The Curse of the Cell Phones

Today I had split my students into groups of 4-5 to work on some problems involving graphing and solving systems of linear inequalities. I grouped them based on their current grades in class so that I could focus more on the two lowest groups while the other groups moved along at their own speed with questions and distractions here and there. I walked over to one group and we picked apart the inequality “y > -2x + 2”.

The y-intercept is 2, so we start at the point (0, 2) – this is on the y-axis.

The slope is -2, which means down 2 and to the right 1 from that point until we run out of room.

The greater than sign means we want to shade above our points, and we want to have a dashed line connecting the points because y doesn’t equal -2x + 2.

They told me some of this, and I told them some of this. But I leave them with that information to work keep moving toward completing the graph. I walk around and check on all the other groups, and when I come back  this group still had nothing written on their paper. Not even their names! Nothing. Three of the five members were on their phones. One was staring at the paper. The fifth was staring at the wall. So I snapped a little. Something along the lines of “If I see those phones one more time I will take them for the rest of the period. You guys have to know you’re better than this. At this rate you’re not going to pass your test because you don’t want to try to!”

But then something happened. I cooled down mildly. They put their phones away. I sat with this group and coached them through graphing a system and picking out points that were solutions and not solutions for 8 straight minutes with no interruptions. And they listened. They all had their eyes on the paper. They asked clarifying questions. They did it!

Once they had this one problem down, I knew that they really could do this (and they started to believe it, too). They still had quite a few questions so I was circling back to that group often, but they ended up being the second group done with the assignment and got most of it right. I was so proud of them, I know I said it at least twice. I’m going to make sure I say it again tomorrow, too.

I don’t really think cell phones are a curse; I remember doodling and writing love poems in my planner during freshman year health like it was yesterday (thank goodness that’s behind me). People have always been distracted in school, but I do think phones add a level of distraction. They add a level of distraction that can cause some students to slip more than they would without their phones. And I had forgotten that this year.

We start state test prep on Monday and my students already know that during practice exam days (Monday and Tuesday) their phones have to be away from the time they receive the practice test until everyone in the class has finished. They aren’t pleased but this testing environment is not totally foreign to them. I think I’m going to continue this throughout our test prep, allowing for one or two breaks during review for them to satisfy that craving.

As for next year though, I’m considering going with the stoplight approach. There will be a stoplight on the whiteboard with a magnet on it signaling the level of acceptable electronic device use for that day. Red means no phones whatsoever. Yellow means phones are only allowed for instructional purposes. Green means students can have their electronic devices out for personal use as long as they are making acceptable progress toward completing their assignment. I don’t want to ban them entirely because there are so many jobs where people are allowed to be on their phones or messing around on the internet as long as they’re getting their work done on time and I think part of our jobs is to teach and model appropriate adult behaviors. This might be too much effort for me to enforce and my students to keep track of, but we’re going to give it a shot.

If you have an awesome electronic device policy that works amazingly with your students (especially if your school is BYOD) please let me know!