Cellphones: Alice’s Looking Glass in the 21st century

alice looking glass

I’ve been haunted by the images in the videos taken in the classroom at Spring Valley High  while a police officer, called to the classroom because a student refused to give up a cellphone, is seen violently throwing the student around.  That the student had been recently placed in foster care made the event that more tragic. In one of the videos, one can see the back of the teacher who had supposedly called on the principal when the student refused to put her cellphone away. When the principal could not convince the student to give up her phone, the police officer was called.

The incident made international news on Monday, 26th October, a day after Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence released a study that revealed that 75% of students in Grades 9 – 12 felt either tired, stressed or bored at school.

Did the student who refused to give up her phone feel bored or stressed or was she just feeling lonely?

I had long been aware that students would use their cellphones when they felt bored but it had never occurred to me that they may also do so because they felt lonely. But loneliness was one of the reasons my students gave for why they use cellphones in the classroom when I asked them to respond to a totally unscientific survey I conducted after a classroom discussion about the Spring Valley incident.

Although there are many discussions within education about whether teachers should or should not allow students to use cellphones in the classroom, and despite there being a growing awareness of the connection between emotions and learning, what may be missing is a conversation about connections between students’ emotional experiences in the classroom and what could be called students’ addiction to their phones.

While some students told me that they use their phones to “look up” something or to check spelling or for calculations, many students told me that they use their phones as an escape out of the classroom when they’re feeling bored or lonely. As this student says:

I use my cell because even though it might not be allowed in my class, I get the urge to check it because I always think there might be a message from a friend. But sometimes I guess I’m so used to it, I just automatically assume that I need to use it. Sometimes when there’s nothing to do in class because I’ve done my work or my test, I’ll use it for entertainment or to seem like I’m not just sitting there with nothing to do.

Like when I go to French 10, I don’t really talk to a lot of the grade 10s and so I go on my phone to distract myself or to make it seem like others think I actually have a life. … I can’t live without a social life. I need people to converse with so I can have a better time in class or school itself.

So it appears that, apart from all the features normally advertised, a smartphone can also act like Alice’s Looking glass and transport students out of the classroom into another world, one where they have a social life and are not bored or lonely.

But why can’t classrooms be places from which students do not want to escape? Why can’t they be places of excitement and engagement, the way they look to a 5-year-old on the first day of kindergarten?

What is being revealed about what is happening in  high school classrooms when a police officer is called to discipline a student? Not because she had a gun, not because she was being violent, but simply because she refused to give up her cellphone, her escape route from boredom and loneliness.  

What will it take to create classrooms that students want to run to, not escape from, classrooms that are the entry into a world on the other side of the Looking Glass? 

Laughter is the true test of success

Credit Chris Huggins/flickr creative commons

I have a confession. I am a high school teacher who doesn’t care about how many As my students get or how many are on the Honour Roll.  In fact, I dislike high stakes tests as much as my students do. If we do have tests, they’re frequently open book. I tell my students that tests test how well you can do tests.  And so I do not “teach to the test” but I do teach my students how to do tests. Much of the lesson relates to how to combat test stress.

What do I care about most is how my students feel when they’re in my classroom. This is the most critical indicator of whether my students are learning or not. It’s the ground upon which I build my teaching practice.

On my recent trip to Italy, I was surprised and thrilled when Tullio De Mauro, a former Minister of Education expressed a similar idea. We were in a moderated dialogue during Internazionale a Ferrara 2015 when he said that the evaluation that teachers should be concerned about most is their students’ evaluation of their time in the classroom. We agreed that the physical space of the classroom did not matter as much as the emotional space that was created.

It’s wonderful to have a former Minister of Education in Italy espouse the importance of a hospitable classroom but what will it take to have all current politicians here in North America realize this truth? All across Canada and the United States, the powers that be insist on testing as a way to increase student achievement despite innumerable studies that reveal the failure of this approach.  I wonder if anything will change now that the White House recently called for limits on the number of tests that students are subjected to?  

I suspect it will take many more years before the stress of tests is a thing of the past for students.

But tests are not the only source of students’ stress in school. Most of us have vivid memories of a whole range of situations and experiences that made school a place we didn’t always want to be. When I was a student, I was frequently afraid or bored or tired even though I achieved many As. Turns out not much has changed over the decades since my high school graduation. A study released last week, reveals that 75% of high school students (Grades 9 – 12) feel either bored or tired or stressed.

The biggest tragedy of this for me is how much we are wasting the creativity of our adolescents. Just when their brains are developing the ability to think abstractly and to be creative, we bore them with forced memorization of facts we already know and that they can instantaneously access on the phones. Despite this travesty, there are growing numbers of teens who are simply going ahead and solving problems we adults had not been able to.

Ken Robinson’s  Do Schools Kill Creativity? talk has over 35 million views. Clearly there are many people around the world aware of what we are doing to our students’ creative potential so why do we continue to do this?

My students’ creativity constantly amazes me. I am often in awe of how they respond to assignments where their imaginations have free reign. I love evaluating those assignments because each one is unique, each student’s interpretation an expression of how alike and unlike they all are. When a final exam response includes the performance of a spoken word poem along with a brilliant talk punctuated by laughter, stress and boredom are simply not in the room.

But laughter does not come easily to me. I am by nature rather serious and so I’ve had to work hard at creating circumstances in my classroom where laughter is a frequent and welcome visitor. I have taken a course about laughter in which I learned about how well our bodies and minds respond to laughter.  I discovered that laughter is actually quite a serious matter!

In fact, it turns out there is a link between laughter and creativity. The more you laugh, the more creative you are when solving problems. Wouldn’t it be great if students could have a laughing session before each test? There’s a research study that needs to be done!  

Each school year many of my students make it onto the Honour Roll, many also achieve the coveted As but what I care about the most is how they felt and how often they laughed when they were in my classroom. They’ll remember that for much longer than they’ll remember what was on a test.


Anger is an important emotion. It has had critically important functions through our human evolution. Its main purpose is to infuse us with energy so that we can fight for our survival. But the evolutionary development of anger was not without a few flaws.  One of them is that the part of the brain that is engaged when we become angry works far more rapidly compared to the part of our brain that weighs and measures and considers alternatives: our prefrontal cortex.

Have you ever done something in anger you have deeply regretted later? An action that leads to regret is one that is done when you were in the middle of an amygdala hijack. The regret comes after the prefrontal lobe has considered other options and realized that you had misinterpreted the situation and over-reacted.

Although anger is an important survival emotion, it’s also a secondary emotion. It is always a cover for one or more of these other emotions: fear, hurt, sadness, loss.  Feeling those emotions exposes the deepest core of our being, leaving us vulnerable, so we are not likely to do that as easily as we are to allow ourselves to become angry instead. Anger is a nice comfy blanket that hides our fear or hurt or sadness.

No one can make you feel angry. You alone have access to the switch that triggers the cascade of chemicals that result in the experience of anger.


So, no, that student or colleague did not make you angry when they did what they did. When you saw what they did, you interpreted their behaviour to mean something. That interpretation of their behaviour then led to the pulling of the anger trigger and when you yelled, you were in full amygdala hijack.

But, there are ways to circumvent another hijack.

When you know what kinds of things trigger you, when you know how your body signals that you’re about to be hijacked, you can take a deep breath or two.  When you are first learning how to do this, it helps to walk away, out of the room for a bit.

It helps too if you have a regular meditation and exercise routine. You are less likely to be easily triggered if you do.

It also helps if you regularly release the energy that fuels your anger in healthy ways.

Even though you  may learn all about anger, and what to do about it, changing the way you have been angry in the past is quite difficult to do.  For a while, you’ll forget what to do far more frequently than you’ll remember.

But you need to keep practicing because the only way out is through.

You have to go through the learning curve. The golden prize at the other end is that, when you know how to control your own anger, you will be able to help your students do that too.

You will also understand that when a student is being aggressive or angry it has nothing at all to do with you. They may have had a really bad evening at home and the very last thing they can handle is to produce an error-free paragraph or listen to you explain a poem.

When you learn about your own anger, you will know just how really scared or worried or upset that student is underneath their anger. You will feel empathy.

And when you model empathy in your classroom, you will be well on your way to creating a learning environment that is emotionally safe for your students.

19th century classrooms were ruled by fear and coercion. Students in a 21st century learning environment feel safe to express and experience a range of emotions because their teacher is attuned to students’ emotions and knows, both cognitively and experientially,  how to respond accordingly.