I mentioned in Friday’s post that I spent years being paralyzed over the question of collecting students’ cell phones at the beginning of class. Embarrassing, but true.

My breakthrough happened last summer, when I taught at an ESL school near my house.

New teachers all had to take a series of standardized exams that were given under strict testing conditions: no cell phones, no watches (no analog watches, even), no bathroom breaks in the last half hour.

So there I was, the person who had been longing to take cell phones away from students, suddenly having my own cell phone taken away.

It was a revelation.

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Collecting cell phones looks harder than it is

For the longest time, where cell phones in the classroom were concerned, I was paralyzed. I wanted to take them away, but I didn’t think I could or should.

My students were adults, what business did I have taking their phones?

And supposing I did collect phones, what would I do with them? Where would I put them? I teach college, not K-12; I don’t have my own classroom where I can hang cell-phone pockets and the like.

Even worse, what if someone refused to give me his/her phone? Wouldn’t everyone else refuse, too?

Then what?

Basically, I had a mental block.

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Cell phone bans that stick

To date, I’ve met one instructor–just one–whose students keep their cell phones stashed in their backpacks. 

“I don’t have a cell-phone problem,” he told me.

“You don’t?”

“I tell students, first time I see a cell phone out, it’s a 5-page paper on a topic of my choosing.”

“Second time I see a cell phone out, it’s a 5-page paper for the whole class, also on a topic of my choosing.”

“I’ve seen a cell phone maybe once.”

“I don’t have a problem.”

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Please put that away

Katie and I were talking yesterday about cell phones in the classroom.

She reminded me that she’d recently listened to a recording of a college class in which, every couple of minutes, the professor interrupted himself to say “Please put that away.”

It was striking, Katie said, hearing the words “Please put that away” without the visual, a much more jarring rupture in the flow. Then hearing the same request again–and again and again–brought home the dimensions of the problem in a way sitting in the classroom listening to “Please put that away” live would not.

Inside a class, everyone habituates, which is why everyone keeps getting out their cell phones, and why the teacher keeps repeating Please put that away even though putting it away leads directly to getting it back out again. The whole stop-start-stop-start to-and-fro recycles itself.

That’s the trouble with banning cell phones. You have to enforce the ban.

And enforcing the ban, unless you’re willing to take more drastic action (drastic action post t/k), means you have to interrupt the proceedings a lot.

Not fun, and not good.

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

Class without phones

Best in class, part 1

Last September, for the first time, I collected cell phones at the beginning of each class.

I’ve always banned phones, but a phone ban without an enforcement mechanism is like a trade agreement without an enforcement mechanism. It’s not a ban.

When you ban cell phones things start off well enough, but one by one the phones make their appearance, and pretty soon you’re staring at the tops of people’s heads instead of into their eyes. You tell students to put their phones away and they do, but once they’ve broken the ban there’s no turning back. Before you know it, you’re spending your time monitoring cell-phone use while also trying to teach college composition and gin up classroom discussion of the readings. It’s miserable.

It’s so miserable, in fact, that two years ago I considered quitting. Over cell phones.

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Best in class, part 1

This semester’s class was the best I’ve ever taught. Far and away the best.

It wasn’t me, it was the students. They were great. They all came to class all the time (that may have been a first); they paid attention; they learned; they progressed; they were cheerful and engaged … they were a fabulous group. Every week I would marvel at how well they were doing and how much fun they were to spend time with.

For most of the semester I assumed this was a simple case of random variation.  Sometimes all the stars align and a class gels, I figured. 

But as time went on, random variation lost its punch as an explanation, mostly because it didn’t actually explain anything. What is happening when a class “gels”? Plus it didn’t seem fair to the students I’ve taught in the past, who were also terrific young people I looked forward to seeing each week–and who all got on well with each other and with me. 

So what was going on?

Why was this class so different?

Then, just before semester end, it hit me.

No cell phones.

More t/k

And see:
Cell phone agonistes