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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Classroom Cellphone Use Is Fraught. It Doesn’t Have to Be

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 16, 2023 14 min read
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The new question of the week is:

What are the best ways for teachers to handle situations where students are often using their cellphones in class for nonacademic purposes?

Pre-pandemic, student cellphone use (for nonacademic use—I’ve always allowed my English-language-learner-students use it for translations) in my classes was a relatively minor problem. Generally, there was no one who was on it obsessively, and one warning was sufficient. I would now and then have to ask a student to give me his/her phone until the end of the period. I also told students to let me know if they were expecting a family or work-related call. If that was the case, they could answer it and talk outside.

Since we returned from distance learning, the previous paragraph generally describes the situation for approximately 85 percent of my students (though I also do tell students in my Junior classes that a quick look now-and-then is okay as long as they deliver on their work). There seems to be an almost obsessiveness with the phone from the remaining students, and that percentage seems to track with my colleagues’ experiences.

I’m no clinician, but it appears to me that some students’ reliance on screens during the pandemic lockdown might have heightened their reliance on phones for human contact outside their families, and they have not been able to wean themselves off it.

There is seldom a day now that goes by without my asking for a phone from at least one student (who has already received a warning). I have excellent relationships with my students so, except for perhaps an unhappy facial expression or some slight whining, they are always quickly handed over and returned at the end of class.

Is cellphone use a major obstacle to teaching and learning in my classroom? No.

Is cellphone use a minor inconvenience that would be nice not to have in my classroom? Yes.

In today’s post, Courtney Rose, Ed.D., Jennifer Casa-Todd, July Hill-Wilkinson, David Seelow, and Vivian Micolta Simmons share their advice.

You might also be interested in The Best Posts On Student Cellphone Use In Class — Please Contribute More.

‘Check Your Assumptions’

Courtney Rose, Ed.D., is an educational consultant, culturally relevant/responsive educator, and the founder of Ivy Rose Consulting through which she offers both individual and group services that foster critical dialogue, collaborative learning activities, and the exploration/development of innovative strategies to humanize teaching and learning. She currently serves as a visiting assistant teaching professor in the urban education program at Florida International University:

Reading this question, some of you may feel like cellphone usage is a minor problem within the current social and political landscape of schools/education. However, when we dig into these “surface-level problems,” they often help us to identify deeper issues that are impacting the overall class and school culture and enable us to find paths to better work for and with our students. While “phone jails” and other phone bans may work in the short term, I propose a three-point strategy that may shift the culture around phone use altogether.

Step 1, Check Your Assumptions About Cellphone Usage: It’s easy to assume that all nonacademic cellphone usage is because they are not interested or invested in the academic content. However, it’s important to remember that sometimes students are not constantly using and checking their phones because they want to but because they may have more responsibilities on their shoulders than the average student.

For example, some of our students share in the responsibilities of taking care of younger siblings or have to hold after-school jobs to contribute to the household and may be communicating with family members or bosses about these responsibilities. Continuously reprimanding or punishing these students could add to the stress and anxiety that they may already be experiencing as they attempt to manage everything. Instead, having a private one-on-one conversation creates space for you to collectively work out a plan or even provide some additional support to help them navigate through their current circumstances.

Step 2, Reflect on Your Instruction: If nonacademic cellphone use continues to be a pervasive issue, or if Step 1 reveals that it is a lack of investment in class content, it might be time to switch the lens and instead of asking why students can’t stay focused, ask are my lessons engaging enough to hold their focus? We’ve all sat through a faculty meeting or PD session and found our attention wandering to text messages, social media, or that stack of ungraded papers that seems like a much more engaging or productive use of our time. However, when observing similar behavior from our students, many don’t take a moment to think that perhaps the same dynamics are playing out.

If cellphone use has become such a major issue that it is taking away from instructional time, it’s the perfect opportunity to stop and reflect on what you can do to create a more engaging environment and open it up to the students to gain some of their perspectives on what is working, what isn’t, and suggestions for improvement. This step alone could increase students’ investment and engagement in the space as they feel their voices are valued in the creation of instructional practices.

Step 3, Reframe “Nonacademic” Cell Use as an Asset to Your Instruction: Building on the last step, if students are naturally gravitating toward something, why not lean into it and incorporate it into your instructional practice? Programs like Nearpod and Kahoot already enable educators to create interactive presentations/lessons that students can access through their phones, and many educators are utilizing apps as tools to assess student learning (i.e., creating TikTok videos or Instagram Reels teaching or incorporating academic content, creating Instagram pages for a book character, using other video- and audio-editing apps to create storytelling projects that explore historical events or present-day social and political issues).

Additionally, while there are always pros and cons to the infusion of technology into the educational process, if we look at the current landscape, preparing our students for the world requires that we equip them with the technological skills and creative ingenuity that are being prioritized in the job market and captured in apps like TikTok and Instagram. In my work with educators, I often ask, What world are you preparing your students for? Again, in assessing your approach to cellphone usage, this may be a valuable question to reflect on.

As with most approaches, there is no one-size-fits-all method. So, I hope you take what resonates with you and make adjustments as you reflect on the specific context of your learning community.


There’s Been ‘an Up-Tick’ in Student Phone Usage

Jennifer Casa-Todd is currently a teacher-librarian, a former literacy consultant and English teacher, and the author of Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership:

I have definitely noticed an uptick in students using their devices in class for nonacademic purposes. I think this is because when kids were learning remotely, they could more easily answer a text or play a game without anyone noticing. It is also because adolescents are more peer-driven and their phones are their gateway to connections to their friends.

I have always advocated for students to be able to use their devices in class, but if it impedes on their learning or attention, then this is a concern. Research around multitasking suggests that when we switch from one task to another, our brains take time to readjust to the original task, which decreases productivity and efficiency. One of the CASEL social-emotional-learning skills is self-management, and so I share this research explicitly with kids. One of the things I have done (usually early on in the semester) is have a piece of paper beside their desk and make note of every notification they get in class. Then, take all of these and transfer them to the whiteboard or a chart paper to engage in a conversation about the impact distractions may have on learning. We then share strategies. Students share what they do to ensure they focus in class (I learned about the Pomodoro app in one of these conversations). I also invite students during work periods or study periods to give me their phones if they feel they may be distracted.

I have also used a Red, Yellow, Green method in my class whereby I would indicate when a cellphone could be used on the class agenda. Red: Keep phones in backpacks, Yellow: Use your judgment about whether the phone is distracting you or helping you; Green: Go ahead and use your device to listen to music or for a brain break. This is especially helpful when I am teaching a class with students I don’t know (I am a teacher-librarian so sometimes I only have a class for one lesson). Being explicit at the beginning about cellphones and asking them to put their devices away for a set part of the lesson creates transparency and accountability. I also share the consequence: They risk losing their device until the next activity and/or the end of class. When I do take a phone, kids hand it over without issue because I have made the expectations clear.

Most importantly, I do not make assumptions about what kids are doing on their phones. I have made it a practice to ask, “Is your device helping you or distracting you right now?” The answers are often surprising, and I have learned so much about my students and some of the apps they use for productivity as a result.


‘Phones Are Ubiquitous in Our Classrooms’

July Hill-Wilkinson is a veteran classroom teacher, adjunct professor, and former administrator. She currently works as an instructional coach and curriculum leader in Southern California high schools:

Unfortunately, phones are ubiquitous in our classrooms these days. Post-pandemic, after a year where screens were their everything, it has gotten worse. In my experience, there are three keys to combating cellphone use—convince them to police themselves (as opposed to trying not to get caught), create a space to put the phones, and create some peer pressure.

At the end of the day, loss of learning is the real issue. Students are convinced they can pay attention for a minute, check a text for a minute, refocus on class, and then peek down at a video without any detriment to their learning. That is not working out so well. Step one is to convince them that their minds simply don’t work that way. There are studies they can read and discuss, activities they can participate in, and even experiments during class that can be incorporated into the first week or two of school to let them understand the issue. Convincing them that they are creating problems for themselves is an important step toward flipping the script on responsibility.

Once you convince them that there is, in fact, an issue, the best-case scenario is to create a spot for the phones during class and have them see it as a resource instead of a punishment. Pockets, desks, and binders—nope, those do not work. I use “phone boxes” (those fancy cardboard photo boxes you can find at hobby stores) in my class. There is one on each table. From the start of the year, I train the students to place phones in the box when they sit down for class. It is not up front where people can steal it, or where notification lights are visible; it is close enough to be safe but hidden enough to be out of mind.

If all else fails, peer pressure and competition can work wonders. Pitting periods against each other for the fewest “sightings’’ and a scoreboard up front for all to see has worked better than most strategies. An important note: I don’t identify the guilty party right away when I see a phone. I don’t want classmates to really know who it was. Once I spot one, I finish what I am doing, sometimes tap the user subtly on the shoulder as I walk around, then after a few minutes, I nonchalantly walk to the scoreboard and add a mark. Inevitably, they all look around for the perpetrator, but if done well, they are not sure who. They complain and call out to each other to keep phones away. That message is better coming from them than from me. At the end of a month, or a unit, or something, they get whatever small-scale prize I can offer. Less homework, extra credit, extra videos, whatever fits the situation.


Use Them Productively

David Seelow has been teaching in higher education and grades 7-12 for 30 years in a diverse range of settings. Find him on Twitter at @davidfreeplay:

If students have cellphones in class, some students will use them for nonacademic purposes. That is a given. I have two different approaches to this distraction.

First, if the school does not have a uniform policy, then I would create one for my class. I would not hesitate to collect cellphones before class begins and keep them in a secure box.

However, a more productive response to this distraction is to use the cellphone for part of the class as a learning tool. Find ways students can use their phones for research or respond to questions delivered through gamified tools like Kahoot! An instantaneous class poll requires students to use their phone and can lead into a rich class discussion.


‘Use Kahoot or Quizizz’

Vivian Micolta Simmons was born in Colombia and has been in the United States for seven years. She has been a teacher for 14 years and is currently working as a ESL/DLI lead teacher for the Iredell-Statesville schools in North Carolina:

Try to use the cellphones to your advantage. Incorporate more games and app usage in the classroom for academic purposes.

For example, incorporate the use of Kahoot or Quizziz games. Use Flip (formerly Flipgrid) to record exit-slip videos and give constructive feedback to one another using the app. This strategy will undoubtedly ask students to use their language skills and direct the phone usage to more academic purposes. Hopefully, by implementing these practices and having conversations with parents/guardians beforehand about the usage of phones in the classroom, students will be less distracted by them.


Thanks to Courtney, Jennifer, July, David, and Vivian for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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