Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 27, 2014

Cellphones can help, hinder learning, say teachers and students

Policy update allows teachers to make the call on in-class use

by Benjamin Custer

The Palo Alto Unified School District's new cellphone policy, adopted in early June, requires students to turn off their cellphones in class unless teachers allow them for instructional purposes.

The policy's language provides a clearer expectation compared to the last version, which permitted students to use their devices as long as they were not disruptive or engaging in unethical activities such as cheating.

As with the previous policy, students who misuse their cellphones face possible confiscation and "may be subject to further discipline" under board policy and administrative regulation, including counseling and even expulsion.

Board of Education member Heidi Emberling said that the new policy is rooted in updates from the California School Boards Association in 2012.

"Changes weren't in response to any recent events," she said. "The policy was in effect but under review."

Mixing teenagers, cellphones and schoolwork has presented its challenges, though. Earlier this month, Palo Alto High School invalidated the results of 112 final exams in Algebra 2 after determining that students cheated, exchanging text messages and photos of answers.

The policy update spells out the greater control teachers have in deciding whether cellphones can play an instructional role. Practices are similar at neighboring Menlo-Atherton High School, where students must put away their phones except when teachers designate times for the devices to be used, according to Administrative Vice Principal Karl Losekoot. But rather than phone confiscation, penalties include calls home, time in the office and community service.

Teachers at Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School are divided on whether or not phones belong in an academic setting. Some say the devices are valuable learning tools while others view them as a distraction.

Ronen Habib, who teaches Positive Psychology at Gunn, welcomes mobile devices in his classes. He checks students' understanding of the material through the use of apps, which provide instant feedback to Habib and the students themselves. That way Habib can identify quickly which students need help and which students can help others.

Habib also enlists the assistance of apps before inviting discussion about controversial topics. Students use their phones to record responses, which appear in a data table that helps to generate discussion. Afterward, students update their responses, and the class can evaluate how the discussion influenced opinions.

"Using an app is not a high-order thinking skill, but it's a good tool that deepens your relationship with the material," Habib said.

Gunn teacher Anne Dumontier allows her French language students to use mobile devices to access media and text files that provide answers and explanations via QR codes. Dumontier prepares the QR codes, which her students access through an app. Students also use their phones to practice vocabulary with the online learning tool Quizlet and to produce audio assignments.

Paly students in Suzanne Antink's math classes use their phones to check for understanding via questions posted on a website. Antink finds that integrating mobile devices helps students research answers to questions in addition to generating fresh ones.

Antink said students are generally compliant when the time comes to turn off their cellphones, but if there is an issue, teachers will collect the student's phone and return it at the end of class.

"If it's a chronic problem ... we work with the parent and perhaps the school psychologist to minimize chronic use," Antink stated in an email.

When it comes to the teens themselves, just because rules exist does not ensure they will be followed.

"I use it every single day in, like, every single class," Ian Detreville, a student at Gunn, said while eating lunch with his friends on campus last month. "Texting, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. I've been told to put it away, but it hasn't ever been taken away."

Alejandra Castillo, a student at Paly, shares similar feelings: "If I use my phone in the classroom, it's just to text my friends and go on Instagram. Maybe like every 30 minutes. Teachers don't really care anymore."

But some teachers care deeply. Gunn English teacher Justin Brown, for instance, fears that social networking curbs social interaction. His cellphone policy is one of zero tolerance.

"There was one particular day that I had at least 15 students in my room waiting for class to begin, all ignoring one another ... busying themselves on their phones, where the light bulb went off for me," Brown stated in an email. "Allowing phones in the room, even before class, was hurting my ability to create a friendly, sociable community."

Brown said forbidding cellphones in his classroom is increasingly difficult because other teachers don't follow similar practices. As a result, students often meet his rules with surprise and indignation.

"I am forced to confiscate many phones over the course of the semester," Brown said. "I've found, however, that the extra effort is worth it. Students are making friends more frequently in my classes ... since I began enforcing the rule."

Editorial Intern Benjamin Custer can be emailed at bcuster@paweekly.com.

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