The lunar lander used by Neil Armstron had just 1200 lines of code.  An average smartphone app has about 1-200,000 lines of code. Why relegate that smartphone to a pocket when you can unleash that power for good, for learning?

Occasionally my colleagues bemoan their student’s addiction to their cellphones.  I’ve seen it, too.  The sly under-the-desk move, the obvious Snapchat selfie, the random laugh at a tweet snicker.  Some of my colleagues have their students warehouse their cellphones at the front of the classroom every day.  And some school districts have enacted district-wide bans.

I contemplated doing the same thing at the start of this school year.  However, I did not and found four things I would have missed had I banned cellphones.

  1. The Conversation About Proper Use

Employers are increasingly using data mining for background checks on potential new employees.  Data mining is big business.  The “miners” use sophisticated programs to scrape, or extract data from websites including social media, and create a profile of the individual.  What kids do and say now—as high school students—will stick with them far longer than we, teachers and students, might imagine.  Possibly forever.

If I ban cellphones outright, I can’t have this conversation about what the future may hold for my students.  Certainly some students will continue to act in risky ways online.  That’s what teens do—engage in risky behavior.  I can’t change that, but I can make sure the students who are ready to listen and think before they act are informed properly.

So I use this opportunity to teach my students that those little jibes and taunts online—especially if they escalate to harassment—will come back to haunt them.  Few students(or adults for that matter) know how low the legal threshold for harassment truly is.  Harassment: Unsolicited words or actions intended to annoy, alarm, or abuse another individual.  That’s it.

Perhaps it’s not in my curriculum as an English teacher, but it’s a real-world skill that will impact my student’s lives long after they leave my classroom.  So I get informed and share my knowledge.

  1. The Carrot or The Stick

The cellphone is a tangible symbol of teen’s independence.  This item’s power with my students makes it a useful instrument for getting the behavior needed in class.

If I have already banned or taken away the cellphones, I lose this option as a teacher.  Take the cellphone away and I tell them metaphorically, “You aren’t mature enough to handle this.  You are a child.  When you are ready, I, the adult, will let you have this back.”  My student’s behavior in my class becomes linked with their desire to hold on to this symbolic totem, the cellphone.

  1. The Tool That They Are

In my school district, we are fortunate to have almost all of our students walk through the door every day with a powerful device at hand.  Cell phones, tablets, laptops.

I have my students use their cellphones for things like:

  1. Poetry analysis (dictionary) and composition (thesaurus)
  2. Tweeting from a character’s point of view to aid character analysis
  3. Research (short-term, brief only)
  4. Photojournalism (both for viewing examples and creating our own photo essays)

Remember everything about that cell phone in your student’s pocket is vastly more powerful than the computer used by Neil Armstrong to land on the Moon.  Take advantage of that power!

  1. A Willpower Test

At Stanford University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, psychologist and professor Walter Mischel conducted a series of delayed gratification tests, the Marshmallow test.  Researchers have shown that the development of willpower is vital to becoming a socially well-adjusted adult in areas such as popularity, good interpersonal relationships, task performance, and school and work success.

That cell phone in my student’s pocket is an analogue to the marshmallow. Who can control that desire to check Twitter, Snapchat a friend, and ignore that buzz in the pocket until later?  By observing how students interact with their cellphones, I can see which students are more mature and who can control their desires and not let those desires control them.

With this information I can help my students work to build willpower.  Many students tell me, after I’ve taken their cell phone as punishment, that they couldn’t help themselves.  But by having a growth mindset—or instilling one—my students can learn to increase their willpower and task persistence.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately each teacher has to adhere to the policy of his/her district and building.  Think about what you want your classroom to look like.  By having a classroom policy that permits students to have and use their cellphones in a responsible manner with consequences for breaking my rules, I’m teaching more than just English.  I’m teaching responsibility.



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