Taming the Student Cell Phone

https://www.flickr.com/photos/afsusa/9284763561I love Facebook as a professional development tool, if only for the way it encourages easy conversation and the spread of ideas. Teachers in our district have embraced it as a way to easily reach their audience- students, parents, and peers, and I’m no different. It’s a great way to distribute ideas and tools that relate to my job as a technology integrator.

A colleague recently shared an article to our Tech Goodies page called How to Manage Cell Phones in the Classroom. In it, author Ben Johnson suggests that teachers decide on a classroom cell phone policy, get support from the administration and make expectations clear to students- even posting the policy on the walls as a constant reminder. Consequences need to be clear and enforced. He also suggests creating an environment where there is little downtime so students are more engaged in learning and less apt to check out by checking texts.

It’s all good advice and it’s what many good teachers already do. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The degree of success of a cell phone policy often is in direct response to the relationship the teacher has with students.

Think about this from a student perspective. We lay down all the rules, and we are as tough about enforcement as our management style allows. They, in turn, have been trained through however many years they’ve been in school to assess the risk- and then do what they want. This is business as usual for them.

Many schools are shifting towards a student-centered learning model, yet our policies still read like  court judgments. Legally we do need to have broad policies in place to ensure student safety and comply with federal law. Outside of that, however, we have some leeway. Because our school culture hasn’t kept up with our students’ digital culture, we have some catching up to do. It’s work that might better be done without a “top-down” edict.

What about if we included students in the process of developing a classroom cell phone policy? I’m not suggesting this from a “student-council-input-into-policy” discussion. I’m talking about a classroom by classroom policy. Think of it as a whole lot of social science experiments taking place, collecting data on what works and what doesn’t.

I can hear the feathers ruffling from here. “We need consistency. We already have a ‘no-cellphones’ policy. The rules have to be the same for everyone building-wide. The kids just have to comply or face the consequences.”

The idea of different rules in different rooms is a hard sell- but truthfully, don’t we already have it? Some teachers accept late students, some don’t. Some require seating charts while others allow free seating. Classroom management has ALWAYS differed from room to room- thank goodness!

As a classroom teacher, I was always ok with the overarching guidelines of our building. It was the details that sometimes made me a little crazy. One principal outlawed any food at all in the classroom. I thought the student who skidded in late with breakfast in hand stood a better chance learning while eating than he did having to sit in the cafeteria and missing half of class- or worse yet, sitting in class hungry and unfocused. A modification to sit away from the computers until he was finished suited us both.

And so it is with cell phones. We can’t pretend they don’t exist- but we can’t allow free range. Where’s the middle ground? I propose that we ask our students what they think is reasonable. Sure, at first they will say they should be able to have them out and use them whenever, wherever. Explore that idea! It will open up many topics of discussion as you develop the framework of your classroom culture:

  • respect for a space students can work in
  • management of distractions
  • accountability for work in a timely fashion
  • ethical conduct and personal integrity (cell phones are widely used for cheating)
  • real world workplace expectations
  • reflection and revision of what is working/not working
  • how their cell phone use meshes with the school’s code of conduct guidelines

Students that have ownership of their classroom cell phone policy are more apt to work within the parameters they set for themselves. You might ask them for ideas for formative assessments of how the policy is working at certain times throughout the first couple of weeks of school, with ways to adjust the policy until it is a functioning part of their classroom workflow. Making students an integral part of that assessment piece is critical for continued improvement.

What about those that just can’t comply? Perhaps they are not ready for the responsibility of having a phone available in class. For those without the skills to manage the tool, separation from the device may be the only answer. That said, their policy should provide them a way to grow into the skills necessary to be successful within their classroom rules. Keep in mind that you are asking them to change a deeply ingrained habit. In some cases, it’s one of continual and constant contact. Habits take time and strategies to change.

You’ll notice I left out the concept of punishment. I’m a firm believer that the consequences that students set for themselves will always have more weight than detentions or other punitive actions we set up. Time in detention teaches a student NOTHING. Time in a reflective intervention with you (and/or peers) can help students identify the issues that cause them to move from the learning environment to a distracted realm. This is the time to find ways to bridge the gap and keep them moving forward.

Finally, look at your own habits. Are you modelling the cell phone use you want your students to employ? Students don’t miss a trick and will be more apt to buy into change if you are setting the example for acceptable use.

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One response to “Taming the Student Cell Phone

  1. Great article, Lydia. I agree with EVERYTHING you said from each classroom having its own policy to allowing student to arrive at the rules for using cell phones in school. Whatever happens, it HAS to take place at the very beginning of the year and the teacher HAS to stick to the rules and consequences of abusing them. The author of the article you cited made a good point. If the teacher keeps students actively involved in the class, there will be less time for distractions. I’ve seen this in my own classroom but admittedly I’ve not always had luck with keeping the kids off from them. I intend to make it work this coming year! Another idea….students need to include computer use with cell phone use in the classroom. I’ve found that if they can’t use their phones, they’ll use their laptops to communicate with friends or family instead. They’re tricky little people!! Let’s do this, Lydia. Let’s bring everyone else on board and see what happens. Maybe if staff wants a “all for one” policy, we can take input from each person’s classes and collate their ideas into a school-wide policy (if we have to).

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