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Reclaiming sacred space: Compassionate computing and cellphone use in schools

Many years ago I was driving home to Bern from the Italian Alps, high from spring skiing at altitude. As I motored by a vineyard, there on the hillside was a school-aged girl singing opera before the whole valley below and I was struck by the timeless vision. If only my camera had been ready. I motored on and vowed I’d never lose this image in my mind.

Who could’ve envisioned that soon we’d live in an age characterized by the compulsive urge to capture inside digital warehouses strangely called “clouds.” It’s an age of invasive technology. Who would’ve known that children would spend 6.5 hours a day drawn into a digital world?

Here at The Grauer School, it seems every year we have more conversations about how ubiquitous cellphone technology is becoming. We debate if it’s addictive. We talk about what students, teachers and parents should do. We ramp up the policy or decline to.

We’d much rather teach “discretion” and self-regulation than control. What about family emergencies? Calculators on our phones? Airplane mode? Whatever we decide, annually it seems it’s only a partial solution.

As our Dean of Students, Clayton Payne, expressed, “Interruptive technology always gains in ubiquity faster than we can address it.” Many school officials are left wondering if it’s a security risk to allow cellphones in classrooms. I wonder about this “from two directions:”

1. Incoming: Classrooms are under surveillance.

2. Outgoing: Inappropriate and potentially damaging media is streaming out of classrooms and schools have little resolve in stopping it.

The classroom is a sacred space. When students use technology, they are not in that space. They are in a different room. The classroom world and the digital world are separate worlds.

As a teacher, there’s hardly a greater cause than freedom of expression. But there is one ever-greater value: safety.

Our peace of mind is breached when cell phones keep us, our children and teachers under surveillance. Concentration is adulterated if not shattered. Privacy is violated. (A study by the Internet Watch Foundation reports up to 88 percent of self-generated images are posted without the sender’s consent — November 2012)

Not long ago, I asked students what it was like being so tethered. What I discovered was students feel they need to be digitally tethered to friends and parents. But, to many, open cellphone use doesn’t resemble freedom.

When I told students they couldn’t stay by the phone, that we couldn’t continue this practice in class, many were anxious. The most common reason was worry their parents would be angry with them for not staying in touch.

“But my mom calls with urgent messages,” argued one 16-year-old student. “Can you give us some examples of urgent messages?” I responded. She answered: “If she is going to change my pick up after school.” Another said, “If she can’t drop off my lunch.”

“The misconception of urgency is yet another sign of addiction,” notes English teacher John Rubio.

When I suggest to students the school can free them from cellphone dependence, there is palpable relief in the room. In short, students surveyed are happy to be off the hook.

Students also express they need a hand and are trapped in this digital lure. They want guidance and our school feels some responsibility. Not all schools feel this — some free and democratic schools, particularly very small ones, put it completely in the hands of students. True confessions: we’d much prefer to do it that way. However, many among even the most progressive and permissive schools are yearning for simple, compassionate policy options.

We currently define “compassionate computing” as using your digital device while maintaining full awareness of those you are with. To re-establish eye to eye connection in a cellphone-free environment, we’ve instituted a “cellphone storage pocket caddy” to hang inside the door of every classroom. It sounds simple, but we hope it works. All students entering a classroom put their phones in the caddy.

According to Nielsen, the average teenager now sends 3,339 texts per month, up 8 percent from a year ago.) Studies show that multitasking like that is incompatible with serious cognitive work. Suggested protocol for teachers to train students’ brains to self-regulate and stay calm in digital withdrawal include:

• Silence their devices, put them face down on desks and pay attention.

• Every 15 minutes, allow students to check phones for a minute.

• Gradually increase the interval to 20, then 25, then 30 minutes.

• If protocol is violated, students forfeit the next phone break.

• Be open to phones being used as part of a learning experience.

I’m hopeful we can expect more of our teens. Dare I think they can stow their smartphones for the whole period, right away? But some things will have to be up to the teacher and others to the parent.

There are many places the minds of our students can go in our classrooms and dinner tables, and in bedrooms and automobiles, too. It is time to draw some clear lines. Check your phones at the door. Get out of the cloud. Be here now.

The classroom is sacred space.

Stuart Grauer, Ed.D. is head of the Grauer School in Encinitas.