A Middle School Cell Phone Detox

[NOTE: This is an extended version of an email sent this week to all parents in Grades 6-8.  I share it here as it likely will be of interest to our full OJCS community and possibly some of our fellow-travelers on the journey of schools.]

These are busy times indeed and with the rush of special events and the end of year coming into focus, this may seem like an odd time to launch yet another new initiative.  However, for us, it is always the right time to do what is necessary to ensure the wellbeing of our students.  A number of us on our Educational Leadership Team (beginning with Acting Vice Principal Melissa Thompson) have been reading The Anxious Generation and following the discussion on one of its big ideas, “Wait Until 8th“.  Both deal with the negative impacts of constant and chronic use of smartphones, in particular, on young and developing minds.  For those OJCS families continuing into 2024-2025, you can almost guarantee that will be the ONE BIG IDEA for next year – a leading theme of “Back to School Night”, the subject of parent education sessions, and a series of cohorted book groups focused on Grades 2-4.
But even right now, with just weeks left in the school year, our teachers in the Middle School are reporting an uptick in cell phone usage during school hours with resulting negative behaviours and a negative impact on social interactions.  Now, in theory, this should not be a thing.  Our school’s existing policy on cell phones is clear.  No OJCS student is permitted to possess a cell phone during school hours on campus property.  Yes, for those parents who wish for their children to have cell phones to use to safely navigate before or after school activities, they are permitted to have them, but they are supposed to remain in backpacks for the entire length of the school day.
Needless to say, we have not found complete success with enforcement, and both to calm the currents, and to learn for the future, we have moved forward with a full cell phone detox for middle school students at OJCS from May 15-24th.  Here is what it means: All cell phones that find their way to campus are being collected first period, stored in the office during the day, and returned to students last period.  (Any parent who does not want the school collecting their child(ren)’s cell phone(s), are keeping them home during these days.)  For local folk who follow the conversations with the public board or the Ministry of Education, you will notice that they, too, are shifting their policies in a way that is much more closely aligned with our proposed new direction.
Additionally, we have asked parents for their support in two areas: 1) Any student who wears an AppleWatch or any other kind of Smart Watch is being asked to either leave it at home, have it collected along with the cell phones, or have its connectivity disabled while at school.  We are checking on those students to ensure appropriate use.  2) Even with this detox, students still have their laptops/tablets.  Students are not supposed to be texting, emailing, or messaging with their parents during the school day.  This is impossible to 100% oversee, so even as we ramp up our supervision, we have asked for parent partnership in reminding their child(ren) by either not answering messages that come during school hours or – if parents are truly concerned by a message – to please redirect them to their teachers who are there to help them.
We are only a day or two into this experiment and we are grateful to our parents for their partnership in helping us to better enforce our existing policies.  At OJCS, we want children to be free from distraction and distress while they should be safe at school to learn and to engage with their peers in real life.  We’ll see what happens and will report back our findings and recommendations about next steps.
Thanks to all OJCS Parents who took the time to fill out this year’s Annual Parent Survey!  Although there has been a slight uptick in reponses, we are still far shy of a plurality of students/families.  I am going to keep the survey open until May 21st hoping that the holiday weekend provides you with the additional bandwidth to contribute your feedback.  These results do matter and directly impact programmatic choices, so please take the small amount of time it requires and make your voice heard.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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