Last week, following the release of a video showing a sheriff’s deputy body-slamming a South Carolina high school student over her use of a cellphone in class, we asked teachers to tell us how they handle mobile technology in the classroom. Teachers from places like Hawaii, Ecuador, Tennessee and across Los Angeles wrote in with their strategies for coping with students who bring their cellphones to class.
Despite schools’ often restrictive media policies, teachers shared that personal mobile devices are impossible to ignore. Each teacher seemed to have his or her own method for handling phones, such as placing them in a shoe rack, using them as a learning tool, or threatening to drop students’ grades. Below is a selection of their strategies:
Putting the phones in a brown paper bag
Stephanie Kuo, Manual Arts High School (Los Angeles, Calif.), RSP and AVID teacher
A fellow teacher shared a great strategy with me that has worked well for our classes. Whenever a student is caught violating the cellphone policy, he or she can choose to either give the phone to the teacher or option two: put the cellphone in a paper bag and staple it shut. Then the student puts the bag on their desk. With this strategy, students are stopped from using their cellphone and there is also an auditory cue (silly, large crinkling noise) that discourages them from usage. Many students choose option two because it makes them feel safer knowing that their device is not confiscated in a teacher's desk, forgotten, or even stolen by another student.
With this strategy, students are stopped from using their cellphone and there is also an auditory cue (silly, large crinkling noise) that discourages them from usage.
Setting the example by not using your phone
Angel Suing, Cardinal Spellman Girls’ School (Quito, Ecuador), English as a foreign language teacher
If the teacher does not use his or her cellphone in class, the students won’t either. It is just a matter of equal rights and obligations.... Lead by example and the students will follow.
Locking the code
Jerry Hancock, Duluth High School (Duluth, Ga.), U.S. history teacher
If I see students actively using their cellphones during class, I simply take the phone and punch passcode numbers until the phone is locked. I immediately give the phone back to the student without resorting to desperate measures such as administrators or paperwork. I know I'll have my students' undivided attention for at least the next hour!
Keeping students focused, and their phones safe
Hala Abdulkarim, Learn Charter Middle School (Chicago, Ill.), English teacher
Students were initially expected at my school to keep cellphones off and in their lockers. However, our school allows them to bring backpacks to class, and students fear their devices being stolen, so the rule evolved to having their phone off or on silent in their bags. If a teacher sees or hears a phone, it gets taken away and must be retrieved by a parent or guardian. For the most part, this rule has kept cellphones out of the class, but I still see students on a weekly basis trying to text under their desk. They're not as discreet as they think they are!
Students fear their devices being stolen, so the rule evolved to having their phone off or on silent in their bags.
Flexibility is key
Benin Lemus, L.A. River School (Los Angeles, Calif.), English and library teacher
I have a "no cellphone/earbuds" policy in my class as a general rule. However, there are times when I require students to use their phones: to send themselves reminders or look up information — especially when we are short on computers. For me, establishing my policy in a way that respects the student, and her property, is paramount. This happens at the opening of the school year. In turn, what I expect is that she respect her learning environment and participate in her education. By allowing a bit of flexibility, I get maximum cooperation.
Adapting to cellphones, but recognizing that not every student has one
Chris Davis, Clark Magnet High School (Glendale, Calif.), history and journalism teacher
Glendale Unified School District’s attitude and official policies have shifted over the years to reflect a more realistic acceptance that cellphones are part of most young people’s daily lives. The current policy states that "cellphones and other electronic signaling devices shall be kept off or in silent position during instruction." (School Board Policy 6116)
So while I reinforce that policy in the history classes that I teach, there are times when I tell students to use their phones — if they have them — in class. When having students work on projects where we are using Google Docs/Drive, some find typing and editing on a smartphone more efficient than a keyboard on the Chromebooks we have in class. I also post links on my class’ Twitter feed that students can access on their smartphones. When I ask students to do an oral history assignment where they record and transcribe an interview, most do the recording on their smartphones, and I have students do some of that transcribing in class on Chromebooks so that I can teach them how to transcribe and punctuate. It’s also important to remember, not every student has a smartphone (or phone, for that matter), and no educator wants to create a learning environment that excludes some from participation.
It’s also important to remember, not every student has a smartphone (or phone, for that matter), and no educator wants to create a learning environment that excludes some from participation.
They might be interrupting their friends’ learning
Donn Cottom, South East High School (Los Angeles, Calif.), journalism and English teacher
In my class, students have access to an iPad, so I can look at it like, "Why should you need your phone if you already have access to an iPad or a computer for our work?" Conversely, I can also look at it like, "If it's more convenient for you to look something up or take notes on something we're doing with your phone, then use whatever is most efficient." I typically lean toward the latter.
Something I share with students is that one thing they don't usually consider is that when they text a friend in another class, when that friend looks at their text, it's that moment when they have disrupted their friend's learning. If their friend looked away at a critical time in a lesson, say during a complex math problem, then they could be confused and lost in that math concept. Most students don't look at it that way.
Forbidding cellphones in class
Louis Haas, Middle Tennessee State University, associate professor of history
Cellphones are forbidden to be out in class at any time. First violation sees a half-letter grade reduction in overall grade and a request for the student to leave the room. (Usually once I do this to one person early on in the semester, I get full compliance.) Second sees a full letter grade reduction and request to leave room. (Have never had to go this far.) And if a student refuses to leave, I declare a disturbance in class and call the campus police to remove the student. (Have never had to go this far either.) I had only one challenge--from a football player who backed down before I had to request him to leave the room. But I sent a report to the athletic department, and the next day the student politely apologized and said it would not be a problem again. And I accepted the apology.
First violation sees a half-letter grade reduction in overall grade and a request for the student to leave the room.
Putting the phones to work
George Summerhill, Cold Springs Middle School (Reno, Nev.), science teacher
Parents want their kids to have their phones with them all the time and to have them on all the time, so I turn it around on them and have the kids use the phones for research and learning evaluations in the class. By letting the kids use the phones this way I have a lot less trouble getting the students to put the phones away when I ask them to. It's a sad reality that kids are going to have their phones with them and on in the classroom, but it is a reality we better get used to.
The shoe rack method
Rebecca Joseph, California State University, Los Angeles, associate professor, Division of Curriculum and Instruction
I have a shoe rack that hangs on the wall. Students put their phones in the rack and take a number from the slot. They get their phone back at the end of class.
I also use phones for different activities. Socrates is a great program. Finally, I have a rule that I will never fight over a phone. If they refuse to give it up or put it in the shoe rack, they can't come in.
Ruthless dictator no more
Dave Milbrandt, San Dimas High School (San Dimas, Calif.), English teacher
While letting students work with district-provided tablets is one thing, allowing them to use personal devices has opened up a host of challenges. I used to be a ruthless dictator when it came to cellphones, but as I have shifted my policy, it's become much easier for students to veer off task.
I often play music while students work, as studies have shown it boosts performance. But with students listening to music on their phones, I've turned into the tech police, making sure they're not texting friends or shooting embarrassing video or pictures to post online. In my elective class, I have ceded part of this battle, but I'm not sure if it has improved workflow or just led to distraction. And all teachers know backpedaling on a classroom policy can be a Herculean task.
While the digital divide between the upper- and lower-income students is a big problem, the largest challenge is that technology is not the panacea educational consultants and tech/software companies have led us to believe.