and her students and I’m thankful that she is sharing that with us in this post.

Cell Phones in Class?

Should I allow it? Should I not? How do I decide? Will I have a fight on my hands if I don’t? Will admin back me up if I don’t? Is it really that big of a deal for kids to have their phones on them? They can self-regulate…right? These questions have probably skimmed through every teacher’s mind at some point and at our school, we have the choice of whether we allow phones in class or not. The following is not to influence you one way or the other, but rather to share where I am at with class & cell phones, and how I got there.

Two years ago I was struggling with a below average Health class. It was surprising because there was a ton of potential in this class and I wasn’t sure why they were so much lower than my other classes. One thing I did note was that my policing of cell phones was much higher in this class than the others. Constant reminders to put it away, turn it over, etc…took more time in this class than the rest. We also did a phone usage check and their daily average use was about an hour more than my other classes.

This was also about the time I was shifting my curriculum focus from mental illness to mental health. Mental illness is important, but I liken it to teaching physical health rather than physical injury. In my limited time of one semester over 3 years, I want to make the curriculum valuable for most students. Not everyone will experience a mental illness but everyone needs to develop mental health.

How did I go from talking about cell phones to teaching mental health? Because there is a link. Those of you knowledgeable of the brain are familiar with the limbic system, the emotional control center of the brain. Research shows that use of cell phones–especially notifications–can release dopamine into the limbic system, which makes us feel good. Unfortunately, just like anything else that gives a quick hit without much effort, phones can be addictive and put us in withdrawal when we aren’t using them. Research has linked teen’s self-worth with social media as well. Although difficult to admit, many will count how many likes, notifications, or followers they have and the FOMO (fear of missing out) is never far from their minds. This can compel teens to engage in group chats, streaks, and consciously work to gain followers…so much so, that we have students writing their Instagram accounts on the whiteboard in the locker room to increase interactions & followers. Unfortunately, this is also counterproductive to teens gaining face to face connections which releases oxytocin, another feel good chemical that tempers the addictiveness of dopamine.

So, how does this correlate with cell phones in class? Have you ever taught a class period where you allowed students to keep their phones and asked them to turn their notification sound on? Are you aware of how often your students are interrupted each class period by all the online interactions they cultivate? Do you know if students are with you, or Netflix? Are they really self-regulating or just good at hiding the interactions? Last year I decided to take the plunge. No cell phones on students in my classroom. Leave them in the locker or put them in the pink basket. Nope, not in your pocket–I would rather your pants aren’t buzzing.

“But you’re treating them like a child.” No, I’m not. I’m treating them like the teenagers they are, prefrontal cortex not fully developed for decision-making, limbic system fully developed for heightened emotions, and in an impossible social situation. I’m locking up the liquor cabinet and telling them they can’t go to the party that they just might be uncomfortable going to in the first place. I’m giving them an out, they probably didn’t know to ask for. “Sorry I couldn’t respond to the 10 texts you sent me during class, I was in Blanchette’s class.” I’m giving them a chance to concentrate on a class that is helping them sort out who they are and who they want to become–without interruption.

I have taught a class with the notifications on (thanks for the idea @lovephyed) and here is what happened. Period 10 had a total of 212 notifications in a 47 minute class period. I subtracted the absent students and the two who had not brought phones with them to class to calculate 4.5 notifications per minute (that’s 1 every 13 seconds), and 9 per student which would equate to 1 notification for every 6 minutes of class. Period 11 was a bit worse. There were 249 notifications in a class of 27 (left out the absences and students who did not bring phones). The calculations came out to 5.4 per minute (1 in 11 seconds), and 9.2 per student which dropped it to 1 interruption every 5 minutes per student. See the pictures below to see where most notifications came from.

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This activity was paired with lessons on external factors of mental health and stress. While we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it and let’s look at what we can control. Our schedules? Our social interactions? Our obligations and choices? How we navigate them? How we balance? We started the lesson by playing memory while counting backwards from 100. A partner tracked our counting mistakes and videoed to record time. Counting mistakes were penalized by 5 seconds each. We then played again but just the game this time and noted that our times decreased significantly. We explored multitasking research and the impact on how it makes us feel when we are up to 40% less proficient at what it is we are trying to do and that it can take up to 15 minutes to refocus once interrupted (Harvard Business).

We noted that it really doesn’t feel good to do something worse than we know we can. We also noted that while teens today have many more resources and devices than the teens of yesterday, that our brains still develop in the same way. Multitasking is not an accurate term. Our brains have to shift between tasks, which can greatly reduce how well we do them. Add this to the pressure of perfection and we find an unhealthy dose of anxiety.

None of you probably need to do a lesson to guess or look up this information. What might surprise you, however, is the reaction of the students and myself as we tried to carry on a lesson with all of those dings. Within 5 minutes students were off-track, irritable, and some were rude to each other. Some students asked if they could turn off their notifications because they were being harassed by others, and others just did it anyway when they thought I wasn’t looking. Regardless, by that time the damage was done. Thanks to Mr. Raether (my principal) for expecting learning target visuals because I had to look at the board several times to remember what we were trying to accomplish and any question I asked the students had to be asked again or explained multiple times. At the end of two periods I was irritable & exhausted myself, wondering if I would ever have the courage to repeat the lesson. It was the sound that really got to the students in class but none of this takes into account the anxiety that comes with the need to respond once notified. The students were asked not to respond once notified and actually did a fair job of it. This probably only heightened their emotions, however.

On a positive note, students came in the next day ready to place their phones in the pink basket–several with a flourish. A few double-checked to make sure the sound was off. With the data I was able to facilitate a conversation on the need to engage in group chats, social media, streaks, and so on. Questions such as, are these things you want to do, or feel obligated to do? And what would happen if you didn’t? Would you be okay? Maybe better than okay?

The pink basket works for us and if you suspect this is something your students are struggling with, it could work for you too. I do, however, teach it, explain it, and approach it from the angle of protection rather than taking something away. I want to protect their time in my class because it’s valuable for them to take time for themselves to accomplish what they want and need to–without an interruption every 5 minutes. Some may not recognize this right away, as often teenagers don’t, but most will likely come to understand that you are doing it for them. Have I had issues? Yes, some small, one major that eventually worked out. I think the key is to do it for the right reasons, explain it, and be consistent. One piece of advice has always stuck with me since becoming a mom and I think it also applies to teaching–make it easy for kids to be good. I’m okay with dealing with any fall out in this situation, especially if it gives my kids 47 minutes of relief.

If you like Allisha’s blog post, you might like to hear a British perspective from the awesome Teacher Toolkit blog site – Banning Mobiles is Old School.

Additionally, if you are interested in reading more about our relationship with cell phones and other devices, you MUST read ‘Irresistible’ ($11.55) by Adam Alter, a former #slowchathealth book of the month and one of the best books I have read in a long time. 

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