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Should cellphones be allowed in school? Classrooms across U.S. search for balance

Guian Bolisay/Flickr
Guian Bolisay/Flickr

By J.R. Williams

High-schoolers this year in one of the country’s largest public school districts will begin classes with varying restrictions for the cellphones in their pockets.

The Houston Independent School District, which at more than 215,000 students has the largest enrollment in Texas and seventh largest in the U.S., provides guidelines but largely leaves the rules to school-level administrators.

At Westbury High School, southwest of the city, a welcome letter from the new principal is attached to a note reminding students that their phones could be confiscated if spotted in use during school hours. Eastwood Academy High School, across town, published guidelines that say it’s OK to use cellphones with the teacher’s permission. Many schools allow their use before and after school, or during a lunch period, and the restrictions often vary with a teacher’s preference.

As personal devices enter more classrooms nationwide, a Houston educator told FamilySignal 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 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.”

 Rosenthal discusses the initiative in Houston to provide every student with district-issued devices:

A series of high-profile changes across the country have emerged this year. New York City, the largest district in the U.S., lifted its longstanding ban of cellphones in schools, disrupting an industry of truck operators who charge to hold students devices through the day. The Los Angeles Unified School District will implement curriculum on sexting this fall. South Florida K-12 schools just ended their first year with a bring-your-own device policy.

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 FamilySignal 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.”

“When teachers discover how to effectively incorporate cellphones into learning, they can become tools of engagement,” she said.

She said the process begins with teachers becoming familiar with their own devices before modeling proper use to students. Then, a next step can be to issue homework assignments with a cellphone component. 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,, 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 cell phones and ask students for input on suggested digital resources.

These initiatives are often paired with curriculum on digital citizenship and responsibility. Common Sense Education is a major provider of instructional materials to schools across the U.S., including in Houston, which used the repository to help create a comprehensive list of social networks for parents on its website. On the same page, school district employees are directed to a six-page policy on social media.

While Rosenthal said more schools are choosing personal device implementation over tightened restrictions, she expects there to be a mixture of tastes in Houston for the foreseeable future.

“There is a preference for the technology, because we find that in many cases it’s engaging, it is something that the students are using anyway, it’s something that we need to be able to model good use of during the day,” she said.

J.R. Williams
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  • Carolyn Holler

    The cell phone debate is a big one on my middle school campus. A few years ago the answer to the question “Should we allow cell phone use in class?” was a resounding “No!”. Today, that same question gets a much different response. I’ll admit that I was never a supporter of cell phone use in school, but I believe that is because it was only used as a reward (one or two teachers allowed students to play games or listen to music). Now that cell phones have become small computers, I am one of those leading the cause for cell phone integration. On the third day of school I had my students download an app and use it in my class to learn rules and procedures.

    Many argue that cell phones disrupt class. That can absolutely be true. Then again, almost anything can disrupt a class if you let it or the students are determined to interrupt it. We cannot pretend that the technology isn’t there, and, more importantly, we shouldn’t pretend. Instead, we should use the resources that we have, and cell phones can be an incredible resource. With a smart phone, students can research and communicate like never before. I think the key is that we as teachers and parents set clear guidelines for cell usage. If we don’t clearly tell students what (and why) behaviors are and are not acceptable, we shouldn’t be surprised when they misuse the technology. Once students see the phone is no longer a taboo, but a learning tool, I don’t think it will be as big of a disruption as many fear. Will students occasionally get off task? Probably, but I think the increased engagement and creativity in learning that will occur far outweighs the minor infractions.

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  • Yaz Gonzalez

    What happens with students who can’t afford a cellphone? and get bullied because of it?
    also last year we had a student who took a picture of his state exam and posted the picture on facebook. The entire investigation process was exhausting and put the teacher’s job in jeopardy.

  • Germari Eksteen

    Our school in South Africa follow the “no cellphone” rule. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have seen schools where they monitor and restrict what is being accessed and don’t on Personal Devices by forcing students to work via an administrative system that the school runs. Unfortunately I don’t have all the details but wonder if other institutions are doing something similar?

    To give a simple example – students can only access the content of the specific class during that specific lesson (so they cant do their maths homework while sitting in history. Anybody have more insight into something similar? I think our biggest concern (and I am sure for most) is how do you control and monitor what students are doing while in class.


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