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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

Much has changed in the field of public school education since I began my career in 1975. I could fill volumes of writing on the various new programs, practices, and policies. If you spot three educators who have been in the profession for more than twenty years and ask them what they think have been the most dramatic changes in schools during that time they would likely respond with a wide range of answers. That's how different education is between then and now.

So, I will offer my thoughts on an issue that has recently impacted education, or more importantly, socialization. This concern extends far beyond the walls of a classroom or the fences of a schoolyard. I am referring to social media. The effects of exchanges between and among teens outside of school invariably leaks inside the school. The written interactions often assume greater impact because the words are not transmitted in any face to face meeting. While the exchanges are not anonymous (although sometimes they can be sent without an obvious trail from the author or posted as a third party on a mutual friend's Facebook "wall") they are not personally delivered in real time.

The amount of time and energy that staff members of secondary schools now devote to issues that originate outside of school is growing and troublesome. No matter how often you try to explain that written comments shared through social media are impossible to retrieve and extinguish (just ask a certain congressman from downstate New York about his Twitter communications) they don't grasp, or choose not to grasp the significance of the advice. Once you write something and send it to one person it has the potential to subsequently be passed along to an expansive audience. After the "send" button is clicked there's no turning back. This is unfortunately and especially true when we express our thoughts and feelings while angry. You can issue apologies but the original words are still out there and available for review and sharing. Trying to amend your impatient and impertinent words is as futile as trying to put toothpaste back into the tube after you've squeezed some out. It doesn't work.

I am not stating facts since I haven't carefully analyzed the discipline data, but it surely seems like texting, Facebook rants, and the like, contribute to causing a disproportionate amount of problems between teens that eventually lead to discipline referrals. Much of the time the root of the problem begins outside of school.

We couldn't even begin to enforce a rule prohibiting the possession of cell phones in school. That would require frisking each of the 330 individuals as they enter the building each morning. The ever decreasing size of cell phones makes it easy to slip into a pocket and avoid detection. We do have a rule that if the cell phone is taken out it will precipitate a series of reactions starting with a warning and advancing much further up the hierarchy of disciplinary responses. However, it's not hard for a learner to ask to be excused to the bathroom and then, outside of the view of a staff member, engage the cell phone in checking emails, sending messages... There are teens who can type out messages on their cell phone without even looking at the tiny keyboard. That certainly makes it more difficult for staff members to determine possession. Please note, I don't mean to single out teenagers, although they are most notable in using cell phones, an increasing number of elementary age children also have their own cell phones. This last point likely surprises those readers of this Blog who do not have children. Cell phones have become ubiquitous - to the degree that some teens firmly believe they have a right to possess a cell phone in school or anywhere. This small electronic communications device has become something of an appendage to their hand, a necessity, a life-line to socializing.

I think that some parents, perhaps more than I imagine, truly believe that the cell phone is a safety apparatus because it allows a child to quickly access help in an emergency and notify parents of pressing issues and deep concerns. The publicity that followed the dreadful tragedy of school violence at Columbine High School twelve years ago featured the manner in which staff and learners trapped inside the building hiding from the two shooters were able to contact emergency responders and receive assistance. That clearly demonstrates the potential value of cell phones. There's no doubt about that.

Thankfully, incidents of school violence are few and far between - and I can assure you that I recognize the importance of cell phones in other types of emergencies as well. Yet, cell phones seem to have also become some sort of tether between parent and child. There have been instances of parents calling their children during school, in the middle of class, to check up on them. The 24/7 access that results from the cell phone connection between parent and child may inhibit development of the child by extending support too far. A child can't learn to ride a bike and experience some degree of independence if the training wheels remain attached to the bike.

It's just my opinion.

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