Cell Phones at School

One School’s Story

Interesting Ideas

We had a problem with cell phones at our school!  

I want to share one school’s story on how we worked with students, staff and families to address the issue.  

I will start by saying we are an elementary school so our solutions are based on one thousand plus students in Kindergarten to grade 8. 

While walking in the hallway it was not uncommon to see someone walking with their head down and staring into a screen.  Or walking past a classroom and glancing inside to see someone in a group of students with their heads in their phones. Or off to the side of the room while everyone was working, on their own, on their phone.  And in all of these examples I am speaking about the adults in the building. Adults on their phones when working with/for students.  Not okay.

How we discussed this and solved this as a staff professionally and respectfully is going to be the topic of a future blog.  I’m sharing this as a bit of a tease because in this blog I want to share how we encouraged proper technology use by students in our school.

We were a BYOD school (Bring Your Own Device).  This was especially important in our first few years when our student population was high and our number of school owned devices was still low.  Senior students were invited to bring their own device to the school to use in their classrooms.  It was not a requirement.  We made sure families understood we always had technology available for student use.  We did not want students going home and saying they had to have technology for school!

Letting students use their own device did really help everyone at the beginning.  Everyone likes using their own devices for comfort and ease.  We know how to navigate our own tools and where we keep files and work.  We were confident that done properly, and with student voice and family input we could create a process that would work.  We wanted it to work, technology is an important tool and part of the learning process includes how students use technology effectively, properly and respectfully.

We followed all the board issued mandates with families about loss, theft and damage.  We gathered all the required paperwork and then started on our journey with students to formulate how this was all going to be operationalized.

Staff created schedules in order to share the technology we had on hand.  Most importantly the staff developed an understanding that the technology is a tool to be used by students when needed and really limited the amount of time where every child needed a device at the same time. We have moved way past a time when all students are using the same program at the same time, in the same way and instead allow students’ choice in how they demonstrate their learning. With a heavy emphasis on differentiated instruction and student choice, gone are the days when you would see the entire class in a computer lab or each child at a workstation.  Computers, and tablets are in the classroom available to students to use as needed.  Also available to students is their own device if required.  So how do we monitor the proper use of these powerful tools?

I can remember very early in my administration career, when cell phones were just becoming a thing you would see at school.  They were considered a distraction, a nuisance and we banned them.  We could not understand why any elementary student would need a phone at school if there were pay phones and office phones.

We now have a better understanding of the power of the devices in student hands.  It is not the cell phone itself that is the issue, it is what the cell phone is being used to do.  Parents provide or allow cell phones for their children for many reasons. It is important for our families to know that when at school the cell phone is being used in a responsible and respectful way. Cell phones are a wonderful tool that when used well, and used properly can and should be a learning tool that students learn to use appropriately. They are not going away.

Listening to student voice was always a key strategy in our school and how we were going to use technology in our school was another opportunity to hear from students.  Using our school motto of ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’ we developed our agreements.  These were developed with our classes, shared with everyone and are reinforced with students multiple times in the year (Significant 72 opportunity).  You will see that students did come up with agreements around non-instructional time as well as instructional time. A copy of the poster that hangs in each room is shared with you here.

We noticed on line that schools could purchase locking mini cabinets that could be installed in classrooms so schools could secure cell phones when students entered a classroom. As an elementary school we went ‘low tech’ and purchased for each classroom a numbered pocket chart.  Students were assigned a number based on their class list and when students entered the room for their class period they were asked to place their cell phones in their corresponding pocket.  The pocket chart was hung in a safe area of the classroom, i.e., a corner behind the teacher’s desk.  There, the cell phone would remain until the end of class or until the teacher had a section of the lesson where students could use their own device.  One big issue this solved was that washroom visits, quick trips to the hallway or back to their lockers did not include checking in with their cell phone.  At the end of class the teachers would monitor the retrieval of the cell phones based on numbers, seat locations etc.

If they did not place a cell phone in the pocket chart it was because of one of three reasons

  1. They do not have a cell phone, or they did not bring it to school that day
  2. Their cell phone was not brought to class and instead is locked safely in their locker
  3. It is in their bag, or backpack in class and will not be seen or brought out during the class, they are planning on using the technology provided within the class

When teachers provided class time for student work that could involve the use of technology a ‘Tech Time’ poster was placed on the board at the front of the class and announced to the class.  At this point students could retrieve their cell phones and use them if they wished. A simple visual, you see the sign, it is okay to use the technology in the room including your own device.

We did not have any difficulties with this process.  Students were respectful of others’ property and I believe this was all because of the preliminary work and relationship building done by our staff before starting, during lessons and discussed fairly regularly.  As well, students were part of the process to develop the plan.

What did we do if the agreements were not followed?

If teachers saw a student breaking an agreement they would ask for the cell phone and keep it with them until the end of class.  At the end of class they would ask a colleague to assist them with any responsibilities they may have so they could have time with the student.  A conversation would take place putting the onus on the student to talk about the commitment and why the phone was taken.  After a conversation the student had their phone returned.

The expectations were reinforced during the conversation and it was shared that the next time would involve a learning exercise done on their free time.  Students were ask to write or assisted in writing, using the common expectations in order to explain what they had done, what they should have done and what they would do next time (simple three paragraphs).  Depending on the situation, the teacher would date this and keep it on file or decide to have the assignment taken home by the child and have it signed by a parent.  

The parent would be reading something written by their child about the expectations in the classroom.  It was not a formal letter or email from the teacher or school. Written from the child’s perspective, it showed understanding of the expectations and always received great support from the family.  

And finally, if necessary, if difficulties still remained the teacher would give the cell phone to me and I would place it in the school safe.  We asked the child to explain to their parent why this had to occur and I would return the cell phone once I was able to have a phone call or face to face meeting with the parent.  At the end of the day I would contact the families so they were aware we had their personal property in our school safe.  Often parents would drive to the school in order to pick up their child at the end of the day and this provided an opportunity for parent, child and myself to meet.  These conversations were easy to facilitate because the child knew the expectations.  They knew the order of the consequences, and had already done a parent letter. In six years at the school we did not have a child repeat the cell phone in the safe process.

Parents were appreciative because it was all carried out with respect and transparency.  We never shamed the child because we all wanted the same outcome.  We want our students to use the technology.  The parents and the school just want the technology used in the proper way. Students are not sneaking glances at their phone to do school research. 

Once parents found out how the child was using the phone in the school we were able to have a great conversation about the use of technology in schools.  The conversation often turned to why this elementary aged child had the phone to begin with and that the school did have the  ability to supply technology.

Over time we purchased enough technology for student use that the need to bring in their own device was not as necessary, and we remained a BYOD school.  Students still like to bring in their cell phones.  We are okay with that, because of the learning that is involved in creating our agreements as a community and we value the importance of understanding the proper use of technology while at school.  A key lesson even for the adults!

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