No cellphones seems to be the right call at this school

Column: 
March 14, 2018

Venture Heights Elementary School principal Ron Biberdorf (far left) is joined by students Halle Helperl and Holden Doell as well as Misty Husnik, co-chairperson of the school community council, and Grade 8 teacher Tanya Robertson.

MARTENSVILLE–Talk about turning the clock back. Or, more specifically turning the cellphones off.

Students at Venture Heights Elementary School in this Saskatoon-area bedroom community are adjusting to the harsh reality of turning their cellphone in to their teacher in the morning until having them returned when the final bell rings in the afternoon. Is that a gasp I hear?

Incredulous as this may sound, students by all accounts approve, albeit there were some original misgivings to be sure.

While admittedly a small sample size, Holden Doell and Halle Helperl are two Grade 8 students who endorse this radical concept as a result of having personally experienced the benefits.

Doell suggested being without his device was not a big a deal since he wasn’t ever that plugged-in. He made it clear that he endorses the policy.

“I think it’s a smart idea because there are for sure less distractions and people aren’t trying to hide their cellphones from the teacher. The result is you focus more and can concentrate. You realize you can do without your cellphone while you’re at school, so it’s a good thing.”

Helperl also sees the benefits, although she wasn’t as quick to warm up to the idea originally.

“At the start I didn’t really like it,” she conceded with a smile. “But once you get used to it, for sure it helps you focus because you’re not so worried about what is happening outside the classroom. I would say I’m on my cellphone quite a bit; more than I should be probably.”

School principal Ron Biberdorf admits to being pleasantly surprised at how successful the phased-in project has worked out, not the least of which can be seen via the improvement in student grades. He calls it the “gold-level result.”

According to Holden, one of the benefits he has experienced is less homework at home because he has been able to do more work during class.

“I used to bring my cellphone with me all the time, and I like this way better because without checking it all the time you’re able to focus better on what is happening,” Helperl added.

Grade 8 teacher Tanya Robertson, herself a young teacher who has grown up in the social media world, said she has been both surprised and impressed with what she has seen first-hand as well as beyond the classroom.

“You just have to look at how the students are working in class. Before, if maybe they didn’t get a message or a Snapchat, their heads would be spinning and they were not able to concentrate. Let’s face it, cellphones are a big distraction and a lot of kids are addicted to their cellphones. As an educator, it’s so encouraging to see the change we have witnessed in class.”

Espousing a parent’s point of view, school community council co-chairperson Misty Husnik sees the benefits outside the classroom when interacting with the students, while also reaping the benefits at home with her two younger daughters who are just starting to ask for cellphones.

“I’ve noticed our oldest daughter is not so aggressive about wanting a cellphone now because of what is happening at the school. These kids realize they can communicate with one another without cellphones, and it’s great to see how they are interacting both at school and at home.”

Doell echoed the benefits he has experienced away from school.“I’m sleeping better because you haven’t spent the whole day with your eyes glued to a screen and you’re not as worried about who might have been texting you so it’s out of your system.”

Helperl added that the absence of cellphones has acted as a catalyst in terms of the formation of new friendships by talking to schoolmates in person versus online.

Robertson was eager to pick up on that point, indicating she had talked to her Grade 8 students about this by-product of the project. “We said it’s OK to feel bored sometimes because it helps to make you realize that you need to figure out how to communicate with each other and make the connection.”

In addition, Robertson said she has seen this reinforced on extracurricular bus trips where now it has become commonplace for students to joke with each other and sing, as opposed to spending the whole time checking their respective cellphones.

“That’s what those bus trips are supposed to be about–the whole interaction. The neat thing is students enjoy it and they are making the choice themselves to maybe not even bring the cellphone.”

Biberdorf interjected by noting how talking to others has also opened the students’ eyes to the outside world to the point where it’s actually not uncommon for students to leave their cellphones at home for the day.

“I can tell you we see it every day how human social connection relieves the anxieties and the dramas that are associated with cellphones. To a large extent, cellphones and social media tend to dehumanize us. When we asked kids whether they would say some of the things to a person’s face that they would say online, they said they definitely wouldn’t. So it’s just so much outside the human norms.”

Interestingly, the whole scenario has also impacted teachers’ own practices. Biberdorf, for example, said he pretty much only uses it for texting purposes and he is seeing the benefits both at home and in school.

Robertson said that for her part the cellphone now stays in the kitchen at night as opposed to in the bedroom. This is another of the conversations she has had with her students adding, “I explain to them that this is my workplace and really the cellphone isn’t that important. The world will go on without you answering every text right then.”

Biberdorf wanted to set the record straight insofar as the school is by no means against technology, having instead earmarked the majority of its technology funding to Chromebooks and iPads for every classroom. There is also a cellphone in each room in case the students need to contact their parents.

The cellphone policy is now in its third year and in its third phase, having started with K-4 then grades 5 and 6, and then this year, the grades 7 and 8 classes.

He indicated that during that time, he has had only positive feedback, although he had originally envisioned parents being concerned about the lack of connection with their children. However, he said there have been zero complaints in that regard.

He chuckled that the school is, in this case, playing the bad guy and by extension, helping parents perhaps curb their children’s social media fixation.

Husnik agrees, adding that parents have regularly told her how nice it is to see their children talking to each other.

“You see it every day in talking to the kids. They make face-to-face contact when they are talking to you, and they aren’t walking around like zombies. It’s been so great to see, and this policy helps to reinforce the things we’re trying to teach our kids as parents–that they don’t need to be so infatuated with social media.”

Not surprisingly, Biberdorf said the success of the program has piqued the interest of other schools in the Prairie Spirit School Division in particular. They are looking to follow this example–one that has been infinitely easier because the local high school actually had piloted this project first, and so the transition was seamless.

It has become such a way of life at the school that Biberdorf happily reported he has only had to confiscate two cellphones from students, which he takes as a great positive.

“Honestly, by us doing this, I think for a lot of kids they are almost relieved because with it being school-wide, it just makes it a lot simpler and it’s been great to see the impact this has had.”

Robertson added that when she was a student, she loved school and that was before social media became quite the phenomenon it has become. “I had so many awesome experiences and I still remember them today. I tell my students that they have a chance to create those sorts of meaningful experiences by opening up to making new friends. While they might not think so much about it right now, it will be what stands out for them down the road.”