Classroom Digital Parenting

Cellphones in class: A changing conversation

Stand for the Silent - November 01, 2021

Does your child’s school allow cellphones? You may be surprised that policies can vary even within districts and that those policies may contradict your own rules for cellphone use during school.

Schools in the Houston Unified School District, which at more than 215,000 students has the largest enrollment in Texas and seventh largest in the U.S., have mixed rules for allowing cellphones in school. The district provides guidelines but largely leaves the rules to school-level administrators.

As personal devices enter more classrooms nationwide, a Houston educator told Stand for the Silent (SFTS) that the city strikes a balance between aggressive technological initiatives — this year, the division will issue every high-schooler an HP Elitebook laptop — and the preference of some of its communities to leave personal devices in lockers.

“I see a lot of different schools, and I see some that are more successful than others,” said Samantha Rosenthal, an education technology specialist who has worked for the Houston Independent School District since 1989. “It’s a bell curve. It’s a range. There are people who don’t want that in the classroom at all. … I believe that the (most) successful will lie somewhere in the middle, in bringing in elements of what makes people comfortable, what makes instruction effective and engaging. There is no blanket answer for everyone.”

Do personal devices support learning? A recent study that found students performed better on exams under a cellphone ban has been used to cast doubt on New York’s reversal. But Lisa Nielsen, director of digital literacy and citizenship at the New York City Department of Education, told SFTS that cellphones are a distraction only “when they are apart” from learning.

“When teachers discover how to effectively incorporate cellphones into learning, they can become tools of engagement”
— Lisa Nielsen, director of digital literacy and citizenship, NYC Department of Education

She said the process begins with teachers becoming familiar with their own devices before modeling proper use to students. Then, homework assignments with a cellphone component are issued. This helps parents become used to the idea that cellphones and schoolwork can coexist, she said.

“We are providing training for teachers and parent coordinators to strengthen the home- school connection with cellphones,” Nielsen said. “In these trainings, parent coordinators and teachers learn to use tools like Remind, Cel.ly, Flickr, Twitter and Poll Everywhere to reach out to families to celebrate student work, get feedback, send reminders and more.”

Nielsen sent us what she called “building blocks” before cellphones are introduced in the classroom:

Student/family agreements or notification.

Use a curriculum like Common Sense Education or Everfi to teach students about safety and etiquette.

Establish classroom management procedures such as instructing students to place phones face down on the corner of their desk when they are not being used for learning.

Develop a responsible use policy with students, and encourage students to keep one another on track.

Plan interactive lessons that incorporate the use of cellphones, and ask students for input on suggested digital resources.

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