Like many of us, I’m growing increasingly concerned about the way folks (myself included) are using their cell phones and other devices. The idea of the attention economy and how we all navigate it has me thinking a lot these days – so much so that I facilitated a session at EduCon this year, asking folks to play with those ideas for a while.
And, like many (most? all?) schools, we’re seeing kids having a harder and harder time the way they use their cell phones during the school day as well. But I still don’t think banning phones is the answer. It’s nearly impossible to enforce, it sets up a huge “us v. them” situation, and it doesn’t get kids to think critically about how they are using their cell phones – which is a huge part of what it means to be a member of society these days.
So then what?
Here’s our answer. We’re taking a two week cell phone reboot. We’re asking kids to put them away, turn off notifications, and really work intentionally on being present. And in Advisory, we’re doing readings, tracking our personal phone use, having conversations about how we spend our attention – and why our attention is currency, and how we make more intentional and conscious use of our devices.
In short – we’re putting all of our uses of these devices under the scrutiny of an inquiry lens, which is the most SLA way we all can think of tackling this challenge.
Here’s the letter we sent home to families today:
Dear SLA Families,
All over the country, schools and parents are seeing more and more students enthralled by their cell phones, and SLA is no exception. Parents, mental health providers, and school leaders are all concerned that increased cell phone usage is leading to poorer performance in school, lower self-esteem, and increased anxiety. It is all a part of what many scholars are now calling “The Attention Economy.”
And… banning cell phones in schools is widely considered to be an exercise in the most frustrating game of Whack-A-Mole ever played.
At SLA, we believe the answer to our hardest challenges is to engage in inquiry – to have the conversation, and to help our students come to the best conclusions for themselves.
As such, starting on Monday, April 17th we will be engaging in a two week Technology Reboot at school. During Advisory classes, students and teachers will read about cell phone usage among teens, examining their own ideas and behaviors around technology and attention, and asking questions about how the school day feels without the distraction of the phone. The goal of the two weeks is that, at the end, kids are more willing to self-regulate cell phone use and have a better understanding of how the attention economy affects their day to day life.
During those two weeks, kids will be expected to keep their cell phones and headphones on “do not disturb” mode and off their person while in class. Phones and headphones may be stored in bags, lockers, or secure locations in the classroom. Teachers will collect cell phones and headphones from students who have them out, and if students are consistently having their cell phones collected, we will ask parents to come to school to retrieve them. Our goal, as always, is to appeal to student’s better nature and have kids understand the experience we are engaging in and keep their devices away, but we know that some students may struggle with that. Here are a few conversation starters to help your student prepare for the experience at school:
Access your “screen time” totals together. At what times of day do you look at your phone? What role does the phone play at that time?
What are your family expectations for communication during the school day? How much do you expect them to be available via text?
How do our cell phones change the way we all communicate and interact?
As always, our goal for SLA students is that our time together helps students become more thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind, ready to be fully aware and engaged citizens of their world. It is our hope that helping students be more intentional about how they spend their attention moves us closer to our north star.
And here’s the slide deck for the way we framed the next two weeks during Advisory today.
So far, the feedback we’ve gotten from families has been overwhelmingly positive. The feedback from the kids has been more… varied. I think that’s to be expected. I’m hopeful that at the end of two weeks students have a deeper understanding of the ways we use our phones, the ways our phones (and the technology companies that design the apps) use us, and that all of us at school are more intentional in the ways we choose to be present together.
Some thoughts for tonight… (as I try to get back in the habit of writing.)
Recently, someone made a comment to me that I’ve heard over the years… basically wondering why I’m not more ambitious about my career, as if moving on from SLA to some other job would mean a more successful career somehow.
It’s strange, some combination of America’s fascination with “rugged individualism,” capitalism and an over-reliance in MacGregor’s Theory X of Management in our schools and districts has led to a version of “ambition” in educational careers that makes me sad.
All over the country, you see a lot of people racing toward positions of leadership — some years in the classroom, then principalship, then district admin or being a consultant and such… and a lot of those folks are able to do that because they were wonderful teachers or principals.
And that’s not to say that we don’t need amazing leaders at the district, state, etc… levels.
But I’m not sure that the way educational careers are framed in society today is even making sure that we get the leaders we need at those levels often enough anyway.
But what if we took a more communitarian and collectivist approach to schools? What if “ambition” could also defined as a group of educators who wanted to ensure that the school was (to quote Angelo Patri) “wide awake, responsive to its people…the best of its kind?”
What could we accomplish if the conditions existed – internally and externally – that it was easier for educators to see – and be validated for – a career at a school where there was a collective ambition to be great at what we did together?
How would that impact how students saw themselves in our schools?
How could that impact how kids learned?
That’s always been a goal of mine for SLA — to try to create the space where educators, parents and kids could feel that sense of collective ambition and achievement over time.
On our best days — in our best years — I think we get close.
And lately, I’m thinking a lot about how the larger American system could make it a lot easier for all of us to approach that goal in more places and far more often.
[This was a particularly special year because Jakob graduated this year. You can imagine which paragraph was a little hard for me to get through.]
Family and friends, teachers and honored guests, what a wonderful evening to celebrate the achievements of an outstanding group of young people, the Science Leadership Academy Class of 2022.
Graduates, before we celebrate all that you have done, let us also honor the work of all of those who have helped you reach this moment in time. So please, let us have a round of applause for the parents and friends and teachers and loved ones who have helped you reach this milestone in your life.
Parents and guardians – one of the things that makes graduation so emotional for all of us at SLA is we aren’t just saying goodbye to your kids, but to all of you as well. For many families, today is the end of a four year journey that you have embarked on with us, and for more than a few families in the Class of 2022 – today is the end of a journey that has spanned many years and multiple children. You all have been such an essential part of the SLA family, and I know I speak for all of the adults at SLA when I say – thank you. Thank you for sharing your children with us. Thank you for every Parent-Advisor conference. Thank you for cheering at all the sporting events. Thank you for believing in the idea of the little school that could – even when I am sure with all that has happened in these past few years there were moments when that belief was sorely tested.
And of course, this year, there are several of us on staff who were able to watch our own children learn with and from our colleagues. It is something very special to be a teacher (or principal) and a parent at SLA. To see your own child grow through the work of this community is quite something. So, on behalf of Mr. Clapper, Ms. Menasion, Mr. Ames and myself, I want to join with all the parents here tonight and thank our faculty and staff for taking such good care of our children. We have seen our own children grow up thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind, and truly, we are forever grateful.
And if I may, Jakob… it was always our hope that these four years would give us the stories we would tell for the rest of our lives, and my goodness, has it ever. I can’t imagine it was always easy to be the principal’s kid, but you handled it all with a grace and joy that left me in awe. I will miss every ride home, every early morning practice and every shared Halal cart lunch. The school will be a little emptier for me next year without you in it. Your mom and I love you so much, and we are so very proud of you.
And now… to the Class of 2022.
So that happened. I am pretty sure that there isn’t any one of you who, had we asked you four years ago, what do you think your high school career would look like, would have come up with what you all have lived through. And I realized something as I was writing this speech… you all are our 13th graduating class, and so, yeah… this all makes more sense now, because my goodness, it seemed like every time we turned around, there was another crisis to overcome for you all.
But in spite of all the challenges you faced… you have thrived. And you all stand as the class that bridges SLA’s past and future. You are the last class to have gone to school at Arch St., and you are the first class to gone to school and graduated from Broad St. And in between of course, you survived asbestos, 440 and 18 months of Zoom school. It was not easy – in fact, it was far harder than it should have been. You have seen first-hand how our systems can fail its constituents, and you had to become advocates for yourselves and your neighbors. You had to learn across multiple modalities and in locations that were not meant for children. And of course, you had to deal with a world in crisis – from a worldwide COVID pandemic to a racial reckoning to continued rise of white nationalistic violence in our nation to the gender inequities that continue to plague our society to ever-increasing gun violence that – just this past weekend – once again hit far closer to home and reminded us how needed young people of integrity are needed to help us fix that which broken. And I can think of no better group of young people to inherit that challenge than all of you.
Because, despite everything you have faced, you have thrived. You have proven that – even though you should not have had to – you are capable of meeting all challenges and overcoming them. You packed yourselves into conference rooms at 440 and called them classrooms – and you breathed a life into that building that it had not seen ever in its existence.
And just when you thought you were going to experience your new home, the world came crashing down and we experienced another disruption. And now, you all had to pivot back to online classes – after our first experience in the fall. (As we like to say, we were doing Zoom school before it was cool.) You lost your spring sophomore season and your fall junior season. You had to figure out what SLA looked like online. And you had to persevere as two-weeks online turned into the rest of 10th grade and the rest of 10th grade turned into all of 11th grade.
And then, you had to come back and lead the school into our new era. You set the patterns of how we walk through our new hallways – making the school immediately feel like home, whether it was in the Commons or in Siswick’s Office or my office or the hallways, you re-established SLA as a school of the kids and for the kids.
And last week, you presented capstone projects that blew us away. From engineering projects to incredible films to philosophy papers and murals and art work to teaching elementary kids science and running SuperSmash Brothers tournaments and more, you set a high standard for all the underclass students who saw your presentations.
In all, you took our core values – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection – and applied them to your own ideas, your own passions, and in doing so, created incredible artifacts of your learning. You stood in front of your community and said, “This is who I am. This is the scholar I have become. This is what I can do.” And in doing so, you reminded all of us of what young people can do when given the freedom and the support to dream big.
You are the class that set the tone to help three classes of SLA students learn what it means to go to our school. The work you did as mentors to the younger students will resonate for years to come. Whether it was the work you did as Student Assistant Teachers, or as leaders of our Black Student Union, or as captains of our sports teams, you all put the “Leadership” in Science Leadership Academy. You won a Public League championship. You competed at State Championships. You worked with Ms. Ryans on the Student Action Board. You hosted a senior prom.
In short, you put in the hours. You did the work. You made sure that SLA will be SLA for years to come after you leave, and for that we are forever grateful.
And the thing is, for all you have already done – already lived through – your journey is just beginning. We love to say that high school should not just be preparation for real life, and as much as I would have hoped the last four years were not quite this real for you all, you graduate with no illusions that life will hand you anything. You know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that the world you inherit desperately needs your intelligence, your advocacy, your compassion, and your sense of justice.
For while tonight is a night for celebration and reflection, it is also a night to be forward thinking. You have completed one chapter of your life tonight, but it is our hope that the lessons you have learned with us propel you into whatever comes next. You are our hope now. For the parents and families and teachers gathered with you today, you represent our best chance, our best ideals, our most hopeful promise that the world tomorrow can be better than it is today.
So, if you will indulge me one last time… let me leave you with some thoughts on how you may go about the profound challenge of trying to change the world… because I have no doubt that you will continue to do so.
You must remember that inquiry means asking the hard questions, not just of yourself, but of others. And you must remember that the true spirit of inquiry means never settling for the easy or trite answers, but rather seeking out those small “t” truths that will lead to new ideas and new solutions. You must remember those moments of the past four years when you challenged yourself and those around you to discover new ideas, to shed old illusions and create anew our world.
You must have the humility to understand that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and your humility must lead you to research what others before you have discovered, so that you do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We need you to, after all, make new and more interesting mistakes than the ones we have made. You must keep in mind the path you have traveled, the pitfalls as well as the successes, because it is that humility, that notion that our shared humanity – our moments of frailty – that will keep us grounded in the world, in the notion that each and all of us have value.
And that means that you must remember that we are better together than we are apart and seek out collaboration. You must understand that the complexity of the challenges we face are more powerfully understood when viewed through the lens of many, not the lens of one. You have walked for four years in a community that values — and at times struggles with — the diversity of voices that make up the rich tapestry of our school and our city. We all are better for listening to each other and informing each other’s voice. That idea — of collaboration — of diversity — of coming together — is at the heart of how we will all make the world a better place.
And to do make the world a better place, you must continue to make your voices heard. Continue to speak for the purpose of educating your listeners. Keep working to make your voices inclusive, so that others can pick up your cause, your idea, your voice, and echo and amplify it for many more. Ideas, after all, do not live in isolation. I know that all of you will have the courage of your conviction, and the passion and voice to speak your truths to those who must hear them.
And I urge you, no matter how busy you get, no matter how important the work you are doing is, you must remember to take the time for reflection. For it is when we reflect on our actions, on the world around us, that we can process and learn from what we have done. Never be in such a rush to do, to create, to lead, that you lose sight of the importance of listening, of stillness, of the wise counsel of others, so that you can always be thoughtful and intentional about what you have done and what you have left to do.
And, of course, make sure you remember that unspoken sixth core value – care. So many of you have spoken about how SLA is a family – granted, at times a dysfunctional one – but a family nonetheless. That is because we all — adults and students alike — take the time to care for one another.
Because all of us here have benefitted from being in a caring environment where questions like, “What do you think?,” “How do you feel?” and “What do you need?” are not admissions of weakness, but rather of strength. So know this… To be kind when the world would allow you to be cruel is to show strength, not weakness. To listen deeply to others, to thoughtfully construct answers, and to create solutions that empower many is the best – and perhaps the only – path to change the world.
And that matters, because we need you now. The work you do, the challenges you embark upon, the causes you champion once you leave our halls matter. You are our best hope for the future, because you truly are what we hope for our SLA graduates – you are thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind. And you are — all of you — what the world needs.
We face challenges in our schools, in our city, in our country, in our world, that will require the best from those who have the passion to create change and the skills to do it. You do not have the luxury of hoping that other people will say what must be said, do what is needed, work to make the world a better place. That is not the world in which we live. You must be smarter than we have been, more compassionate than we have been able to be, and braver than we can imagine.
But as I look upon you now, I see a group of young people more than able to rise to that challenge. You have accomplished so much in your four years with us, and it is only a beginning. On behalf of the entire SLA faculty, we are so proud of all you have done, and we cannot wait to see what you do next. Congratulations to the Science Leadership Academy Class of 2022. Long may you shine.