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Creating a Cellphone Policy That Works for Everyone

Use this classroom activity to co-create norms and expectations with your students.

September 18, 2018
Rosalind Wiseman
Founder, Cultures of Dignity

CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, In the Classroom

This article is part of Common Sense Education's Thought Leadership series, which provides a platform for diverse perspectives on teaching in the digital age. All ideas expressed are the writer's own.  

It's common sense: Kids need consistent rules and expectations about how to be good citizens. The most common places they're going to encounter these rules are at home and at school. While social media and technology rules follow similar standards, it can be challenging for teachers and parents to get on the same page.

Different families have different rules and norms about social media. At the same time, children come to school and are expected to follow the school's technology and social media rules, which may or may not align with the rules at home.  

As an educator, one way to begin bridging the gap is to model for families the social media norms in your classroom and then communicate those values and rules to parents. You are the teacher, and students look to you to create a culture of dignity in your classroom.

In some classrooms, students put their phones in a basket near the teacher's desk and get them back at the end of the period. But teacher preferences and school policies vary. Sometimes students legitimately need their phones for schoolwork or other reasons. If students are allowed to have their phones on their bodies or in their backpacks during school, they're no doubt going to use them for non-academic purposes at some point. Teachers then need to incorporate cellphone rules into their overall classroom guidelines.

Given all those variables, what are our challenges, and how do we address them effectively? First, let's look at the challenges. I'm sure you could add to this list, but this is what I see most often in schools around the country:

  • Schools have technology policies, and they're usually pretty good at making parents pay attention to them at the beginning of the school year. But we all tend to forget about them once school is underway -- until a child gets into trouble.
  • Teachers can feel helpless and frustrated when parents back up their child instead of working with the teacher to enforce the rules.
  • Even the best parents can be overwhelmed or simply unable to keep track of their child’s behavior online.

Now let's look at what we need to remember:

Like any topic students learn, effective classroom behavior guidelines require constant practice. We also understand that the learning process includes making mistakes. A teacher's job is to consistently model these norms and fairly apply the rules.

But students need to be our partners in developing these rules. In the words of Lara, one of our editors at Cultures of Dignity, "If students are part of the rulemaking process, then they are less likely to break the rules." Try the following activity to get students involved in the process.

Classroom Activity: Develop Class Technology Guidelines

Try combining your classroom guidelines with the school’s technology policies.

Here’s a suggestion for getting started:

Teacher says: "We all know the school has a technology policy. Anyone remember what it is?" (Listen to the crickets or a few general statements.) "I have the policy right here, so let’s read it and then make it our own.

"While the school’s policy is important, and we have to follow it, let’s create some agreements among ourselves about how we use technology, social media, and our phones in class to make it realistic. We're doing this so we can all focus and enjoy ourselves in our class, and I won't annoy you with constant nagging about using your phones. Using the school technology rules as the starting place, let's figure out ... " 

Teacher asks the class:

  • "When do we use social media and/or our phones in our class?"
  • "When do we agree not to use social media and/or our phones in our class?"
  • "What should happen if someone doesn't follow our rules? And I include myself in that. I am not above these rules."

Teacher says: "I also want to share some research so you can make good decisions for yourself about how to use your phone and meet whatever goals you have for yourself. You may know some of this, but I think it's important to integrate into our conversation. Multitasking between homework and checking social media decreases your ability to do your work well. Bouncing back and forth from work to checking our news feeds, commenting on other people’s social media, and posting things ourselves reduces our ability to learn.

"You also need time to sleep without interruption. Research shows that no one (students, teachers, or parents) can sleep as they should when the phone is by your head.

"It comes down to being educated and taking ownership of how you use technology and social media. That goes for all of us -- including me."

After you come up with the guidelines, end the lesson by saying something like this:

"Our class guidelines are based on what we agree together. These rules may be different from what you're used to or what you do in your family. That's the reason I want your parents to know what we decided, so I'm going to share our agreements with them. If we need to improve our agreements as the year goes on, let me know your thoughts, and I will schedule time for further class discussion."

Then, follow up with an email to parents detailing what you covered in class and a reassurance that you are in this together. Parents will know your standards and be empowered to reinforce their own rules at home.

So let's have patience and look for opportunities to support each other. Let's model for families what you're doing in the classroom and then communicate those values and rules to the parents. They may do things differently, but at least they know where you stand and why.