Shirazi: Phones encourage responsibility in class, not just distractions

“I’m not sure if the province wants screen time to be reduced or if it wants students to be censored.”

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Last week, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Leece announced a back-to-basics plan for students, which includes banning cell phone use in classrooms. The main reason given is obvious. Parents and teachers have been concerned about the distractions caused by cell phones.

The Ontario Student Health survey has reported that teenagers can spend up to seven hours a day on their phones. Too much time in front of smartphones, video games, tablets, computers and televisions significantly affects eating habits, reduces physical activity, limits social time and can lead to anxiety and depression.

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At first glance, the limitation makes sense. However, any high school teacher knows that students often carry multiple devices with them to complete assigned work. Most have a computer, tablet, or similar device in addition to a phone. Removing phones certainly limits distractions, but it doesn’t eliminate them.

Schools have tried different ways to help students focus better and stay safe. An example is limiting certain sites from being used on school networks. Students can be tech-savvy and find ways around such restrictions. Banning cell phones may reduce some distractions in class, such as receiving messages, but it won’t eliminate them completely.

The worrying thing is that students not having phones means they will no longer be able to take videos in the classroom. While privacy is extremely important and the protection of dignity is essential in any workplace, especially in a school environment, students recording incidents in class have sometimes provided important checks and balances.

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Teachers are key role models in our community. They build the foundation of what we will become as a society and help nourish us in incredible ways. Despite being professionals with high levels of integrity, they are human, prone to losing patience at times, prone to individual biases.

Students who record inappropriate behavior by teachers have sometimes been penalized for doing so.

Last year, 15-year-old Mary Walton filmed her teacher saying the n-word repeatedly at Glendale High School in Springfield, Missouri. Walton was suspended for recording.

According to Fraser Valley Today, a student in Chilliwack, British Columbia, was suspended for posting a video of a teacher discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Jewish advocacy organization B’nai Brith complained that the teacher was anti-Semitic, but it was the student who paid the price.

As a mother of a teenager, I know very well the importance of reducing our screen time. Exercising for an hour a day, eating well, and getting enough sleep, as well as reducing toxic screen time, are strategies my son’s amazing pediatrician has recommended to help him focus better.

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If the Ministry of Education is sincere in its efforts, it would also make gym or physical activity mandatory after the ninth grade. Ontario teenagers can essentially become couch potatoes after ninth grade if they want to.

The Ministry could also encourage better food options. Many schools no longer serve food in cafeterias, and vending machines filled with soda, chips, and candy are often installed in schools, inviting students to make poor choices.

As an advocate for teachers and students having safe spaces and being able to take advantage of teachable moments, I’m not sure if the province wants screen time to be reduced or if it wants students to be censored.

If students can no longer record the interactions, the student’s word is compared to the teacher’s word. In an increasingly litigious world, students and teachers alike need the tools to navigate difficult conversations.

In a changing world, it is not easy to have difficult conversations in a classroom in an equitable, culturally sensitive and non-judgmental way at all times. There must be checks and balances to keep both teachers and students safe in schools, but there is no denying that the current balance of power favors adults.

Aisha Sherazi is an Ottawa writer and educator

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