Review: Yondr Bags as an Educational Tool

Last year, we made a change at our school in the midst of a technological revolution that seems to be nothing short of all-encompassing of our lives (we’ve all had the momentary thought in a train station or restaurant that the scene around us looks like the zombie apocalypse, where instead of an unseen blight infecting each and every human, they had been taken over by a little rectangular box with a light coming out of it). We decided to implement a new educational tool at our Expeditionary high school: Yondr bags.

Urban legend has it that Yondr bags began as a way for comedians performing at nightclubs to put a damper on people doing two things that kind of suck: not being in the moment at shows because they were focusing more attention on recording the event, and then uploading their recordings allowing new (but perhaps not yet perfected) jokes to get out on the web, unlicensed, before the comedian wanted them to get out there. I say this is urban legend simply because I don’t care enough about the roots of the concept to spend the time researching it – the point is that they are a pouch that allows for a cell phone to be placed inside and then ‘locked’ until the user reaches a point in time or place where it is appropriate to have access to the phone again. As you can imagine, this freaks the fuck out of students. Pardon my French. I’m on a tear today, and we all know it to be very true, right?

Well, the bottom line of this review of our results with using Yondr bags in school is that they are freakin’ awesome. Check them out. Get your school on board. Just do it. It is SO necessary in today’s world. At our school Prom last week, my wife commented on how crazy it was that all of our students were talking to each other or dancing, and she had only seen one student pull out a phone once. That student had pulled out his phone to show me, his math teacher and chaperone, a person skiing an absolutely sick backcountry line that he wanted me to go ski with him next year. Ha!

Well, I feel like with that alone I have given a thorough review. But just in case you want it, to give a little more depth of field in terms of pros and cons, positives and negatives, and the results we have seen, let’s start with some logistical considerations. First of all, and most importantly, students need a reason to lock their phones away all-day, every-day. I know, I know – you were hoping for considerations like ‘do we compel them with some sort of a grade?’, or ‘do kids try to break the bags and what do you do about that?’ We’ll get there, but the most important component of this whole system is for us to first remember that we are educators. We are not doing this to make our jobs easier (though that is an attractive complimentary benefit). We are doing this to ensure that students learn about themselves and the pathways to productivity and contentment in their lives.

“The point is that, call them what you will, we are unceasing in creating histories and futures for ourselves through the medium of narrative,” Postman wrote in The End of Education, speaking as much about teenagers as about humans in general. “Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.” This is important in the implementation of Yondr bags. What we are doing is attempting to re-write the cultural narrative about what’s important – to flip the script on Consumerism and ‘what’s cool,’ and to instead state that our community is cool because we believe that human beings were meant to talk together, face-to-face; that we are unique and rebellious of culture because we still create with our hands and hard-earned stories rather than consume with our mindless devotion to a little box that was programmed by geniuses who want our money. This is not an easy narrative to weave, yet, it’s certainly worth the effort.

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to develop narratives that change the culture and mindsets of students in the school. This must be done on a team-by-team basis at each individual high school. However, there are a few practical considerations that are worth discussing with your team. Before diving into what those are, exactly, I want to make clear that my team and I are quite stoked about our implementation of Yondr bags in the classroom because we have a completely phone-free environment inside of our classrooms right now. This DOES NOT mean that every student is following our Yondr bag rule at all times, or that some students don’t figure out how to open the bags up, sneak off to the bathroom, and check SnapChat. It simply means that they are not present, at all, within our classrooms, and I think that’s amazing.

Now, in terms of logistical considerations, let’s start with the development of the narrative. As mentioned, each team will have to figure out what they personally believe about the use of technology in our culture, but I wanted to give a couple of examples of how our team has supported this narrative. First and foremost, we have all decided to use Yondr bags ourselves. This is not only because we personally believe that our productivity increases without the constant distractions of our phones, but also because the teenage brain is wired socially, and in today’s world with a lack of real, authentic purpose, many teen’s brains go straight to perceiving social injustices, double standards at the forefront. Secondly, each of us has strong beliefs about the effect of technology on our lives, grounded in texts like Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, and more recently Carr’s The Shallows and The Glass Cage. Accordingly, we are able to speak to the topic somewhat elegantly off the tops of our heads, often presenting a different view than teens are used to hearing. Third, we have rituals and routines (like the Mindful Moment) that are designed to help students take ownership over their own attentional control. Having these implemented on a daily basis thus helps to change mindsets eventually, rather than behavior. Finally, we actually spend a week early in the year that we call Disorientation Week that is designed to ‘disorient’ students to the broader cultural narrative and to make them think about life choices in a different way. During this week, we read Roots by Emily Cousins, as well as reading texts like Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow or excerpts from Manson’s modern The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** (I know, a ‘risky’ one for a school to use, but we edit it and the main points are really good and given in a way to which teens can relate).

As for logistical considerations, the Yondr system has to be tied to some sort of a carrot or stick for it to work well. For us, we give a grade based on ‘strikes’ for our Crew course, which is best described as ‘Homeroom on Steroids’. Strikes throughout the semester include when a Crew Leader (me – the teacher) sees that one of my crew-member’s Yondr bags is empty and not picked-up yet in the closet shoe-hanger we use to store the bags in our room. In other contexts, students may be able to attend off-campus lunch only if they are Yondr’d consistently, or may get their phone taken and stored in the Main Office for the week should it be out in the environment.

Of course, as you may have seen in my last post, some students figure out how to break the bags enough to get into them. This means that the best way to store Yondr bags would be in one centralized location, like the closet shoe-hanger we use in each of our Crew rooms. However, this can of course create liability problems for schools where the items could or would get stolen, etc. This is really up to your own understanding of the strength and integrity of your school’s culture at that point in time; but, really, I think the fact that kids figure out how to ‘get away’ with checking their phones secretly does not deteriorate the point of the whole thing: our environments have become phone-free. At the end of the day, we’re not trying to ‘cure phone addiction’ – we’re just trying to provide students with a little bit of space with which to establish the idea that phones are not essential to life, and in fact many aspects of life are better if we can just turn it off for a while and focus our attention where we choose to focus it.

Just a little bit of time away from the phone every day can end up having a profound impact on our youth. Try it at your school – you’ll have to advocate and kick and scratch for it, but it will be worth it.

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