A Look Back on my First Semester Without Phones

Over the Christmas break, I made a list of things that I plan to do differently with my new students when we return from vacation to help run class more efficiently, increase engagement, build community, and reinforce our habits of mind. I’m specifically evaluating practices that I implemented for the first time back in August now that they have had several months to prove their efficacy in a real classroom with real students. It reminds me of a saying that we had a saying in the Marines that went, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” I’m excited to share with you how eliminating phones in my classroom has improved my teaching practice and my students’ experiences in class after just one semester.

Any teacher who has been in the profession for at least 10 years will tell you that something started happening around the time when smart phones started to become ubiquitous in schools. Cafeterias and hallways suddenly grew quieter as conversation largely ceased. Students started completing less work in class. Guidance referrals for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues skyrocketed. Most disturbingly, the suicide rate of our teenagers started to climb precipitously.

Every facet of my teaching has improved since I adopted this policy. Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Personalized questions and answers (PQA). Calendar Talk. Special Person interviews. Movie Talk. Everything.

Take FVR for example. Phones are anathema to a well-executed independent reading experience. As good as many of the newer leveled readers are, none of them are more interesting than what’s happening on a kid’s social media feed if you let that be an option. Even in a deskless classroom, it’s very hard to detect a phone slipped into a book because a student can hold the novel and text or scroll through a feed with the same hand.

The students not having their phones makes me hold myself more accountable to deliver the language comprehensibly. There are many reasons why a student may not be successful in a language class. These range from attendance to attitude. When I have their eyes because they’re not on their phones and their heads aren’t down (I’m deskless), I’m removing variables from the equation.

A phone-free classroom helps keep me relaxed so I can make the class as enjoyable and stress-free as possible. We’ve all heard how a duck appears to glide effortlessly through a placid pond but is actually paddling like hell underneath the surface. This is me when I teach! Even though I’m speaking slowly and using more basic language than I would if I were conversing with a native speaker, there is so much more going on inside my brain. I’m constantly reminding myself to slow down and ask whether the students have seen or heard the vocabulary I’m using in addition to making deliberate gestures to increase comprehensibility. Looking out and seeing students on their phones, especially when I can see what’s on a student’s phone screen, is incredibly distracting and knocks me off my game.

I have students who are passing my class this semester who would not have been in years past simply because being on their phone is not an option. My phone turn-in policy helps all students be more present, but it is especially beneficial for my slower and easily-distracted learners. Many of these students have an IEP or 504 plan for issues relating to attention, so it is a logical step that is hard for anyone to be opposed to.

Telling students to put their phones in their backpacks or in their pockets so that neither the teacher nor the student can’t see them does not work in the long run. This used to be my policy, but by the end of the semester, you wouldn’t have thought I had one at all. Everyone is generally compliant for the first several weeks and you don’t see any phones. Once the honeymoon phase wears off, phones are peeking out of pockets and propped face up against their backpacks. By the time the “October Collapse” arrives, Snapchat stories become Snapchat novels.

One of the greatest benefits of the teaching profession is that you can re-invent yourself at the start of every school year. If you teach semester-long classes like I do, this opportunity accrues to you twice a year; at the beginning of the school year and again halfway through. It’s the perfect time to course correct and make necessary changes. If you haven’t held your students accountable for your personal device policy that you hopefully started the year with, now is a great time to press the reset button. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll “do better next year.” As Grant Boulanger says, “Continue as you intend to go on.”

Let me address some concerns that you might have as you’re considering the “nuclear option.”

1. “The students will revolt.”

No they won’t. In fact, in the four months that I’ve been having them turn in their phones, I’ve had several students casually tell me in private that while they didn’t like having to do it at first, over time they felt less tense when they didn’t have their phones; the exact opposite of what conventional wisdom about teenagers and their phones would dictate. They knew they could check them during our five-minute break (we have 90-minute blocks). You’ll see on their faces how calm they become when their brains aren’t looking for that next hit of dopamine. As a side note, I think all teachers, administrators, and parents should read up on the four “happiness chemicals” (endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.) There are some major implications of these in our schools these days. I’m a huge Simon Sinek fan, so naturally I’m going to recommend “Leaders Eat Last” and “Start with Why.”

2. “Parents will complain.”

I have had zero parent complaints about this policy. Every parent who came in for parent/teacher conferences thanked me doing this and told me that they wish that more teachers would do the same. Interestingly, I heard this most often from parents whose children were struggling in other classes and had been told that phone usage was an issue.

A parent who demands that their child have their phone with them at all times does not have a pedagogical leg to stand on when you consider the role that interpersonal communication plays in a CI classroom or any language classroom for that matter. If they need to get a hold of their child, they can call the office and someone will be down to get them in about one minute.

3. “But technology is a tool.”

Of course technology can be a tool. I hear this argument a lot, but if the phones are being used as a tool 5% of the time and serve as a distraction 95% of the time, then I can’t defend their use in class. The off-task behaviors, ever-shortening attention spans, social isolation, bullying, and increased anxiety that result when students have access to their devices in class are a steep price to pay to be able to check a box on a rubric.

A large body of research had demonstrated that people who tout their ability to multi-task because of technology are in fact just very good at being distracted. Besides, many of the tasks that we think we need students to use their personal devices for can be accomplished without devices. Is having a student search for a QR code and scanning it with her phone to reveal a question any different than giving her a worksheet with that question on it?

4. “I don’t want to be held responsible if something happens to one of their phones.”

How you implement a phone collection policy, or even if you can, depends on your building’s culture and any explicit policies that may exist. Theft within the classroom is unheard of in many schools, while it is unfortunately an everyday occurrence in others. Some administrators understandably do not want to put themselves in a position to where they have to explain to a parent why their child’s cell phone got lost or stolen.

My phone organizer hangs on the wall out of the way and lets us focus on the discussion at hand.

If possible, locate your phone organizer by your desk or somewhere the students wouldn’t normally pass by during class. I also stand by the phones as students collect them at the start of their break and the end of class. These two steps alone will eliminate virtually any potential problems because they know you’re being vigilant.

5. Kids are sneaky. They’ll just find a way to use them anyway.

One of the features that I love about the phone organizer that I use is the large number on the front of each pocket. It is obvious who has and hasn’t put their phone up because each student has a pocket number. With one glace at my organizer, I can tell whether the class has complied with my device policy. I simply don’t start class until they’re all put away, however I’m tactful and allow the students to save face in case they legitimately forgot to do this on the way in. I am fortunate to have very small classes this coming semester (11, 15, and 17 students), so it will be easy for my class secretary to take attendance with the class roster which has the student’s assigned pocket next to their name.

My class “police officer” (read my post on how to do 31 different classroom jobs here) tells everyone to put their phones in the organizer at the beginning of class and after returning from their break.

What to Look For in a Phone Organizer

This organizer (available from Amazon and ships with Prime!) offers everything you need: the ability to hold the latest gargantuan iPhones, durability, and a sturdy hanging mechanism.

This organizer has four brass grommets running along the top and is sturdier than all the other ones I could find. I used two concrete anchor screws to secure it to the wall, but you could get creative with wall-mounted hooks or rods. The pockets hold their shape well due to the quality of the stitching.

While I ask my students to place their phones in the organizer with the screen facing the wall so that incoming notifications don’t distract anyone, sometimes they forget. This isn’t that big of a problem with this organizer because it hides most of the screen even on the larger iPhones.

In Conclusion

I’m not so naive as to believe that our students will magically start paying attention in class just because they don’t have their devices, but we can do better than the status quo low expectations that modern society has for interpersonal communication skills, after all, this is what we teach.

What would your best semester ever of teaching look like? For me, it looks like one where we are all present, care about one another, and listen to one another with the intent to understand rather than to respond. When I greet my new students tomorrow, there will be things I’m still worried about like my comprehensibility and the pace of the class, but I will fall asleep tonight knowing that I will not have to expend mental energy fighting the cell phone battle any longer.

Please share this resource:
The following two tabs change content below.
Marc is an educator, blogger, veteran, and small business owner. Feel free to send him a message here or read his story here .

Latest posts by Marc Fencil (see all)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jennifer Schongalla Link

    Thank you for this timely post! I start second semester at the end of January and plan to do exactly this. I do not believe I have admin support, but I must do this for the class.

    The paragraph about “telling students to put the phones in backpacks, etc…” describes exactly how that rolls! Ugh. I’m also on a block and give them 5 min break halfway through where they can check their phones, but the level of drama and such is no horrible that I am considering going all out phone free for the duration of class. I am not sure about this and I must reach clarity soon, in order to include this up front. It is a risk I am willing to take (risking lower enrollment) because it is out of hand and I am doing nobody a favor by perpetuating the anxiety caused by the constant cyber interactions.

    How did you “roll this out” initially? It sounds like you are a pioneer at your school, so I’d love to hear how you presented this to students and parents. Last year I sent out a one page info sheet about some major differences in my course (vs other “subject matter” classes). It included a giant colorful diagram adapted from Eric Herman’s acquisition poster. But the “policy” was faulty, as you describe so well in that paragraph. I think I will include the diagram again, with some SLA facts to back up the reason for no phones whatsoever. What do you think? It seems important to establish this on day one, follow through with consequences (?what did you do for consequences in the first few days???) so that if it is a problem for certain kids, they can drop the course during the add/drop and find another class to take. That sounds so harsh, but I don’t see another way. Haha! Last year, I had a couple kids drop on day one because I would not let them enter with their phones visible. But now I have a chest of drawers to keep them in, where they will be secure.

    Any suggestions are welcome! Thank you 🙂

    • Hi Jennifer,

      The chest of drawers sounds like a great idea to keep them secure. As far as how I rolled it out to them, I explained the conditions that I believe are necessary for us to acquire language. I also told them about students who I had the prior semester who would have to repeat the course mostly because they were tuned out and on their phones. That one really hit home with them. I pitched it as something that I could do to help them be more successful in the class. There was absolutely no pushback whatsoever, and that was the first semester that I did this. Going forward, my phone policy will just be something else that is a part of the class, like being deskless and doing classroom jobs.

      You’re right to frame your conversation with your students in terms of SLA. It’s really hard to argue against any of it if everyone agrees that language acquisition is the end game. I’m sorry I just saw your comment this evening. I’d love to know what you ended up doing and how it’s going for you.