Teachers try to draw the line with smartphone use in the classroom

Whether doodling, daydreaming or passing notes, young minds have always wandered in the classroom. The smartphone is the latest distraction.

With its many capabilities, the handheld device can be a resource to enhance learning, but some teachers are tired of vying for students’ attention and have adopted policies to restrict smartphone use.

“Over the past few years, more and more students are looking at their phones in class, and it’s too hard to manage,” said Susan Wilson, an English teacher at Cupertino’s Homestead High School, which also serves south Los Altos.

Homestead senior Marvin Lucero said he peeks at his phone in class “to check the time or if I have any messages. If we’re not doing anything in class and have free time, I’ll probably be on my phone.”

Homestead junior Kean Towle added, “I’m pretty good at ignoring (my phone), but I see other people who aren’t.”

To limit smartphone use, Wilson and other teachers at Homestead have adorned their classroom walls with hanging pocket caddies and ask that students relinquish their phones to a pocket for the duration of class.

“Kids come in on their phones, even if you have a policy,” Wilson said. “We decided to just get rid of their phones because we are tired of policing it.”

Kelly Ronsheimer, a French teacher at Homestead, employs pocket caddies as well but does not resort to them straightaway.

“When (students) come in, they put their phones in their backpacks. I don’t want to see phones on desks. They get a chance to try on their own. If I have to take a phone, there is a pocket they have to put it in,” Ronsheimer said.

Before Wilson enforced pocket caddies in her classroom, smartphones would constantly divert students’ attention away from the lesson.

“Last year, during our ‘Taming of the Shrew’ screening, I was showing the film with subtitles – you have to watch and read – and these kids were on their phones,” Wilson said. “I’m not even making them read the script; I’m showing a production so they can start to internalize some of the language. I find it extremely insulting.”

According to Ronsheimer, the problem with smartphones in the classroom is deeper than just a momentary distraction.

“The problem isn’t having the phone in class, it’s the belief that, ‘I’m not OK if I don’t have my phone on me, and I need to answer it now,’” she said. “Growing up with a phone, you’re always available to people. I want to teach (students) to have personal boundaries. Their time is theirs and not to be determined by another person. In my class, that time is protected just for them.”

Upside of smartphones

Although they can be a potential distraction in the classroom, smartphones can also contribute to learning.

“Platforms like Kahoot! make reviewing more fun,” said Towle, referring to an online quiz used by some teachers. “You get points; it’s appealing.”

An exercise involving smartphones proved to be a source of fun in Ronsheimer’s French 4 class.

“We did an activity about apps and I had (students) describe their phones to each other,” she said. “They were smiling and presenting pictures; they were really excited about this object.”

Wilson recognizes the advantage to having “the World Wide Web and instantaneous research at our fingertips,” and said she allows smartphones when “looking up vocabulary, researching authors and investigating historical questions.”

Likewise, Ronsheimer appreciates the efficiency of smartphones.

“I can put things online; I love that (students) can access materials quickly,” she said. “If I have a slide of homework, they can take a picture. I’m all for using (technology) to make life easier.”

Smartphones can also be a source of comfort. Ronsheimer said she lets “students listen to music during tests if they have really bad anxiety.” Wilson added that she allows students to put in earbuds during journal writes to inspire creativity.

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