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April 21st, 2010
11:00 AM ET

School gives kids cell phones as a teaching tool

By CNN correspondent Deborah Feyerick with senior producer Dana Garrett

(CNN) – When seventh grader Cayleb Coyne wants to send a text in class, he slips his cell phone into his backpack and pretends to be looking for a piece of paper. Texting between classes has an added benefit. "It's harder to get caught in the hallways then it is in the class," says the soft spoken boy.

Coyne, who says he sends about 300 texts a day, has had his cell phone confiscated six times in six months. He's not the only one despite constant reminders from his principal at Haverstraw Middle School, Avis Collier Shelby. "Your cell phones are supposed to be where? Yes, in your locker. Not in class!" she announces over the schools public address system.

And yet class is exactly where they end up. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, even in schools that ban cell phone use nearly 60% of all students admit texting-during-class – a growing problem facing schools across the country.

What to do? Michael Rich, a media expert and pediatrician who calls himself a "mediatrician" and counsels parents about teens and technology on his blog says, "I don't think we're going to stop the tsunami," he says. "Pandora's Box is open here. The technologies are here. What we need to do is to take control of them instead of letting them control us" – which is exactly what educators at the Haverstraw Middle School are attempting.

"You can't put the genie back in the bottle," says Principal Shelby, who is overseeing a pilot program that has distributed 75 cell phones to students in the fifth grade. Texting and calling has been disabled and Internet sites are filtered. The phones are used for things like note taking and research.

"It's not really a phone, it's their computer for class," says social studies teacher Ronald Royster, who had the class research Ellis Island on their phones, then go to Power Point. "It has not taken the place of anything. It's a resource the kids can use like a book or a notebook," he says.

For 11-year-old Kiara Rivera, Ryan Guzinski and Naya Rivera, the cell phones – renamed MLDs for mobile learning devices – have opened up new ways to learn and changed their parents perspectives. "The first week, my dad freaked out when he thought I was texting, but now he realizes it's like keeping up with our generation," says Guzinski, who made a movie about decimals on his phone during math class and who says its easier to memorize lessons.

"Its almost like you want to look at the screen, it's like a mini TV where you like, you want to look at it, you don't want to go look at a piece of paper," says Naya Rivera adding, "Now that I have this, it's kind of more fun to go on the Internet on this and experiment with it at home instead of sitting there and texting all day, like doing nothing."

Kiara Rivera, who carries about ten pounds of books in her backpack, likes it for other reasons, "Let’s say your like reading the textbook, you don't have to keep turning the page, you could just like press a button and it'll go to the next thing. So it’s easier to go on this than to go on the books."

The kids carry the devices with them all the time and have constant access to the Internet. They can send their homework assignments to their teachers, who sometimes send out reminders about assignment deadlines. District Superintendent Ileana Eckert says dollar for dollar she'd rather buy more phones than more computers. She stands by her decision to take part in the pilot program despite push-back from some teachers. "I think we're in the middle of a new revolution. It's part of who they are today. Why not use something in a positive way that they're bringing with them," she says.

At Bayside High School in Florida, principal Robin Novelli wages war daily with teens and cell phones. He patrols the hallways and says he simply has to open his palm and students know to turn over their phone. Stopping one young culprit he asks, "Why are you so addicted to this technology?"

Parents have to come to the school to collect the phones. If confiscated more than once, students risk being suspended – a relatively new policy that Novelli says has dramatically reduced the number of repeat offenders. Still, teachers confiscate phones on a daily basis and this year 200 kids have had their phones taken away.

"When you're studying math or science or English or history or whatever it might be, those students need to be fully 100% authentically engaged in the classroom and pulling out a cell phone and texting your friends about whatever it is they might be talking about, is not the learning environment that I as a principal want to promote," says Novelli. He's so adamant against cell phones, he researched the possibility of putting up a jamming signal, but was told it is illegal.

As for the fifth-graders interviewed for this article, they say their grades have gone up since using the cell phones. What's more, because they have access to so many applications like Power Point and Sketchy, they say they're actually spending a lot less time texting.

Filed under: Education • Tech • Texting 2 Much?
soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Paul Bartomioli

    I have 4 Teenagers. I am their parent, not their BFF. All the phones have time of day restrictions. They are shut off during school hours. They are shut off for sleep.

    It is time for parents to grow up and act like adults. I do not need to hear some talking head "expert" tell me to ask other parents what they do. I do not need some educrat to make the rules for me. I made the adult decision to have children. Part of that decision is to raise responsible future members of society. The first rule in society is that there are rules, and consequences for breaking those rules.

    April 24, 2010 at 6:59 am |
  2. ski

    Smart Phones ARE computers. Look at the cost savings from your school budgets if schools were able to take advantage of using student cell phones as computers in place of each school's sedentary workstations that must be purchased/refreshed each year, along with all of the networking parts, wires and technicians. Look at all the positives I just listed!

    April 23, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
  3. TMV

    There are legitimate reasons for children having cell phones. The society that we live in is a global one. Many children live part time with one parent and a cell phone can give them constant contact with the other. Cell phones carry GPS so that a child can be located very quickly should the need arise. I remember and article from many years ago about the computers in school and how it was not needed. Computer skills are a needed in almost every profession, and the more you know about them the better. Cell phones are already necessary in the real world (professional world) as well. Schools teaching practical skills like internet research using a cell phone is very necessary.

    Carl, as far as fifth graders doing "research", they do, alot. I have a 5th grader who has a cell phone, its usage is monitered. We combined internet research with library research for about 13 different assignments and projects this year alone. Most children have constant questions about a varied amount of subjects. My son and I frequently "reseach" thing on his phone when we are out. Such as an insect that looks cool and he wants to know what it is. It is a tool, just like any other tool. The usage of it can be positive or negative. It depends on supervision and monitering.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  4. AngryVet2

    There are electronic devices that block cell phone signals and should be built into each classroom. All signals could be block and the students' phones could be anywhere. They just won't work. Simple solution.

    April 23, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
  5. Steve

    Have we really reached the point where our children are too lazy to turn the pages of a book?

    Additionally, I think parents should be able to get service providers to restrict service during school hours – let them text or call their parents/guardians or 911 but nobody else. Surely service providers can turn service for certain numbers off and on according to a set calendar.

    April 23, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  6. Amleth

    Considering that "free" laptops given to students were used to invade their privacy, let's look at the obvious course here...
    All the texts a kid makes will be viewed by the school.
    GPS tracking after school? I wouldn't doubt it.
    Every kid who takes one will be forfeiting their privacy.

    April 23, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
  7. Rob

    We need to assemble a detailed list now of all the kids in this school who are using cell phones. In 20 years we can then see how many of them are living, how many are dead and how many are in the midst of brain tumor surgery. Hey motorola, wanna help?!?!?

    April 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  8. Kim

    I wan't my child to have his cell phone on him at all times even in school. If something should happen god forbid he might not be able to get to his locker to let me know he is ok. If he has it on him or in his backpack then I feel better. Our school bans then but I have given him permission to keep it in his backpack and if the school tries to punish him I will take care of it. I am his parent and have the final say.

    April 23, 2010 at 9:57 am |
  9. flo

    kids have no business with cell phones unless they can pay for the bill

    April 23, 2010 at 12:58 am |
  10. Mark

    While older people may not get it, it is a great idea. In a world where we are imersed in technology and graphics and entertainment 24/7 kids are not able to focus in the traditional sit down shut up and read and do this worksheet for 9 hours a day. In the future when text books are avaliable on mobile devices it will be much cheaper when you think one text book can cost over $80. I had a cell phone when i was in third grade (granted it was the size of a banana) it really isnt a distraction. You send some texts, check a facebook , but your still listening to the teacher. If you can talk and drive you can text and hear.

    April 22, 2010 at 11:25 pm |
  11. Oleg from Foster City, CA

    Confiscating phones will not make kids 100% engaged in the class. Old fashioned doodling and daydreaming works just as well. As an adult teaching the class, you should be more interesting than what silly 5th graders text to each other.

    April 22, 2010 at 7:38 pm |
  12. Jim

    Why should kids be different than their parents? Chances are god that none of their parents know how to set their cell phones down for a minute either.

    April 22, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  13. jmz

    There has got to be a better way. Seriously, I'm not buying this mld nonsense. I'm not saying the theory isn't correct. The more info a kid has access to the better but come on. This is why I became conservative!

    April 22, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
  14. musheded

    My wife is a high school teacher and based on what she and her colleagues have told me and what I've actually seen when I've visited campus I think the cell phone bans should remain in place. Teenagers have enough trouble concentrating without throwing something else into the mix. The cell phone companies should offer parents/guardians the option to restrict phone usage hours, number of texts etc. for FREE, because paying $5 a month to do this seems outrageous considering that most of us don't even look at the restrictions more than a few times a year. I highly recommend the restrictions though as it seems to have made a huge difference for our nephew who went from flunking out to A's, B's and C's after having his texting taken away completely and now limited along with his time of day calling (though emergency calls always go through no matter what).

    April 22, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  15. AM

    As a student, I am repulsed by this idea. "Jamming" a phone system? What kind of idiot would do this in the age of school attacks, such as Columbine and Virginia Tech. It is horrific to think that were something like this were to happen at his school, because of his vehemence against cell phones, students would not be able to contact their parents, to let them know they are alive. I question Mr. Novielli's judgement on his students safety. Granted, I understand his position on the overwhelming affect of students and their addictions to their cell phones, but their safety overrides his position. I think suspension is a bit harsh of a punishment simply for having a phone out – I've been in trouble myself for forgetting to turn my phone off after I got to school, only for my mother to call my voicemail to tell me to pick up something from the grocery store when I got out. Does that warrent suspension? I think not, and I think Novielli's doesn't either. A much lighter punishment for this, such as inschool suspension would be a much more appropriate punishment, than having a college transcript read SUSPENSION multiple times.

    April 22, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  16. carl

    what fifth grader is doing "research"? people learned fine without electronics in class for years. i think just old-fashioned focus might help more...

    April 22, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
  17. DH

    I've been curious about the whole issue of teachers and principals confiscating phones from students. In any other context, this would be considered robbery, and any other cell phone thief would face criminal charges. Has this been tried as a defense against overzealous school officials?

    April 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  18. Tracy

    Such a shame that our children can no longer focus on learning. In 50 years we will be so far behind the rest of the global market. As a teacher I am very sad.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
  19. Rachel

    Am I the only one seeing the kids preferring "TV-like" screens to books and complaining about how inconvenient it is to turn a page, and weeping? Not to mention the number of "like"s jammed into their sentences.

    April 22, 2010 at 11:14 am |
  20. Anna

    Uh, why does this 7th grader even have a cell in the first place?

    Kids are so spoiled. No wonder they don't respect anyone, especially parents. They get what they want.

    The ONLY reason I got mine was because I still had 2 months until graduation (2007) and my parents had to move (I stayed with my grandparents).

    April 22, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  21. RML

    This is ridiculous. Companies making billions from these phones and "texts" have convinced most of society that they "need" them.

    Amazing that people survived so many years without them, their distraction, and their expense.

    April 22, 2010 at 7:12 am |
  22. ski

    Great idea. Great project. Use the devices the kids already have and know how to use. Thanks Deborah and Haverstraw MS for finally exposing the positive side of the cell phone in school debacle.

    April 22, 2010 at 6:56 am |
  23. rachbell

    Saw this story on CNN this morning. What an inspiration! The children of America are going to become visual learners. And there's nothing wrong with that because the internet has made us all visual learners. What a brilliant way to work with new technology.

    April 21, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
  24. Steph

    Haha, this is epic ^_^

    April 21, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  25. Dr. P. E. Lehman, Ph.D.

    Whatever happened to a good discussion about what we were learning in class? A good discussion about what we each are at any moment? If we must communicate, then let it have substance and meaning, and value.
    Texting is fine for social reasons. It extends our horizons. Texting can amplify our vision of our community, our state, and even the world. But is texting the be all, end all? I don't think so. Not to the extennt that it takes out the face to face interaction. We can not, dare not, give up the face to face interaction of person and mind.

    April 21, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  26. Joan

    most elementary and middle schoolers are too immature to handle all the responsiblities that come with access to texting. Disable this ability on your kids cell phones until they are older. If they want to talk to a friend they can actually talk to them. No need for texting at this age. It's a huge distraction, time waster and way too secretive which can lead to cyber-bullying.

    April 21, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  27. Amelie Newhouse

    Very interesting dilemma. I think I would side with the High School principal who forbids the phones on this one. In the 70's we would get in trouble for passing notes or doing other work than what was going on in class, how is using a cell phone any different than that? In addition I think that adults learn the difference between professional/academic/proper English and slang/cuss words, and would be punished for using slang/cuss words in class, so the same standards should and must be held up to the students. (Slang is no fun anyway unless its "underground" no?). Also some might call it "old school" but those tiny screens and keyboards can't be good for eyes, necks, fingers, let alone attention spans.

    Life comes in living breathing full color 3-D, kids always want to play with new technologies (without learning the rules or consequences, or paying the bills) and that is great but old technologies have passed the test of time, and I think it is foolish for schools to spend all their money trying to purchase the latest technologies. I've seen this in everything from elementary schools to graduate schools of art. Purchase a little technology and take good care of it....let the folks who want to purchase the new stuff experiment outside in the world....and be AVANT GARDE. Learning to plant an organic garden or make a healthy lunch is just as important a technology as playing with tiny computers during a lecture. I'd say a lot more important.

    April 21, 2010 at 11:59 am |