Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Please Take Out Your Phone

A colleague walked into our faculty workroom during lunch, excited.  A quick push of buttons and ten copies of this article flew off the copy machine. "Did you see this?" he asked those of us chatting over lunch. "There's research proving that phones should be banned in school." The table chimed in, decrying the proliferation of smartphones in school, complaining about how often teachers catch students texting during class.  Someone suggested making a copy of the article for our principal. That's when the table started to share strategies for dealing with phones in class.

Flickr Creative Commons image by Johan Larsson
Two doors down from me, a teacher has the sign "NO PHONES IN CLASS" posted in large, bold font on her classroom door.  Around the corner, another teacher hangs an over-the-door shoe organizer near the front of her room to collect students' cell phones as they enter class.  Yet another teacher on my floor collects phones in a basket that sits on the teacher's desk, proclaiming that students will not get points for that day's activities if their phone is not in the basket. Another uses envelops and keeps her students' cell phones lined up at the front of the room on the tray of the whiteboard.

This made me want to scream.

But I didn't.

Instead, I picked up the copy of this month's Educational Leadership magazine which I had placed in our workroom's reading area a few weeks earlier. The focus of the current edition - "Teaching with Mobile Tech." The articles by edtech guru (and fantastic English teacher extraordinaire) Caitlin Tucker titled "Five Tips for Managing Mobile Devices" and the piece about smartphone integration by experts Lisa Nielsen and Willyn Webb titled "Teaching with Cell Phones" both point out the flaws in recent calls to ban smartphones from the classroom.  However, instead of engaging in a conversation about our differing points of view, my colleague misunderstood my gesture and instead slipped one of his photocopied articles into the magazine as to discredit the use of mobile technology in the classroom.


The bell called an end to our lunchtime. There was no time to discuss, persuade, or share. But I wasn't ready to just forget the interaction. So I took it to my class.  I described to my 22 Creative Writing students, varying in experience and grade level from 9-12, the interaction I had over lunch, without using teachers' names, of course. They were finishing up first drafts of their stories, and next week we will be writing personal essay and opinion pieces. I figured a quick debate might spur some ideas for writing we will do next week. It was not a quick debate. Students were eager to share their frustration.

We discussed when students use their phones in class.  A senior said that he turns his phone off in class most of the time, but during work time or group work, he'll turn it on just so that he can check homework from other classes or to quick dip into group chats about assignments.  Another student said that when a teacher takes her phone, she ends up turning to her notebook, doodling while the teacher talks. "It's not like the phone causes the distractions," she said. "I'm already distracted. Take away my phone, and I'll find something else." And that's when I said something that I often think but have not voiced in front of students. It just came slipping out. "Perhaps it's not the fault of students. If we're teaching in a way that students turn to their phones, maybe it's not effective teaching." And that's when the conversation opened up.  One of my students jumped on this immediately.  He pointed out that I don't ban phones in our class but that students also aren't tempted to use them at inappropriate times either.  Another student, one who doesn't often speak in our large group discussions, talked about how banning something does more to highlight the object, make it sought after, than does teaching about it. Students then went on to discuss what responsible phone use looks like in the classroom, where having phones in class has helped, and where they have at times served as a distraction.  Students didn't understand how teachers could ban phones in the classroom when not all of our classrooms have technology in them, including mine.  Some of my creative writers would not be able to publish online if it were not for their phones.  I need them to take their phones out and use them.

There are so many missed opportunities when cell phones are banned in the classroom. We miss out on the opportunity to connect students with readers and writers outside the four walls of our room, outside of our content areas. When policy makers and teachers talk about banning phones, they often bring up how often students are using phones to text friends or play games. But this is only part of the picture. Those little hand-held computers help teachers and students do so much more. As educators, we have a responsibility to teach our students about the potentials and the pitfalls mobile technology offers which is hard to do when it is kept under lock and key.

So much of what my students and I have been able to accomplish in the classroom would not be possible without the use of smart phones.  We (yes, I'm including myself in this) use our phones in class to:

  • record speeches and make videos using WeVideo,
  • participate in formative assessment polls and open-ended questions using Celly and Polleverywhere,
  • write and share poetry using Twitter and the hashtag #twitterpoem,
  • snap pictures and share our blackout poetry creations with other writers using Instagram,
  • listen to and record our StoryCorps interviews,
  • watch and record our This I Believe personal essays,
  • connect with and ask questions of the authors we are reading via Twitter and Google+ (hi +John Green!), and
  • watch and participate in Google Hangouts (like when +Don Eckert's students broadcast their Ted Talks last Friday).
These are not activities I can replicate with pen and paper. They are unique to mobile technology. And by including such opportunities in my courses, students are writing more and more often, connecting and collaborating with others outside of our classroom, and creating. Why would I want to ban that? 


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