Last Thursday, students and teachers at Reston School gave up their smart phones. One student even kissed her phone goodbye as she placed it in a plastic bin, a sad farewell until later that day.
It was a challenge dreamed up by school librarian Kim MacKenzie, who offered prizes in exchange for one day without digital devices.
That morning, 40 students (about a third of the total in Grades 5 to 12) volunteered to deposit their smart phones and tablets in bins set up in the library. Seven teachers also participated.
MacKenzie says she wanted to try something different to add “spark” to I Love to Read month in February and came up with Surrender Your Device Day.
“I’m tired of walking up and down the halls, seeing kids with their heads down in their phones,” she said. “My whole idea was let’s talk today, not just visit through social media.”
By midday Thursday, she’d had a couple of pleasant surprises: very few students came to reclaim their devices early, even though they could have; and she spotted a table full of Grade 9s and 10s in the library having a lively conversation and actually “looking at each other”.
“They were hard-core talking together when ordinarily every single one of them at that table would have had their faces in their screens!”
MacKenzie isn’t the only educator at Reston School with concerns about smart phone overuse or misuse.
Kent Schiltroth teaches Grades 7 to 12. He says students are allowed to keep their phones turned on and close at hand in the classroom so they can use them as learning tools. He says that “can extend the classroom in really cool ways, but it’s a fine balance.”
Teachers don’t always know what their students are accessing on their devices, and that can be a problem.
“Three years ago, we had our highest grade average on a provincial exam that we ever had. I thought using the phones was really helping,” says Schiltroth.
“But two years removed from that, it seems to have gone the other way. I may have put too much faith in them. Now Netflix is playing all day (on mobiles) and we aren’t doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Our exam scores went down big time.”
He warns, “If you don’t recognize problems with the devices, you’re burying your head in the sand.”
In the case of Reston School, one attempt to re-establish balance has been to implement moments of quiet. These are 15-minute breaks where devices are turned off and the focus turns to “old school” activities like reading books, writing on paper and oral storytelling.
Back in the library, it’s the end of the school day and students come to collect their phones. They’re all smiles as they fish them out of the bins, eager to get back to business as usual: checking for Snap Chat messages, texting, listening to music, and maybe later some Netflix.