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Are cell phones the new chewing gum?

As educators prepare for new school year, many warn cell phones have become a top classroom menace.

By Kevin Hart

For parents looking to give their children an academic boost this coming school year, here’s a simple solution – consider having them leave their cell phones at home.

Many teachers say cell phones have officially replaced chewing gum as the new classroom menace. Constant ringing, chirping, buzzing and texting are interfering with lessons and student learning, and some students are storing notes on their cell phones to cheat on tests. One school in Iowa has even set aside funds to jam cell phones on school grounds – assuming the school receives permission from the Federal Communications Commission, which currently bans the practice.

In fact, it was the question of whether cell phones should be jammed – or at least banned – at schools that touched off a recent debate on NEA Today’s Facebook page. Educators say solving the cell phone problem is going to require collaboration between educators, students and parents.

“I have too many cases where my students are texting and answering their phones in the middle of a lesson,” said Vanessa Carrington, an elementary English teacher in New York City. “I teach sixth grade. What could be so important?”

Educators say they’ve tried a number of strategies for reducing cell phone misuse during class, albeit with mixed results. Some schools confiscate cell phones when students are caught using them during class, and keep them until a parent picks them up. Tom McMahan, a teacher at an alternative school in Ft. Oglethorpe, GA, has all his students turn their phones in at the beginning of class, and retrieve them at the end of the lesson.

“They can use them between classes,” he said. “(It’s) not perfect either, but I didn't get a teaching certificate to be a phone cop.”

Despite a system of escalating consequences for cell phone misuse at her school, Theresa Wagner, a physical education teacher in Minnesota, says she still ends up confiscating 3-5 cell phones each week. She says she’d love for her school to be able to jam cell phones during school hours.

Consequences for cell phone misuse are often ineffective, educators say, because the discipline needs to be reinforced at home. In some cases, it’s actually parents who are calling and texting their children during lessons, which can undermine school rules. If parents and educators can get on the same page, it could go a long way toward teaching students how to responsibly use their phones.  

And, ultimately, responsible use seems to be what everyone is after. After all, cell phones can be useful in emergency situations, and Dave Marks, a special education teacher in Oregon, said they often serve as a vital lifeline between his students and their parents.

“Instead of jamming … perhaps we need to develop responsible use of cell phones,” said Cindy Dreher, a Denver-area teacher. “I remember passing notes in junior high –  this is note passing for the 21st century.”

If so, teachers could soon have a new favorite refrain: “Do you have a text you’d like to share with the class?”