I always smile when I see T-shirts made by student clubs or classes with terms and acronyms only Webb students would know such as Webb Day, Peccary Trip, CBO, ASB Ball, or Theme Nights. As of this fall, you can add another phrase to the list of Webb-only terminology...The Phone Plate.
The Phone Plate is a large colorful plate at the center of each dining table at formal dinner. Students and adults place their cell phones on the plate at the start of the meal, as a way of relinquishing their otherwise 24/7 devices so that good old-fashioned conversation can happen at the dinner table. The truth is I talk a good game about cell phone usage, but must admit that I break into a cold sweat when placing my phone on The Phone Plate. For better or worse (usually worse) the device has become a part of me, and while at dinner with the phone on the plate, I still get these phantom vibrations as though I have a call or text message, only to realize my phone is several feet away.
As usual students have been far more adaptable to this new practice, and we have fun at the table trying not to stare at the phones, each one occasionally making a noise and displaying a message. I’ve started hiding the plate, and it is amazing how quickly it becomes out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We start engaging in a totally different way. The power of conversation takes over, and we actually start looking in each other’s eyes and being fully present.
I see The Phone Plate as one small step for Webb, one giant leap for civilization. This past summer, you probably saw in the news coverage of the latest research on the psyche of today’s teenager, and how in this new age of hyper-connectivity and instant information, teenagers have never felt more disconnected, more anxious, tired and lost. Those of us in education aren’t surprised with the findings. It is estimated that by the time a person reaches the age of 17, he or she will have spent more than 60,000 hours in front of a screen of some type.
When I look back on my own childhood, I realize now that life was a process of revealed secrets, where I generally learned things at a point in time in my development when I was prepared to handle them. With older brothers, I certainly was exposed to an inappropriate R-Rated movie occasionally, but overall, how and when I received information as a child was controlled. Today’s teenager is growing up in an unfiltered world for the most part. And we as parents and educators have little to no idea what the implications are for this relatively new reality in terms of a teenager’s emotional development, cognitive development, and ability to think deeply and critically.
As I tell the students often, they are growing up in the most dynamic age in the history of civilization. They will have abilities to interact with the world and each other in ways we could only dream of. I fully embrace the power and scope of the digital age, and believe strongly that Webb must continue to provide the very best of a modern, future-ready education in order to prepare leaders for a global economy. But I also stress that we must not lose sight of the most powerful technology of all, and that is the power of human interaction and the ability to inspire.
As future leaders in industry, health care, politics, education and other fields, our students will not only need a complete mastery of technology, but also an ability to connect with people in person, to build consensus and to galvanize people toward a shared vision through deep and meaningful human interaction.
As so many schools get caught up in a new type of arms race in terms of technology, this more powerful and fundamental skill—human interaction—is being lost. The power of family, and community in terms of what they do to nurture the soul is timeless, and yet finding places that create this type of eye-to-eye interaction is becoming increasingly rare.
In the end, I believe what Webb does better than anything is offer a safe community in which our students are known and can make meaningful connections and contributions, and in which we can nurture and support their development as teenagers in all the right ways. The Phone Plate is one of many ways in which we do this. Chapel talks, Peccary trips, assemblies, dorm activities and many of our regular day-to-day activities are other ways we keep up the good fight in order to preserve our most important student experiences.
As you read through this magazine, you will see many exciting examples of Webb students, faculty, parents and alumni flourishing, and yet at the foundation of it all is a community that involves actual people interacting with one another, telling stories, laughing, generating ideas and thriving.