A Pencil Is a Word Processor: Making the Case for Cell Phones in Class | Edutopia
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A Pencil Is a Word Processor: Making the Case for Cell Phones in Class

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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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Blake Barr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ron's article has listed the ways that he is creatively using the cell phone so that they will not be a nuisance in the class room but a tool. However, all of the uses he has listed involve the students answering their telephones when they are not present in class. Students taking calls in class is still a nuisance and it does distract others. If someone's mother needs to call them, fine. Things happen. My wife died last year and while she was sick I would get called out of the classroom for emergency phone calls. But it should be the exception, not the rule. I have students whose mother would call them everyday. This was not for emergencies. This was simply a case of a mother who desperately needs to get a life and let go so their child can grow up and do the same.

Jordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey Ron,

I am a building administrator and I am curious what the comments are that you get from your administrator(s) and your colleagues. I have a math teacher who (without my permission) began to let students listen to i-pods in class while doing their independent practice. The storm of protest from his colleagues was amusing. I actually had veteran, master teachers speaking up in a meeting telling me that students were trying to use i-pods in their classes (they were folllowing the building policy on use of electronic items in school) and were telling them that the math teacher said it was ok for them to use their i-pods in their other classes. The teachers were actually asking if they could deny the use of these items in their own classroom and asking me if it was ok for them to take i-pods from students who they felt were distracting others. You know you are in trouble when folks of their stature do not even know if they can manage their own room. I do not even want to mention the nearly entire meeting that was spent talking about whether or not to allow gum in the building.

Additionally, what are the parental reactions to your classroom management ideas?

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would be more worried with the camera aspect of cell phones. If cell phones are allowed in school, pictures can be taken of tests. Also, what about privacy issues, esp. in bathroom situations.

Ed Crelin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Two observations:
First, pencil = $.07 - $.11, universally available, works just about anywhere, use it up, non toxic ingredients will biodegrade well.
Cell phone minimum $1. a day, requires credit, contract and coverage (don't forget that), made with heavy metals, waste stream nightmare.

An education doesn't make you smart (as evidenced), or automatically better qualilfied for any level of work, factory workers of today are more tech saavy than most managers and require common sense, confidence and good creative problem solving skills even if they do repetitive tasks. So you have teachers spending some of their day calling kids to wake them up? I think an "F" for the day is more appropriate. Acquiesing to students desires and whims in a desperate attempt to keep them "engaged" is very sad indeed. Embracing new technologies is a good thing but cell phones are like stream driven cars, great idea, they "work" in unique instances but are impossible to universally embrace, ban them from class. Here's another vote for hand written essay tests.

Danny Wilder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an computer professional of 23 years -- a computer expert, no doubt. I teach computer courses, so I always have a class full of 'high-tech' students. Still, I have my students do a lot, if not most, of thier work with pencil and paper. I have online courses where students take tests electronically, but my inclass students -- in the same couse -- take their tests on paper. Most of my students prefer to take tests on paper.
Here are 4 reasons why I prefer pencils to electronics.
1. Most reliable: I teach my students that a paper hard copy is still the most reliable medium in the world. One of them always says: "What if it burns?" Well, what if your cellphone, computer, CD, or other electronic medium burns? Paper is still the most reliable.
2. Tactile learning: It is a known fact that learning increases as more senses are used. I know my students will be using the computer to learn lessons, create assignments, and take tests -- my courses require it. I feel that making them use pencil and paper adds to their learning experience. Also, I often have them write at least one two paragraph assignment on paper. This forces them to use correct spelling and grammer without a word processor's help.
3. Non-paperless society: I've been hearing about the paperless society for 25 years now. It's still a long way from happening here in the U.S.A., muchless in other low-tech countries. Our students still need handwriting skills. I tell my Net-Gen students that if there ever is a paperless society, they'll have to build it.
4. Timeless: Using paper and pencil is a skill that doesn't change with time. One major source of stress in today's society is that people are constantly having to re-learn ways of communicating with electronic mediums. We're still in our digital infancy. Most of the electronic means of communications used today will be obsolete in ten or so years, but pencil and paper will work the same way. Another reason that paper is still the most reliable form of medium.
I understand the need to teach our children to use new technologies, but until these technologies are perfected and available to all, I will require my students to use pencil and paper.

Misty's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

All of this discussion is from the teacher's point of view. As all good teachers know, however, we don't really make the rules. We follow rules and the students have to learn that even though they grow up and go away from school rules, every job has rules to follow - for that matter life has rules to follow. My district says No Cell Phones at School, so that is my policy. It is not only about disruptions or cheating, but the safety of the students and their property (loss or theft). My personal phone is locked in my desk drawer and is only used when I am on break. The only use for a teacher phone that is approved by our district is when a teacher wants to discipline a child by calling their parent immediately - and we do have some that are very successful with this technique. I personally do not find the need as I agree with several others who have commented, the "trick" to students learning and behaving is engaging material. I don't need a cell phone to accomplish this in my class. Teach them to function within the rules and create outside of the box at the same time. It can be done!

Joseph Fail, Jr.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Cell phoniness, like standard computers, teaches by sound bites and how to redo old ones. Among many issues with using technology both to teach and learn is that one using it does not learn 'the story' or how to tell it (write). Hence we have ever increasing problems in the writing abilities of high school and college students. I hypothesize to my students that using pens and cursive writing to tell stories makes nerve webs in the brain that make brain stories, using a keyboard makes soundbites that merely join a few neurons together to create a brief memorizable moment with no further context to it.
I think the evidence speaks for itself. j

Patrick Haggood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For those teachers using the iPod in classes, how are you protecting these tiny assets? A colleague asked me abou it and I did not have an easy answer for him.

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To Tammy, Ed, Danny, & Joseph,

It's time to think differently about problems. Stop trying to think outside the box, but rather, get rid of the box. I learn as much about technology from my students as they learn from me. They are, to use Prensky's phrase, Digital Natives. By and large, we teachers are Digital Immigrants (also Prensky's phrase). That is the difference. Our students embrace technology, while teachers are suspicious of it. Our students are catching the next wave, while most teachers are still paddling out. I embraced technology because it works. If using pencil and paper was such a great strategy, major corporations wouldn't have IT departments.

As for storytelling, its most fruitful time was before there was written language, when tribes gathered to tell stories of the past. Those stories were passed by word of mouth. That is evidence that really speaks for itself. This blog is true evidence that technology has already won the argument. We couldn't even have this conversation it it were up to the pencil and paper crowd. "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (Philip K. Dick) You can refuse to believe that technology is a useful tool, but it's not going away. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that "He is a poor pupil who does not surpass his master". If my students don't leave my class better at what we are studying than I am, I have failed.

Bob Dylan said it better than I can. "You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone".

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I come from an art background. That has shown me that 1) there is no limit to which people will not go to guard some special secret, talent, or skilled from being widely known, and 2) artists work in world of multiple inputs. Every studio I have ever visited, perhaps thousands, had music playing while people worked. I play music, loud, in my class as we work. We listen to a lot of movie scores, but we also listen to salsa, reggae, rock, folk, and third world music. Sometimes I think that students wear their iPods in self defense! I have been playing Greek music or salsa music in class, when it seemed like we should jump up and dance around the room. One time I said "Extra credit for anyone who will dance with me!" All of this creates an atmosphere where kids know they are safe, and that I WANT them to succeed. I will use any means, fair or unfair, to get my kids to succeed! The result, administrators, other teachers, and substitutes are amazed to see students come to my class, sit down, and start working, without direction. I don't have to do anything because these kids, MY kids, know this is a place for their success. I leave my ego at the door.

As for parental reactions, they bought the electronics for their children, so they obviously know that the kids have them. On conference night I show parents the environment that their children are learning in. They seem to love it.

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