Cellphones 101: Schools adopt the phones they once banned

In Dr. Terri Dove\'s classroom, cellphones are not only not banned; they\'re part of the program. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — We stare at them and carry them on and off the job, and some of us have a hard time unplugging from them — our cellphones are a part of many people’s lives. And it’s no different for kids: It’s common to see clusters of teenagers sitting together, heads bent over small screens, texting each other.

Cellphones and tablets have become an integral part of modern life, and the Prince George’s County school system not only allows kids to carry phones and tablets during the day, but encourages teachers to incorporate them in the classroom.

That’s a policy Dr. Terri Dove had no problem adopting. By the second day of school, the Henry A. Wise Jr. High School science teacher was already encouraging kids to use their cellphones to take a photo of the day’s objectives posted at the front of the classroom. She’d designed a classroom activity that integrated phone use and made it clear: A cellphone in the classroom is a learning tool.

As she directed her students to circulate from one learning station to another, Dove called out, “Ladies! there shouldn’t be any phones out until you are at Station 4!” When one student asked if it would be OK to keep her phone as she moved from one activity to the next, Dove told the class they could, but then joked, “You just shouldn’t be over there talking to your cousin” and imitating someone deep in conversation. She got a laugh out of the kids.

William Blake, an assistant principal at Wise High School, said the new policy on personal electronic devices got a chilly reception from some parents “because they liked the idea of no cellphones.” Blake understands the skepticism, but points out, “We all carry cellphones. I carry a cellphone!”

The policy says that cellphones and personal electronic devices can be used in the hallways between classes and in the cafeteria at lunch, but in the classroom, it’s all up to the teacher. And some teachers, such as Dove, have been early and eager adopters; others are taking a go-slow or old-school approach.

Dove says the phones really are great instructional tools, given the right app.

“Currently I use a program called Remind101 to send out alerts,” she says, adding that it has features that make for great brain-building warm-up activities. “So I’ll have a quick question that I might want to throw out to them, and they text back to me.”

Other apps, such as Socrative 2.0, allow teachers to get an idea of whether kids are getting it. Teachers can see student responses to questions or on quizzes in real time and see what concepts need to be reinforced.

Also, the apps give kids a chance to get creative with what they’ve learned. They may get assignments to explain a concept using Vine or another visual app that allows them to express their understanding in ways they may find more engaging.

Blake says there are pitfalls to the use of technology, but says that the use of cellphones gives teachers and administrators a chance to guide students in their online lives and to talk about issues such as cyber-bullying and the need to exercise good judgment when using social media.

Dove says the phones are an add-on, not a substitute for textbooks. She does her best to keep things lively and entertaining, but she’s clear that the goal is giving her students a solid education. To parents who remain skeptical about the value of cellphones in class, she says, “Don’t think we’re just in here playing around, playing games.”

Then, with a broad smile, she adds, “We’re playing games to learn.”

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