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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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Sue K.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)
As a non-traditional education student, as well as a parent of two "early twenties" children, my thoughts on cell phones in the classroom can be drawn in two different directions. As a parent, I see students/kids everywhere with something always in their ears, either ipod earbobs, bluetooths or the actual phone, itself. I wonder where our society has come that we must be "entertained" every minute. Whatever happened with quiet coming into the mind to process our thoughts, ideas and feelings? Are we afraid of what we might think in the quiet? I realize a cell phone has become an everyday necessity but what about common courtesy with its use? During any type of activity where there is a group of individuals, I believe it's quite rude to have a phone go off especially with a downloaded ringtone rather than a "normal" ring. Is it that difficult to turn the phone to vibrate? The aspiring teacher in me sees the use of the cell phone as a technology tool but along with any item used for instruction, there have got to be guidelines. With the proper guidelines established at the beginning of the school year, cell phone usage as a piece of technology equipment could be very useful. My only negative thought with regard to how the teacher used the text-messaging feature was that of feasibility. To text-message, one either has to purchase so many messages a month or pay for each message as it is received or sent. In either case, as a teacher I would be "costing" my students (or their parents) money. As a parent, I would not be too happy with that.
Alan Berthelot's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I am going to have to side with the group who accept the technology that our world is using, BUT insist that rules must be followed. Just because it is there doesn't mean you have to use it. I agree that you must use multiple sensory inputs to really learn material and not just memorize it. Writing with pencil and paper is a great form of using other senses. Too often I have picked up papers to read and they are filled with all of the abbreviated script of IM, iPods and the like. The kids aren't being challenged to WRITE! We are becoming lazy and our kids are going to be the ones to suffer for it. I don't see a need for cell phones in the class. Liked mentioned before, if there is an emergency, the office has more than enough resources to receive and call out. If there is a need for pictures, the class or library has digital cameras. I have a CD player in my class to provide more than enough music during our lessons. I find it rude to have people taking calls during meetings, church, movies, and public gatherings all the while talking loud enough for the people two blocks away to hear them. I don't wan to be a part of their conversation, nor do I want them in mine. I still find it funny to see people walking and talking to what looks like no one, having an animated conversation, only to notice that they have a hands free cell. When I was growning up, we put people who seemed to be talking to themselves in a padded safe place.
Maloree's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I feel that the use of cell phones at school is inappropiate and unnecessary during school hours. However, I like the idea of using them for class use only. Texting students to wake them up letting them know you care they are not there or texting an assingment is very clever. But you do have to be careful not to allow texting during class time. I think the teacher should take up all cell phone before class making sure all phones are in a bucket or a basket and then after class pass them out. There can be good use of cell phones at school you just have to make sure it is for the right reason.
Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I agree that fighting students to not bring their cell phones to class is a losing battle. Therefore, teacher's must use them in a constructive way. There really are many good uses for them. As was mentioned in the article, 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. There are many ways that the phone could be incorporated into projects. However, some students as always will abuse the priviledge, but that should not stop a teacher from holding the rest of the students back. Set rules and stick to them, have consequences for inappropriate behavior and most students will appreciate the freedom. Now, I'm not sure if I like the idea of calling students to help them get to school. I think there comes a point when students have to be responsible for themselves, but I also think its important for students to have someone help hold them accountable and show them that someone cares about them and their future. So my mind is not made up on that topic. Overall, I believe that cell phones should be incorporated into the classroom. They are a great piece of technology that should be used.
Chuck Fellows's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
"You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone!" Bob is correct. "For the times they are a changin'." First, the cheating fixation. In a competitive environment cheating is required; in a collaborative environment it becomes cooperation, a highly desirable behavior. The future requires collaboration for survival - and nature practices it 24/7. Why can't we? Competition is destructive - just ask those shuttle astronauts who paid the ultimate price for budget competitions. You will have to wait a while. The price of an 'O' ring........... Therefore, create a collaborative classroom environment and focus on learning, not policing. Collaborate with students on the effective and ethical use of cell phones ( and anything else electronic) and stop trying to be the expert source on how to and how not to. The kids know, will teach and police one another - if you let them. They ARE smarter than we are! If you find collaborative behavior threatening try this: Wear a large permanent magnet on a rope around your neck (or place it somewhere highly visible in the room). Announce to the class that cells phones are welcome, as long as they are turned off. Turn it on during class and the permanent magnet will be attracted to your phone - causing permanent damage. Please make sure none of your students have a pacemaker! And incorporate the features of the cell phone into your curriculum - turn the object of your frustration in to multiple teachable moments. (Like the student in Pakistan who wanted to share knowledge.) You can erase pencil - those electronic bits just never seem to go away...... Can't we just "Love one another" instead of trying to punish everyone. Enough lyrics- already!
Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I do not think that the use of cell phones in school is a good idea. Not everyone has a cell phone that is capable of doing all the things mentioned. If there is a true emergency where a student must be notified, then the school office would be called to get ahold of the student. If students are responsible enough to have a cell phone, then they should be responsible enough to get to school on time. Plus every cell phone that I've seen has an alarm on it. I do think that cell phones are important for students who stay after school and need a ride home so that they can call someone to pick them up if they need to. Cell phones are also important for people who drive, in case of emergencies; however, as far as in class, I think that cell phones would cause more problems than benefits.
ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Sue K.- Text messages cost two cents to receive and eight cents to send. Surely there cannot be a financial reason to avoid doing it.
ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Mary H.-- My students have already told me how to contact them--they have cell phones! They text each other, and me. They call, they make photos, they record each other. This question has already been answered. The new question is, how do I leverage what they already want to do into what I want them to do?
Mary Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Cell phones can be great if used properly. As mentioned in the original posting, cell phones are useful for contacting students and teachers. However, cell phones can also be used for cheating, as mentioned in other postings. There are appropriate and inappropriate uses for all forms of technology. Obviously, we don't allow students to talk and pass notes during tests. Therefore, we should not allow cell phone use during tests. I would not do activities that require the use of a cell phone. Some students do not have cell phones, as some cannot afford them. I can afford to give students pencils and paper if they cannot afford them, but I cannot afford to give my poor students cell phones.
Tracie W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Until I read the articles on the spiral notebook, I would have said..."Cell phones for kids? NO WAY!!!" There have been a number of issues discussed. Cost? Most families have a cell phone and it only costs $10 a month to add a line. $5 for unlimited text messaging. I am a single mom of three kids. I would pay $30 a month to make sure that I could contact my children whenever I needed to. Is it unfair to those who can't afford cell phones? Of course, but so is using computers if you look at it this way. I don't see schools getting rid of computers any time soon. Another weblog discusses how the NY City mayor intends to use police to enforce the city's ban on cell phones in schools. I am from a small town and maybe I don't understand all the issues but I would think that the police should have something better to do than confiscate cell phones from teenagers all day, especially in New York. Like I said before, I understand that parents want to be able to contact their children but I also do not believe that there is any reason for my child or anyone else's child to have their phones turned on during instructional time. They can surely find time between classes for message checking. I think it's good that teacher's are creating ways to use technology in a postive way. Have we not learned that it is better to face a problem and make something positive out of it rather than ignore the problem and allow it to explode in our faces.

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