How to Manage Cell Phones in the Classroom

When I ask the students why they are so attached to their devices with the small (some aren’t so small) screens, I invariably get the response, “It’s my life.”

I just don’t get it and probably never will, but here is my attempt at understanding. After careful observation, I have determined that the cell phones are analogous to what happened when the Walkman first appeared on the scene for the older generation.  A Walkman was a portable cassette player that sometimes came with a radio.

Students could conveniently take their music with them and also conveniently tune out any undesirable noise. Within this cocoon of music, students feel safe and protected. “I study better with my music” is a frequent response to “Please take the earbuds out.” It doesn’t matter how much research you share about the brain not being able to focus on more than one thing at a time, as soon as you turn your back, the earbuds will be back in.

They even have hoodies with built-in earbuds instead of drawstrings so that the students can wall themselves off with little chance of detection. They have thousands of songs on their playlist. It seems like an appendage to their bodies (as with many adults, as well).

The Texting Frenzy

Are you tired of seeing students text each other while sitting side by side? Lol. Or how about the sly student who is writing with pen at his desk while texting with the other hand under the desk? Are you frustrated by the text language and spelling that creeps into student assignments? Who are they texting? Is it other students that should be paying attention in class? I was shocked when I looked at my son’s texting count — over five thousand in one month! That’s roughly one text for every three minutes he was awake. For some students that is a low number.

Accepting Reality

Phones at school are inevitable. Should we embrace the “bring your own technology” (BYOT) model or the extreme “you take it out and I take it away!” policy? How do you monitor and keep 30 phones busy doing productive work? What do you do with the few kids that do not have phones? On the other hand, is keeping a phoneless classroom worth the hassle and effort of being the phone ogre? Can you have both? No easy answer for this is found anywhere in blogosphere.

Whatever you decide, you cannot turn a blind eye to tackling this challenge — school-wide and in the classroom. Perhaps the best thing you could do for yourself this summer is craft your classroom cell phone policy.

If you choose BYOT, students have to understand beforehand that using their phone has an educational purpose and what the consequences are for straying from that purpose. Then you have to enforce it, which means constant surveillance as you walk around, looking at every phone or tablet.

Deciding on a Cell Phone Policy

Establishing a no cell phone zone in your classroom requires a few things. First off, you need support from your administration, because you will possibly be sending repeat offenders to the office. You need also pervasive reminders of your policy on the classroom walls and in your lesson-framing pep talks. Perhaps the most important element is minimal downtime in your learning activities, because the temptation to sneak a look is just too strong.

While many schools still have strict phone policies, some schools ignore the policies in place and follow don’t ask, don’t tell. As long as a student is not causing problems, they can use their phones as much as they want outside of class, and each teacher has to determine how much phone use goes on in class. Cell phones in the classroom can be a significant discipline problem and classroom management struggle if clear and explicit guidelines are not established the first day. Every teacher’s tolerance for phone usage varies.

But as an administrator, if I walk in and see earbuds and phones out during direct instruction, I see a problem that needs to be fixed. I am curious to hear your thoughts on cell phones in the classroom and the policies at your school. Please share in the comments section below.

This article by Ben Johnson appears on edutopia at http://www.edutopia.org/blog/how-manage-cell-phones-classroom-ben-johnson

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