Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's Your Cell Phone Policy?

During my before and after school moments with our middle school students, I often scan the various clusters of teenagers and see how they're interacting with one another. The typical observation has a group of half dozen students in a circle, many of them with white ear buds in their ears and cell phones in their hands. They're talking about the always-changing middle school social scene and often about the upcoming school day. As soon as the warning bell rings, cell phones are turned off and placed away in various backpacks, not to return until the end of the school day. Today, I asked our site council... why?

Why do we not allow our students to use their cell phones during the school day?

Some staff members permit students to use their cell phones as a substitute for a calculator. Others suggest their students take a picture of the daily homework instead of writing it down in their planner. Aside from these sparse moments, it's a strict "no cell phones allowed" policy during the school day.

So today our site council, comprised of two students, two parents, three teachers, and two administrators, discussed how successful our zero tolerance cell phone policy is working and attempted to answer the following question: "What would happen if students could use their cell phones during the school day, specifically at break and lunch?"

I was quite surprised with the consensus.

1. Sooner or later, cell phones will be allowed at all schools during break and lunch. 

Currently, at the high school we feed into, cell phone usage is allowed during passing periods, brunch, and lunch. During class, they're expected to be put away unless a teacher has given permission to use them for educational purposes. Eventually, many members of the site council admitted that cell phone technology is a tidal wave that we aren't going to be able to prevent and instead perhaps we should just enjoy the ride. Why shouldn't students be able to text a study buddy to see where they'd like to meet up? Is there a harm in them sending their parent an email about their after-school plans? If we want to teach digital responsibility, shouldn't we embrace student cell phone behaviors and use any poor student digital decisions as amazing, teachable moments?

2. When we ask our students to follow a different set of expectations than the adults, we are setting a double standard.

Personally, I'm tied to my cell phone throughout the day. Most days, I receive at least a few hundred emails. The only way to manage the flood of teacher requests, student behaviors, and parent questions is to answer these emails throughout the day. Given the spread out nature of our campus, I'm able to walk and respond everywhere I go by using my cell phone. Even at lunch as I pace through our inner and outer school quads, it's helpful to be able to use my cell phone to answer emails, post silly student events on twitter, and even occasionally check a few educational teaching websites for future professional development ideas. While I'm one of the worst "offenders" of cell phone usage among our staff, many of our teachers also embrace cell phone technology throughout the day. Why shouldn't we allow our students the same opportunities?

3. Everyone had a different opinion on what the outcome should be... 

I was very surprised at who supported the proposed policy change and who expressed much caution. I expected our parents and teachers to be very cautious about a possible allowance of cell phones during the school day. Instead, they were supportive, albeit reserved, of the possible change. One parent, who was very cautious of changing the current policy, admitted that they have their student call them during break time instead of using the office phone -- a clear violation of the current policy. The other parent believed that our students are quite responsible and would, for the most part, use the increased cell phone freedom appropriately. The three teachers were open to the idea but did question whether an 11 year old 6th grader was responsible enough to determine appropriate cell phone behaviors. That said, if we don't assist with the education of appropriate use, who will?

The most caution came from the students. This was the most surprising response of the meeting, as I expected our two leadership students to be doing cartwheels at the mere possibility of being allowed to use their cell phones during the school day. One student even cited how increased cell phone usage among children leads to fewer face-to-face interactions between peers, something that we want more, not less of, during middle school. As the students continued to brainstorm about the idea, they became increasingly excited about the possibility of relaxed cell phone usage rules. One of the ideas they liked was a "cell phone Friday" as a trial run during an upcoming week. We have amazing students...

In the end, I really believe that we need to focus on appropriate technology usage rather than cell phone prevention. The skills we can teach our students about using their technology as a kind, digital citizen will benefit them during non-school hours, a period of time they already have unfiltered usage of their cell phones. If we spend time on educating our students on "best digital interactions," they'll take these lessons with them to high school and beyond.

Middle school is a time for mistakes with the hope that the students learn from any possible poor choices. If our school adopted a more permissible cell phone policy and students abused the generosity of the situation (which some surely will), there's no better place to have a safe conversation about their poor judgment and for them to understand what the correct choice should have been and hopefully will be during their next digital opportunity.

This was just the first conversation about cell phone usage and there are many, many more chats to have. That said, it's an interesting topic to have with your site council and even professionally reflect upon how we best serve our middle school students at our school sites.

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