Lenka Sevcik admits the idea of going without her cellphone for an entire week at school was "nerve-racking."
Like many of her friends, the Grade 8 student acknowledges she glances regularly at the device during class, checking for messages. Then came the weeklong social experiment at Herring Cove Junior High School near Halifax, one that for Sevcik and her classmates seems to be having a lasting effect.
"I know it's there but I don't pull it out and I've been getting a lot more work done and I can concentrate more," she said.
That's what Jamie Quinn, the school's Grade 8 healthy living, social studies and English teacher, was hoping for when she dialled up the idea.
The school already had a phone policy left to the discretion of teachers, but Quinn said even with that she and her colleagues spent way too much time telling kids to put away their devices.
So the idea was hatched and parents were surveyed to see if they would support not only banning phone use in the school, but also taking them for the day if someone broke the rule. To Quinn's great pleasure, the parents had her back.
"I had tons of emails from parents supporting the idea and wanting us to implement it the entire year."
Parents understood the distraction
School principal Sean MacDonald said he wasn't surprised by the support.
MacDonald said he thinks people understand the complexities in the classroom and the idea that cellphones are "just another layer that is impacting how our teachers are able to get across to our students."
"There was a definite different buzz in the building," he said of the week with no phones.
Since last week the rules have been eased somewhat — phones will still be taken if they make an appearance in class, but kids can use them during free time and lunch.
But Grade 8 student Salma Khattab said she doesn't even bother taking her phone out of her locker anymore. She quickly noticed she was getting more work done without it and people were engaging more with each other.
"We were talking more, like at lunches we were talking to each other, not sitting in groups on our phones, as usual."
That's an experience Owen Sullivan said at first made him nervous, but then he started seeing more people in the gym at breaks and fewer people worrying about what was on their phones.
"I was more relaxed about not having to worry about anything going on outside the school," said the Grade 8 student.
A need to disconnect
For Quinn, that was the point all along.
Word of her school's experiment spread like a game of telephone, attracting interest and questions from across the country and beyond. She and others on staff plan to post a final report on the school's website and are sharing their experience with anyone who asks.
Quinn thinks the approach should become the norm in schools across the province.
"Kids need to disconnect from their phones for many, many reasons," she said. "I don't want them to miss the opportunities to see what's in front of them by having their faces in a screen."
A rule waiting to be approved
While there isn't a provincewide rule about cellphones in the classroom, all it would take is the stroke of a pen.
In 2008, then-opposition Liberal MLA Leo Glavine managed to get a private member's bill passed that would amend the Education Act to "ban the use of cellphones, and similar devices, in school classrooms by students."
But Bill 154 was never proclaimed, and so it sits on the proverbial legislative shelf. The education minister of the day? Then-Progressive Conservative Karen Casey.