Phones in class, family dinner style

Phones–these little devices make me crazy. Last spring, my students could not keep their hands off of them. The combination of senioritis and Snapchat became potent. I felt powerless against it. I even got my own Snapchat account to figure out if there was any way I could make it work in class somehow (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?).  (I still haven’t quite figured that out–my Snapchat account has become the place where my 12 year old daughter sends me goofy pictures of the fur children with mustaches drawn upon them when she’s actually supposed to be doing her homework.)

The phone distractions got so bad last year that I tried something new. I found an inexpensive green plastic box in my house and wrote on one side in Sharpie, “Phones” and on the other “Can’t ignore your phone, eh?” I announced to my students that if I noticed they were having a difficult time not being distracted by their phones, I would walk the box over to them and collect their phones. I even started class by inviting anyone who anticipated the phone would be too distracting on a given day to go ahead and drop it in the box (some did!).

This worked for a few days, but then it just got really annoying for me. It put me in this place where I was the one monitoring their phone use and deciding when they were too distracted. They were hiding their phones from me.

And then one day in early May, the phone box went missing. I heard nothing until I got mentioned in a Tweet from a mysterious Twitter account, @BoxTheif (note the misspelling!):

SLCC stands for Senior Literature, Composition, and Communication, the year-long course I teach for seniors to get them ready for life and college and whatever comes next for them after graduation. The boxnapper wanted donuts for all three of my classes in exchange for the safe return of the phone box. I did not reply to this demand, so the next day there were a couple more Tweets, this time with pictures. I DID respond to these:

I found the whole thing horribly clever and hilarious. I had a suspicion about who the boxnapper was–confirmed the day I told the whole class about the Twitter account (they too found it hilarious). I pointed out the misspelling and the suspected student put his head in his hands.

Despite how entertaining this all was, it definitely gave me some things to think about. The phone box was not the right approach to address the problem that my students’ phones had become. It wasn’t really working anyhow. Things that students see as valuable and useful don’t usually become targets for their shenanigans. So when this ornery senior needed an outlet for his intense desire to pull a senior prank (something very seriously discouraged at our school with threats of not being able to walk at graduation), he took advantage of a moment where I had to step into the hall to speak with a colleague, and he made off with the phone box.

You may be thinking that I should have taken a zero tolerance approach–take the phones, turn them into the office, call the parents, whatever it takes. This is not my style, and I really don’t think it serves our students either.

Smartphones give students access to all of human knowledge basically–why on earth would I want to restrict that from them in my classroom?

As distracting as these devices can be, we do not help our students to learn how to manage that distraction if we take the hard line, zero tolerance approach.

I also advise the newspaper at my school, and we started a new tradition last year. The editors-in-chief end up staying late after school several afternoons a year to finalize the pages for the print newsmagazine they publish. By the time they upload the files to the company that prints for us, they are hungry and tired. So we started going to the Noodles and Company down the street to celebrate getting another issue completed and to have a planning meeting for the time ahead. The first time we did this, we claimed a booth and one of the editors-in-chief announced, “family dinner!” This prompted them all to take out their phones and stack them in the middle of the table. They looked at me to make it clear they expected my phone to join theirs in the stack too. Hence, we were all present for each other for the meal and the conversation.

My husband (who teaches at my same school and blogs about teaching science at Mr. Dr. Science Teacher) had tried something similar in his class for his lab groups to keep everyone focused on the work at hand and not distracted by their phones. I wondered if this might be a solution for my classroom.

I had a few concerns–if I asked my students to get out their phones at the start of class and place them in the middle of their pod of desks where everyone could see them, what about the students who don’t have phones? I always have a few in every class. Would they feel like I was drawing attention to something that they don’t have and maybe wish they did? And would students compare their phones? Would it be uncomfortable for the student with the old school flip phone to see it sitting there, possibly surrounded by a shiny iPhone 6 or two or three?

These concerns are valid for sure, but I decided to try the family dinner approach anyhow. I want to place the value on helping my students to manage the devices that will likely be a part of their lives for a while. I want to emphasize to my students that when they choose to engage in interaction via their phones with others who aren’t in the same physical space as they are, they impact the people who are in their immediate physical space. In short, it’s rude to be distracted by your phone when you need to be present with people–at the family dinner table, in the classroom, wherever your presence as a human being is required. And if students choose to not be fully present in the classroom, they are choosing to learn less. It hurts them individually too.

Four students’ phones, out in class where we can all see that they are not using them.

I started the very first day of school (and have started every day since) with three mindful breaths all together (our building has a grant from the Department of Education this year to teach our students mindfulness) and then this, “Thank you for putting your phone out where we can all see that it is not distracting you, and if you don’t have a phone on you today that’s awesome–you don’t have to fight the distraction.”

With this, I remind my students that they need to be present and focused on what we are doing in class, focused on being a part of a small response-group community (they sit with their groups every day).

With this, I acknowledge the devices that so much of their lives revolve around rather than making them taboo in my classroom space. If phones are not taboo, students are less likely to be sneaky with them.

With this, I am able to have meaningful conversations with them about when it makes sense to use their phones. “Can I grab my phone to make a note about that?” “Can I grab my phone to look something up?” “Do you mind if I step in the hall to text my mom? I need to get word to her about what’s happening after school.”

With this, I make the phone issue a community issue. They are accountable to each other for their presence or distraction in my class. They ask me and each other in their groups if it’s ok to use a phone for something, rather than just mindlessly doing whatever comes to mind on their phones like is so easy for all of us to do.

What I love best about this is that I can see all of their phones and I know that they are not using them. All the phones in the room are in plain sight. Their hands are not on them. My students are not hiding their phones under the desk or in their huge purses on top of their desk or behind a book or under their writer’s notebook. I’m no longer policing their phones, a role I really don’t find useful in any way. The phones are close enough for them to grab and use if they need them for a valid reason–I want my students making notes in their phones about their homework or using apps to keep organized or looking up answers to questions or checking looking at Schoology so they can use the resources I’ve posted there. And sometimes I use tools like Poll Everywhere which requires their phones. I think this family dinner approach with the phones is emphasizing those uses of their devices rather than the distracting Snapchat/Instagram-type uses.

How do you address the phone issue in your class? And has anyone found a useful way to use Snapchat in the classroom?

This entry was posted in 21st century teaching and learning, balancing, engagement, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Phones in class, family dinner style

  1. Robert LaRue says:

    Another advantage of keeping the phones on their desks is that you do not assume liability for a missing phone… which is what happens when you collect them in a box.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Indeed! I didn’t think about that last year, but I do love that this approach removes me from the equation almost entirely. They manage their own phones and help each other to do so, and I can just teach. Thanks for reading, Bob!

  2. Vince.Puzick says:

    Thank you. I may try this next. 🙂 And by “next” I mean when my current “solution” stops “solving” …

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading, Vince! What is your current solution? Just curious. 🙂 and maybe this will stop working for me and I’ll need to try something else.

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