By Per Peterson
As if it wasn’t difficult enough to hold a teenager’s attention for 45 minutes before cell phones, the smart phone revolution has made teachers’ jobs even more challenging. With cell phones, students couldn’t be more distracted in the classroom if there were a team of horses prancing around the room.
“Even if the phone is on silent/vibrate, as soon as it goes off, the student’s attention is lost,” said Roger Benson, a science teacher at Tracy Area High School. “Their attention goes right to the phone. ‘Who is texting me?’ ‘How should I respond?’ ‘When should I respond?’ Think about how often students text each other during the day and you can get an idea of how many distractions this adds up to.”
While the state, and the country for that matter, years ago began an aggressive campaign against distracted driving, distracted learning wasn’t even an afterthought. However, as more and more students were given the responsibility of carrying a smartphone — and doing so at younger ages — it became abundantly clear that the distractions that come with smartphones are not relegated to the car or dinner table.
“There seemed to be a domino effect, in that if one student had a phone out, then many students quit focusing on classroom materials and activities so that they could look at or use their phone, too,” TAHS English teacher Vicki Streifel said.
“Students often paid more attention to their phone than schoolwork,” Benson recalls of the days before the new cell phone policy. “As soon as there was a free minute in class, students took out their phones and were texting or playing games. Spare minutes were not used for studying or preparing for future events.”
The accessibility of smartphones — and the sheer number of them being brought to school — prompted District No. 2904 to implement a new cell phone policy, which went into effect this school year. While some students have bent the new rule from time to time, the classroom ban has been, for the most part, rather well-received by the student body.
“For me, I’m not saying I’m not a teenager — I’m on my phone a lot — but the only person I really talk to is my mom,” senior Anna Zwach said. “I text her — otherwise I do some Snapchats and stuff. But it’s not like I can’t go without it. I still look at it between classes, but in the middle of class I’m not freaking out because I don’t have my phone.”
TAHS Principal Kathy Vondracek said prior to the implementation of the policy, teachers were noticing “immense” distractions in the classroom. As a principal, she noticed how kids would more frequently ask to go to the bathroom when, in reality, what they really wanted to do was check their phone.
“That was their method of getting time on their phone whenever they wanted,” she said. “Our job here is to have our students learn the standards, grow as young people — we want them to learn they can live with their phone and still use it only when they need it.”
The new policy prohibits students from bringing their phone into a classroom and includes the use of a phone in any way, anywhere in the building during class time. Teachers were given the go-ahead to confiscate the phone if a student violated the policy.
This is Streifel’s first year of teaching full-time, but she remembers fighting the cell phone battle as a sub.
“Students would continually text in the classroom and take pictures/selfies for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Students were telling me that they had to text their parents back or otherwise ‘had’ to make contact with a parent sporadically throughout the day. It seemed that many of the concerns could have been better addressed with advanced planning and better communication at home. I was also concerned (as a sub) seeing how addicted students were to their electronic devices.”
Senior Bobbi Jo Evers doesn’t mind the new policy.
“I’m fine with it, honestly,” she said. “It would be nice to have it when we’re doing, like, cool science experiments to record it, but not having it doesn’t bother me.”
Evers said she isn’t really conscience of her phone’s absence during class.
“I’d rather just kind of have it if something funny happens, or if we’re doing something cool in class, or if we need to look something up,” she said.
Vondracek said the spirit of the policy is to keep students from using their phone during class time. She said all it takes to lose a student is the simple vibration that comes with a new message or phone call.
“It will take minutes to get them back to focus,” she said. “When we’re talking about trying to raise test scores, those minutes add up.”
According to the policy, students can use their phones during “passing times” between classes and during the lunch hour, but they must be kept in their lockers during class time. It is the school district’s hope that preventing students from carrying their phones with them will help temper the perceived addiction they have with their device.
“I feel the new policy is working much better,” Benson said. “At least the phones are not out during every free moment of the class period. I am sure that there are students that still bring the phones into the room and have them in their backpack or pocket. Although this is not ideal, at least they are not out and are not an obsession.”
Charlie Vang, a senior, said the new cell phone policy doesn’t affect him too much since he isn’t too attached to his phone. He said he agrees with the idea behind the policy though.
“I think it’s pretty good,” he said. “They’re pretty strict about it, but I know a lot of kids just carry their phone on them anyway. But the policy is definitely helping kids keep their phone away while in class.”
Senior Eli Thor agrees, and said the plan is a good one. Like Vang, Thor isn’t a dedicated cell phone user, as so many of his peers are.
“I think it’s working out very well,” Thor said. “A lot of students don’t use their phone in class anymore. I’ve never really been ‘addicted’ to my phone.”
For Zwach, she mostly misses the convenience of having her phone on her person at all times during the school day.
“If my mom needs to get a hold of me, or if I need to get ahold of my mom or my dad, I can’t just go to my phone and be like, ‘Hey come get me out of school, I’m sick,” Zwach said.
Anxiety, socializing and smartphones
School officials say the sub-culture that has been created by smartphones has, in a way, had a negative effect on a certain portion of the student body. They agree that not only are phones a physical distraction, there’s an emotional game at play as well.
“We’re dealing with so much depression and anxiety and raised stress levels that, quite honestly, is unprecedented — and not just with teenagers, but with society as a whole,” Vondracek said. “We have to start being smarter and more conscientious about what we give priority to. And cell phones are on that list — cell phones, the Internet, all of it.”
Streifel went so far as to say that some students seem relieved that phones are not allowed in the classroom.
“There is less anxiety in the classroom because students do not have the continually fear of ‘missing out,’” she said. “Students are interacting with one another frequently and more appropriately. They seem happier. Not only will educational opportunities have a better chance of success in our classrooms, but social skills are bound to improve.”
Vondracek is not naive enough to believe anyone can live without a cell phone in today’s world. As a society, for better or worse, she’s aware we’ve grown to rely on them, partly because, as she said, they are handy. However, she said the more drawn a child is to his or her phone, the less that child is interacting — face to face — with others.
“We don’t want social medial to replace face-to-face interaction,” she said. “That’s a concern. We want our young people to learn to have conversations, look people in the eye, develop relationships in person. Any type of electronic communication — you lose the inflection of the voice, you lose the facial expression, you lose the body language. Those are interpersonal skills that are vital to … life.”
Vondracek said schools cannot allow a child’s formative years to be wasted at the hands of technology.
“If they don’t learn those skills, that’s on us,” she said.
TAHS choir director Wendy Johnson said smartphones can be a source of stress and anxiety because of the social aspect. She said a student can get anxiety just from seeing other kids getting messages that they don’t receive.
“It’s the feeling of being left out,” she said. “I think the worst is the kids that are neglected. They see happy pictures on other people’s posts and they don’t have any friends and it makes them feel even more isolated.
A break for teachers
Not only do students benefit from the freedom of not having to worry about texts and calls during class, teachers appreciate knowing they can hold their attention longer. Streifel said teaching kids is about more than giving pop quizzes and assigning homework.
“There are so many factors involved in managing a classroom: preparing for classes, understanding your students’ needs, utilizing several types of methods to address alternative styles of learning and modifications, addressing behavioral and emotional issues, keeping on top of makeup work, parent/student/teacher meetings, correcting papers and projects, and simply getting to know the full names of all one’s students (I believe I had 155 names to learn),” Streifel said. “I am happy to focus on my students’ education instead of babysitting and policing cell phone usage.”
Johnson also appreciates not having to do that smartphone babysitting as well.
“I think it’s better this year because they’re not walking into my class with their phone,” she said. “Last year they’d walk in with it, looking at it, and I’d have to tell them, ‘OK, phones off, let’s get to work.”
“The teachers say it’s nice because students weren’t paying attention to their lessons, but for a lot of projects, it would be nice to have because it’s easier than our laptops,” said Evers.
Johnson knows not 100% of the students adhere to the policy and that there will always be those who bring their phone to class — either on purpose or by mistake.
“At the beginning of the year it was, ‘Oh, oh I forgot,’” she said. “But the overall me-busting-a-kid-with-their-phone has gone way down.”
With more than 90 kids in her class, Johnson faces a unique dilemma compared to her colleagues. She said she keeps the tempo moving in her class, eliminating as much down time as possible and keeping her charges engaged from the start of class to the end. She said she told her students the policy is there for them, not just for the teachers because no phones means no interruptions.
“One of them who is a constant user said to her teacher, ‘I’m actually relieved because I’m not getting messaged all the time,’” Johnson said. “Even if they’re not checking it, they’re phone’s going ‘bzzzt, bzzzt, bzzzt’ and they can feel it. “For them to lose concentration for two seconds, it takes a long time for them to get their concentration back.
Before this year, Johnson said she was strict with her own unofficial cell phone policy.
“There was an occasional kid that was going to be on their phone, but if I caught them, I took it and brought it to the office, I didn’t give them a chance,” she recalls. “I say, ‘Your first chance is that you even took it out, you don’t get to put it on my desk … I told them at the beginning of last year that if I took their phone, that’s already their second offense, because your first offense is you should’ve never had it here in the first place.”
The first cell phone policy violation results in the confiscation of said phone for an amount of time to be determined by the principal. The second offense requires a parent/guardian to pick up cell phone, and detention will be assigned. Further violations could be deemed as insubordination, which, according to the school district’s student handbook, “encompasses a broad range of unsatisfactory pupil conduct such as disobedience, unruliness, resisting authority or lack of respect for a staff member.
This includes taking pictures of students or staff members without their permission and posting pictures of students or staff members without their permission on any web site. This can lead from anything to an in-school suspension to up to a five-day suspension.