Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has backed unconscionable laws that limit how race and gender are discussed in schools. From "Don't Say Gay" to his attempts to whitewash American history, his policies reshaping education leave a parent like me fearful of how far his "War on Woke" will go.
So I was stunned to learn that I see eye to eye with DeSantis on one thing, and maybe one thing only: Cellphones do not belong in the classroom.
This spring he signed a measure restricting cellphones during instructional time. The changes will allow the devices to be used during class only if "expressly directed by a teacher solely for educational purposes."
While I question whether this needs to be codified across an entire state, it's worth noting that lawmakers in Florida — yes, Florida — are empowering teachers to do their jobs. By removing this distraction from the classroom, kids and teens will be better situated to focus and learn.
Minneapolis Public Schools, are you paying attention?
The school board is weighing a policy change that would give students more flexibility, not less, to use their phones during class. The proposal guts language in the current policy, which lists consequences if a student fails to put their phone away — such as a warning, confiscation of the phone, and loss of phone privileges at school. The current rules offer clear expectations and repercussions, creating a districtwide culture of being present to learn.
The new policy would leave it up to individual teachers to outline class protocol regarding phone use. I'll grant that educators may welcome this autonomy, and some might even advocate for students to have access to their devices. But a patchwork of rules and norms will confuse students and put teachers in a tougher spot if they strive for a phone-free classroom.
This is far from just a Minneapolis challenge. Across the country, teachers are waging a daily fight to captivate their students' attention. Even the mere presence of phones means some students will be anticipating the next dopamine-filled update. There always is something easier, more fun, more stimulating than the conversation or the coursework in front of them.
"I'm not an entertainer. I'm not TikTok. I'm an educator," North Community High School social studies teacher Dane McLain tells me. "A lot of us have said we've given up on certain students who have just been locked to the phone."
McLain said those phone-addicted students might receive a visit from the dean or a temporary confiscation of the device. "But then they come back the next day, and they're still on their phone," said McLain, who plans to take a break from teaching in the fall. "It's a very demoralizing environment."
Learning can be a struggle. But powering through hard things may instill in us a sense of achievement. Engaging in real-life conversations with our peers can be transformative. McLain said he's always wanted to be the kind of teacher who leads his students down a path toward a deeper joy, one that is truly earned — not with just a swipe.
Phone notifications offer the same kind of rewards that make slot machines so addictive, said Roxanne Prichard, a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas. "Your brain is almost looking out for it," she said. "I almost compare it to having a newborn — we're always listening for signs of distress."
The ability to focus isn't the only issue. Stefanie Morseth-Helmer, who teaches social studies at Andersen United Middle School in Minneapolis, told me she's been recorded breaking up physical fights among students, including some who staged the altercations to garner "likes."
"As educators, we are now tasked with conflict resolution because of social media," she said. "Hey, I just want to teach World Studies, but I'm turning into a conflict mediator. I'm not a therapist. The students are also posting at home, and then the drama is carried to school."
Middle school is hard enough, she added. "Kids are learning how to socialize, and now parents are giving them a device that allows them to make stupid decisions," Morseth-Helmer added.
While it's true that some families need to be in touch with their kids during the day, there are other ways to reach out — the main office line still works. Smart watches that don't have social media apps are another option. The idea of not being able to contact your child in an emergency, such as a school shooting, is scary. But so is the idea of students looking at a screen in a time of crisis, so distracted that they can't follow their teacher's instructions.
The Minneapolis school board will vote on the proposed revisions in August. The call for change was led by the district's high school students, and I don't fault them. If I were a teen in the iPhone era, I would also advocate for more freedom to scroll. I would tell myself that I was mature, that I wasn't that distracted. And I would be wrong.
The truth is, we grown-ups can barely self-regulate. Consider the adult phenomenon of texting while driving, sleeping with our phones, scrolling at mealtimes. If adults aren't in control of our relationship with electronics, we shouldn't assume a 14-year-old with a still-developing brain can handle this responsibility.
Let's give kids a chance to be kids. To take a break from the pressures of social media. To "dance like nobody's watching," Prichard said. Every summer, her 13-year-old daughter looks forward to overnight camp in the woods of Wisconsin where no one has access to electronics. Children today have grown up in a time where their mistakes and awkward pictures have been documented, memed and circulated.
McLain, the teacher from North High, said taking the phones away should not be seen as a detriment.
"The way I see it, it's a benefit," he said. "We owe it to them — for their education, for their future, for their sense of self."
As adults, we owe it to our children to show them the way to their full potential. It's a destination they can reach a little easier without the weight of their phones.