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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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Anthony's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I disagree with the general thought of "many educators" completely. I don't feel the article suggests that students would or should be allowed to use thier cell phones during a test. If a student wants to cheat or pass answers it is going to happen cell phone or not. This would be to suggest that students only recently began cheating and passing answers during the cell phone "era." As we all know that is not the case. Students are not going to cheat because they have possession of a cell phone. They are going to cheat because they are cheaters.

gary barney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A recent survey reported in eSchool News stated that some 95%+ of teachers now use e-mail and 30% use it to communicate with students The problem is that very few STUDENTS use e-mail to communicate, but rather have moved on to texting or IM-ing with their cells; once again, most teachers are playing catch up where technology is concerned Hats off to teachers who are willing to meet kids on their own tech turf!

Randy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To: Ron Smith

I like the idea of changing problems into solutions. I think your ideas about using cell phones with students are very good. I'd lke to know what are your classroom rules about having cellphones?

ron smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


My rules on cell phones in class have evolved, much the same as the rules for cell phones anywhere else. My class is generally a noisy place. I play the stereo, kids have their iPods going, there is much discussion. In that environment, if a kid needs to make a cell call, they just ask me if it is ok, much like you might do in a similar situation. If they get a call, they usually say "Hey Mr Smith, it's my mother. Can I take it?" to which I almost always say yes. If I get a call during class, I use the same judgements. Everybody is on task, and if I'm not lecturing, I take it. Same with calling out.

I think in this case the issue is not the cell phone, but courtesy. I treat my students with courtesy, they treat me with courtesy, and I expect them to treat each with courtesy. What I am trying to make is fully-formed, functional adults. It seems to me that if I want them to act like adults, then I should treat them that way. I believe that students will do whatever you expect them to do. Expect them to be wild and rude, they will be. Expect them to act like ladies and gentlemen, and they will.

Jim Grieshop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an advocate of the pencil, if you are unaware of it, take a read on the book entitled "The Pencil" by Henry Petroski. Even Henry Thoreau advocated for the pencil, and his father was a pencil maker.

Bob Marner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are no longer teaching future factory workers. The Digital Age is here. Figuring how to incorporate technology in our lessons (in a meaningful way) is no longer optional.

In five years the cell phone as we know it today will be antique. If banning or adapting are my choices, I choose to adapt. Stay in control, but adapt.

Phillip Saxton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem with phones is the constant interruption they represent. What is more important than learning during the assigned time period with a teacher? If it is an emergency, the office is well equipped to get immediately in touch with students. I do not object to students having cell phones. I object to cell phone use during class room periods. I also object to cell phone use in restaurants, during meetings, during church services and on the golf course. Thank God for voice mail.

Mary H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If the issue is communicating with your students, why assume that you have to limit yourself (or them!) to one preferred method of communication? Not everyone has a cellphone or likes texting. Not everyone even has a land line phone. Some students even prefer a tangible form like paper.

Perhaps we should be asking our students, "What is the best way to contact you?" My own preference is email but that doesn't mean that I can't text message students. I can even text them from my computer.

Certainly it adds a lot of time at the beginning of the term to figure out the best way to communicate but isn't that true of any relationship?

Pauline's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is an interesting idea not to fight cell phone possession, unless of course you are trying to teach your children the importance of following rules. What a better world we'd live in if everyone followed more rules tomorrow than they did today. I like the concept of the pencil as a word processor and was surprised that the computer description was not about the human brain. I yearn for an acknowledgement of simpler times, when a pencil, piece of paper, and the human brain was all we had. Look at all we created in literature, art, and science. I'm not saying abandon modern technology, but we should regularly run diagnostics and simulations on the back-up system. That's a DaVinci Code worth exploring!

Pauline2's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


When I was a teacher, I taught my students fingerspelling and the basics of American Sign Language. Afterwards, it did occur to me that they might use it to communicate the answers during a test. Those who were inclined to cheat whispered openly even after making eye contact with me. Because I could not read their lips, though I tried, I did not accuse them of anything. I checked the scores later, nothing was amiss.

In college, the professor (Planetary Science) left the room during a test. I knew that he was near by, but I was caught in the middle of note passers. These note passers were indeed cheaters. Curiosity got the best of me and I peaked at the paper. The answer was wrong! It was all I could do to refold the note and not laugh aloud.

Once in high school, a classmate kept insisting that I give her an answer. To keep her quiet, I gave her an answer. But after class, I told her quite firmly, "Don't you ever do that again."

Ethics shouldn't be taught in law school or in the final year of residency. Ethics should be taught in kindergarten and each year after that. In fact, it's a life long learning and life long test.

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