The Case Against Cell Phone Bans: Trust, Equity + Student Voice

 

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Groundhog Day: Phones + Their Discontents

As a department chair, the first few weeks before school often feature meetings and conversations about implementing new and revising existing school policies and procedures with other school leaders.  Revision of procedures to meet the needs of dynamic people in a changing environment is a healthy organizational practice, and, often, the conversations uncover ideological biases, ideologies, and assumptions that, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly, get written into our school handbook, course syllabus, or classroom norms.  Interrogating the origins of our beliefs and values given our identities and experiences and understanding how they manifest themselves in educational spaces is critical if equity is at the forefront of our thinking and practice.  Implementing policies without meaningful reflection about who they will impact and how is negligent, especially to populations who already face systematized discrimination.  Often, the policies least interrogated are those that folks feel most strongly about; we become entombed by our certainty, so minds rarely ever change.  Among the least interrogated, yet most wanted policies are schools are bans on mobile phones.  If you’re want to win Twitter today, all you need to do is post something about a phone ban and watch the flood of parents, teachers, and other administrators like, retweet, and reply with furious and effusive praise.

Phones are sites where we work out our frustrations about the other things that we can’t—or won’t—name.  As teachers, we know, logically, that outright banning tools with educational and connective purposes is both ineffective and unethical, but we, naturally, struggle with not being the center of the room or students’ access to massive amounts of information or our high need for control.  Taking students’ phones is an easy way to get those likes and retweets, to show that we’re serious about learning, but, in the end, it does little good and harms both our relationships with students and the sense of independence we’re trying to foster.  I’m aware of the research that talks about how students sometimes use technology in the classroom, and I’m not naive that this does, has, and will happen in my own classroom, too,  However, these studies didn’t mention anything about any conversations people had with students about responsible and contextual technology use, though we might reasonably assume there were strongly-worded warnings in the syllabus and, that, on the first day students were sufficiently talked at about the perils of phone use, much like the scene from health class in Mean Girls.  There’s also a load of problematic junk science on phones that folks rely on to craft harsh and oppressive policies, including the infamous study by Tom Bennett that is continuously brought up in these debates.

While this post may not change anyone’s mind about phones in their classrooms, I want to try to make a case against the full-scale banning of phones in classrooms and schools.  It is important to acknowledge that research exists that suggests creating distance between teenagers and their phones can help them focus and increase their achievement.

Start With Trust

We know that total prohibitions are rarely ever effective in both preventing a behavior or educating people about why a behavior should be avoided.  Our own experiments with abstinence-only sex education should be a clear warning about what happens when we aren’t presenting information that helps students make informed, educated choices.  Phones, like pencils, paper, and erasers, are part of our lived environment, and asking people to refrain from them, especially when they can have legitimate educational and connective purposes, is flawed; we need to be talking withstudents about how to use the technology responsibly and thoughtfully.  As Jesse Stommel writes, “We can talk to students about attention and have them talk to us about how attention works for them. This is the kind of metacognitive work that is the stuff of learning.” Together with our students, we can build collective norms that we individually agree to abide by as part of a community of learners. There is a fundamental difference between listening toand talking withour students about important decisions that impact their educational environments and surveilling them to ensure their compliance with ourrules, which often are meant to situate us at the seat of power.  Like any inclusive, consensus-building activity, working with students build collectively agreed upon norms can be messy, but I’d argue here that the process is more important than the outcome: not only do these activities signal trust, they encourage students to be  personally reflective about their own behaviors and make informed choices about their behavior.  These arguments, by the way, are not even taking into account how outright bans on phones may negatively impact—and further stigmatize—students who need devices to learn, including those students who may not have a diagnosis.

Statements like I’m making here have gotten me eye rolls—and much worse—from colleagues and administrators; I’m frequently accused of being “pie in the sky” about my belief that students can and should have a say in the conduct of their classroom, and I’ve been accused of being a lax disciplinarian.  School isn’t a panopticon, and I’m not a warden. I’m a teacher, and my most positive outcomes have been working with students as equitable partners rather than against them as a high-seated authority.  It’s difficult for me to take seriously the forever-and-always calls for “building relationships” from folks who are also encouraging the enforcement of rules that lack student voice or perspective.

Outright bans on phones further entrench schools in asymmetrical power dynamics where students have little voice or say in the rules and norms they are being asked to follow and are often given very little rationale for why the rules and norms exist.  Look around your next faculty meeting and see who is in violation of your school’s cell phone ban.  In a recent meeting I was in, more than half the participants had their phones out and used them at one point during the meeting.  If we aren’t willing follow the rules we set down for our students, then those rules are likely flawed, unless we only care about solidifying our place at the top of the hierarchy.

Implicit Bias + Discipline

A new study, led by Kate Wegmann at the University of Illinois, shows that Black students receive fewer warnings than their white peers for misbehavior.  White students were generally given more warnings, which are opportunities to correct behaviors, than Black students who faced harsher punishments earlier and more often.  Our implicit biases manifest themselves all over our classrooms—from our beliefs about student achievement to grading—so it isn’t surprising that is has an impact on who we discipline and how we discipline them.  What feels like an equitable policy—an outright ban—probably isn’t in practice, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is equitable might be very well hurting students who have already been traumatized by our systems and policies.  In other words, it’s easy to look at inequity as something that just happens rather than something that’s explicitly caused by our values, beliefs, and actions.

The disproportional outcomes students face when overzealous rules are put into place are harmful socially and academically, but the processes used to get to those outcomes are also in need of examination and change.  My concern with these kinds of blanket rules is that teachers, some wittingly and some unwittingly, will replicate the traumas of “zero tolerance,”subjecting Black and Brown students to harsh punishment for minor violations.  Indeed, it is easy to see how these policies can lead to “broken windows policing” in classrooms where teachers are looking for violations and acting swiftly and harshly to “make an example” of the student so others won’t mimic or replicate the behavior.  All the while, the teacher can claim they were following the rules of the school, which are clearly and carefully laid out.  A violation is a violation, after all, and exception shows softness.  Before we argue about lost academics from cell phone use, let’s also acknowledge that an estimated 20 percent of the Black-White achievement gap is attributable to inequities in school discipline, which are often related to the zero tolerance, broken windows policies described here.  Moreover, harsh punishments for banal violations can actually cause more disruptions and higher rates of misbehavior among the punished.

All policies that we enact and enforce reveal our assumptions about our students—they make our implicit biases explicit and codified—and blanket phone bans are no exception.  If phones are the sites where we play out our unspoken fears, where our generational and positional proxy battles are played out, it is worth examining what we’re saying and who were saying it about when we ban them.

What’s Next: Try Using a “Liquid Syllabus” for Classroom Policies

I was introduced to the term “liquid syllabus” by Michelle Pacansky-Brock in 2014, and, in addition to make course syllabi more beautiful and appealing to engage with, she encourages us to think about making them interactive and crowd-sourced.  Indeed, the whole idea of the “liquid syllabus” is that it’s malleable and shifts based on the dynamism of our environments and the people within them. As we head back to school, it’s useful to keep your syllabus open for a period of time—maybe we a week or two—and have students engage with it, provide you feedback, and reach consensus on key issues.  Not only will this invest them in the content of the syllabus, you’re showing, early, that their voices will be taken seriously and the environment is one where their ownership is encouraged and valued beyond just show.  The process matters, as we want to teach our students to make decisions, to reach consensus, and to be part of a democratic system.  If this is too much, too soon, there are baby steps: you might keep a few non-negotiables while letting your students determine the rest, but, remember, you can’t just throw them the scraps.  They need to have a legitimate voice in the pressing matters of the classroom. Student have to know that your serious about providing them a voice; they won’t participate meaningfully in an exercise that doesn’t lead to substantive engagement or change (nor should they).

The “liquid syllabus” is uncomfortable for some, as it may reveal—and students may comment on—implicit biases and unfair assumptions embedded in rules and policies that we thought were equitable and reasonable.  Over the years, students have asked me about and pushed me on practices that were lodged deep into my pedagogy.  Their questions weren’t mean or rude—they were genuine attempts to both understand and push—and this is where I’ve gotten the best instructional coaching of my career.  It’s easy to get defensive, but it’s important to remember that our temporary discomfort in confronting our biases matters far less than the weight of oppressive systems that traumatize our students.  There’s a lot to be said for modeling how to be vulnerable, take feedback, and grow for the students in your classroom.

Next week, I’ll be using a “liquid syllabus” protocol with my Writing Center students to build working agreements for our time together throughout the year, and I’m excited to see what our new tutors bring to the discussion while also understanding what our returning tutors learned from their previous experience.

Promoting Agency + Creating Engagement in Student-Centered Spaces

I’ve written before that writing centers, particularly in secondary schools, tend to be difficult to quantify, as they don’t look at all like traditional learning environments: there’s no teacher delivering a lesson in front of a whiteboard or a screen, the “lesson plan,” which never involves worksheets, varies from day-to-day depending on the institutional ecology in which the writing center is situated, and, most of all, students have agency to determine how they will use their time and the space in any given context. In trust-poor industrial educational models, which tend to rely on Foucauldian surveillance and student self-regulation, students learn to cede their autonomy to an authority in a social negotiation that earns them rewards, including, often, being left alone by hovering adults, which was one of my goals as a high school student.

1024px-Panopticon.jpgWriting centers have to be trust-rich environments or they tend not to function very well, as they are constructed to be student-led and student-centered. However, when students move the trust-poor environments that dot most school spaces to the trust-rich environment of the writing center, there’s a kind of social anomie that sets in. This isn’t to say that writing centers become Lord of the Flies, but students often struggle with navigating an environment without the presence of an authority figure (or at least the threat of a presence); they lack a kind of self-intentionality that helps them manage their time, fulfill community expectations, and create the learning environment that they need. As Glen Cochrane contends in Hybrid Pedagogy, “Moving into, around, and back and forth between learning environments built by physical space and learning environments built by hidden ones and zeros requires transitioning.” Students who have tended to be under the thumb of trust-poor compliance regimes often have the most difficult transition into writing center. Indeed, here’s a sample of a recent reflection from a tutor:

Honestly I wish there was a little better one on one communication between the leaders or “teacher” of writing center and tutors, recently I’m not as sure what the expectation is of what we’re supposed to do when there are no students.

Given that I’m often teaching while students are tutoring, tutors are forced to navigate the Writing Center’s learning environment on their own; tutors need to project a world rather than wait for one to projected for them. We have instituted a detailed syllabus, a tiered peer-to-peer mentoring system, weekly reflections, and “circle time” based in the principles of restorative practices to mitigate some of our tutors’ disorientation, getting tutors to seize their agency really requires making some of the invisible rules, guidelines, and norms visible and sustained, intentional social-emotional confidence building. Indeed, Cochrane writers, “If educators want to take education beyond simply rebelling against a centralized past, the challenge then comes in helping learners realize the need for the ability to construe their own environment, and then helping learners acquire these skills.” In a dialogue hosted by the Eastern Michigan University Office of Campus and Community Writing and 826michigan earlier this month, a few Skyline tutors were able to engage in an interesting dialogue with other tutors about what it means to be a student-led, student-centered space and what their responsibilities are in that environment. This year, our tutor-leaders have taken on the responsibility of further creating a student-led, student-centered space, but helping other tutors acquire the skills to make and remake their space in the next step in a slow process to undo the very real behavioral modifications of centralized education, as evidenced by the portion of the tutor reflection shared above.

In teacher-centered spaces, all relationships are in the context of the adult; peer-to-peer relationships, to the extent they exist, are often performative: a teacher asks a question, a student responds, the teacher responds to the student before calling on someone else who responds back to the teacher. This looks interactive, but, really, the teacher retains the locus of control by not letting the conversation organically develop among students. Developing meaningful, authentic peer-to-peer relationships is one of the biggest challenges in student-centered spaces, and it can be a significant part of the anomie I discussed earlier, as there isn’t an authority figure ever-present to mitigate and manage. Indeed, new tutors often struggle with the balance between the personal, making the learning space relevant to them, and the communal, working toward a shared goal within a shared values framework. Cochrane writes, “The division between personal and community clarifies the decisions learners face between working towards their own learning goals and working under community standards towards a common goal—cooperation and collaboration, respectively.” In some sense, it’s easy for students to embrace the idea of the freedom of student-centered spaces, but it’s far more difficult to imbue them with a sense that there remains a learning community with shared values and expectations.  Teaching students how to be and the importance of being reflective practitioners to improve their own practice and improve our tutoring community is a good example of this challenge.  Tutors need to “self-coach” for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the writing center, but they aren’t often asked to this kind of work in other spaces.

DTTYlh2XcAElZvPIn a secondary school writing center, my role isn’t to back out completely, but, instead, to find ways to help build the frameworks and structures that can support a blend of personal autonomy with collective responsibility to meet the needs of our program and our school, especially since our goal to help close achievement and opportunity gaps are urgent and vital. Getting students to embrace personal autonomy while building a communal ethos is an imperfect, bumpy process, but it starts with us, as authority figures, putting trust in students to make important decisions, and it continues with us encouraging students to trust one another as they work to solve problems and achieve common ends, even when the conditions aren’t perfect or everything doesn’t go according to our best laid plans. As a leader and a coach, this has also meant ensuring that my tutor leaders take the long view, which can be difficult because the “life cycle” of tutors in our institution is only one or two years. One of the ways I encourage the long view is by reminding them that our mission and our vision exist already; we don’t have to reinvent fire each time we need to light the way. At our core, we know what we believe in, and we know why we believe in it—we’ve had the conversations, we’ve done the research, and we’ve aligned each belief to action-oriented values.

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How students navigate writing center—and what their social, emotional, personal, and academic outcomes are—will certainly vary based on any number of complex factors, but, ultimately, it is incumbent upon tutors to draw a map, explore, revise the map, and explore again. Like Cochrane writes, “The process of acting as your own center of learning demands assembly and maintenance— the onus is on the learner to create an ecology.” Getting students to believe that we want them to do this work, that they can do this work, and that they don’t need to do this work alone represent the significant work of educators and leaders in student-led, student-centered spaces; trying, failing, and trying again are the significant work of students in student-led, student-centered spaces. For both parties, this means working against entrenched systems of control and surveillance that have modified behavior toward compliance with punishment and reward.

This is hard work, but it’s the right work.