Cell phones in school undermine learning

Special to the Gazette

Throughout my 26 years of teaching secondary English, parents have routinely asked the same question every year: What can I do to help my child succeed in your class?

My tips typically included suggestions such as: establish a set time and distraction-free place to do nightly homework; ask specific questions about course work; and encourage your child to read, read, read! However, based on my observations in a variety of classes over these past several years, the one most important way parents can help their teens make the most of their time in high school is to insist that they strictly limit their cell phone use to outside the classroom.

Cell phones have become a major problem in schools for several reasons. First, they present an ever-present distraction for students, especially those who are struggling learners. Clinical psychologist Richard Freed states in his book "Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in the Digital Age" that, "high levels of smart phone use by teens often have a detrimental effect on achievement because teen phone use is dominated by entertainment, not learning applications."

Teachers work hard to plan relevant engaging lessons, but it is tough to compete with funny videos, sports events, and, of course, texting. Phones need to be put away during class.

Another reason unstructured use of cell phones poses a problem in school is that access to still and video photography often facilitates cyberbullying. One specific example occurred when, during a change of classes, a student was enticed into dancing with a fellow classmate. This situation was a set-up. An accomplice used a phone to capture the fun, and the resulting video was circulated with the express purpose of embarrassing the outsider. This incident was so hurtful that the targeted student actually transferred to another school. Sadly, it is not an isolated incident and it is clear evidence that phones need to be put away during school.

Texting during class time is not just a distraction, but it can promote or accelerate interpersonal conflicts.

In the pre-cell-phone world, spats which occurred before or between classes often had time to defuse while students were involved in class. Now the drama and emotional rants can be amplified and continued throughout the school day thanks to angry thumbs on both sides. In addition, it is easier to throw extreme threats at all parties involved via the phone due to its impersonal nature. It is imperative that phones are put away during school.

As a former English teacher, I must also address the cell-phone specific problem of texting shorthand. Learning and applying the rules of grammar is difficult enough without having students on their phones constantly reinforcing abbreviated, informal spelling, disregarding capitalization and ignoring punctuation. "Deep reading" teaches a student to appreciate varied sentence structures and vocabulary, to interpret symbols, and to deduce a writer's theme. This skill is made more challenging because so many of today's teens constantly use brief, simplified messages in texts and balk at having to focus on lengthier works. This is particularly problematic since SOL reading tests include denser passages which require stamina and deep reading skills. Clearly, the over-use of cell phones is detrimental to basic educational goals.

The question now becomes: How can parents help to resolve problems associated with unauthorized cell-phone use during class?

First, make your expectations clear by talking with your child and emphasizing (regularly, if needed) that the phone needs to be turned off and stowed during class unless the teacher specifically authorizes its use for an education-related task.

Second, support teachers and school administrators when they enforce the school rules for cell-phone use. For example, avoid texting your youngster during school hours. Instead, go old-school and call the main office or an administrator to relay important messages.

Finally, if your teen fails to adhere to school cell phone rules, consider restricting all cell phone use for a period of time to reinforce the message that phones need to be put away during school because education is important.

Parents, please help your children make the most of their educational opportunities by curbing their cell phone habits in school.

Salzman is a former English teacher and Curriculum Leader at Lafayette High School. She retired in June 2016 but still does some substitute teaching.

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