Why I Encourage Cell Phones in the Classroom

You’re in your classroom teaching your heart out, really delivering the lesson on intensive vs. reflexive pronouns when all of a sudden, a phone starts going off. You stop talking, every kid is looking around, and you find the one student scrambling around trying to make the noise stop as quickly as possible. Their face is bright red, they’re crazy embarrassed, and your lesson is now totally off the tracks.

Ah, cell phones. They tend to be a topic that causes teachers to become frustrated, annoyed, and coming up with a myriad of ways to keep them out of the classroom. I’ve seen the cute ideas on Pinterest, just like everyone else, with the ‘cell phone jail’, the pocket chart to hold everyone’s phone individually, and so on. Sure, that’s one way to do it. But what if I told you there’s a better way?

Instead of banning cell phones entirely, what if we create a culture in our classrooms that encourages our students to bring them and USE them. I know, I know. Some of you are probably shaking your head at the insanity of this idea. But hear me out.

When you don’t know the answer to a question while you’re sitting with your friends, what do you do?

When you’re sitting in a PD conference listening to an amazing speaker, what do you pull out to Tweet about it?

When you know you’ll need to reference a photo or schedule later, what do you use to take a picture of it?

When something truly incredible is happening, how do you store or share that memory?

Most of you probably use your phones for all of this. And you don’t find anything to be wrong with yourself doing it. So why is it wrong for our students to do this in our classes?

This past year, I began telling my students that I wanted them to bring and use their phones in my class. But, I wanted them to use their phones for good and not for evil. And when we want our students to exhibit a certain behavior or learn a specific skill, we teach it to them. So that’s exactly what I did. I went through the ways they could use their phones and what they could use them for. Instead of running over to the Chromebook cart every time they needed to look up a word, I had them download the dictionary.com app. When a student forgot their assignment notebook, they took a picture of the homework board. A literature circle group member was absent, so students sent a quick video letting that person know what they worked on during class. Rather than taking 5 minutes to perfectly copy a table of information into their notes, they snapped a photo of the anchor chart to help with an assignment that night.

It changed the culture of my room, and it was entirely for the better. While I attended the First Education conference over the past 2 days, I was fortunate to hear George Couros speak about some ideas from his book The Innovator’s Mindset. So much of it resonated with me and reinforced the idea of having our students make use of the tools they have in front of them. Those of you who have heard his keynote probably know that it’s insanely quotable, and I totally agree. But one idea really stuck out to me: Technology has the capability to transform what we’re doing. And honestly, by banning phones from the classroom, I don’t think we’re really taking advantage of all that they have to offer.

I’d like to consider the idea that most of us have attended professional development conferences where people spoke, and what they said moved us in some way. I’ve been there (especially these past couple days #LearningFIRST). When this happens, those of us who are connected are snapping photos, writing Tweets, or taking Sketchnotes to share out. Just these past 2 days, I saw this happening consistently. Every time something meaningful was said or shown, phones came out and people were excited to share it. During George’s keynote, it was every few minutes. And I’ll tell you something, while we were on our phones, we were still engaged in the presentation.

How cool would it be if that was your classroom? You’re teaching something in a way that is so incredible, so moving, that your students want to capture it and even share it with more people! That would be fantastic, in my opinion. And something similar happened in my classroom this year.

I had a student in my 8th hour who was high-energy, a little impulsive, and very funny. We had a great relationship‒he was my sound effect machine; I’d point to him when something I said needed some extra oomph! and he would deliver. In March, he was absent for a few days, home sick with the flu that rampaged through 6th grade. My 8th hour rolls around and a girl in my class cannot get her phone to stop going off. I finally walk over and tell her to check it, just to make sure everything is okay. She shows me the screen, and it’s our buddy at home trying to Facetime into class. He eventually sends her a text that reads:

“I know you’re in 8th period. Tell Mrs. G I say hi.”

Now, I don’t want to make myself out to be this incredible teacher whose students are lining up to come to class. I’m not always on my A game, none of us is. But I can’t deny it–this little interaction made me feel good. Here’s a student who is at home sick that wants to be in my classroom so bad that he’s Facetiming his friend during class. Kind of a cool moment.

My point is this: Our students have a fantastic learning tool at their fingertips. They have a way to store memories and share them out with others. They have a way to create products that demonstrate their learning and understanding in new, exciting ways. We make use of this same tool in ways that improve our lives, personally and professionally. If you had a job somewhere that banned the use of cell phones, and I’m sure many people have, it’s likely that you were or would be irritated by that policy. So instead of stripping our students of this ability, we should be encouraging them to capitalize on it in a positive way. We consistently talk about being 1:1 and how much more we’d be able to do; if we allow our students to use a device that many already have, it helps us get even closer to that desired ratio.

That said, I know it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. There will always be a student who abuses the policy. But that will happen even in the classroom where cell phones are banned. Prohibiting something does not mean it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t even mean it will happen less. It simply means that students will be more creative in finding ways to get around it, because they are still going to do it. We teach middle and high school students, and it’s unrealistic that every single student will follow every single rule every single day. But when we create a classroom culture that encourages and teaches our students to use cell phones as a tool for learning, we are helping our kids prepare for their lives in a more realistic way.

If you do decide to allow and encourage cell phone use in your classroom, I recommend a couple things:

  • Set specific ground rules. In my class, this meant no video recording me while I’m teaching, no pictures of classmates or their work, avoid tempting apps like Snapchat or text messaging, & during instruction phone should be face-down on top of your desk.
  • Carve out some time to talk about digital citizenship. Talk with your students about cyber-bullying and being kind online. Make them aware that anything they put out on the internet or in a message can be saved forever. Teach them how to be responsible while using a cell phone.
  • Find apps that are useful for your content area, become familiar with them yourself, and encourage students to use them! I post a list of apps in my classroom and how they can be used to help with assignments.
  • Start a classroom social media account. Parents are on social media, too. They’ll appreciate the ability to check in on what’s happening in the classroom and they will love it.
  • Have a plan for the student who abuses the privilege. There’s always going to be that kid (or kids) who are texting Mom and taking Snapchats when they should be working. Be prepared to handle this. In my classroom, their phone has to sit on my desk if they’ve “used it for evil” 3 times. They can still use it, but they have to use it at my desk instead of theirs. It’s a social contract, and they’ve abused the privilege. We’ll talk about it one on one, and make a plan for the future.

Cell phones are a part of our lives. They have transformed our society completely and provided us with a limitless ability to find answers and share content. They are a powerful tool. Many of our middle and high school students have this tool readily available to them, and rather than capitalizing on it, we are banning it from our classrooms. Instead, let’s shift our culture and encourage students to use what they have at their disposal, and teach them how to use it to enhance the learning experience.

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