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Sherry Turkle, the author of the new book Reclaiming Conversation, is focusing attention on the ways that new technology—smartphones in particular—are changing the nature of our interactions with others. This is a big issue for schools, which have an obvious role to play in shaping young people’s relationships with their devices.

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In a 2008 paper for The English Journal, high school teachers Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher explained how they helped craft a new policy to encourage students to use phones in a responsible, polite way.

Initially, the school required students to keep their phones off and put away during the school day. Phones could be confiscated if students were found using them.

This is common policy, but Frey and Fisher write that it created a lot of frustration. Teachers and administrators weren’t happy with the amount of time they had to spend enforcing the rules, and some parents got upset when their children’s phones were taken away for the day.

Beyond that, Frey and Fisher believed they were missing out on the value of integrating technology into the curriculum.

So, with input from their colleagues, they helped draft what they called a “courtesy policy” to replace the old technology policy. The new plan offered a very general mandate that students and staff “interact with one another in positive, respectful ways” that went beyond specifically limiting the use of technology. The policy promoted things like saying “please” and “thank you”, how to clean up trash properly, not texting during class, and not “hogging bandwidth and/or computer time.”

This meant that students were now permitted to text during lunch and listen to music on their iPods while doing independent work in class.

Frey and Fisher write that the faculty knew it might be hard for students to adjust to the new freedoms, but hoped the process would lead to useful conversations. They describe one student who repeatedly violated the “no texting in class” rule. By meeting with her daily, the teachers discovered that she was worried that not replying immediately to texts would damage her relationship with a newly-formed circle of friends. This gave the teachers the opportunity to talk with her about the difficulty of navigating the school’s social landscape.

The teachers also found new ways to use technology in the classroom. They added a podcast of classic stories to the English curriculum and began sending reminders about homework and “pop quiz” questions to students after school hours.

Beyond specific uses of technology, Frey and Fisher’s basic goal was closely connected to the issues Turkle is addressing: the question of how to use technology without harming our relationships with other humans.

“Our concern grew out of recognition that merely banning technology would do little to teach students how to use it responsibly,” they write. “…We have found that the basic premise—that classmates and teachers are entitled to courteous treatment—has served as a touchstone.”


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The English Journal, Vol. 97, No. 6 (Jul., 2008), pp. 38-42
National Council of Teachers of English