This is a follow-up to the piece that I wrote back in February on personal devices inside of the classroom. It is also part of an email that I sent to the staff this morning on the topic. As noted, personal devices have been an ongoing topic for our school this year and our Digital Citizenship Team met several times to unpack the following two questions:
- Are cell phones impacting students’ social and emotional development?
- Are cell phones impacting student performance?
In order to better understand the context of this work, it’s important to first understand the history in terms of how technology has truly taken off in our school in the past 10+ years.
DFHS: Early Years
DFHS was one of the early innovators in Westchester County (and nationally) when we moved to being both a BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) school as well as a full one-to-one Chromebook school starting in 2013. Between the years of 2013-2017, our focus was on how technology could be used as a tool to enhance student learning. This was where we placed most of our focus in terms of professional development, it was the focus of my dissertation at the time, and our school became a model for how to use technology responsibly and as a tool for enhancing the development of Wagner’s 21st century “survival skills.” We presented nationally at conferences on this topic (including IB), we positioned our one-to-one as a vehicle for promoting equity and access, we chose technology as a focus for one of our Tri-States visits (and we were lauded for our work), we hosted several site visits for districts who were trying to follow in our footsteps, we encouraged the use of cell phones for things like in-class “tweet chats,” and we focused on digital citizenship to ensure appropriate use and creating a positive “digital footprint.”
Starting to Rethink the Shift
By around 2018-19, we started to notice that the radical technology shift had happened perhaps a bit too quickly in certain respects, and we started to discuss approaches for blending what might be considered more traditional approaches while still enjoying the enhancements that instructional technology was providing. At this point, our school was fully one-to-one, all teachers were using Google Classroom, and operating out of the Google suite of applications was commonplace. In many ways, the Chromebook had replaced the traditional looseleaf binder that we all grew up carrying. Areas that we looked at, for example, were reintroducing more “pen-to-paper” writing as opposed to leaning so heavily on Google Docs. Around this time, we also did a summer student and faculty read of the book How to Break Up With Your Phone. While we certainly noticed a major uptick in student cell phone use at this time, we also were reflective enough to realize that the “addiction” applied to us as adults as much as anyone else.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, DFHS was better positioned than most schools because we had been so progressive in the years prior. Whereas many districts struggled and scrambled to transition, DFHS had a very small learning curve as all students had devices, we were fully operational using all Google Apps, and communication was effortless due to Google Classroom. Our work at that time focused exclusively on remote learning, and more specifically how to provide students with the most robust and effective synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences in a remote setting. We also shifted seamlessly in the “social” side of things as our school (and district) had always been so proactive with leveraging social media to unite our school community. The DFHSVirutalCommons, for example, was born during the pandemic. Given all of that, and not surprisingly, DFHS knocked it out of the park during this time, and we continued with a mostly online instructional model during the first half of the 2020-21 school year as a result.
When we returned back to full in-person learning during the latter part of 2021 and officially during the 2021-22 school year, we noticed right away that there were large learning gaps that came as a result of the time away from school. This was (is) a national issue, of course, and not one that is DFHS specific. We also noticed that students (adults too) had become increasingly distracted by personal devices (cell phones). This isn’t surprising since we all had access to our phones during online meetings and classes and became accustomed to simultaneously looking at devices (or multitasking on one screen) when online classes and/or meetings were taking place. When in-person learning resumed, it became a real challenge to “unlearn” this behavior, and in ways everyone has had to negotiate this personal challenge as a result.
Similar to where we were a little less than a decade ago, it’s once again our responsibility to teach positive digital citizenship so that students are best prepared for life beyond high school, including college, the workplace, and even personal interactions. The good news is that we continue to do a great job of addressing areas such as appropriate online interactions, creating a positive digital footprint and image, and how to appropriately manage and balance online access to information in our school setting. With regard to the latter, we are seeing a major shift (and challenge) that seems to have happened virtually overnight with ChatGBT. Such is the nature of the rapidity of technology.
Another area that we are also dealing with, and one that is perhaps a bit more immediate and pressing since it is in front of our faces daily, is the potential distraction that personal devices might have for students when they are not needed during classroom instruction. Again, this seemingly dramatic shift isn’t surprising given the two-year “online” world that we all lived in during the pandemic. As a result, it is this area that our digital citizenship team has chosen to focus on, and it is one that we are hoping to tackle aggressively at the start of next year.
In thinking about how to best educate our students on the topic while providing clear messaging that will help to support a shift in behavior, we have identified some clear steps that we can take at the start of next year. In doing so, we fully understand that every teacher has discretion for how to best manage their respective classroom space, and as a principal I have always trusted teachers to make professional choices and supported teachers in those decisions. This situation is no different. Given that, here are some next steps that we will take for next year:
1) Support Classroom Policies: First and foremost, I’ll always support classroom policies and procedures that teachers have in place. This includes areas such as grading policies, class rules, behavioral expectations, and cell phone policies. In other words, with regard to the latter, if a student is insubordinate in any way and in-class interventions were determined to be unproductive, we will also support escalating the issue at a school level as per our code of conduct. Similarly, I will always support grading policies that connect behavior expectations/participation. Simply stated, there should always be an impact on the quarter grade if a student does not comply with class rules, procedures, and policies. This is always something that I included as a classroom teacher and it was in part why we created the participation rubric many years ago.
2) Develop Common Practices and Norms: Building upon the point above, the digital citizenship team plans to continue this work with our teacher leaders (and all teachers) on developing proven practices, strategies, and norms that work with regard to personal devices. The more consistent we are the better.
3) Phone Holders: Many of you already have phone holders in your classroom that you may (or may not) require that students use when entering the classroom. For September, we will purchase enough so that every teacher can have one if so desired.
4) Universal Messaging: In my welcome back email to parents and students, I will provide messaging around the distraction that personal devices have had on student learning. With that, I will explain that students must comply if teachers or staff request that students put devices away. Failure to do so can result in insubordination and will be addressed via the code of conduct.
5) Education: I’m including this last but honestly it’s the most important of all. We need to think about the digital citizenship aspect of this so that we can proactively educate students on how to best manage distraction. For example, we might think about another summer read (or fall read) of the book How to Break Up With Your Phone. Or maybe we do this as a staff read to start instead. Truth is, we all can be easily distracted by our devices, and I’m definitely included in that.