Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Like many educators, I've followed the Away for the Day movement with great interest. Originated by Dr. Delaney Ruston, creator of the movie Screenagers, Away for the Day strives to make middle schools smart phone-free spaces. It's a modest goal, frankly, as mounting evidence suggests that for children and adults, our smart phones are more likely to make us feel frantic and lonely than connected. The most compelling research that Away for the Day presents is that parents of middle schoolers overwhelmingly don't want their children to have access to cell phones while at school. They see daily evidence at home of how distracted their children are by their phones, and at some level, most parents recognize the value of school as "not home," a concept I'd like to say more about here.
A couple of anchoring stories:
In 1997, when I was the Middle School Dean of Students at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, we installed a phone for student use just outside the middle school office, a development about which the middle school administrative assistant was deeply ambivalent. On one hand, she was grateful that kids would no longer be tying up her phone for calls home; on the other, she would no longer be in strict control of permitting its use. Indeed, Ms. Reed had long been an important arbiter of the school's educational values: Can I call my dad to have him bring the homework I forgot? No, you may not. Can I call my mom to let her know I'm staying after school for extra help? Of course, baby. Somehow, though, she had arranged with the phone installer to operate the new line's switch from her desk, and although she had reluctantly given up meting out permission, she did use it to control filial etiquette. At least once a week, I'd hear a kid exclaim, "Hey, I got cut off!" after which Ms. Reed would calmly pronounce, "You may not speak to your mother that way. If you can be polite to her, I'll let you dial again."
Around 2004, just when a handful of high school kids were turning up with cell phones, a math teacher friend at Lake Forest Academy told me a story about an earnest, struggling student in her class who had at last gotten results on his efforts with a solid score on a test. The boy jumped out of his desk and asked her if he could go into the hall to call his mother to tell her the good news. "I said no so emphatically," she told me later, "and it wasn't until I'd had time to think about it that I could articulate why to the kid. I caught him before he went home and told him how important I felt it was that he own and absorb his success on his own, maybe with his friends, before he told his parents, that it was part of his maturing, becoming an adult."
Both of these stories point to the simple but important advantage of school as "not home." Good schools attend to this dynamic meticulously, creatively. The PreK teacher knows that she is likely the first adult outside her students' families to form an on-going relationship with her students, and that the small group of similar-age peers she oversees is each child's first community membership outside his family. Fourth and fifth grade teachers understand the growing emotional content of friendships peculiar to that age and deftly assert themselves when that content inspires manipulation and cruelty and hang at the periphery when the drama is kid-negotiable enough to present them with an opportunity to build autonomy. Good college counselors create a process that keeps the high school senior centrally responsible, and fend off the potentially overweening efforts of parents that would tacitly communicate to the child that they did not feel her capable of navigating the process, a dire lesson at this critical transition into independence.
Schools must assume responsibility for the place of communication in their educational program and community values. As few as 10 years ago, this was more about effort (who remembers frantically photocopying the weekly bulletin in time for distribution in Friday folders?) , but is now more about choice as the easy capacity to communicate children's school experiences to their parents, without curation, threatens to rob children of the emotional privacy that is so critical to their growing autonomy, and to tacitly communicate to children that the adults in their lives do not have faith in them. We should expect adults to make these careful choices, and according to the research that Away for the Day presents, parents of middle schoolers are telling schools quite clearly what the educators should know best already: kids are developmentally not ready to balance their use of a smart phone with their responsibilities at school.