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Do phones belong in the classroom? Seattle Public Schools weighs K-8 student cell phone ban

caption: Seventh-grade students leave Janet Bautista's science class as the bell rings on Thursday, March 28, 2019, at Asa Mercer Middle School in Seattle.
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Seventh-grade students leave Janet Bautista's science class as the bell rings on Thursday, March 28, 2019, at Asa Mercer Middle School in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Now that most middle-school students have cell phones, some teachers are embracing the technology for schoolwork and to communicate with kids. Others say phones detract from learning.

Waiting for the bus outside Mercer Middle School on Beacon Hill, seventh-graders Chris Smith and Liam Pomeroy are talking to each other – not staring at their phones.

Sure, they occasionally check out YouTube or Instagram during their lunch period, the friends say, but their phones mostly come in handy at school for classroom activities, like the app Kahoot! some teachers use.

"It’s just like an educational game, kinda – you answer questions," Smith said. "It’s a fun way to learn, too. It’s not super-boring."

Kids who don't have phones can look over a friend’s shoulder to play Kahoot!, or sometimes use a computer. Other times, Pomeroy said, phoneless kids "just sit there."

Right now, Smith said, he uses his phone in several classes.

"You can check answers and stuff," Smith said, adding that it's easier for the teachers when kids have their phones in class "because they don’t have to answer all the students’ questions when they’re raising their hand.”

In Seattle Public Schools, some schools leave cell phone rules up to individual teachers. Others make all students stash their phones in their lockers or backpacks — a policy known as "Away for the Day."

Seattle School Board Member Rick Burke is backing a proposal to make "Away for the Day" the norm in elementary and middle schools: no phones out during school hours.

"I hear from educators, and my experience myself as a parent, is that they provide more of a distraction than a benefit," Burke said.

Research shows that even when someone isn’t using their phone, but has it in the same room, they perform more poorly on tasks involving memory.

Board Member Eden Mack co-wrote the proposed policy. "There's value in students having a cell phone in case of emergency, reach their parents when they're taking the buses. And I support that," Mack said.

"And I also support parents choice in deciding whether or not to give them a cell phone at all," Mack said.

She's concerned that teachers who ask kids to use phones in or out of class could pressure parents to buy phones and data plans they can't afford or don't want to give their children.

Mack said since not all students have cell phones, it's inequitable for teachers to give schoolwork that involves phones.

"If it is a school lesson that we are teaching, we need to be providing whatever medium it requires, otherwise, we are being, on its face, incredibly unfair to all students and not having equitable access," Mack said.

Tracy Castro-Gill, last year's regional teacher of the year and now head of the district's new ethnic studies program, said she sees students' phones as vital in the classroom.

"I can't imagine going back to a situation without smartphones in modern teaching," Castro-Gill said. "It enriches and deepens the learning on many levels."

At Denny Middle School, where Castro-Gill taught social studies, she said it was impossible to guarantee in-class computer access for her students because school laptops she reserved could get diverted to standardized testing at a moment's notice.

Instead, Castro-Gill said, "we relied heavily on students with smartphones," especially for group research projects.

Although she estimates 95 percent of her students had smartphones, only one student per group needed a phone, "because that one person would be the researcher and share out whatever they found using their phone," Castro-Gill said.

Castro-Gill and her teaching partner embedded QR codes in the readings so students could pull up videos or color images on their phones of things like stone tablets and ancient art — helpful technology in a classroom that lacked a color printer.

Castro-Gill also had her students use their phones for warm-ups on Kahoot!

"Like: 'Is this an opinion or a fact?' Just those skills that you need in social studies that are boring to do on a worksheet," she said.

Even if her classroom had enough computers for every student, Castro-Gill said she would still harness students' smartphones in order to make her curriculum culturally responsive.

"The ideology is to meet students where they are, and bring their cultural knowledge into the classroom. And cell phones are part of pop culture, which defines generation," Castro-Gill said.

"So if we're not using that, we are wasting the knowledge and experience and the skills that students already have."

Parent Annika Carlsten said she wants her kids to have less time on their phones, not more, given the studies she's read and what she's seen at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School, which does not have a school-wide policy barring cell phones.

At a critical time for kids to learn social-emotional skills, Carlsten said, "You're letting kids hide behind their phones, not encouraging the kind of face-to-face communication that fosters a community, that encourages kids to be kind to each other, that helps kids learn how to navigate body language and facial expressions and and learn how to interact with each other socially."

While many Seattle middle schools have a no-cell-phone policy, Carlsten said Robert Eagle Staff left it up to teachers. Some didn't allow phones in class. Other teachers asked kids to use their phones in order to free up classroom computers.

Carlsten said some of her son's teachers also asked students to download an app to get reminders on their phones after school hours about things like homework assignment due dates.

"I think that overall it is really troublesome, and sends really mixed messages about why the school environment is encouraging the use of something that lots of research says is unhealthy at this age," Carlsten said.

For other families, though, having a cell phone at school does feel like the healthy choice.

One mom, who asked to stay anonymous to protect her family’s privacy, said her daughter’s undiagnosed dyslexia made her want to stay home a lot in middle school.

"One of the things that got her back there was knowing that she had a phone, and could make it through as much of the day as she felt comfortable with, and then could contact me right away, or just to check in when she needed it,” the mom said.

School cell phone policies typically allow for exceptions for students with disabilities or who need phones for mental or physical health reasons. But some parents say they don't want their children's disabilities to be made obvious when they are the only ones with cell phones out in class.

This mother said that she didn’t want to have to appeal to the school for an exception.

"I felt that it was very important in terms of her safety to have a parent being the one who made that choice about what she needed, instead of someone else,” she said.

She also expressed an opinion many parents share: that letting kids use phones at school allows them to learn how to use technology responsibly.

"Just like we don’t teach abstinence in sex education, I don’t think we should be teaching abstinence in technology, either, as the solution for something that’s a very important part of our modern culture," she said.

If Seattle Public Schools adopts a no-cell phone policy in elementary and middle schools, it will join many other districts in the region that have a similar policy, including Bellevue, Everett, Issaquah, Auburn, Mukilteo and Tukwila.

Most of those districts restrict cell phone use in high schools, as well — either all day or during class periods.

Some Seattle high schools have been experimenting with stricter phone policies, as well.

At Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Principal Kristina Rodgers said for years, students' phone use was "constant."

"Kids walking through the halls with their phones, looking down, communicating through text, sitting there playing games, staring at their screens in the lunchroom, kids using phones in classrooms when they were done with their work just as a way to zone out," Rodgers said.

Staff suspected students' attachment to their devices at school was interfering with their well-being, Rodgers said. They were spending too much time comparing themselves to others on social media and posting or reading snarky or gossipy things about each other.

"We know that there's already so much going on during teen years anyway, that if we can lessen some of that distractability or anxiety-inducing drama, if you will, then let's do it," Rodgers said.

Last school year, Roosevelt started requiring students to put their phones away in class.

"I was very nervous. And it was one of the easiest things we have ever done," Rodgers said.

Students now chat, rather than Snapchat, when they finish their work, she said.

Many teachers even hang canvas pockets at the front of the room for kids to park their phones. In some classes, Rodgers said, every kid has a phone, so teachers can take attendance by seeing which phones are missing.

Rodgers said teachers and parents have thanked her for the change, which they said helped teens realize how hooked they'd gotten on their devices and opened the door to conversations about how to reduce phone use outside of school, as well.

Former middle school teacher Castro-Gill said all the concern about cell phones in school is just history repeating itself.

"I feel like we go through this every time some technology or generation changes the way they do things. 'Radio is going to melt kids' brains,' or 'TV is going to make you go blind," Castro-Gill said.

"But we learned how to use it responsibly, and we're all okay."

Castro-Gill said instead of banning phones at school, she'd like to see schools teach kids how to use their phones appropriately, as she has to do on the job.

"I check my texts, and then I know how to get back to work," she said. "I feel like sometimes we do a disservice to children when we treat them like they're not capable of doing the same things as adults."

The Seattle School Board is expected to take up the proposed cell phone ban in elementary and middle schools later this month.

On paper, the "Away for the Day" rule would not be a change at many schools in the district.

Enforcement, however, varies.

At Mercer Middle School, where student Chris Smith said half his teachers encourage students to use their phones in class, the school already has a cell phone policy: they are supposed to be turned off and put away all day.

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