This week's task was to interview an educator who has used mobiles in the classroom about using them with students. I really had no idea if I would find many teachers who do use them. My strategy was to ask my colleagues and friends for help. So I put out an email to all of the teachers, the administrator and the technology teacher at my elementary school, to our district technology coordinator and to a friend who teaches English at a high school in another district. My plea was for them to lead me to any educator they might know who uses cell phones in the classroom. I thought I could possibly get a lot of people referred to me. However, that was not the case at all. There were two elementary teachers referred who use their own cell phones for class work such as maintaining a blog or a behavior system, but generally the students do not use them. Fortunately, my friend, the high school English teacher, came through.
She has her students use cell phones to enhance student learning activities they do with her in the classroom. She did not have a particular project to share with me but she described the ways she has students use cell phones. She said that she allows her students to use their cell phones in place of a computer when they are not on a computer and need information. She and her class use cell phones to look up “impromptu information” that the students want to find out such as, “How did Shakespeare die?”. Another activity is to use the cell phone to look up the proper way to pronounce a given word or to find the definition of a word. She also asks them questions related to the literary text they are studying, to find answers on the cell phone. An example is, “Who can tell me where Port Elizabeth is?” In addition to using it to look up information, she also has her students check homework emails that she has sent to them or to look for their grades on a program her school uses called “Power School”.
She described her school’s policy regarding cell phone use by students and teachers in the classroom. She said that at the high school level, it is impossible to tell students not to bring their phones to school. With that said, their policy is that phones are to be left in their backpacks but may be used during a morning break (9:45 - 10:00) and lunch, unless the teacher permits their use in the classroom. If students are using them at times not permissible, then teachers have the ability to confiscate the phones.
As far as parent involvement with the use of cell phones in the classroom, she said they are not too involved. There are no requirements placed on parents. I asked her if parents were asked to provide cell phones for students and she said they were not. She has many students who do not have a cell phone and the parents are not obliged to buy them one. The most notable way parents are connected for her to cell phone use is when she needs to contact them via their cell phones.
I asked her if parents are typically agreeable with cell phone use in the classroom and what feedback she has gotten from parents about using them in school. She explained that most parents are fine with the policy and they like that their child is able to have the phone in school because it makes after school contacting and planning easier. It is especially helpful with athletic schedules. She said they are also accepting of the times policy and they understand if the phone is confiscated. Typically, they will place the responsibility on the student. So whether a teacher confiscates a phone for the class block or all day (to be picked up in the office at the end of the day), parents are “okay” with it.
She described some of the challenges cell phone use has caused in her school. She said that originally they had a “No cell phone” policy but it became too difficult to monitor and enforce. So this is how they turned to the “Acceptable during certain times” policy. This too is proving to be difficult to enforce. For example when a student signs out to go to the bathroom he/she will often bring the phone and text down the hall or in the bathroom. Students have been sneaky by wearing a hoodie sweatshirt and texting during class from the front pocket of the hoodie. Teachers have had to change testing policies so that students are not texting during a test to get answers from someone outside the classroom. The majority of issues are with texting more than calling on the phone. Also when phones are used as ipods, listening to music with an earbud has been a challenge. The policy stays the same, not allowed unless given permission, but it is tough to catch them.
Another problem has been parents texting their child throughout the day. She has had to email parents asking them not to text their child during class because of the distraction it causes. Students feel they need to answer a parent right away, and the parent expects the child to do so. She presents them with the times to text or call and explains that the in-class text or call causes a distraction. She adds that she finds that the students don’t like the constant contact with parents. They want school to be their time with friends and to be in the classroom, not a time to have parents check up on them.
The final challenge she described was consistency in enforcing the policy. Some teachers at her school are stricter than others with it. Some teachers themselves text during class, so it is hard for them to come down on a student about texting. The policy has become too tough to enforce. Generally she feels that many teachers are "turning a blind eye" if the phone usage is not interfering with the learning going on in the classroom.
To finish up the interview I asked her what she has learned from her experience of using cell phones in her classroom. She explained that what she has learned most is to embrace cell phone usage on different levels. Depending on her class activity she has students put their phones on the corner of their desks. This way she knows where they are and her students know that she knows. She has learned to allow students to listen to music via their phones if they are doing a writing task because for many, it helps block out any distractions in the room. She also learned to let the cell phones engage her students in the content she is delivering. For instance, if a question comes up in class, she will yell out, “Who can find the answer the fastest?” Her students love this and it becomes a fun contest. After they talk about the various answers they find and see if one or two students need to dig deeper to find more information. She has learned to use it for pronunciation and vocabulary. When a word looks odd to a student they may ask to use the phone to get a pronunciation of the word. She supports their use of the cell phone to build their vocabulary. She has learned to let them use it to find out information about an unfamiliar person or event in their reading. The images especially help students make connections with concepts.
She has also learned to let the students use their cell phones to be more efficient and organized. As mentioned, her high school is connected with Power School, an online grading system. During their academic lab (study hall), she has students check their grades to see what assignments are missing or what work they could be doing. Students also ask to check this during her class when she is talking about grades. She has learned to have fun with her students and cell phones. In her advisory, she often plays “What’s the Word” off of students’ phones. They all work together to figure out a word someone is stuck on. She says the game leads to great conversations such as discussing how images work together, considering the colors or perspectives in the image, and figuring out how the final word relates to the pictures and then looking up the definition.
Her final thoughts on the use of cell phones in school is that, ultimately, students are learning through the use of this technology. Therefore, as teachers, who want to keep students engaged in the learning process, we need to use their tools.After interviewing my friend about how she uses cell phones with her students, I have an understanding of how their use can be managed. She has explained that they do not need to be banned, but they can be used in a positive way to help students be better learners. She describes a system that is efficient and useful and she has set up an environment where cell phones are not distracting but they are aiding her teaching and her students’ learning. The same philosophy can be used with any new technology we bring into our classrooms. This interview has taught me that tools students use need to have a clear, documented purposes with rules and expectations for their proper use.