Friday, October 2, 2009

Cell Phones and Chatty Students

Guest Writer, Mel Leaman

I’m the pushing sixty guy, who still likes the one-knob tuner in the car radio, a phone conversation that can’t be interrupted by a beep of an in-coming call, and a sidewalk discussion that does not have to compete with digital distractions. It has always been important to me to give a person my undivided attention. In that light, one can deduce that despite my better judgment I still experience sidewalk ‘O, I gotta’ take this”interposes as disrespectful and rude. My head tells me to not be offended and simply accept this scenario as a trend of the times, but my heart feels like a second-hand rose. Now, with a confession like that, how do I handle the use of cell phones and corner conversations in the classroom?
The first day of class I tell the students that this place will be a sanctuary. It will be like a bird sanctuary where each feathered friend can sing its song without fear of danger and with the knowledge that his/her song will be heard. The students will need to partner with one another to maintain the sanctuary experience. A commitment to this partnership will create the kind of positive educational environment that complements someone’s financial investment. Part of the listening process is to, in Buddhist terms, “be where you are.” This means that anything that takes us away from the priority of tuning in to one another must be turned off. This action shows respect. To thwart off temptation I ask them to put all cell phones in their pockets. Pocketbooks must be slung over the chair or put on the floor. I let them know that if I see someone using the cell phone or texting it will be interpreted as a sign that this person does not want to participate in the educational process on that day. I will kindly ask him/her to leave upon the first offense. This will not be done with anger, facial expressions of disgust, or raised voice. I will simply stand beside the individual, make my request, and close with an open invitation to attend the next session. Students were asked to leave on two occasions this semester. I have decided that if a student refuses to leave I will offer him/her the option of staying until the security guards come to usher him/her from the room. The intent is to be kind,but firm and to avoid making a scene out of the situation. A similar process is followed when tangent conversations persist. It has worked, so far. The students seem to accept, if not appreciate the boundaries. The classroom for today, feels like a sanctuary. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
It is my hunch that some of the readers do not appreciate my strategy or they may have an approach that works better for them. Share it. How do you handle the issue of cell phones and discipline in your classroom?


  1. 1. First, we have to note that some students use cell phones to take notes in class.

    2. In my experience, unless (a) we have a basic uniform approach to cell phone use in the classroom, which is enforced throughout departments and schools and may be supplemented by individual instructors and (b) also set good examples as professors and desist from using our cell phones in classrooms and at meetings, we won't be very successful controlling the use of cell phones in the classrooms.

    3. We need to discuss this at a faculty meeting and adopt a policy we can enforce.

  2. This is a tough one... Although I have a statement discouraging cell-phone use on my syllabus, I do not really mind that students text during class time as long as they do not disturb the rest of the class. I am guilty of the same offense; during almost any meeting do I find myself receiving and answering text messages. As for side-conversations, if they get too annoying I ask the students to share their conversation with the class. Most often they are discussing something related to the lecture that they are curious about - a perfect opportunity for a "teachable moment". If they were distracted by personal matters they will usually be quiet after I address them. In rare cases do I separate students that are repeat offenders of carrying on distracting conversations during class.
    I respect your approach to the classroom experience as a sanctuary and I am certain that students are capable of following your rules in your classroom while abiding by their next professor's rules as well - whether those rules are stricter or more liberal.

  3. I'm not sure that texting in class is any worse than talking to one's neighbor or writing a paper for another teacher or sleeping, etc.(although being old I admit that it somehow feels more "rude" to me than those other familiar ways of tuning out...)I wonder why we feel the need to have policies about that sort of "not paying attention" when we don't feel the need to have a common written policy on, say, students who chat with their neighbors during a lecture. I wonder why the fact that it's done with technology seems to heighten the offense? That being said, I suspect we all have our ways of dealing with students who are either tuned out or disruptive, and I appreciated Mel's description of his, since it got me thinking about what I do and don't do.

  4. Mel:

    I like your approach because it sets a boundary and you enforce it in a respectful manner. I have to admit that phones, lap tops and talking to ones neighbor disturb me equally. I try to get the class to accept a set of guidelines like respect the speaker, no question is stupid, one conversation at a time etc. at the beginning of the term. When it is violated I ask for help from the group. Now I’m dealing with adults, and I think it makes it easier. The key to your approach is the upfront definition and respectful adherence to the policy.

  5. I also respect Mel's approach of handling such situations, but this is what I tell my students during the first week in my classes about the use of cell phones: "I do not have a problem with your cell phones-- emergencies happen! In case of an emergency call, please excuse yourself and take the call quietly outside the classroom and you may come back when you are done. Also, you may use your cell phone as a calculator when calculators are allowed. Let's just hope you won't have too many emergencies:-)" Of course some students sign up for the class on the second week of the semester missing out my friendly instructions. Like some teachers I also get annoyed if a student is using the cell phone to a point of disturbing a class, same as if they talk to their friend loud while I am explaining something-- fortunately most students are very respectful. Point of interest: A cell phone device makes a nice example/ analogy for explaining the C++ cin/ cout statements in my programming classes!

  6. I love the sanctuary metaphor here, Mel. I'm thinking of all of the real and humorous ways it could be extended (coming to confession for cell phone sins! haha).

    I have no perfect way to deal with this issue. It seems that my rules for cell phones turn soft once I try to enforce them and it turns out a student has it out to put an assignment due date into the calendar in the phone (a responsible move).

    MY problem here probably comes from the fact that cell phones are not just for talking to people anymore, and I hate to eliminate a good and responsible use of one, such as the example above.

  7. I appreciate your various comments. Some have created cause to pause. I see that my present policy places the educational environment above personal emergencies. I think I am comfortable with that. This may sound fairly cold from one who attempts to live with compassion on his sleeves, but most emergency situations cannot be changed by a sudden flight from the classroom.
    Linda poses a related question for me: Why does the fact that it is done with technology heighten the degree of the offense? Believe it or not, this is a soul-searching question for me. I have a distaste for some aspects of immediacy that technology affords.One of those sides that I dislike is the fact that it has tapped into our desire for instantaneous gratification. Can speed kill? Can the ability to go faster, slow us down? Does intensified conversation impair deeper meditation? You know, Linda, I bet that my cell phone policy is in part due to my effort to control some small segment of my world that I perceive to be spinning too fast toward relational disconnectedness under the guise of creating community. I know, on the other hand, one can read accounts that attribute a heightened sense of community to the gift of technology.
    The gift is a real asset to the world of mathmatics. I empathize with those teachers who need their students to have hands-on tools of technology for use in the classroom. Emery's note that cell phones have multiple uses is certainly applicable to the math and science departmental professors. Ali, it appears that you have a healthy perspective with positive outcomes in this regard.
    I like what "anonymous" says about using side-line conversations as teachable moments. Like you, I initially assume that they have to do with the topic of the day, so I invite them to share their queries or words of wisdom.
    Emery, I think you need to come to confession:) I agree that there is no "perfect way." Last year I turned soft, so I kept giving warnings. It got to the point where I felt like I was trying to monitor a "three strikes, you're out" program. My inability to be firm caused more of a distraction than the person using the cell phone. One of my students wrote on the year-end evaluations, "if you say it, do it." Now, I do it upon the first offense.
    Thanks for all your thoughts,

  8. I totally agree with the approach you have taken to get the students attentions. As young individuals sometimes we seem to shy away from the fact that we are paying financially for the education we may miss out on, and our attention is deferred by other distractions.

    However, I would not go as far as eliminating cell phones in the classroom but, continuing your approach. If it works than continue to go with it.

  9. Some students have cell phones that are capable of taking notes with so I would only allowed use of the cell phones in class for that specific purpose only.

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