[Trigger warning: Curmudgeonly post—kids are hereby warned to "Stay off my lawn!"]
The world has changed. Students are increasingly inseparable from their phones. 24/7/365. Their phone is increasingly the center of their world. All other activities, such as instructional classroom time, are mere background variations—different atmospheres in which their ongoing phone activities are conducted.
At the same time, I find my students are performing more poorly with each passing year. This even as I begrudgingly excise material they find especially frustrating, and minnow the math to a bare minimum. I'm chasing, but they're outrunning me.
There are many factors at play here, and this post will not attempt to cover all of them. Instead, I'll go for one: phones in the classroom.
Many students—especially the boys—enter the classroom with earbuds dangling over their ears or chests. Their pre-wired to listen to the playlist they made especially for your class. Many take their seat and proceed to continue their ongoing text sessions. Many feign forgetting the "no phones in class" policy and need frequent reminders. They work hard to keep the phone on and active on their lap or setting atop their backpack angled so they can at least read the latest updates during class.
And increasingly, they help themselves to available outlets to charge their phones during class. The poor device has been under such heavy use in first and second periods that by third period, they need a serious recharge.
Many willingly risk a Saturday School referral because the chat is that important to them. They'll set their burgeoning backpack on the desk to create a hide for their phone. Or spend extended intervals utterly transfixed—eyes locked on their crotches. They are lost to the world in anticipation of a response. And they could pass a lie detector test not knowing why they are performing so poorly in class. They have absolutely no idea.
The world has changed. So I must acknowledge the change and take appropriate measures. Some teachers leverage the pacifying effect of allowing students to "phone out" (zone out via phone use). I'm keen to have them learn the material. For now, this means separating students from their phones while in my class.
The solution I'm honing? The Ready Desk.
The Ready Desk is just my shorthand for students having what they should have in front of them during class. And—perhaps more importantly—not having what they should not have in front of them during class. It describes the state of their desk when they're ready to learn: The Ready Desk.
They need their pencil, today's handouts, their binder, and a scientific calculator. Nothing else. Everything else, including phones, textbooks, etc., can be stored in their pack, and their pack goes into The Rack.
I made space in my classroom to accommodate eight 4-cubby Ikea Kallas shelving units. That's space for 32 backpacks. I used the cubbies this year only for security situations (tests, exams, etc.). Next year, the rack will be an everyday thing.
An unintended benefit is the decluttering of the classroom desktop and floor space. Nothing to trip over; no more backpack "hides".
Will separating students from their packs force them—against their will—to engage in instruction? Probably not, but it might help many of them. Will some students redouble their efforts to maintain access to their fully operational phones? Probably, but they will need to be much more skilled than they need to be now. Is it a perfect solution will be free of any other possible unintended consequences? No.
But the tether between students and phones has become noticeably stronger each year. And student performance has declined. I am unwilling to do nothing about it, or wave a white flag of surrender.
Here is the handout I'll give to students early next year. (And by "next year," I mean approximately two months from now.)
The Ready Desk (PDF)