Tina Melendez (left) and Meredith Rice, co-founders of AIM Education Strategy in Bethesda. Photo by Hilary Schwab 

Montgomery County Public Schools regulations allow high school students to possess cellphones during school hours. But the devices must be off and out of sight during class time unless a teacher allows their use for instructional purposes. The same rules apply to middle school students. But unlike their high school counterparts, middle schoolers cannot use their phones during their lunch periods unless their principal allows it schoolwide. Generally, principals have a lot of leeway in deciding cellphone policy for their respective schools, and many permit students to use their phones during breaks between classes.

Evva Starr, an English teacher at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, says her students intuitively understand that it’s rude to pull out their phones while she’s teaching, so they generally don’t do it. Starr says she’s never had to explicitly bar them from using the phones in class, but she says they whip out their phones if a lesson ends early or as soon as they’re released from class.

Starr says concerns about teens’ phone addiction are overblown. “Every generation seems to think that the younger one is falling apart,” Starr says. “We’re just undergoing a huge shift in how we communicate and process information. The older generation is alarmed about it. But for the younger generation, it’s just the new normal.” Besides, the phones make some tasks much easier for students. When she became the school’s newspaper adviser 17 years ago, the staff relied on point and shoot cameras, she says. Now they use their phones to take photos, record interviews and type notes. They now can send articles to each other from anywhere for editing.

Donna Redmond Jones, the principal at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, says students are able to link instantaneously to many sources of information via their phones, and they can use them to track assignment due dates and organize their schedules. But the phones present challenges for educators, Jones says. One of the most common complaints from teachers is that kids are sneaking a peek at their phones during class time, and then later seeking additional help from teachers to make up for whatever material they missed. “I hear that from teachers a lot,” Jones says. “It’s a waste of everyone’s time, and it’s aggravating.”

Another problem for schools is that phones make it easier for students to cheat, Jones says. In a survey of 1,013 teens released by Common Sense Media in 2009, about 35 percent of teens with cellphones said they’ve used them to cheat in class, most often by storing information on the phones to look at during tests or by texting answers to friends. Jones says teachers at her school do their best to monitor their classrooms, and they demand that students turn in their phones, usually at the front of the class, when they’re taking state or national assessment exams. “But one adult’s eyes can’t be on every student all the time in a class of 32 or 34 people,” she says. “These kids are digital natives and they’re quick with their phones.” Teachers are trying to combat the problem by switching up test questions and assignments from class to class. Starr leans toward more essay questions on her tests to discourage cheating.

José Varela, a school counselor at Wootton, says it’s not uncommon for students to hide their phones under their desks and use them to text friends or surf the Internet when a teacher’s back is turned. Even though they’re required to use the school’s Wi-Fi network, which has filters that block students from accessing certain websites, students game the system. Some kids have unlimited data on their phones, which means they can use private cellular networks and access whatever they want, Varela says. Others use the school’s Wi-Fi network to install apps such as Snapchat or WhatsApp so they can communicate with others during class time. “Some students whose parents are not able to provide them with cellphones will take a hand-me-down from a friend,” Varela says. “There’s no number associated with the phone. But they can access the school’s Wi-Fi system and download apps.”

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When it comes to reining in the use of phones during class time, parents are not necessarily helping, Varela says. He’s busted more than one student texting in class only to find that they’re responding to messages from their parents. The most recent incident occurred when he was teaching a group of 10th-graders to use one of the school’s online portals. “When I told the student I was taking her phone away, she said: ‘But my mom just texted me,’ ” says Varela, who told the student to put the phone away. “It makes it so difficult for us to establish a rule when parents are undermining that rule.”

Meredith Rice, an education consultant and co-founder of AIM Education Strategy in Bethesda, says parents often mistakenly assume that their kids will text them back at an appropriate time. But the teenage brain is not wired to easily distinguish what should be done now versus later, especially since teens are conditioned to respond instantly to every text or every social media “like,” says Rice, who is also a middle school English teacher and student adviser at Washington Episcopal School (WES), a private school in Bethesda for kids in nursery school through eighth grade. WES does not allow students to bring phones to class, though they can leave them in their lockers during the school day. 

At AIM Education Strategy, Rice and co-founder Tina Melendez train parents and teens about the responsible use of technology. Melendez says it surprises her how parents often cede power to their kids when it comes to phones, perhaps because the parents are intimidated by the devices. She recalls a recent conversation with a mother whose eighth-grade daughter keeps her phone in her room at night and wakes up exhausted, possibly because she’s using the device well past bedtime. “I said: ‘Well, you shouldn’t allow her to keep her phone in her room,’ ” says Melendez, a former middle school math teacher and advisory program coordinator at Washington Episcopal. “Her exact words back to me were: ‘Am I allowed to do that?’ ”

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