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Virginia Journal of Education

We’re Letting Them Bring What?

How I learned to live with (and even like) students bringing cell phones and other devices to class.

By Heather Deputy

What were they thinking? It was a phrase that struck euphoria in the hearts of students but panic in the hearts of teachers: Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). 

Students envisioned the free-for-all that teachers feared—phones out at any time, being used to text friends across the room; or to take photos or video (even worse) of a practical joke or a fight; or even just to tune into music and tune out from any attempts at learning. Most teachers and parents thought BYOD would be just another classroom distraction. How do we balance the use of technology, which students obviously desire, with our needs as educators? How do we turn BYOD into a benefit for everyone?

Despite what many of us were thinking, here’s what I found: If implemented carefully and with forethought, BYOD can actually bring calm to a chaotic classroom and provide more access to the limited technology available within the school.

My first attempts at allowing students to bring their electronic devices to my classroom were a complete failure. I confiscated student phones, I had students who ended up suspended in-school, and I was reprimanded by the assistant principal. Strangely enough, these events all took place after students had left my classroom, but clearly, I did not proceed carefully and with forethought.  I omitted an important step outlined in our school’s BYOD policy: the teacher allowing technology use must ensure that all devices are returned to student lockers before students are dismissed.  At the end of class, students left my room with their phones, and one student texted another student during the next class.  The second student had not silenced her phone. Busted. I was asked to suspend BYOD in my classroom. 

Seething over my perceived injustice, I fought back. Well, maybe “fought” is a strong word, but I did send a polite counter-argument to my AP and pled my case. We agreed that I could continue to allow students to use reading apps in my classroom, but all other use was temporarily suspended. Peeved with the two students who threw me under the bus, I cracked down on my classes and temporarily suspended the use of any devices in my classroom.

I had to devise a strategy for making sound use of technology while still avoiding student abuse.  Reading seemed like the easiest place to start.

My class begins each day with a written warm-up followed by Quiet Reading Time (QRT). Many students had already asked about using Nooks and Kindles, so using these devices seemed the least likely to cause problems. As so often happens among a group of teenagers, though, the limits were quickly pushed.

“But what about reading on my phone? I don’t have a Kindle!” I balked at first, but soon realized that they had a valid point, so I developed this plan: Any student wishing to read on a phone could do so, but first they had to show me the phone with the text visible. If I suspected any non-reading activity, that student’s phone usage was immediately suspended. I deduced that hand motion while reading would be fairly limited, so texting or other inappropriate activity would be easy to spot.

The students agreed to my limitations, and my first carefully planned technology adventure was underway. To date, all students who claim to be reading are, in fact, reading. The only phone violations so far have resulted from students who thought that their phone usage wouldn’t be noticed. During QRT, they were using phones to go online and to text. Since these students had not asked to read on their phones and had not shown their reading material to me, their misuse was easy to spot. I took appropriate actions and now these students are no longer allowed to use phones in my classroom for any reason. But what other appropriate uses of technology could I allow?

The next push from students was for music. We’d begun writing research papers, and students wanted tunes while they wrote. I stalled on allowing individual music devices by offering to play music from my computer. Unfortunately, my iPod collection of 80s music and female country singers did not meet with my students’ approval. Also, county bandwidth usage policy prevented streaming music or video for other than educational purposes, so I downloaded what I hoped would be interesting instrumental music. Sadly, the ensuing discussions about whether or not it was Harry Potter music and the superiority of the Frozen soundtrack promptly killed my expectations for a room full of quietly writing students. However, in spite of the fact that the whole group was involved in a music discussion, students appeared to be more focused on their writing and less focused on conversations with friends. Perhaps allowing music could be a good thing. I relented. For the next writing class, I allowed students to bring phones or mp3 players and headphones to class.

I would love to say that angels sang and suddenly my visions of engaged, happily-writing students were fulfilled, but we faced more issues. Students arrived with headphones on and did not pay attention to instructions, or they played games and texted while ignoring my directions. Students shared ear buds and spent more time debating which song to play next than they spent writing. Moreover, once they were all “plugged in,” it took several tries to get everyone’s attention when I did need to speak to the group. As before, I had not planned carefully enough for my students’ use of personal devices in class.

We needed a set procedure. Because students were quieter and more focused while listening to their music, I muddled along and tackled individual issues as they arose. This approach sufficed for just over a month before an idea hit me just as I was drifting off to sleep one night. I had my procedure.

The appropriate process really did come to me quite suddenly, and its simplicity struck me like a face-palm. Why didn’t I think of it sooner? First, students could bring their devices on assigned days, but the device was to remain off and face-down on the desk until permission to use it was announced. Likewise, headphones were on the desk or around the students’ necks. No part of the ear could be covered in any way by headphones or ear buds. If a device wasn’t visible on a student’s desk at the beginning of class, then I could only assume he or she was hiding it to cover the fact they were using it before they were supposed to be. If they were spotted with a device later in the block, it would be confiscated. 

Eager to use their devices, my students agreed. Also, sharing of devices would be allowed, but once the music started playing, discussion would not. Skip the song or suffer through it, but don’t argue about it. Lastly, all music would stop and all headphones would be removed when the lights went out.

Cue the singing angels because I had my happy writers. Phones sat untouched on the corners of desks as we distributed laptops and instructions. Music buddies picked a playlist and started writing, and I quickly captured everyone’s attention when I flickered the lights at the end of class. Most importantly, the students who prefer a quiet place to work finally had one. All of my Chatty Cathys and Garrulous Gusses quietly typed away in their own music-filled world, and I was able to assist with fewer interruptions. I’m sure this process will require tweaks as we all adjust, but so far it works well. Students will push the boundaries, and I will grow frustrated, but with a plan in place, I have removed much of the uncertainty. Without the uncertainty, new ideas are a bit easier for everyone to embrace.

As so often happens when new ideas are suggested for the classroom, we struggle with and balk at change. Yet, when we take a step back and carefully consider how a new strategy might work for us, we begin to realize the possibilities of innovation. Looking forward, I hope to see students with personal laptops, not just phones, filling my desks. Teachers often complain about the lack of computers available for classroom use, but what if 20 of my 30 students brought a computer to class? If the same thing happened up and down our eighth-grade hallway, we could divide a 30-computer cart among three classrooms instead of limiting it to only one. The online grammar program that came with our new textbook? I could implement it in the classroom instead of watching my students ignore it from home. We could practice typing our papers, as required by the online SOL Writing exam, instead of hand writing them and typing when we get to the lab. What could the geography, science or math teachers do when the English teachers aren’t “hogging” all of the computers? 

There are potential benefits of our new BYOD policy. By carefully considering how best to use technology in our classrooms, teachers and students can both reap these benefits. 

Deputy, a member of the Stafford Education Association, is an English teacher at T. Benton Gayle Middle School.


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