On April 19, Heathwood students, faculty, and staff participated in a tech-free day, going without cell phones, computers, tablets, and smart watches for the duration of the school day and, if possible, for the evening as well.
The goal of the day, said Head of School Chris Hinchey, was to “help students and adults step back and gain perspective on their media habits and set goals for healthy habits moving forward.”
Parents, students, and faculty were also invited to attend after-school screenings of the documentary film Screenagers, which explores the challenges today’s families face when dealing with struggles over social media, video games, and internet addiction and offers suggestions on how to empower kids to successfully navigate the digital world.
Feedback from faculty and students demonstrated that while the tech-free day presented some challenges, especially for students who are acclimated to having a world of information just a click away, it also had unexpected upsides. Most notably, it created more opportunities for face-to-face interaction with other members of the Heathwood community.
Below are reflections from division heads Amanda Cox and George Scouten, as well as several students and faculty members, about their tech-free experiences.
EC and Lower School Head Amanda Cox
I don't know about you, but Tech Free Day was a rough day in the Cox household. I wish I could say that my children were the ones that struggled, but I have to admit that I was the one that had the hardest day. Adding to the challenge, my laptop decided on Monday that it needed a new hard drive. After Mr. Simpson worked his magic, my laptop came home Wednesday morning: the start of Tech Free Day. In essence, I was Tech Free two days in a row.
In Morning Meeting on Wednesday, I read to the children Goodnight IPad (based on Goodnight Moon). In the story, the author Ann Droyd (a pseudonym), tells of children who are enjoying their wifi, iPads, playing video games, and more. The book reminds us all to power down and rest at the end of each day. Mrs. Halfacre-Bryant's class shared ideas we could all do without technology. They had some thoughtful suggestions: play outside, help your parents, eat dinner together, play outside and many more.
What did I learn? I walked away realizing exactly how much I depend on devices to connect with you, colleagues, my children, and my husband. In reflecting, I also recognize that I am guilty of not always being present with my family, because my device is very distracting. My goals are to leave my device to the side when I am conversing with my family, try to spend more time being active in the evenings, and to be more present wherever life might take me. I cannot leave my device behind. It is a necessity for me today, but I will be more mindful of how I use it.
Upper School Head George Scouten
When I woke up Wednesday morning, I noticed a number of ways that I have come to use my cell phone without even thinking about it: I no longer have an alarm clock, I no longer wear a watch, and I check the weather using my cell phone almost exclusively. I also found that I couldn’t do some of the morning steps that have become routine for me, whether scanning my email to see what developments might impact my day or spending a couple of moments checking the games on my iPhone.
At work, there were challenges to be sure—many of the items that I have come to depend upon in my work were no longer available to me, and certain tasks were slower or even impossible. Still there were definite benefits to our tech-free day.
Two clear advantages I saw were 1) more time to interact with students and colleagues and 2) more time for reflection. Technology not only allows us to be busier, but it also encourages us to place a high value on freneticism. Short-term breaks from technology allow us time for reflection and creativity that actually make us more effective and more productive users of technology.
In the end, I’m appreciative of the technology I have that helps my productivity, communication, and data analysis. I’ve also come to appreciate the need to set aside moments away from technology to create, reflect and recharge.
Upper School students, in response to a questionnaire before Tech-free Day:
What are some benefits that smart phones, smart watches, and laptops confer?
--Media and email
--Talking to friends, getting information
--Communication, interaction with the outside world
--Easy Internet access, convenient communication, less bulk from your paper/books, easy access to vast quantities of information
--Allow you to better gather information that you are unsure about
What are some of the drawbacks of these devices?
--Inhibit talking face to face
--They are distractions, and they interfere with interactions with other people
--Slows thinking, time consumer, distraction, dependent on it
--Distraction from friends and people
--They definitely make your life more hectic with their instantaneous nature
Do you think this day will be easy or hard?
--Hard when trying to check Haiku or fact check
--Easy—I don’t like technology
--Difficult, because curriculum here tends to rely heavily on technology, and I rely on it to communicate
--Hard, because I often use technology to pass the time during the day
Do you think you can go a full day without using technology even when you get home?
--On a school day, no, but maybe during the summer
--No, just out of necessity and needing to communicate and plan
--I would not enjoy it
5th graders, reflecting on the tech-free day after they had experienced it:
At first, I thought no-tech day was awful, then I realized that I was wrong. It actually feels kinda good to put down the phone or iPad, not worry about Instagram or Facebook, and go outside and play… When I got home … instead of picking up my phone and playing games, I went on a bike ride. Later, I shot the basketball.
What I like about no-tech day is that it is relaxing. You can just sit back, relax, and read books. This is a good idea because you get to have social interaction with other people, not just look at your phone all day…. This day was fun but kind of hard for me because I have never done this before.
Tech-free day taught me I can do something without screens. It was hard because our generation lives in a world of screens. I also think that screens control people.
I thought that tech-free day was good. I also thought that it was great to go tech-free for a day. I did go to Screenagers and … I learned that it isn’t good to multitask. I think overall that the whole day was great!
Upper School Government teacher Julie Firetag
I teach the English Enrichment class, which is a required class for all first year international students in the US. When I asked them about their tech-free experience, they said it was like a normal day in school back home in China. Apparently, there are no cell phones, iPads, or laptops allowed in Chinese classrooms. All learning is done in ONE classroom, where different teachers visit their class for different subjects. They do not use an electronic assignment system like Haiku - everything is "old school" where the teacher writes assignments on the board, and the students are expected to copy them down on their PAPER calendars. Imagine that!
5th grade teacher Lynn Cooper
I was more productive with my planning periods and felt like I was more mindful.
It was very hard not to send emails the minute I thought of something. It felt like I was behind or avoiding tasks that needed to be done, but I just kept a list.
I did enjoy not feeling obligated the READ emails sent to me!
3rd grade teacher Kim Bain
Tech free was relatively easy for lower school students, but the one thing my students did comment on was that they really missed listening to music while they worked!
Screenagers should be a wake up call to all of us - device addiction is a very real thing that can interfere with various behaviors from brain function to interpersonal relationships to poor grades and emotional stress. I liked the way the documentary included scientific brain research as well as how families are affected by the added stress. A very helpful strategy for families today dealing with teenagers was to remember to be the adult and set limits but also have meaningful discussions with your teenagers about those limits. Getting “buy in” is the key!
Upper School science teacher Laura Slocum
I had to go back to the “old way” of drawing graphs by hand on the board — I needed three for class that day and students seemed to handle that OK — They wanted their computers out to see if their graphs looked like mine, though I had told them to print them out the day before.
I think students struggled with this more than I did. I started teaching before all of this technology, so went back to some of the ways I had used before for the day — not so hard for me.
Librarian Nancy Reeder
Because we are automated in the library we didn’t have use of the catalog, check-out or check in for books, etc. It was terribly frustrating not to be able to access those—we checked out with paper and pencil, couldn’t check in at all. For use of the collection we had to rely on our memory (scary) or use the cataloging books to find the right Dewey number.
I was very glad to get my technology back.
Upper School Spanish teacher Lori Byrd
During the tech-free day, I realized just how much I use my phone for communication via text. I am not big on social media, so that was never a problem, but the phone definitely makes communication easier. I found myself reaching for it several times & then remembering not to use it. As a result, I had to go back & forth to find people & talk/ask questions personally. It was refreshing, but also annoying since teachers don’t have much time to begin with.
My biggest positive that I saw came with the kids. Instead of “bi-communicating” (what I call their version of talking to someone while they have a phone at their face also), they found out what it was to truly FOCUS on another person’s ideas & interests. The phone all-too-often causes/teaches a disrespectful form of interpersonal communication. At home, I have to FORCE my kids to put down the device when I talk with them & they don’t like it. I am sure I am guilty of “bi-communicating” as well, but it seems that adults are much more likely to recognize the importance of really listening to someone.
College counselor Mary Beth Fry
I've always taught relatively tech-free, excepting a movie or two now and again, but counseling without access to the computer (and all that data at our fingertips...) was a little limiting at first. That said, I had more impromptu conversations with kids, which was great. That's the best outcome for me!
Music teacher Barbara Bryan
The most challenging thing for me was to not use the keyboard in my classroom; since I don’t have a regular piano in there, we sang a cappella all day which was definitely a challenge! I also did not use the CD player that day... I used recorders and other instruments with my classes that day and the kids enjoyed that.
Also, after I left my laptop at home on Wed., I forgot to put it BACK in the book bag Thursday, so I actually had two (partially) tech-free days at school!
I did not see Screenagers, but heard about it at lunch the next day. It’s scary. Since kids learn by example, parents need to model time away from technology and make the effort to plan for family time that doesn’t involve it.
Middle School Head Suzanne Nagy
The Nagys were tech free when we got home, had dinner, and then created an obstacle course around the neighborhood. We had great fun!
It was very difficult not to be able to email information, schedule using my calendar, or shoot a quick text.
Kids loved having to talk to each other; they crave boundaries.
The takeaway is that it is totally possible, in a positive and in a negative way, to change the way your brain wires and fires.
Librarian Jennifer Falvey
I found Screenagers to be very powerful, both as an educator and a parent. There was a lot of rather alarming information shared about the effects of too much screen time; but there was also wealth of information about things schools, families and communities can do to open a dialogue about the challenges of the digital world. Technology is the reality in the 21st-century, and yet it is possible (ad necessary) to thoughtfully choose how we want to interact with our devices.