Silence through cell phones

cell phone handI cannot imagine a quiet high school cafeteria. Our cafeteria is noisy and chatty. We’ve managed to (generally) keep kids in their cafeteria seats, but we do not even attempt to contain their enthusiasm, their loud conversations, laughter, exuberant calls to each other, the release of seeing each other socially for 45 minutes a day.

Yet a teacher at another NYC public high school told me that a couple of years ago, their cafeteria became quiet. Suddenly. Why?

Students were allowed to bring in their cell phones. The cafeteria transformed from a typical chatty, loud meeting zone to a quiet room in which students typed rapidly into their phones. It’s possible that many conversations were happening through students’ phones, but not through their actual voices, gesturing hands, ears, and eyes.

And I get it. I go to principal meetings once a month with all of the principals in my district. It’s much more comfortable for me to take out my phone and start checking emails than to override my own shyness, discomfort, fear of rejection, awkwardness—and just talk to someone. I override that awkwardness, but it’s a conscious effort each time.

Cell phones were originally banned in New York City pubic schools, but the ban was lifted in March of 2015. Schools were given the option of collecting students’ phones and returning them at the end of the day. My school is one of five schools on a shared campus, and we five principals chose to collect students’ phones.

I originally had the idea that it would be great for students to have cell phones. “Think of how we could modernize learning!” I told my colleagues. “We could teach students to use different apps for learning and show them how to use social media responsibly.”

“Think of how a student could get bullied through social media,” said a colleague. “It might happen now outside of school, but it definitely happens much less than it would if students had phones during the school day.”

“Think of how we’d now be giving our teachers one more classroom management challenge,” said another colleague. “Sure, some would enforce no-cell-phones-in-class with no problem, but others would really struggle.”

It didn’t take long to convince me. We opted to collect cell phones, developed a rather elegant system for collecting them, and have been doing so ever since. And yes, there are many schools that allow cell phones and have developed effective ways of teaching students to use them responsibility, keeping them away in class and keeping students focused. If it came to that, we would do them same. For now, though, our cell phone collection allows for one less distraction from learning, and many more social interactions.

One of my favorite parts of our cell phone policy is the actual collection. One of our staff members, Paul, collects the phones in the morning. I am always impressed by how my staff manages to have a full, friendly interaction with each student even though the collection and distribution process is fast. Paul told me, “I like collecting their phones so I can say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and start their day off right.”

And he really does, as do my other staff members who hand the phones back in the afternoon. I recently listened to Susan Pinker’s TED Talk “The Secret to Living Longer May Be Your Social Life.” This has made it even more obvious to me why I’ll keep collecting cell phones for as long as it’s allowed. Not having cell phones increases the number of human interactions our students have with each other and with our staff. I’ll take our noisy cafeteria any day.

Photo credit: Wonderlane, Creative Commons License


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