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No Smartphones Allowed!

If I were asked what in my experience was the number one obstacle to teaching an effective lesson in the classroom, the answer would undoubtedly have been an unruly or disruptive student. A young girl or boy who was lacking discipline or a child who wanted to be the constant center of attention could cause a bit of chaos from time to time. If I were asked for the runner-up obstacle to effective teaching and classroom management that would inarguably be the smartphone. This high-tech tool could present a nightmare within my classroom. In fact, I have multifaceted objections to this technological advancement. This was not a singular experience for me alone. I know with certainty that my fellow teachers largely agree. 

Remember the scene in The Exorcist where Regan’s head spins around 360 degrees? That would be me when someone pulled out an unauthorized cell phone in my classroom. Students knew not to go there. Yet there were students who thought the cell phone rules simply didn’t apply to them. As far as they were concerned it was okay to take out a phone to text, update Facebook, you name it, during the middle of class. The smartphone was clearly more important and urgent than the learning that was taking place. How dare I interfere with what was more important to them?

The fear of my response to the sight of a cell phone in my classroom was usually enough to keep them at bay. But as the years and the technology progressed, this rule became more and more ignored. What is more, some young people developed a real addiction to their smartphones. It was incredible to witness at times. You would see students continuously on their phones. Their smartphone was pretty much an appendage. Sadly, some students would even curse out an adult when they were directed to put their phones away. My school had a no cell phone policy, but let’s just say the enforcement of the rule was less than I believe it could’ve been.

My next issue with smartphones was bullying via social media. This has become a significant problem in schools throughout America. Fights could break out – usually in my experience between girls – because someone posted something cruel about someone online. The harassment could’ve taken place a day or two before or in that very moment.

By the way, let’s not pretend that this modern form of bullying has gender parity. While boys certainly engage in this hateful activity, girls are far more involved in this behavior and far more often the victims of cyber bullying. This is not a new dynamic. Back in my day in junior high school and high school, girls had what were known as “slam books”. These were notebooks where girls would write nasty comments about another girl and pass it along to their friends who would pile on with added painful remarks. They’d sit in the cafeteria reading, sharing and laughing about what they’d written, sometimes heartlessly showing their victim what they’d said about her.

I naively asked my students one day, “If someone is saying something on Facebook you don’t want to see, why can’t you just stay off of Facebook? Or, can’t you just block the person?”

I was met with a cascade of “Mister, you just don’t get it.” And I don’t. I don’t understand why Facebook or its social media alternatives is a requirement in life.

My next issue with smartphones is their use as a tool to cheat on exams. Sadly, history exams provide a greater opportunity to cheat than other disciplines’ examinations. This is especially the case when it comes to writing – or should I say copying – an essay. Quite often this cheating is obvious – you see test takers sneaking out their phones. Sometimes the cheating is rather creative – hiding a cell phone in the restroom to research a topic on a bathroom break.

Sadly, or fortunately depending upon your perspective, when cheaters aren’t caught on the frontend of the exam – meaning during the examination – they oftentimes expose themselves on the backend – when the test is being graded. For example, in an essay discussion on the Byzantine Empire, the student may for example write that the Empire, “Enjoyed imperial preference,” or “fluctuated through cycles of decline and recovery.”

Even my brightest and most gifted writers would not write in this manner (and I’m proud to say that I’ve had many, many gifted writers over the years). Higher level academic words like these are simply not common for a teenager. It’s simply not their writing voice. It’s probably not my academic writing voice either. Phrases like these are a red flag to google the item in question.

In typical teenage fashion, they don’t have the good sense to change the wording. Yet, if you don’t know what the words mean, or what you’re really writing about, it’s hard for a cheating student to change the phrasing. Typically the search would lead to a Wikipedia article. They wouldn’t simply copy isolated sentences; these unfortunate students would copy word for word multiple, entire paragraphs. 

This is not to say that smartphones cannot be a useful classroom tool. I’ve asked students from time to time to take out their cell phone and search for a definition of or synonym for a word, for the precise date of an event, or something along these lines. I’m aware of classroom communities that successfully utilize iPads and laptops and the internet on a daily basis.  I just haven’t personally experienced the environments and student disciplines that allow this manner of learning.

Yet I would never ban cell phones. We are in different times. There are moments when parents need to speak with their child. Some kids rely on a daily phone call to find out where they might be sleeping that night. The problem of homelessness is quite real. And for the naysayers who want to ask how does a homeless kid have a cell phone in the first place? My first response is that’s none of your business. My second response is, I’ve witnessed programs that provide the technology without cost in order that families stay safely connected.

What is more, my school’s population was 70-80% female. As a parent, who wouldn’t want a call from their daughter that they were leaving their afterschool program or activity – especially in winter when it gets dark around 5pm?

As I’ve written before, I freely admit that I’m a dinosaur. If you look up Brontosaurus Rex in the encyclopedia you will probably see my picture there. But that’s just it, you wouldn’t “lookup” Brontosaurus anymore, you would “Google it”. Be that as it may, as a lover of history, no make that as a lover of knowledge, I enjoy having an expanded database of information at my fingertips (with the ability to discern between facts and fiction). But there must be a better balance in the usage of smartphones. Everything has an appropriate time and place.

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