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Banning Cellphones In Ontario Classrooms Will Take More Than A Rule

These students have never been without their phones, we need to hear their concerns so that we can find solutions
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I was just getting into a lesson when a cellphone started ringing. Normally, the culprit rushes to their bag, turns off the ringer, and a red-faced 15-year-old shamefully hands over the phone to me — their unimpressed teacher.

This day, however, the student pulled her cellphone from her pocket and answered. "Yeah?" she said. My mouth gaped open. "OK. Thanks, I gotta go, class is still on." All 27 students turned their heads to look at me to see what I would do.

Cellphones aren't allowed in my classroom, so a student boldly answering their phone was shocking.

"What just happened?" I asked. "What?!" She answered. "It was my mom!"

I am not alone in experiencing these frustrating technology moments. Ask teachers how cellphones interrupt their students from learning, and most will explode with a dozen such stories. People on the front lines — teachers and administrators — know how hard it is to fight for students' attention when cellphones are involved.

Some think I'm crazy for expecting my classroom to be cellphone free.

Cellphones undoubtedly make teachers stressed. Want to see a teacher's cortisol levels spike higher? Suggest that they try to eliminate them. Even a whisper of a ban triggers pushback from every direction.

Parents worry about not being able to contact their kids. Some well-intentioned school boards have tried to get screens into every kid's hands as an instructional tool. The mighty cellphone is often more enticing than what we are teaching, so imagine telling a cellphone-addicted-teenager to put their phone away and pay attention to a less-than-scintillating lesson.

Enter Doug Ford. Now, let me be clear, I'm not a huge fan of this premier. In my opinion, most of his educational policies won't be good for either teachers or students. But, his recent announcement to ban cellphones might not be all that bad.

Watch: Ontario is raising some class sizes. Blog continues below.

Currently, cellphone policies vary hugely board to board, school to school, and teacher to teacher. As a result, those interested in curbing cellphone use in classrooms have shaky ground to stand on. This provincial policy will certainly make teachers and administrators feel more supported in their decisions about when technology should or should not be used in the classroom.

But, this policy is just the start of the change — because getting students to peel cellphones from their back pockets will take more than a rule. It will take work from everyone: school board officials, administrators, teachers, students, and yes, parents too. We have to change the culture.

Some think I'm crazy for expecting my classroom to be cellphone free. After completing a Masters in Education studying the effects of screens on adolescent aggression, I decided this was a battle worth fighting. At the root of it, I just want my students to connect — to the lesson, to each other, and to themselves.

At the start of the term, I tell my students that cellphones aren't allowed in our classroom. I won't get mad at them when they bring one, I just follow through on the rules that I have set. If I see the phone, it goes on my desk for the period. If they are using it, it goes to the office safe for the remainder of the day.

"How are you feeling about this?" I ask my students. "Angry? Happy? Anxious?" What follows is an honest discussion. These students have never been without their phones — we need to hear their concerns so that we can find solutions.

FatCamera via Getty Images

One common concern is how to remain offline when something intense is going on in their lives – a grandparent in the hospital or a parent in labour. When anxiety is already high, any of us would have a hard time waiting in this wired world. So, I let them keep their phone in their pocket as long as they ask first. If it vibrates during class, they can ask to go to the washroom, and discretely check their messages.

Then comes the challenge of managing everyone else in their lives. Creating this kind of separation causes anxiety for both parents and friends. I suggest that students tell their friends that they have a "horrible ogre of a teacher in period two that won't let them use their phones..." This discussion usually leads to some knowing laughter. I suggest they tell their parents to call the main office if they want to get a hold of their child.

Most importantly, I explain why. We talk about what might be different when they don't have screens distracting them: time management, concentration, appropriate brain development, and acquiring people skills.

And then I follow through.

They test me, of course. But, after a few students end up at the office, and some phones end up on my desk — they stop bringing them to class. It stops being a "thing" because the culture is set.

If we're going to eliminate cellphones from instructional time, we need to understand that this is going to be a stretch for everyone.

The outcome? Students get to be students. They do their work in class, they talk with their classmates, they make new friends. And, without their phones, they are undoubtedly bored sometimes. They might doodle, or daydream, or look out the window. They might sit there mad at me or their parents. But, without a screen to distract them, they actually get the time to process the things on their teenage minds.

Sometimes, I'm sure they find a way to sneak in their phones and use them without me catching them. It's a teenager's job to try to push the limits, and our job as adults to hold firm.

By the end of the term, some students even thank me for the experience of learning without screen distractions.

If we're going to eliminate cellphones from instructional time, we need to understand that this is going to be a stretch for everyone. We need to both empathize and problem solve with students, parents, and teachers. Because, as we are starting to learn, slapping down a rule and expecting teenagers to fall in line just doesn't cut it anymore.

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