In less than a month, I will be retiring after three decades as a high school English teacher. As a parting "gift" to my Northport High School sophomores and seniors, I offered a challenge for extra credit, which I felt could be a valuable lesson. I knew instinctively that personal rewards would far exceed any type of academic benefit, so I asked whether they would be willing (with parents’ permission, of course) to give up their cellphones to me for 48 hours. After I revived the students, I explained that, like Hamlet, there was "a method to (my) madness."
While teaching and learning during a pandemic have certainly been trying for teachers and students alike, I’m not certain the pandemic is the sole cause of students’ overall disengagement in class. For years now, student disengagement has worsened, and I believe it’s due to unhealthy attachments to their cellphones.
I tried to impress upon them that cellphones don’t only interfere with school, but active engagement in life, too. I find it ironic that now that school has reopened, students don’t talk much to each other. There have been times, for example, when I’ve ended the lesson five minutes early, and rather than chat with peers, as students did years ago, they immediately would go into isolation with their phones, or put on their earbuds.
The common sentiment seems to be, "Well that’s the world we live in today," but I don’t believe it’s in our children’s best interests to give in to that mindset — not if we want them to grow up to be productive and empathetic young adults. Learning to navigate potentially awkward interactions, connecting with others without being in control of the interaction, genuine down time and moments of quiet reflection are part of a healthy engagement with the world.
The results of this social experiment were overwhelmingly positive. While only about 10 of 65 students participated (telling numbers), the 10 were pleasantly surprised by their increased levels of productivity in and out of school, and the improvement in their quality of life.
One female 10th-grader said, "By the final day, the surges of phone cravings subsided. In all honesty, I cherished the 48 hours in absence of my phone. While I did have moments of denial to such positive change, I experienced self-reflection more robust than any other mental state."
A male 10th-grader remarked, "I got ready for my classes more quickly, paid attention better without the thought that someone may have texted me, and I tended to do more work in class and get my homework done."
A senior female said: "I think the biggest impact that the lack of my phone had was in my mood and what I did with my free time. I spent time reading on the porch in my backyard, painting and going for bike rides with my parents."
How great would it be if this could catch on? Perhaps this challenge could be done schoolwide: "Phone Free for Charity," wherein students get people to sponsor them as they do for walkathons. A win-win for all!
I do hope, as life opens up again, and the pandemic is in our rearview mirror, that we are all encouraged to expand our vision beyond the screens that often keep us from seeing the world we live in. That would be the best retirement gift I could receive.
Reader Pam Uruburu lives in Massapequa.