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Gazette Premium Content Pikes Peak region teachers struggle to keep classroom rules ahead of technology

By Debbie Kelley Published: May 13, 2013

Students are allowed to step outside the classroom to take a personal call at Falcon Virtual Academy, an eastern plains school that combines online and on-campus learning.

On the other side of the mountain, students at the Cripple Creek-Victor Junior/Senior High School face disciplinary consequences if they use their cellphones during class.

As schools grapple with how to handle cellphones, some are accepting the technology and even integrating it into coursework, while others are trying to wean the electronic pacifier from this generation - at least for part of their day.

The issue had become a battle of wills at Cripple Creek-Victor Junior/Senior High, but strict enforcement of the new policy is working, Principal Trudy Vader said. And she has statistics to back it up.

At the beginning of the school year, Vader said staff members agreed that cellphones were interfering with learning.

'The cellphone problem just kept getting bigger, and we decided we needed to be consistent in how we delivered the message of consequences to the behavior, ' she said.

After 'going back and forth for a long time ' and weighing the benefits and drawbacks of cellphone access in class, the school in January stepped up discipline.

On top of three steps - confiscating the cellphone for 24 hours for the first offense, requiring parents to retrieve the student's phone after a second violation and taking it away from the student for the remainder of the semester after that - there's also a behavior modification plan, a type of in-school suspension that indicates defiance and requires corrective actions.

Vader said she talked individually with each of the school's 183 students about the inappropriateness of having cellphones in class and asked for their input. Along with the distraction factor, Vader said she brought up concerns about online predators, student safety and cyberbullying.

'They were all nodding their heads, and their body language was saying, 'You're right,' ' she said. 'They're not learning if they're texting. You don't have their attention. '

Signs went up on classroom doors, warning students about cellphone use. Violations dropped from 23 in the third quarter that started in January to three so far this quarter.

'They tested the waters - they're teenagers, ' Vader said. 'I knew it was going to be tough because we're changing culture. It was not easy, but it's worth it. '

Students are allowed to use their phones before and after school, and at lunch, she added.

'A lot of it is preparing them for the adult world, where there are jobs you're not allowed to use your phone at, ' Vader said. 'We're not opposed to technology - electronic devices are a tool. But we have other ways to deliver 21st-century technology to our students. '

While some students say they understand the policy, they don't like it.

'It's kind of stupid because if you're not using your phone for texting or sending pictures or video, you should be able to use it as a calculator and to listen to music, ' said seventh-grader Alex Stohl. 'Music helps me stay calm and do my work. '

Alex has had his phone taken away, as has his classmate, Nick Hood. 'I think they should have a privilege system, like if your grades are good, you can use your phone, ' Nick said.

Falcon Virtual Academy has taken the opposite approach.

'It's not a battle worth fighting anymore, because you're not going to keep them out of your classroom, ' said Principal Dave Knoche. 'We try to integrate cellphones into our curriculum as much as possible. '

A 'BYOD ' philosophy (Bring Your Own Device) means students can use their cellphones, tablets, laptops or iPods at school to do research, read books and interact with teachers.

'We're focused on training kids how to be responsible citizens with their technology, ' Knoche said. 'This way, we break down barriers of hiding cellphones under the desk. The kids are so clever, they can leave a phone in their pocket and text. We're leaving the responsibility up to them to establish the parameters. '

So if a student does receive a call from a parent during class, 'There must be something important Mom had to communicate, ' Knoche said, and the student can answer the phone.

Knoche said he has worked at schools where cellphones were banned, and while he can see the rationale for that, 'with the way budgets are in education, if we don't start thinking more creatively about how to bring technology in, we're going to miss the boat. '

Coronado High School also encourages students to bring their own devices and plug in to the school's wireless system. All students can use their cellphones in hallways; teachers decide the level of use in their classrooms.

Social studies teacher Jennifer Ury allows devices for educational purposes only - taking notes, looking up information online after getting permission, using their calendar or accessing a website with class worksheets.

She also has students answer online polls, use applications that create flash cards or record lectures and acknowledge their understanding of material.

However, 'It's still not acceptable for a student to make phone calls during class or text message, ' she said.

Ury said she has few problems with students breaking the rules. But that's not to say that there aren't students texting or playing games in class.

'It would be naive of me to think those things are not still happening, ' she said. 'I monitor students using their phones regularly and make adjustments every day. '

Still, Ury said, the advantages of promoting electronic devices as educational tools have trumped the disadvantages.

'It's frustrating that students don't get that it's rude and disrespectful to text during a lecture or that by texting someone in class, you are interfering with another student's right to learn by distracting them, ' she said. 'They believe they can multitask, and it's not harmful. I'm hoping that I am showing them why there are more appropriate times for that, and that the classroom is not one of them. '

What if a student doesn't have a smartphone or other device? Ury lets them borrow a friend's to do work in class or use one of the classroom computers. But, she adds, that's only happened with one or two students.

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