Love them or hate them, cell phones increasingly permeate every aspect of American life. At the bus stop, in people’s cars, at work, at home, at restaurants, coffeeshops, and even at the park, people are check, check checking their phones. They’re checking their text messages or email, they’re posting to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or what’s the new one? Vine? Snapchat? They’re reading posts and liking and commenting. For a phenomenon that’s so new, cell phones, and particularly smart phones, have done a remarkable job of transforming the way we get information, how we wait in lines, our attention spans, our posture and the way we interact with one another. This change also is invading the classroom, where teachers are divided about whether or not to permit phones in class.
I threw the question out on Facebook and got varied responses from teachers and professors who have to decide what to do about cell phones in their classrooms.
A number of educators that responded flat out: “Ban them in class!”
Visual artist Aaron Dysart, who teaches at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, says he calls students out in the middle of class for using their phones, which usually puts a stop to it. “Hate seems to be too light a word,” he said, “especially those who don’t think I can tell they are texting.”
Beth Cleary, the chair of the Theatre and Dance Department at Macalester College doesn’t allow them. My sister, Lucy DeCoux, who teaches English Learners, has a policy of giving one warning and then confiscating phones, which she also does for iPods.
Rachel Breen, who teaches Visual Art at Anoka Ramsey Community College, often feels she’s teaching students HOW to concentrate, especially in drawing classes. “Cell phones are a huge part of this. Not only are they distracting for students who use them constantly but for everyone around them Every time a phone vibrates or a beep goes off people working close to the phone are equally distracted.
Breen asks students to turn phones completely off in the classroom, not just to put them on silent so it’s not as easy to check messages. “They can always go out of the room to check if they must,” Breen said, “but I draw a big distinction between in and out of the classroom.”
Banning phones can be easier said than done. While these measures work at the beginning of the semester, students slip back into thinking it won’t matter later in the year. “I end up feeling like such a nag,” Breen said, “but I think it’s really distracting and unfair to students in a crowded classroom who are focused on drawing. It’s a constant struggle.”
Allison Witham thinks her student’s attention is better when they don’t have phones. As a high school English teacher, she doesn’t have much use for them, though she does incorporate smart phones when she teaches the book Feed, a dystopian novel about our dependency on technology. “It actually really bothers the students and gets most of them thinking critically about their consumption and use of technology.”
As a compromise for not (generally) allowing phones in class, Witham has allowed her students to use her own phone to pick alarms for timed activities daily. “I teach freshman and have an ancient iPhone 3, so it lets them build a connection with me and a sense of privilege for the day. Everybody gets to the pick the alarm at least once,” she said. “It’s the little things when you’re 14, you know?”
Policies around cell phones have also varied depending on the school where Witham has taught. At North Education Center (NEC), there’s a no-cell-phone policy to protect the students and staff. The policy was instituted because of incidents at other schools, in which students in conflict with each other texted their friends for back up to ambush each other after school. South High School had a “bag and tag” rule (meaning the phone is confiscated and can only be returned to a parent or guardian) when Witham was a student teacher there. Today, students are encouraged by the district to bring their phones to school for educational purposes, as well as to stay in contact with their families in case of an emergency.
In some schools, cell phone theft can be a problem, Witham said. Some students at NEC had their phones stolen at parties. “I had a student who used to steal them, strip them, and sell them on the black market explain the process to me,” she said.
Not all teachers and professors are against phones. TC Daily Planet’s Arts Editor Jay Gabler, who also teaches at the college level at Macalester and other places, says as long as his students are sufficiently engaged when they need to be, he’s fine with them using their phones, and he actively encourages laptops and tablets.
Other teachers embrace the technology. Renate Fiora, a physics teacher at Orono Senior High, tries to teach good technology etiquette, rather than just banning them, and says she actually gets more comprehensive answers from her students via text than she does with pen and paper. She also uses apps such as Poll Everywhere, and gives assignments in which students have to find a video example of the physics concept under discussion, and share its link to a Google Document. She gives quizzes with Google Forms, and shares links with her students using QR codes.
“I feel it’s important because it is a powerful tool and one that’s not going away,” Fiora said. “If we just ignore them and ban them, then kids will continue to use them for trivial uses. By using them in class, we get to show them the depths their devices can go, show the devices as the tools they are, and finally teach them proper etiquette while using them. ”
Last year, she called a student out for having her phone out and using it, and the student responded by showing the new video she had found of the physics tech Fiora had been talking about in class. “That was awesome. I had her email me the link so I could show the whole class. ” Fiora said.
In addition, Fiora asks her students to “like” a class Facebook page and follow her teacher Twitter, so she can remind them of assignments.
I’m guessing this is an issue that’s not going away anytime soon. Are you a teacher? Do you allow students to use their phones in class? What boundaries do you set?
Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.