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Don’t Hang Up!

Why cell phones might actually be helpful for teens.

By Shelly Atkins

Teenagers and cell phones: the bane of every teacher’s existence? For today’s members of Generation Z, having, using, holding and charging cell phones are part of a 24-hour-a-day ritual. Teens don’t do it to irk teachers or disrupt class time, or to cause discipline issues or create school board policies. They’ve simply grown up in a very different world, where instant access to anyone and anything is not only customary but expected.

Some teens, motivated by school policies or the desire to succeed academically, leave their phones home. Others, no matter the consequences, cannot stop their addiction to their battery-operated lifelines.

This may surprise you: Rather than looking at the potential problems caused by cell phones, I put before you my belief that there is a significant potential for good, specifically for improvement in writing, because of these high-tech communication tools.

If allowed to, most students would communicate by cell phone, predominantly texting, all day long. Gone are the days of holding your thoughts until after school and phoning a friend. Now, if I think it, I text it. If I wonder it, I text and ask it. If I’m asked, I must text and answer immediately. As a result, students today are generating written language far more often than any prior generation. They’re putting every thought and question into written form. Most teens text more than they call or visit. They set dates, begin relationships, argue and end relationships, all through text messages.

Honestly, as a middle-aged person, teacher and mother, I find this phenomenon quite startling. I cannot wrap my head around relationships that are almost completely virtual. 

No matter. Because of federal and state standards and high-stakes testing, what does matter is that students demonstrate proficiency on tests. How in the world could texting affect that? Impossible! Before you stop reading, consider some observations I’ve made in my English classes. Our standards have always been skill-based, rather than simply knowledge recall. Students must take a literary term and apply it to text they’ve probably never seen before, and then answer questions, composing their thoughts expressively and correctly. It’s no simple task. So what matters are signs of growth in students’ ability to do academic writing, which often requires analysis. 

In my observation, students today compose more quickly and translate thoughts into written text more easily than students even five years ago. They use cell phones not only to text, but to update Facebook statuses or tweet comments; social media sites where students are putting thoughts and opinions into written formats are actually helping young people write. Gone are the days of diaries. Very few teenagers carry a pen or pencil to my classes. They seldom have paper. But they have cell phones—usually far beyond the old model I carry! They navigate the hallways—and life—with one eye on their screens. They know the keyboard, and may not type with correct finger position, but can easily tap out a sentence with their thumbs.

Here is why this addiction is helping with essays: Teenagers have learned to think and respond very quickly in our fast-paced society. It comes with practice. Track stars don’t go out and sprint once to win a race. They practice every day, stretch, run longer distances and perhaps lift weights. And they improve. Students text hourly. They update Facebook multiple times daily. They tweet often. They chat online with friends. It’s their training in writing, composing and expression. To communicate in such a high-tech format, they must have words. Thoughts and feeling must be translated into written form. And this daily, hourly practice is helping students with written composition. They’re beginning to have a stronger base of words to express feelings and thoughts. 

Daily, or at least weekly, I ask students to write at least a paragraph. It may be a literary response, a persuasive argument, or simply a personal reflection. One young man, an English Language Learner who reads many grade levels below his actual school grade, shocks me every time. He writes and writes. He may not even have the vocabulary yet, but he has no fear of responding. He puts his story, his feelings and his opinions into text, and that is a huge accomplishment.

I can teach mechanics, editing and revision. I cannot teach students to take their thoughts and put words to them. Sure, I help with probing questions, but actually choosing the words has to come from the student himself. Years ago, I would notice what almost seemed like a brain block. Students were stuck. They had no ideas, and couldn’t respond. Today, it’s not like that at all, 90 percent of the time. Of course, when life happens, students freeze up. They are still dealing with family crises, heartbreaks and when the new shoes go on sale. But they write.

Is texting always a positive thing for students? Heavens, no! Cell phones are the largest source of distraction facing teachers. It’s not appropriate for students to text during class, nor is it good etiquette to ignore people you’re with while you have a virtual conversation. Students must match writing to genre or, in essence, code switch, and they have to actually use complete spellings, rather than abbreviations or shortcuts. For academic writing they must elaborate, bring forth voice, and demonstrate good spelling, punctuation and sentence style. I’m not proposing that students are more highly gifted in writing, or that text jargon does not hamper mechanics and grammar. I am saying, however, that the former apprehension, blank stares, and lack of effort in classroom writing are disappearing. Students are generating text and don’t mind doing it. Essays will probably always seem like wasted time to 16-year-olds, but they’re no longer dreaded, feared or avoided. I see students approach a prompt and begin quickly—no bathroom requests or sudden stomachaches. Whether it’s highly gifted students, or overage students repeating ninth grade, they’re answering questions, taking opinions, discussing conflicts, all in writing—without complaint.

Recognizing that I’m a hopeless optimist, I refuse to see cell phones as the enemy. Instead, I’m finding the good in them. In my classroom, writing is improving! I have been amazed. And pleased.

Atkins, a member of the Roanoke Education Association, teaches English at William Fleming High School.

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