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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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Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
In these days, most of young kids have cell phones. I guess that it is not a bad idea for students to have them. In a fast-technology generation, they can take advantage of it! In fact, cell phones are useful; especially, when something came up to you such as an emergency problem. However, I do not agree with having students use the cell phones in the classroom. In class, students should concentrate on studying. Not to mention it, the cell phones make other students disturbed. For instance, I am a graduate student now. Sometimes some students' cell phone suddenly ring during our lecture. I really think that that is against etiquette and rude to the professor too. It is very discourteous. They should turn if off or change it to the vibration before the class starts. Even in the public library, adults use the cell phones. I do not understand it! If someone calls you, you may go outside and talk. That's a make sense. Children watch what adults do. Children are easy to follow you. I really do not understand that teachers allow students to use their cell phones during the class.
Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I think that it is important to understand that some people can't afford cell phones for themselves or their children. Some people still have problems paying mortgages or rent or food for the week. I think you are asking too much to expect every student or every school to supply cell phones. Why can't we put the pencil down and shut the cell phone off and find different ways to interact with our students? I prefer some personal contact throughout the day. My students have names and faces not just cell phone numbers.
Libby B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Reading all the opinions on this blog have sculpted my opinon about cell phones in the classroom. I work in a corporation where cell phones are not allowed except for after school. If we see them we take them away. I follow the rules like many of you have also stated because that's our job. I found it interesting that some of you stated that you text students assignments and wake-up calls. I think this is a great idea but I have one concern. What kind of situation does this put the teacher in? Is this type of communication too much? Would teachers be creating more opportunities to be criticized or accused of certain things with this much personal communication? I guess that I'm trying to be the Devil's Advocate because teaching is a very vulnerable profession these days and this could create another opportunity for this vulnerability to be accessed.
B. McCormick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Let me get this straight: you provide wake-up calls, text them when skipping class, remind them of assignments due? Sounds like enabling behavior to me. Kindly explain how the service you are providing prepares them for responsible adulthood, including the next step...college. At what point do these students take ownership of their own problems? Just curious. My doctor does not "text me" if I miss an appointment, but he does ask me to have the common courtesy to TURN IT OFF when entering his office. Shouldn't we ask the same of young people in a classroom? We have become a rude society.
Joe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
What I got out of Ron's original posting is that he's tuned in to where his students are at. I don't get the sense that he's enabling his students, or that he's spending hours text messaging, or that his students are constantly on the phone when in class. Ron's just hip to what's happening in their world...and his students respect him because he's being reasonable, treating them like young adults, and cares about them. For many teenagers, there may not be many caring adults. I also get the sense that his students care enough about him to not abuse the cell phone when they're in his class. I believe this is a case of mutual understanding and respect between teacher and students. Ultimately, Ron may well be educating his students about appropriate use of the cell phone!
Ron Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
In response to B. McCormick: I think we can all agree that schools exist for the benefit of the students -- the kids -- not the teachers, administrators, politicians, etc. Some people treat students as a detail, instead of the point. You asked about advancing students' responsible behavior. I believe that my students come in as responsible people. My students take ownership the minute they walk into class on the first day. Once they find out how empowering it is to have ownership, they never give it back. In 2004-2005 (2006 results are not in yet) I had 21 seniors for a year. ALL of them graduated, and ALL of them are in college. I didn't do that for them, they did it for themselves, most by working to help support their families while trying to make it to classes, get reading and homework done, and have some semblance of a personal life. When I believe in them, and show them that I believe they are responsible young adults, they act that way. These are outstanding people!
Ron Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Libby B-- You state that "teaching is a very vulnerable profession these days and this (teacher-student communication via cell phone) could create another opportunity for this vulnerability to be accessed." I have never felt any vulnerability. I am the teacher and I have control over my classes. My willingness to communicate with my students has helped me maintain an optimum environment for learning. I don't ever play defense in the classroom. I push all the time. I expect great things, and I get them. I challenge my students to be better than they think they are. You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, "Why not?" (George Bernard Shaw). My mission is to leave the world better than I found it, to think globally and act locally. Now, a story... A man was walking down the beach after a storm, where thousands of starfish had washed up on shore. As he walked, he would bend down and throw one back, then another, then another. Another man saw him do this and said that it was hopeless, that it didn't make any difference. The man picked up another starfish and threw it back and said, " It makes a difference to that one". Where I teach, in the inner-city, I throw back starfish.
Michele Sinclair's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Has Ron ever had students taking inappropriate pictures of one another and texting those to one another? How about students putting answers to tests in their phones and sharing those with others? How about students taking pictures of tests? Does he mind phones ringing and beeping during class? I know cell phones are a great invention, but they are a huge distraction in the classroom. As an administrator, I have spent hours dealing with students who have inappropriate pictures on their phones and then bring them to school. This becomes a law enforcement issue as well.
Ron Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
To Michele Sinclair-- I think we have dealt with the cheating issue already (above). Kids who cheat are cheaters, be it with pen and paper, the telephone, or whatever. As for the inappropriate material on the kids' cell phones, I can see your point of view as an administrator, but my policy is high expectations. I find that kids will do whatever I expect them to do. Expect cheating and inappropriate photos, that's what you get; expect kids to achieve excellence, you get that. Obviously, there will be those students who break rules no matter what, but that is the key, no matter what. It is not the cell phone that is causing the bad behavior, it is the bad behavior manifesting itself as a cell phone.
Peggy E.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I applaud Ron for willing to take the time to show students that it matters to someone if they are not in school. I do not think it is enabling behavior, as B. McCormick stated, to let students know you care. Unfortunately, and the reality is, not every child has a parent that teaches them the importance of attending school or tells them they are important. Mr. Smith may be the only person that has ever cared enough to take the time to let a student know it matters to someone that they are absent. As the parent of three teens, all with cell phone, I am amazed at how quickly they can text message their friends. As a soon to be educator, I too have seen the text/IM language used in written essays, but I don't fault the technology. The pencil and technology can coexist. As educators, we must not sell our students short and allow the IM language to be used in written essays. Students are capable of learning when it is right to use IM language, cell phones, slang, etc. We must teach them to operate in a world occupied by both Digital Immigrants and Natives alike. Way to go Ron. Your ideas are a great example of beginning where the student is and teaching from there.

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