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Upper Schoolers Put Down Their Phones to Build Community

Upper School students recently came together in the shared effort to disconnect from their phones and connect with one another. Inspired by their coursework, US students organized Calhoun’s first-ever Upper School Phone Free Day, posing a challenge to their peers to give up their devices in an effort to build community and increase their own happiness.

Upper School Phone Free Day

The project was inspired by Upper School English teacher Lyda Ely’s Literature and Science of Happiness class. Among several topics including gratitude and meditation, the curriculum addressed the increasing use of phones and social media and its effect on people's overall happiness. Reading passages from Shelly Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, students learned about how the growing reliance on digital devices for communication is taking a toll on relationships, leaving many without the skills necessary to engage in face-to-face communication. The book explains that while phones remain a source of communication, they can also be used as tools of avoidance. Users may choose to pick up their devices in order to avoid uncomfortable topics or pauses in conversation. “Turke argues that pregnant pauses may be awkward, but they are not the end of the world,” says Lyda Ely, Upper School English teacher. “To fill up those silences by lifting up our phones, we might be missing something else — like real interactions and potentially more meaningful, intimate relationships.” Khadijah R. ‘20, one of the students in the class, was impacted by what she learned about phone use. “The thing that really stuck with me was that just a silent phone sitting next to you is a big distraction,” recalls Khadijah. “It inclines you to think, ‘Let me check my phone’ instead of being present.” Motivated by what they had learned in the class, Upper Schoolers came together to challenge their community to go phone-free for a day. 

The first step for leaders of the project was making the case to their peers. “We volunteered to encourage and collect the phones from our first period classes and made an announcement during town meeting to explain the challenge,” says Jaia W. ‘20. With more and more social interaction occurring online, logging off was no easy feat. “It’s a hard message to give to high schoolers,” Jaia admits, but after making their case, 52 of their peers joined them in their effort. 

Even for those organizing the event, the day proved to have its challenges. “You don't realize how much you reach for your phone until you don't have it,” says Khadijah, though, she says, as the day wore on the separation became easier and brought participants together. “It got easier when you realized there was someone else doing it. There was a sense of community among the people that gave up their phones, a  bonding experience in knowing that we had this time to live together without distractions.” Untethered from their devices, Upper Schoolers had the opportunity to find new ways to spend the time they would normally watch their screens, opting to connect with their fellow Calhouners. “It was good for me to reflect and think, ‘I would usually go to Instagram at this moment. What can I do instead to be more engaged in my community?’” says Jaia. For Khadijah, the experiment allowed her to explore options she may not have taken advantage of before. “Communicating and talking to others, picking up a book to read or going really find ways to appreciate everything else when you don't have your phone.”

Though the challenge only lasted a day, the experience gave participants even more to ponder about how they can harness the strategies taught in class to bring more happiness into their lives. By putting down their phones and joining together in this challenge, they connected in new ways and saw how small changes in their habits can have a big impact in their lives. As Khadijah puts it, “Happiness is not just something that's there. It's something you work for.”