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The Cell Phone Conundrum

Welcome to the year 2018— the world of the future— where we each have a mini computer in our pocket that can instantly access all the wealth of human knowledge within a fraction of a second! Certainly we now live in a digital utopia, and the implications of this technology in the field of education must be remarkable! Well, if you’re an actual human teacher working in the classroom this year, it is likely this is not your first thought. But we’re getting there!

Despite the unlimited potential our little cellular friends provide, they also seem to provide an equal (if not overwhelming) amount of distraction for developing minds. As we’ve reported, we’re in a difficult moment in human evolution, where we have incredible abilities, but little self-restraint. Here’s what we can guarantee, however: these devices are not leaving our pockets any time soon. And until we can best figure out how to integrate them fully into classroom life, we need some strategies to manage them. Today, Education World comes to the rescue with some classroom management tips for cell phone use.

Now, if your school leaves cell phone policy up to the classroom teacher, the strategies below should help you create classroom policies that both embrace the reality and function of these devices in our world, yet allow you help your students to focus on the work of your classroom. They certainly are incredible classroom tools, yet we must balance the fairness of access with the potential distraction they provide. More often than not, our students wish to use them for music during work sessions when we are not encouraging to use them for excellent classroom supports like Kahoot and Plickers (you’re welcome). The purpose of the strategies below is to teach students to recognize where and when these amazing tools help us, and where they hinder us when we are attempting to learn new skills and content and accomplish enriching tasks.

Green Light / Red Light

This one’s pretty easy. Just takes a little craftwork. Laminate a piece of paper:  Green on one side, red on the other. Glue magnets to both sides (or have two pieces of paper, embedding the magnets in between the back-to-back sheets). You might add clipart of a cell phone and headphones on the green side, the same cross out on the red. Keep this “traffic light” magnetized to your white or blackboard.

When the sheet is red facing the classroom, students may not use their cell phones. Headphones should not be visible, nor cell phones. They should be in their bags or pockets, and their presence would lead directly to whatever restorative practices or consequences your school has set in place.

When the sheet is flipped (the “green light”), students are allowed to take out their headphones and phones in order to listen to music or use for the assignment at hand. Be clear about what they are allowed to do during this time. Students will absolutely attempt to take photos, use social media, message each other, and find anything they possibly can to aid them in avoiding the academic challenges in front of them. Be vigilant during this time, and a student that abuses this privilege can have the privilege revoked for a pre-determined amount of time.

This strategy creates clear parameters around reasonable cell phone use. It allows equal access to all students, while also letting them know that there might be a time and a place for the technology in the classroom. It allows them to practice the responsibility of utilizing this classroom tool when it is useful, and putting it away when it is not.

Create a Charging Station

One sneaky way to keep devices away from our students’ hands is to provide them a useful and timely service. Unfortunately, the battery life of even our smartest of cell phones leaves us in need throughout the day. So, create a class charging station.

Choose a corner of the classroom, plug in a couple power strips, and allow students to use them. When they enter the classroom, tell students they can either have their phone charging for the class period, or they can keep them in their bags/pockets. If they still have the tendency to pull them out, you can give them the option of putting them in the charging station. The truth is, students would rather their phones be charging within eyesight than being taken away by a teacher and stored somewhere.

And you’d be surprised at how it’ll cut down on arguments. Set the expectations and parameters. You can charge it throughout class. If I see it, I will give you the choice to either put it over by the charging station for the rest of the class period, or you can go to the office and make it a bigger thing. Given the options, and the power to choose, the student will nearly always choose the charging station.

Collect Some Data

Studies are fairly inconclusive when it comes to the benefits of listening to music in the classroom, not to mention the impact of cell phones as a classroom tool. You’ll find, too, that presenting any studies you can gather will likely be fruitless— especially among younger students. Until they have a full understanding of how these studies are conducted to mitigate outliers (not to mention a rehearsed understanding of logical fallacies), they will always see themselves as the exception: “I don’t care what some scientists say, it help me.”

Fair enough. Although we want our students to understand such scientific and rhetorical principles, it might not be the time and place in your curriculum, and is absolutely way too try to review before establishing a policy. So, collect your own data. Students may feel disconnected from a nationwide or worldwide study with all of its potential variables, but they’ll likely feel very connected to what their own work is telling them.

There are many ways a teacher could invest time in this sort of data collection: some easy, some more complex. We’re going to suggest starting easy. During an in-class study session before a test, allow students that wish to listen to music or otherwise use their phones. Record who does, and who does not take advantage of this opportunity. Then, use the test results as your data set. How did they do, on average? How did the groups compare? If presenting the classwide data doesn’t work for you, make it a policy that they may listen to music and have their phones during these sessions if and only if they continue to maintain a certain grade on the upcoming assignments. If a student does poorly, they lose that privilege. They may gain it back on the next round, but can lose it again, as well. In time, what “works” for students will become more and more apparent to them, despite what they wish to be true.

Create a Power Playlist

When students are allowed to listen to music during work sessions, have them create a “power” playlist for class time. Most students stream the music they listen to from sites like Spotify, Pandora, and even YouTube. No one purchases songs anymore. For the consumer, these sites allow access to a lot of content, free of charge. For the student, these sites mean they are constantly skipping and searching for the “right song”.

What happens in the classroom? You’ve seen it. They spend more time looking at their phone or streaming site than your actual essay. It’s super distracting. Ever have the “wrong song” come up on a playlist when you’re at the gym or in the car? The worst. Throws you completely off your game. You can’t really blame them. So embrace it.

Have students create playlists for your class on these sites. Explain to them that you’ll call them out for staring at their phone, skipping tracks. All they need to do is hit “play” and forget about it. Before a big project, you might even encourage students to create and share the perfect soundtrack to match the assignment. And when you do catch it being distracting, it is so much friendlier to tell a student, “You need a better playlist for tomorrow”.

Important Consideration: Whatever policies you use with your students regarding technology, you need to make it very clear to them what is allowed and not allowed. Think about where your policy might be confusing. Think about the “shades of grey”. Practice the policies with students. Have simple visuals throughout the classroom. Remind them of the policies at the beginning of class while they adjust to them. They face a large variety of “what’s okay” and “what is not okay” throughout the day: different teachers, different respect agreements, different expectations. Schoolwide policies are the best strategy, but if that’s not possible, allow them the time to practice and adjust to your classroom culture.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.