Should Students Have Phones in the Classroom?

cell phone classHere’s an article on an apposite topic for our times by colleague and guest contributor Jane Alwis.


Educators and school administrators appear to be split over the use of cell phones in the class room and in fact many schools currently have a difficult fight on their hands to enforce a ban they have in place on students carrying their personal phones to classes. Despite school policies requiring students leave their phones at home or leave them in school lockers, many students still insist on carrying them in their pockets. Asking teens to go without their phone is like asking them to go without a limb. If I had been asked my opinion of students carrying phones to class a couple of years ago, my answer would have been a resounding ‘no’, however I am now an avid supporter of embracing the technology that my students embrace. The new cell phones are convenient, user friendly and can do most things that a computer can do. They also have the advantage of being highly portable. At this time with the growing number of cell phone providers offering unlimited data plans for relatively little money, the average teen is connected where-ever he/she goes. I am not advocating that students should be entitled to run around with their phones all day doing as they wish, however it seems to me that they are a tool that can be used for the benefit of our students if we are willing to learn their capabilities and educate our students in the proper use of the technology for educational purposes.
One of my students struggles with dysgraphia and has tracking issues that make copying notes from the board an overly strenuous task. In my class when he is laboring to copy the notes on the board, he has little energy to articulate the many ideas that he can contribute to the discussion. In some classes he is described as a non-contributor or non-participant, even though he will get handed a copy of the teacher’s notes. Unfortunately the teacher notes do not contain all the ideas that the class brain-stormed together that were recorded on the board. At the end of the discussion when the other students are writing down the ideas in their notebooks, ‘Max’ discreetly takes out his phone, takes a photo of the board and emails the photo to himself. He now has the same information as everyone else in the class and was able to concentrate on contributing ideas, in other words, he was actively engaged in the learning process. There are a myriad of other applications of this particular idea; I know of biology teachers who ask students to photograph living organisms for homework, and art teachers who ask students to photograph objects they are inspired by just to name a couple.
Another of my students is hopelessly disorganized. He suffers from, among other things, Executive Function Disorder and as such can never remember where he is supposed to be and what time he is supposed to be there. Since learning how to use the reminder feature on his phone, he has been on time for all of his appointments. His daily academic schedule, nightly homework assignments posted to the school website and weekly music, counseling and speech appointments are all contained in the device that he carries with him where-ever he goes as part of his teenage uniform. New technology is expensive, and in this time of constant cuts to education budgets “people are becoming more open to using student-owned mobile technology in schools” (Kolb, 2010).
The functions available on a standard smart phone today go well beyond the functions of the phones of previous generations. Speech to text functionality enables the user to do far more than send a hands-free text message whilst driving a car. Students are able to dictate writing assignments, classroom notes and reminders to themselves without the cumbersome and conspicuous computer and headphones required by computer software such as Dragon. This opens the educational doors for so many students who have in the past struggled with putting pen to paper to prove that they have understood the set assignment. Add to this the feature of Dropbox which enables the user to easily interact with all documents in one place without concern whether they were created on the phone or a computer and you now have situation where students can continue to work on an assignment just as easily at school, at home or anywhere in between. My colleague had all his students compose a 25 word story using their cell phones, take a photograph to accompany their writing and post it to the school blog. This exercise enabled all students to participate fully and enjoy the same learning opportunity in spite of their educational diagnosis or ELL status.
When we consider the free apps that can be accessed, the educational opportunities appear limitless. Online textbooks and text to speech reading of online documents afford students with reading disabilities the ability to access both curriculum and reference material when they need to. Translation apps assist English Language Learners access written information. Students can be placed in the role of on the spot journalists, film producers and bloggers. The synthesis skills required to produce a 6 second Vine about a class topic are arguably more developed than those required to write a much longer paper with added creativity. PollEverywhere allows teachers to ask questions and have students text their responses which are then shared via a power point presentation with the class. This can be particularly useful when reviewing material prior to testing or encouraging students who are nervous to contribute in a class setting. Using cell phone technology and “creating podcasts has been shown to increase motivation as well as students’ writing and listening skills, according to research by Ann Marie Dlott and Jeanne Halderson”(Malek, 2012).
Of course there are a number of valid arguments against the use of cell phones in schools. According to the Pew Teens and Technology Project, about 78 percent of teens and 91 percent of adults own a mobile phone (Madden, 2013), if this is still the case then we have to consider the 23percent of students without their own devices. George Forneo, school superintendent for District 113, outside of Chicago, whose school district supports the use of cell phones, states that although teachers are taking advantage of cell phone technology, “their use has also created worries about cheating, visiting inappropriate websites, sexting or overuse (Higgins, 2013). Karen Kolb argues that “the hardest part is making it acceptable to turn to technologies that aren’t traditionally used in schools (Varlas, 2010). There is also concern that existing school infrastructure cannot tolerate the extra demand on wifi networks, a situation that will hopefully be rectified by the ConnectED initiative announced by the Federal government which aims to connect 99 percent of schools around the country to broadband Internet(Higgins, 2012).
There are a number of countries where cell phone technology has been embraced in the classroom, New Zealand and Australia, predominately. In each school district where they are being used there is strong documentation to support that the most important task is teaching students to value their devices as educational tools and to monitor their use effectively. Kipp Rogers from Newport News, Va., says “ that when mobile devices meant for learning are misused, he’s careful to punish the action and not the technology” (Varlas, 2010). Kolb states that; “we have to get away from the mind-set that the tool is the problem, when really it’s what the students are thinking and doing that creates the problem” (Varlas, 2010). My own classroom rules are simple; your phone is used for educational purposes or it is put away. I have to admit that initially monitoring this was difficult; however students soon learned that access to their cell phones led to more engaging lessons. If they wanted to these lessons to continue then they quickly learned to do the right thing.


Higgins, J. 2013. More schools use cell phones as learning tools. USA Today. Retrieved July 17, 2014,
Madden, M. 2013. Teens and technology. Retrieved July 17,2014,from Pew Research website:
Malek, P. 2012.Learning at your fingertips: Cell phones in the classroom. Retrieved July 17, 2014, from ASCD website:
Varlas, L. Cell phones allow anytime learning- An interview with Liz Keren-Kolb. ASCD Express.vol 5, (18)

Is Thinking “Critically” Enough?


discarded booksThe age of criticism is upon us and skepticism rules the day. Michael S. Roth in this recent NYT op-ed laments the over-emphasis on critiquing and debunking. This is a most unfortunate circumstance in academia. The best and brightest minds are dedicated to deconstructing, debunking, and in essence scorning the work of others. Rather than remaining open to new ideas, today’s students have been encouraged, enticed, and trained to take issue even with (or perhaps especially with) the great scholars and respected authorities of renown. Perhaps it goes back to the western tendency toward individualism and analytic thinking (which strangely enough may be linked to wheat farming).

This penchant for the critical is not in itself a detriment; in this electronic age of dubious claims or intentionally misleading information, (think the media campaign on both sides of the crisis in Ukraine), not being easily misled is a good characteristic to have. But is it a virtue in itself? I am reminded of the students in my introductory course in epistemology. Whenever pressed, there is a clear tendency to repeatedly revert to radical skepticism despite reminders that this is the problematic default position from which we are attempting to find a way out.

It would be nice for a change if we had a rule that every criticism must be coupled with a generative act of positive, creative thinking. Don’t just tell me what’s wrong with what an author said; give me something worth pondering in its place.

Perhaps it’s time to foster creativity, synthesis, and openness rather than just critical deconstruction. After all, real progress was never made simply by fault-finding but more often by embracing the best we could come up with.

What’s Wrong with Teach for America?

Teacher_writing_on_a_BlackboardSuccessful, ambitious young people armed with a 5-week summer training course drop into America’s less desirable schools. But who is it really helping? Critics claim that TFA recruits inexperienced people who are more interested in padding their CVs than making a real difference. There are also claims that school districts prefer hiring TFA teachers because they come in at the bottom of the pay scale and leave before climbing much higher. And if that weren’t bad enough, it appears that veteran teachers have been laid off to make way for the swelling ranks of “corps members” deployed on their two-year stints. Faced with such criticism, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp defended the organization saying that it is a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization.

Take a look at one teacher’s sardonic take on “The Green Berets of Excellence.”

Promoting Social Justice Through the Exploration of Literature

By Kim Bonica, high school English teacher

One of the many goals of any educational institution is to help shape students into educated, well-rounded, independent thinkers who will eventually become productive members of society. As such, it is the job of schools to educate students about various concerns related to social justice and diversity in the world surrounding them, since many adolescents often require some guidance in educating themselves in this area. This is especially true of boarding schools, which by nature incorporate students from a variety of geographic locations and backgrounds. However, educators often encounter difficulty with engaging students in discussions about social justice without falling victim to the adolescent perception that such issues are simply the focus of adults aiming to lecture about topics unrelated to the average teen. Literary critical theories can be an effective method of practicing critical thinking skills while also evaluating a variety of social justice issues within the secondary education classroom. Read More

Lectures Better than Group Work; What’s a Teacher to Think?


Before you go flipping any classrooms you might want to take pause and consider the results of this study from Harvard. The study shows that teachers who increased the amount of class time spent lecturing as opposed to having students solve problems got better results.

Researchers using data from the 2003 TIMSS assessment were able to rigorously examine the effects of teaching methods among a large group of students. Their findings flew in the face of the conventional wisdom promoted over the last 30 years by such organizations as the National Research Council and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics calling on teachers to engage students in more “hands-on learning and group work.”

The researchers found that in both math and science a 10 percent shift in class-time from problem solving to lecture was associated with a 4% rise in test scores for students who had the very same peers in math and science classes. This beneficial outcome of increased lecture time seemed to hold true for above-average students as well as their below-average peers.

What does it mean? The thing that has been prescribed for decades is wrong? The old way was right? What’s a poor teacher to think? The study’s authors acknowledge that it may not be just lecturing in itself that explains the better outcomes. It may well be that better teachers tend to prefer lecturing or that group problem-solving activities are more difficult to organize and integrate effectively.

At we consistently hold that there are no prescribed fixes. Effective teaching varies as greatly as the diverse learners who are taught and the diverse teachers who teach them. Teachers have to be good at what they do, and what they do must also be good for the students; simply applying a prescribed method, whether it’s flipping the classroom or holding forth at the podium, isn’t any kind of guarantee, and blind adherence to the latest pedagogical trend is likely to disappoint. The teaching profession should be just that – a profession. Professionals are entrusted to make decisions that will benefit those in their care. There are simply too many wide-ranging variables to ever hope that a narrow set of approaches will lead to optimal results. What prescribed fix for education do we endorse at Only one – a community of caring professionals who come up with effective solutions as challenges arise.


Should Students Have Phones in the Classroom?

Monday, July 21, 2014

cell phone classHere’s an article on an apposite topic for our times by colleague and guest contributor Jane Alwis.


Educators and school administrators appear to be split over the use of cell phones in the class room and in fact many …


Promoting Social Justice Through the Exploration of Literature

Thursday, April 17, 2014
By Kim Bonica, high school English teacher

One of the many goals of any educational institution is to help shape students into educated, well-rounded, independent thinkers who will eventually become productive members of society. As such, it is the job …


Khan Academy, Flipped Teaching, and the Inequalities of Standardized Testing

Friday, March 21, 2014
On March 5th, Khan Academy—the free, online learning platform comprised of video lectures—declared that they would be partnering with the College Board to give free testing software to the public. Fantastic, no? The strange partnership is touted as ushering in “a future determined by merit not money.” Yet if it is true what some recent studies have been claiming about the intractable snail’s pace of social mobility and the hereditary link to wealth, it might not have as much of an impact as hoped. Access is only one part of the complex problem of closing the achievement gap among disparate income groups. Moreover, what are we to make of this strange pairing?
Matthew Kim's Writers' Workshop is one of the first classes in the nation to use the textbook Writer/Designer (2014). W/D is a unique text in that it asks students to consider writing not only in the traditional linguistic mode, but also writing in visual, aural, spatial, and gestural modes.

Empowering Students’ Imaginations of what Writing Could Be: Communicating Persuasively and Unconventionally with the Public Service Announcement

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

By Matthew Aaron Kim

Patricia Dunn (1995; 2001), implores teachers to introduce unconventional modes of representation to experienced and novice student writers in hopes that these writers can work with or against their customary thinking patterns to produce valuable insights …


July 2014
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