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Class Notes
Should schools ban cell phones?
(Published February 20, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Last October, I wrote how cell phones were popping up in kids' pockets throughout Bell Multicultural High School, at which I teach. Now that it's February, the situation is even worse. Or is it worse? After half a year of living with cell phones, it seems to me that like everything, there are two sides.

It used to be much easier to think about cell phones in school; the only people who had them were drug dealers, doctors and businessmen, and our students weren't doctors or businessmen. Now, the majority of students with cell phones have them with the assistance or, at a minimum, the knowledge of their parents, who either pony up the money or guarantee the account. As a teacher who has been forced to get used to a world where cell phones blossom on the ear of every other kid at the 3:15 bell, I'm starting to realize that cell phones, like any technology, are simply amplifying good and bad behaviors, not starting anything new.

First, the good side. This year, cell phones have helped me several times. On field trips, all the kids swap cell phones back and forth to call parents to let them know where we are and when we'll be back. (Keeping track of their kids is one of the reasons why parents got them phones in the first place.) After school, kids who last year would have to leave early to get home can now call on their own phone and stay later for tutoring. (Of course, they could have used my phone, but parents pick up when they see their child's number on the caller ID.) When I need to talk to a parent, I can ask for a cell phone immediately and dial.

What about the bad side? In six months, I've had phones ring in class twice, and both times the kids turned the phone off immediately without me having to say anything. Frankly, I've been surprised by how few disruptions they've caused in class. I think that part of it is simply their prevalence kids are more used to them and know better how to handle them.

So I reflected on my experience and naively asked an assistant principal why they still ask teachers to confiscate cell phones if they see them. That's when I learned the ugly side. Of course, kids have been using cell phones to arrange rendezvous in the restrooms during class, or to summon members of their crew to back them up for rumbles after school. This is the same thing they used to do with notes. But, as the game show would say: Wait -- there's more!

Our clever kids have found ways to cheat on tests, text messaging each other from across the class. Other not-so-clever kids with camera phones go into the restroom and take photographs of their classmates, mid-movement so to speak. Parents wouldn't give their kids cameras to take to school as toys, but today's phones come pre-armed.

My principal is quite clear on the issue: cell phones are banned in the building, by rule of D.C. Public Schools administrators and of our school. As a teacher who supports his principal, my job is to confiscate any cell phones I notice. Each time I see a cell phone, I'm reminded that for the last six months, I haven't been doing my job. Meanwhile, as a classroom teacher, I know that my students' parents could care less about DCPS Regulation Chapter 25; 2503.1(k) which prohibits "possession of electronic communication devices...during school hours on school premises" as long as they can get in touch with their child.

Cell phones, when used respectfully by kids, allow them to spend more time on task, after school or on field trips. When used irresponsibly, they distract or hurt other students who are trying to make it through a school day unmolested.

It's a problem, but the problem is more the kids than the phones. And because of this, it will continue to be a problem long after the next technology comes along that makes the problems of cell phones irrelevant, the way that calculators made long division irrelevant.

As with any problem of behavior, the answer is not in the technology but the people who use it. Cell phone ban or no, phones are getting into my school building, and I'm sure into all the other high schools across town. For example, Banneker's student handbook states that a student caught stealing another student's cell phone "may require the involvement of Metropolitan Police as well as school sanctions." Thus speaks the voice of bitter experience.

As DCPS staff, we have to confront the truth that cell phones are with us, and then set high expectations for how our students should behave, with or without them. You shouldn't yell out the window to someone in the street during class; similarly, you shouldn't call them. You shouldn't take a photo of someone in the restroom, no matter what. You shouldn't make a loud noise while someone else is talking; similarly, you shouldn't ring. This was true when digital watch alarms came out, it's true with cell phones, it will be true when all students have laptops in every class.

Let's get real about cell phones by getting real about our standards for mature behavior. Part of the problem is that we make an overly big deal out of phones in schools. I recently visited a school where students are allowed to bring in cell phones and discipline was actually less of a problem; kids were simply expected to behave responsibly with them, and they did. Unfortunately, the ban on cell phones is necessary because of gang activity, but so is an honest debate about what it accomplishes. Parents, I look forward to hearing your feedback.

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Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator