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What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Our Kids, the Research, and Each Other About How to Navigat

In late April (2019), I received an email from a producer at ABC’s 20/20. How my research hit national search algorithms is a story of its own, but needless to say, the email from the producer seemed beyond the realm of all expectation. He called, we chatted. A few days later, he emailed to say that Diane Sawyer wanted to talk to me. Thirty minutes later, my cell phone rang:

“Hello, Anita, this is Diane Sawyer from ABC.”

“Hello, Diane, it’s a pleasure to hear from you.” Cool as a cucumber, like I get these sorts of calls every day.

Two days later, I was on a plane and being whisked to the studio in Midtown Manhattan. Make up was touched up, mic attached, glasses and nose stud removed to prevent glare. Diane entered and wrapped me in a hug. As the cameras began to roll, I realized I didn’t know what “hat” I was supposed to be wearing: my research had gotten my work into national searches, but I taught Education courses on my college campus and had been a longtime k-12 educator. And on the phone, we had chatted almost exclusively about helping parents.

So I asked: “Do you want me to respond as a researcher, an educator, or a parent?”

Diane replied, “How about as a humanist?”

Okay, I could do that. And for over an hour, I did. The conversation was genuine and warm, and we covered a lot of territory about how to mediate reasonable screen time for our children and youths.

Two weeks later, I was sitting with my husband, children, and a few friends watching myself on national TV. My bit was brief, most of what I said left on the cutting room floor. But the essence of my interview was distilled into two main points: (a) we need to withhold judgment and shaming of families, and instead build a community of support and connection; and (b) we need to remind ourselves and each other to put the devices down and “listen with your whole face.” This phrase, from a story I told, ended the entire program. And I realized, in the days that followed, that it was this– this phrase, this reminder – that resonated the most with viewers.

In 2009, I conducted a qualitative study that focused on how youths were learning to maneuver across various discourses in their day – academic, social, digital. I asked young people directly, “How are you making sense of this interweaving of new media and school?” My ten participants – seven high school students and three teachers – conveyed themes that echoed throughout these interviews, such as how literacy is perceived and defined, and why students don’t seem to be mixing up discourses, such as popping “2” and “r” into academic papers. Students overwhelmingly told me that they “just don’t mix” the different “languages.” In other words, they could maneuver across different Discourses (see Gee’s work around D/discourse) with ease, even when real-life spatial boundaries blurred. Contrary to much of what was being written, there was not really any such thing as in and out of school literacies.

What there was, however, was a place-marker inside their heads about where different discourses fit, where “languages” belonged, as they seamlessly crossed digital, social, and academic platforms. They had, surprisingly, developed a heuristic approach to decision-making about how to manage different literacy tools and practices: even without actual physical spatial divides, they knew where the boundaries were around discourse communities. Thus, in and out of school were places in their heads, even as they multitasked on multiple platforms at once in real-time spaces.

One topic that emerged despite my tight focus on literacy was the discussion around rules for smart phones in classrooms. Every single one of my participants brought this topic up, even when I didn’t. At first, I thought, “They keep distracting me from the purpose at hand!” But then, I did what any good qualitative researcher does: I listened. I simply stopped barreling along with my own agenda and listened to their words. They were trying to tell me something.

I went back for another round of interviews, this time focused almost exclusively on cell phones in the classroom. And what I discovered was this: teachers and students mediate reasonable rules and expectations within the context of a given classroom, and these negotiations are based in two-way trust and respect. In other words, the relationship was everything.

This may not come as a surprise to those of us who have been teachers for years and who know that all good learning and teaching builds on relationships with our students. But my participants were complicating this notion, deconstructing it in ways that were nuanced and complex.

They were telling me: Rules get set, and – yes! -- we break them. BUT:

  • We know that we need to learn, that we have fundamental ethical guidelines, and that we can learn to self-regulate if given assistance in doing so. We value adults in our lives who help guide these processes.

  • We want our teachers to work with us around these rules, we respect teachers who trust us, and we trust them to make reasonable rules. We don’t take advantage of teachers we care about and who care about us.

  • We don’t want “all or nothing” bans – those authoritarian rules form a barrier that implies we can’t be trusted or respected.

  • We also don’t want “no rules” – that creates anarchy and distraction that keeps us from learning. Teachers who were extremely lax or oblivious did not earn students’ respect and were more likely to have students take advantage of the laxness.

Rules – sometimes strict ones – were set in classrooms. But every student, and even the teachers, knew when it was okay to bend or break a rule. Nothing was absolute. Over and over again, these participants explained, in their own words, that good rules around phones were based in consistency, awareness (vigilance), fairness, and flexibility. They were based in knowing the context and in trusting and respecting each other. There were some classes in which the devices were partially allowed, such as art or yearbook. In other classes, students sometimes used a phone to grab a photo of notes on the board, or jot an assignment in their calendar. Sometimes they needed to touch base quickly with a parent before a class session got under way. Sometimes teachers themselves broke the rules – checking social media during study hall monitoring, or sending a quick text out.

None of this information made it into the interview I did with Diane. But that research paved the way for being able to talk about how we – as teachers and parents -- manage rules in a complicated and complex world.

What people need, I realized from my conversation with Diane, is reassurance, particularly parents who are doing their imperfect good-enough in an imperfect world. What parents need are compassion, care, community, and consistency in the messages they are receiving about how they are doing the hard work of raising children. Parents need to be listened to, and they sometimes need assistance in knowing how to listen to their children. Parents (especially mothers, as “parent” tends to be synonymous with “mother” when we pass quick judgments –a topic for another day) are overwhelmed and worried, and trying to find their way into new territory without a guide or a light at hand. Teachers can offer this support in important ways.

It’s true that teachers face much of the same worry and overwhelm – also trying to find their way as they guide the next generation. But teachers have a few things that parents may not:

(a) Teachers have a building full of like-minded adults to toss ideas around with, to share in frequent conversation, professional development, critical friend groups, and professional learning teams, to try to figure out how to best manage and support youths.

(b) Teachers have administrators (“higher ups”) who set guidelines – system or building policies -- around protocols for screens and devices. Those administrative mandates, while top-down, are, we hope, centered in contemporary best-practices, and, at the very least, provide a starting place for conversations.

(c) Teachers can rely on others to help manage disciplinary infractions, and they have a limited time frame (school day) during which screen time must be managed, unlike many parents who are largely on their own for setting and enforcing discipline 24/7.

Ultimately, I have no answers to the burning questions around screen time. But I do believe that we as educators are in a unique place of helping to initiate and mediate important conversations among students and adults. We can model, educate, share resources, and be in dialogue with parents around how to manage these devices in our lives today. We can be that light. We can listen with our whole face.

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