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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Pencil Is a Word Processor: Making the Case for Cell Phones in Class

Suppose I were to offer you a fantastic word processor, small, portable, battery free, readily available, capable of operating in any language, and easily used by people from ages one to one hundred. There is such a word processor. It is called a pencil.

A Pencil is a Word Processor

Now, suppose I were to offer you a personal computer so powerful that it could be used for any number of tasks and is portable and user friendly. And nearly every one of your students already has one, so you don't even have to supply them. It's the cell phone! It is the most pervasive computer in the world.

Most teachers are well aware of cell phones -- mostly as a nuisance in class, where educators spend a lot of time taking them away from students. Well, you wouldn't take their pencils away, so why confiscate cell phones? Instead of taking them away, I started leveraging them as tools for my classes.

The cell phone may be used as a computation device, a camera, a text-messaging device, a portable storage device, a music player, a word processor, and probably more. Why on earth would I take that from my students? Besides, as you probably already know, it's a losing battle, so why fight it?

Of my 150 students, about two-thirds have a cell phone. I have their numbers, and they have mine. If students are habitually late to school, I give them a wake-up call. If students are absent, I send text messages to ask where they are. If students have a problem they need help with, they get in touch with me directly. I remind them of upcoming assignments, and other teachers sometimes ask me to get in touch with students of mine who also attend a class of theirs.

The obvious objection from teachers is that cells phones are a distraction in class, but in my day, I doodled with a pencil. You know -- that other word processor.

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Jim Edwards's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I beleive that Ron Smith's comments were right in line with what students need today. While we are all shaped by the environment (family and global) that we grew up in, we must realize that the environment today is different and therefore the needs are different. As noted speaker Marc Prensky stated in his presentation "Engage Me or Enrage Me," engagement comes as a result of motivation and passion. Most children have a passion to learn and it is when we motivate them that we then also engage them. We must constantly motivate them and part of that motivation will come from "working in their environment." As far as distractions, I have noticed that most school aged children know how to and will turn their phones to vibrate when needed. It is mostly those in my age group (55 and up) that can't figure out how to do anything with their phone other than answer it.

Cassie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand the concern for cheating through the allowance of cell phones; however I believe that if a student is going to cheat, he is going to cheat whether he uses a cell phone or any other means. I liked what Zaheer had to say about students using the cell phone to "zone" out or as a distraction from a lecture. I don't believe students should be lectured in high school. I believe learning should be more interactive and hands-on and therefore students don't have the opportunity to "zone" out by texting their friends. I loved Smith's use of the cell phones to stay connected with his students. I belieive teachers are playing a bigger role than ever in a student's life. Before, life skills such as responsibility and time management were taught by the parents but now many parents are not willing to play this role in their child's life. Teachers have chosen this role and therefore are sometimes the best role models and life teachers some students will ever have. I think it is great for a teacher to help their student in such a way through the use of cell phones.

Alan B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When you say cheaters are cheaters no matter what the tools used (my words) this may be so, but why should we give them more tools to cheat with. I can see a note being passed, or inappropriate whispering going on when cheating is taking place. But with text messaging the student 'claims' that he/she is doing 'work.' Cell phones are a distraction. Even in the 'real world' they have made us more distant to others than closer. They give us a false sense of importance. Like if we didn't have them we 'might' miss that all important phone call. From the ones I have listened to (and that is easy to do. Just stop in any public place and you can hear all types of cell phone conversations going on) there is a lot of nothing being said. Back in the day when if you needed to call someone and weren't at home, you went to a phone booth. If you remember, these had doors on them where your conversation was PRIVATE!
Keep cell phones OUT OF THE CLASSROOM!

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Alan B, cell phones are already IN the classroom. It's not a matter of trying to keep them out; it's a matter of how to use them to your advantage. You can pretend that you can keep them out, but you would only be fooling yourself. Kids in the classroom, in my classroom, are digital natives. Their "native tongue" is technology. I need to speak to my kids in a language that they understand. The assessments I give are performance oriented, and students are encouraged to collaborate. That's the real world. I just live here.

Brandy Pumber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

McCormick, my doctor and dentist all call to remind me of my appts. It is a courtesy that they extend because life gets busy and it is busy for these kids too. I'm sure there is a balance in offering support and guidance and doing too much for them, but I think Ron has struck that balance. While I may disagree with the use of phones in the classroom, I think Ron is working to meet the students at their level to challenge them to learn and grow, and isn't that the point of it all?

Meghan Horton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I do applaud the spirit of embracing the students' digital prowess, I tried a similar experiment and was disappointed. I let my high-school students listen to MP3 or CD players with headphones to help them focus and block distractions while doing individual work, but after one semester the problems were so great I ended the policy.

The students showed continually poor judgment about how and when to use their music players. The music was so loud it disturbed anyone who didn't also have headphones on; the kids were disruptive or distracted by swapping and discussing the music; they bothered each other and me for batteries; they listened to music while I was giving directions or during whole-group instruction or (most horrifying to me) during group work. I CONSTANTLY had to field the question, "Can we listen to our CD players now?" or handle problems with inappropriate use.

Rather than a way to focus and learn, it became a way for students to remove themselves mentally from the classroom. It seems to me that cell phones in class might lead to some similar issues.

Meghan Horton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although--or maybe because--he's not a teacher, I thought my husband's comment was interesting. He works in the corporate offices of a well-known computer retailer.

"He's creating people ill-prepared to work
in the real world with his permissiveness. Sure, it's
great to try to adapt your lessons to your students,
but it doesn't prepare them for doing what their
manager says, when he or she says it, to a predefined
standard that they'll have no say in.

My new employees asked me, "What IM do you use?" I told
them, "None. Use e-mail; it provides constant
documentation of directions." That was the end of it.
If I'd hired someone from one of this guy's
classes, chances are I'd have gotten lip about it, and
I'd already be looking for another new employee."

Carole Mondragon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching in Canada I hardly knew I was alive compared with teaching in England where it seems that discipline is out of control. I am about to return to England to teach high school for a second year. I supply taught in UK last year and so the students were challenging in the strongest way. They used ipods (which I didn't mind) and cell phones (mobile phones in UK) almost non-stop despite the school's rules against their use. When I would challenge kids, they'd hide the phone, pass it to another student, scream, swear and say **** you! if I requested the phone. There appears to be little or no realistic teacher-support or follow-up from schools in general. It was really like subjecting oneself to hell. However, since I have to return for a year, I'd like to hear from anyone who can give me solid practical use of cell phones to engage students in curriculum e.g. English. Anyone?

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


A couple thoughts. When students get out of line, with or without their cell phones, I have them take out their cell phone and call their parents--themselves--to explain why they cannot follow instructions. I do this VERY publicly, in front of all the other the students. I really only have to do that once before the word gets around, and the problem dissappears.

Second, while your husband dislikes IM, it is a fact. He may not hire my students, and that would be his loss. My students ALL graduate, they ALL go to college, and they routinely out-perform their peers when they enter the workplace. The reasons for this are complex, but they start with teaching the ability to be flexible, to embrace technology to work smarter, not harder, and, as Martin King said, to judge people by the content of their character. Several of my students have gotten part-time jobs with computer retailers while they attended college, so they might someday own the business, instead of just work there.

The first lesson on the first day of every semester is, "Rudeness will not be tolerated". It isn't.

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Here are some links--

Check out--Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, What Can You Learn From A Cell Phone? - Almost Anything!, Mobile Phone Imagination, The Prensky Challenge -- Who will be the first to challenge, rather than blame, our kids?





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