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Suffolk Closeup: Debate on banning smart phones from classrooms

So-called smart phones were not a problem for a teacher when I started out as a professor 45 years ago.

The first cell phones, big and clunky, arrived in 1973, and the internet emerged a decade later, says a website I just visited. But the smart phone, these slim devices providing email and internet access, small computers, have only been here in relatively recent decades. People being hooked on smart phones is widespread.

And what a problem for educators!

Currently, two Suffolk County school districts are considering steps to deal with them.

The headline last month here in the Shelter Island Reporter: “Will S.I. School ban cellphones?” The subhead: “Board of Education to explore the concept.” 

The article followed a piece in October, also by reporter Julie Lane, about a teacher banning the use of cellphones in class. That earlier piece began with a quote: “You cannot learn at the same time you are looking at other information.”

Wrote Lane: “That’s the long and short of why Shelter Island School social studies teacher Peter Miedema has implemented a no-cellphone policy in his humanities classes … Without face-to-face communication, there’s a critical element missing in teaching, Mr. Miedema said.” And she added, quoting him: “Things don’t stick when you’re not paying attention.”

Last month’s article by Lane began, “When some Shelter Island teachers learned last October about social studies teacher Peter Miedema’s banning cellphones in his humanities class, they thought they would like to follow suit.”

It reported on the School Board meeting at which a ban on cell phone use would be “on the table at the request of teachers” and also, how “Board member Kathleen Lynch, a psychotherapist, said some of her young patients seek limits on phone use, realizing how much of their attention is devoted to text messages and alerts.”

As Lane noted: “District Clerk Jacqueline Dunning would be contacting officials in neighboring districts to explore their policies on cellphone use that will help to inform the Board of Education as it explores the issue this summer.”

In Sag Harbor, Cailin Riley for the Express News Group reported in March that a “new, more restrictive cellphone policy for students could be coming at Pierson Middle-High School, and if the initial response to a presentation outlining it at the board meeting on Monday night is any indication, it would be well-received by teachers and parents alike.”

“Andrew Richards, a representative from a company named Yondr,” wrote Riley, “gave a presentation at the meeting on a product sold by the company that helps eliminate the distraction of cellphones at events and concerts — and also in school districts. The company sells a patented pouch that locks when it is closed. The magnetic lock can only be unlocked by a small, handheld circular device similar to the mechanism used to remove security tags from clothing sold in retail stores.”

“Essentially,” she said, “students are required to place their phones in their pouches and lock the pouch at the start of the day, under the guidance of staff — to ensure they don’t find creative workarounds, like slipping a stick of deodorant in the pouch instead of their phone.”

“Several School Board members said they would support the implementation of the pouch system, and two parents weighed in during public comment saying they would welcome the new policy,” continued the article.

These days, as a professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, I need to include in the syllabi for my classes this statement: “Smart phones and similar electronic devices, because they divert a student’s attention, are not to be used during class. Please put your smart phone or similar device away and forget about texting or checking on email during class.”

Allow me to note that my problem with smart phones being used in class is not personal. Having one of these devices — mine an Apple IPhone — I find indispensable.

Every once in a while I can’t find mine and panic breaks out. But as I tell my students, I don’t believe that using a smart phone and multi-tasking in class is possible. It will interfere with learning, I explain.

And it’s not just students with this problematic diversion.

Last month my wife and I were at a restaurant. At the next table were a woman and her daughter. The woman was on her smart phone throughout their dinner.

The daughter went beyond that: She was at her medium-size iPad during the dinner, only moving it slightly to eat.

They did not utter a word to each other during the entire dinner, so immersed as they were for more than an hour on their respective devices.

This is some societal situation these days, isolating people in electronic worlds.

Should the use of smart phones be banned in schools? Yes.