Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cell Phones: School Policies, Game Changers, and Teachable Moments

One of my former students once shared with me that they believed their ability to use their cell phone during the school day was no different than their ability to breathe in oxygen. They said that not being able to use their cell phone made them feel like they were suffocating. They explained that they didn't necessarily need to use their cell phone during the school day and, if given permission, that they most likely still wouldn't. It was just the rule that our school had regarding not being allowed to use your cell phone during the school day felt like an imprisonment without oxygen for them.

At the time, I felt that the student was being a tad melodramatic about not being able to use their cell phone during the school day. After all, we all somehow survived without usage of a cell phone during the school day and we all turned out (relatively) okay. And then I stopped and thought about their perspective of where they were as a digital native and where they were headed in just a few short months as they promoted to 9th grade. Were we best serving them by mandating no cell phone usage during our lunch period? How would they react in three short months when they arrived on the high school campus without the necessarily skills on how to properly manage their screen time? Was their cell phone truly like oxygen to them? Was it an attached accessory that we, as an older generation, didn't fully understand their connection to?

These reflections brought me back over a decade to my days as a Dean of Students and also Assistant Principal at Ralston Middle School in Belmont, CA. There were very strict rules regarding iPods during these days; specifically, you weren't allowed to bring them to campus. If your iPod was seen or found, it would be confiscated and only returned to your parent. Looking part, I can't help but laugh at how silly this rule was.

The rule was founded in the belief that iPods were going to be a distraction throughout the school day. We wanted to encourage students to socialize before and after school, not listen to their latest Green Day or Blink-182 albums. We wanted students to be more aware of their surroundings and not unable to hear daily announcements or other urgent matters. We felt that some students would lose their iPods and this would translate into countless fruitless searches of locker rooms and playing fields. There was some concern that if students were bringing expensive devices to school, what would be do when a student made the poor choice to steal such items from a classmate. We had many what we felt to be valid reasons for not allowing iPods at school.

Then one day, everything changed. It was 2007 and the revolution went by the name of iPhone.

With this new bit of technology, students could listen to music on their phones. Students were allowed to have a cell phone at school, as long as it was put away during the school day. Now, however, students were listening to music before and after school. The iPhone was a complete game changer and we had to quickly rework our school policies to address this new technology.

Fast forward 8 years to present day. A quick observation of the school campus and an informal survey of our students has over 90% of our students in possession of a smart phone at school. Hundreds of students have one earbud in before and after school as they socialize with their friends. Even with permission to use their cell phones before and after the school day, I see more socialization during these times than I do at brunch and lunch. I'm beginning to wonder if our students socialize in a manner that is significantly different than how we adults did during our middle school days. Are we trying to force feed our students designated times to socialize as we would like them to, all the while not realizing that today's students socialization often centers around a piece of technology?

Nevertheless, we continue to ban cell phone usage during the school day. Almost every single day, there is an instance where a cell phone is confiscated by a staff member for making a "you've received a text message" sound. In over 90% of these cases, the text was sent by the student's parent, often with reminders for pick up later in the day, changes to the afternoon's schedule, or sometimes just a simple "I love you" from mother to son. These are the same parents who overwhelming do not want their students using their cell phones during the school day, don't forget.

The inability for our students to not use their cell phones have other frustrating byproducts for our staff throughout the day. When a parent drops off a lunch, project, or gym shoes for their student, our front office makes all-school announcements during our brunch and lunch periods. What if we instead informed the parents to just text their student during these times and we were able to avoid these needless interruptions?

Even further, what are we teaching our students when we impose rules that they will soon outgrow (just a few weeks for our 8th graders as they approach high school and the free-for-all that exists regarding cell phone usage at many high schools)? Are we providing the best guidance by simply prohibiting cell phone usage? As esteemed school administrator Erik Saibel shared in our #leadwild Voxer group, "24/7 control of kids doesn't teach them anything. It just makes them defenseless and directionless when "real life" comes around." I'm inclined to agree.

I've often shared with our incoming 6th grade parents that I believe middle school is the perfect time to make mistakes. Middle school, by its very nature, is a special society where every interaction with a student can lead to a worthwhile teachable moment. When a student is disrespectful toward a staff member at lunch, we bring the student in and talk about how to prevent such choices in the future. Yes, they still receive a consequence, but I think we're saving this student from making the same mistake three months down the road as a high school freshman.

Teenagers, by their nature, will gravitate to things we tell them not to do. When a student crosses through traffic on a busy thoroughfare on their way home from school, we speak with them the next day on making safer choices. When a high school freshman is presented with their first opportunity to drink alcohol, I want them educated on how to best handle the situation. We need to have their conversations with our students. If you take away the taboo, you can have a real conversation with your student about how to make the right decision, no mater the situation.

I understand that many parents and educators are very concerned about what cell phone usage during the school day may bring. What if my student looks at an inappropriate website? What if my student is cyber bullied by a classmate? What happens when my student posts an unflattering picture of Mr. Feinberg? Let's be honest: all of these things are just as likely, if not more so, to happen outside of the school day and off our school campus as they are during our cell phone-permitted brunch and lunch periods. By allowing cell phone usage during brunch and lunch, we are joining our parent community in best educating our students on appropriate cell phone use. Now, we can better work together to address any concerning behavior and build in more teachable moments to best guide our students. This is what middle school is all about.

Because in just a few short weeks, if it hasn't happened already, everything is going to change again. It's called the Apple Watch.

If a student were to arrive on our school campus with an Apple Watch, would we make them take it off? Would we allow them to keep it on their wrist but mandate that they disconnect from the wifi or LTE coverage? The Apple Watch can be linked to your iPhone. It can receive texts, make calls, get score updates, post to your favorite social media sites, and so forth. And if we don't allow the Apple Watch during class time, do we allow it during breaks, brunch, and lunch? Simply put, the Apple Watch is going to change how education institutions address student access to the internet. And I'm not sure what we're going to do.

Further complicating matters is that all of our 6th graders will have 24/7 access to their very own ChromeBook for their three years at Union Middle. Not only will they be able to use them appropriate during class time, but they'll be able to work on projects during brunch and lunch by the picnic tables, write for their blog, or even check their email. Are these behaviors substantially different than how the majority of our other students would use their cell phone?

Perhaps the answer is to trust our students to use their cell phones appropriately during the school day. Do we set clear expectations regarding cell phone usage, such as "students may use their cell phones for academic reasons or for parental emergencies during brunch and lunch" in hopes of finding some sort of middle ground? We are quite lucky at Union Middle, as the strong majority of our students would use their cell phones appropriately. And for the students who would not? Well, they're probably already using their phones during the school day anyway. At least now, with our guided permission, we would be able to have deeper conversations about the poor choices rather than just focusing on "the rule" of not being allowed to have your cell phone out during the day.

I would not be surprised if in five years that almost every middle school will be allowing students to use their cell phones and various devices during brunch and lunch. I think the answer for us as parents, educators, and community members will be how to best support our students in making wise and healthy decisions when it comes to cell phone use. We have amazing, responsible students at Union Middle. They are, as a whole, rule followers and incredibly respectful of our school policies. That said, I truly believe the tide of cell phone usage during non instructional time throughout the school day at Union Middle has already turned.

I just don't know if we adults are aware that our students are already breathing in all of the oxygen.


  1. Just curious, but it seems that when you use the term 'cell phone', you are also referring to pretty much any device that has apps and internet connectivity, correct? If I'm not mistaken, UMS has open wifi, so while at school, it doesn't matter how the user is connecting, either via wifi or 3/4G. Don’t mind if I substitute the term ‘device' for 'cell phone'.

    I honestly don't think that the UMS student community will have a problem with allowing device usage during the school day. As you say, some students already may be doing this and some are accessing the net via laptops or their Chromebooks. We have a good, engaged and involved student and family body, and I’d like to think that things like cyber bullying will be very rare. Distractions and wasting time watching cat vids (or most likely, Minecraft vids) on YouTube are the real ‘threats’.

    What I'm more concerned about in all this are the kids who don't have connected devices. It might be that the student may not have shown a level of maturity and responsibility yet, and so the parents aren't ready to provide a device to him or her. Or it could be that the family simply can't afford the cost of the device, and the monthly service fee. With all the other students busy using their devices and their apps, and here's one kid without, that one kid without will need to come up with a reason why she doesn't have one. Now that's some middle school awkward if I've ever seen it. And I've seen it, lived it.

    Alternatively, what might happen is that all the other students are so busy staring into their screens, they don't notice those others who don't have them. Devices and their apps are bottomless attention sinks.

    It seems that what we’re stepping into here is just the initial allowing of devices to be used on campus, at break and at lunch. That is the first step, I agree, just as I agree that there won’t be much of a problem with it. What we need to start talking about immediately next is how will we integrate these devices into the learning process. Yes, next fall’s sixth graders will be a take-me-home Chromebook, but that’s different than a small, handheld device. Or is it, in the context of the classroom and the learning that’s going on there? I could argue both that it’s different, and that’s it’s not. Thinking a bit more, will these devices be required to use a standard app as prescribed by the teacher, or will the lesson be app-agnostic, and the device becomes more of a research tool? These are the kinds of things I’d love for you to start talking about next.

    One question that I do have is: How does UMS's evolving policies regarding connected devices compare to peer schools? What are the other middle schools in the district doing in terms of setting policy? What are other schools in the region, and in the state, doing?

    Mr Feinberg, thanks for taking this subject as serious as you have been. It can be a big adjustment of many different kinds for many different people, and I am happy that you are facing the situation with both eyes open, cautious but optimistic, and with all the openness this calls for.

    Rob Jaworski

  2. Great thoughts, Rob!

    To answer your questions, I'm in constant contact with administrators across California and the United States. The answers vary. Few administrators feel secure enough to take the risk to allow cell phone usage. It is much easier to have a hard fast line of "no" for schools. That said, I can sense the tide is turning and soon, some schools will be late to adapt to how our kids learn and socialize.

    I'd like UMS to be a bit ahead of the curve. :)


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