Last year, for the first time in 10 years, I taught a collection of middle schoolers whose energy and hormones knocked the wind out of me every day. But there was something different about these 7th and 8th graders and the ones I’d taught in 2008: between classes, there was no physicality, no leaping across the room to gossip, no noisy giggles between huddled heads. Instead, there were searches for a phone charger, quiet smirks over the latest Snapchat, screens quietly being double-tapped as teens scrolled Instagram.
I worry about what the constant presence of technology does to our brains. But I worry far more about what we are missing out on when we spend every free moment on our phones rather than just seeing the world around us. In line at the grocery store, sitting at a stoplight, on a treadmill at the gym, I see everyone around me on their phones.
No one looking up. Looking out. Noticing. Absorbing. Living.
I realize I sound a little old and crotchety here, but it’s a real concern of mine: that the beauty of life is fading because no one is seeing it. That at the least we aren’t noticing what’s around us; that at the worst, we feel isolated and alone, disconnected, hopeless.
Early on in each school year, I read a number of articles, poems, or excerpts from books with students. I booktalk The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. We study excerpts from Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle and Brain Rules by John Medina. I ask students to look at their screen time use in their settings and reflect a bit on their habits by attempting to journal their activities for 24 hours.
More deeply, we read the poem “A World of Want” by Tina Schuman, and the article “The Eight-Second Attention Span” by Timothy Egan, together. Schuman’s poem laments “the phone[‘]s chirp” and the “conga-line of cravings” presented us by society and technology in concert; Egan’s article advocates for deep, meaningful activities like reading a book or gardening to help us focus our attention.
The combination of these readings, the journal, and our in-class discussions that spark stories of distraction help students see an authentic need for disconnecting from their phones and reconnecting with the world. We then read the poem “Rereading Frost” by Linda Pastan, which drives the point home: we talk about noticing and “decide not to stop trying.”
I then propose a resolution: putting away our phones not just in class, but beyond, when we’re reading, when we’re noticing, when we’re composing. This habit-forming feeling of connectedness spurs students to be stronger thinkers, readers, and writers, and builds our classroom community as well.
Please share any readings or practices you share with students to help them be better noticers and digital citizens in the comments!
Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her children, husband, and cats. In her spare time she endeavors to put down her phone so she can read, write, and think about the world. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.