Cellphones get a ringing endorsement in classrooms

Cellphones get a ringing endorsement in classrooms

When Danville High School health teacher Tyler Arnholt gives a lecture, he'll occasionally see a student with his head bent down and one or both hands hidden in his lap, a pocket or a strategically-placed backpack.

To Arnholt, that body language is a tell-tale sign the student is texting, tweeting or messaging on Snapchat.

While the teen may think he's being discreet, "he's not," said Arnholt, who's in his sixth year of teaching.

Arnholt admitted that getting teenagers to put away their personal cellphones can be somewhat of a struggle, mostly at the start of the school year. Still, he doesn't see a need to ban the devices in school.

"I think there's a time for them and a time to put them away," he said, adding the technology can be used as an educational tool. "I don't mind when their phones are out if they're taking notes or looking up something we're talking about in class.

"But if I see they're abusing that privilege — going on Snapchat or Instagram — I don't mind taking that privilege away. And if it gets to be a problem, I don't mind having a one-on-one conversation with that student about respecting how and when they can use it."

When students started bringing mobile phones, MP3 players, tablets and other personal electronic devices to school, districts implemented strict policies to prevent incidents such as cheating, taking unauthorized photos and videos, cyberbullying and sexting, as well as distracting them and others from their studies.

Most policies allowed students to bring their phones to school, so that parents could arrange pick-up times with them and reach them in case of emergencies.

However, students had to keep the devices turned off and in their locker or bookbag. They could only use them after school or in emergency situations approved by a teacher or administrator.

• • • • •

That's still the rule at elementary schools and most middle and junior high schools.

But in recent years, a number of area districts have relaxed the rules for high school students.

For example, high school students in Bement, Champaign, Heritage, Monticello, Oakwood, Salt Fork and Urbana can use their phones in the hallways during passing periods and in the commons during lunch.

While powering on during passing periods is prohibited at St. Joseph-Ogden High School, students have an open campus lunch policy, and many of them use that time to scroll through their news feeds and connect with friends off campus or in the cafeteria.

While most policies still state that phones are forbidden in the classroom, many administrators give teachers the ability to use them at their discretion.

"Technology isn't going to go away," said Monticello Principal Adam Clapp, who estimates that 80 to 90 percent of his school's 534 students carry some type of phone, if not a smartphone. "So, we want to embrace it and take advantage of it for educational purposes."

Other educators share that feeling.

"As it advances, we have to adjust our teaching to reflect the society we live in," said Salt Fork Principal Darin Chambliss, a longtime proponent of smart integration of technology in the classroom.

"Back in the day, we had loose-leaf notebooks. Now students take notes on their smartphone," he continued, pointing out the devices — basically compact computers — have replaced watches and calendars, calculators and dictionaries, encyclopedias and other tools.

"I've known students who've written papers on their smartphones," added Tim Lee, Oakwood High School's principal. "They're thumb-typers, but they're fast."

The administrators pointed out their students will soon be going on to college and careers, where they'll be expected to know how to use technology.

"We need to change the culture ... and teach them about smart integration of technology and how to use it appropriately and responsibly," Chambliss said.

• • • • •

Educators acknowledged that giving students more latitude with their phones can be a slippery slope. While using their phone's calculator or going to Google Docs, students might update their Facebook status or check out their friends' Instagram posts.

But since modifying their policies, educators reported a decrease in incidents of misuse.

"I had my doubts when we started to relax the usage, but the students have handled it very well, and incidents with electronics are much lower than I ever expected," said Tom Davis, superintendent of Heritage schools.

Last year, Salt Fork had only 20 referrals and St. Joseph-Ogden High School had only 15, according Chambliss and SJ-O Principal Gary Page.

"We don't have a lot of discipline problems" in general, Page said. As for cellphones, "we opened it up last year on a trial basis. We said if we start seeing issues with social media and bullying, we'll shut it down, but we haven't. For the most part, our students have used them responsibly. We want to reward that."

Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School Principal Kevin Thomas said incidents there, where phones must be kept off and out of sight unless OK'd by teachers, were cut in half.

Bement High had "maybe a dozen" incidents last year, according to Principal Doug Kepley.

"They've really diminished over the last couple of years," he said. "Students know they're going to have that time to check ... and stay connected throughout the day, maybe even check in with family. And by not having them in the classroom during instruction time, it doesn't hinder what the teachers want to accomplish during class."

• • • • •

Urbana High, which has an enrollment of 1,200, went from 451 cellphone referrals in 2015-16 to 278 last year, said Assistant Principal Erin Ludwick. The vast majority involved kids going onto social networking sites.

While Ludwick is pleased that incidents are down — a trend in all discipline cases, she noted — it's still an issue.

"Last year, cellphone referrals were the No. 1 referral (for discipline problems). We're not happy about that," she said, adding she's at least relieved it's a passive behavior that doesn't cause too much disruption of the learning environment.

Violators are given a verbal warning for the first offense. They can see the dean and be given a lunch detention or made to attend Saturday school for subsequent offenses.

"We strive to use consequences that do not remove them from the classroom environment," Ludwick said, adding chronic offenders can be suspended for insubordination but "we usually don't get there."

Ludwick said officials are continuing to address the issue on the front end. Based on a needs assessment of staff from last year, the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports team developed a cellphone etiquette lesson that teachers will cover during a homeroom class this month.

"They'll go over Urbana High School's policy, and there will be some discussion questions: Should people be able to use cellphones anywhere they want, should you use your cellphone in certain social situations, should they be banned in certain places?" Ludwick said, adding the information will be used to put more interventions in place.

Other districts also have teachers or other staff go over electronic device rules, including cyberbullying and sexting, with students and even parents.

Champaign County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Franzen, the school resource officer for Heritage and Unity schools, recently did that at Parent University in Homer, Davis said.

• • • • •

Meanwhile, administrators said teachers are doing a good job of balancing tech and the curriculum they're charged with teaching.

At Urbana High, some teachers have battery-charging stations that students can plug their phones into while focusing on their lesson, Ludwick said.

"Kids never want their battery to die," she said with a laugh.

She said math teacher Dan Bechtel created a "treasure chest" with numbered slots. At the start of the hour, students place their phones in a slot and get a calculator with a correlating number. Bechtel locks the chest during class.

"He would tell you the time it takes at the beginning and end of class is 100 percent worth the uninterrupted intellectual time he has in between," Ludwick said.

One of his colleagues, Amanda Perez-Rosser, encourages her students to turn on their Pocket Points app when she doesn't want them to use their phone in class.

"It's an incentive to lock up their phone," explained the family and consumer sciences teacher. "They get a point every 20 minutes they don't use it. Kids can redeem the points at restaurants like Meatheads and Chili's. They can get a large pizza with one topping at Papa Murphy's."

"I approach it with a policy of respect and create an ownership by the entire class. If assignments aren't being completed or scores start to lower, I take a strict no cellphone policy based on that class and hour," said Salt Fork High School teacher Andrew Johnson, who likes the freedom he's given to decide when students can or can't have them out.

• • • • •

Perez-Rosser and others said they're also taking advantage of the technology to support instruction, whether that's asking students to do research online, writing and editing in Google Docs, reminding them to do their homework in Google Classroom or reviewing material and testing their knowledge on it using the Kahoot! app.

"With Kahoot!, their phone becomes a clicker," said Christopher Barth, who teaches consumer economics, American government and sociology at Georgetown-Ridge Farm. "I can go online and search for a quiz on the material we're studying.

"Students answer the questions independently using their phones, and their answers pop up on my projector," he said. Only the teacher knows how an individual student answered. "That helps me know whether I need to reteach the material to the class or an individual student."

While schools have more Chromebooks, MacBooks, iPads and other electronic devices at their disposal, most don't have one-to-one computers, teachers said. And sometimes, the systems crash.

"If some computers aren't working," said Salt Fork history teacher Phil Surprenant, "students can use their phones to access Google Classroom to complete homework, access notes, write papers, complete discussion posts or anything else they would need to do in my class. Essentially, everything they need for my social studies classes is in the palm of their hand."

Arnholt has allowed students to use their phones to take notes, write papers and do things like track their health on fitness and nutrition apps.

"It's knowledge that they can take with them to college and use throughout their life," said Arnholt, who believes the good outweighs the bad.

"The important thing is to set your expectations and follow through with them," he said, adding all Danville teachers outline their classroom policy in their syllabus. "When you do that, it becomes a non-issue."

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meredit wrote on October 31, 2017 at 10:10 pm

What a timely and relevant article for all teachers. I retired after teaching English to adult immigrants for years. Over the last few years cell phone misuse was an accelerating problem, specifically among older teen and young adult Chinese students. Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and many of the culprits were some of the most knowledgeable and intelligent folks in the class and they were incredibly tech-savvy. Although they used their phones to look up vocabulary and other information related to lessons, many also spent time on the popular WeChat social media site during class because due to the time difference that was when it was best to contact their friends back home. We as groups tried a variety of strategies to use phones for educational tasks, the honor system, threats from the principal who snuck in and busted them from time to time; even had the worst offender take the role of a monitor (he loved it). I put my phone in a box and he gleefully put his in and collected everyone’s phone. The box was left on a visible corner of a table. We weren’t supposed to do that because “they’re adults” but hey, it worked for one day. But fearing retribution, we never did it again. I eagerly look forward to hearing more about productive strategies for both using them as educational tools and dealing with misuse in productive positive ways.