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District backs smartphones' in classes

Posted: November 25, 2013 - 1:01am

ANCHORAGE — At Romig Middle School, Kendall Johanson tunes her trumpet before band class using an app.

In her social studies class, the seventh-grader looks up geography facts on the same iPod Touch that she uses to Instagram and text-message, with the help of a wireless network provided by the school.

At Dimond High, government teacher Missy Nurmi hasn’t confiscated a note for years. Her students don’t pass them anymore.

They text surreptitiously, staring down at their laps.

In the space of a few years, smartphones have wiggled into every corner of middle- and high-school life, from the way students study for tests to how they flirt, fight, audition for jazz band and make weekend plans.

At most Anchorage schools, smartphones have been effectively banned from the academic hours of the school day.

But that’s changing. Devices are moving into the classroom, with the blessing of the Anchorage School District.

This year, the district is piloting a policy known as BYOD, or “Bring Your Own Device.”

BYOD allows students to carry computing gadgets such as tablets, smartphones and laptops to school, where they can be used for academic purposes.

The concept is now being tested at East, Eagle River and Chugiak high schools and at Romig Middle School. The district plans to eventually extend it to other schools, said Joe Hackenmueller, head of educational technology.

(Elementary students will more likely use e-readers than smartphones, Hackenmueller said.)

The reasons for the turnaround are simple, Hackenmueller said: The devices can be educationally useful. And so many kids have them.

“It’s a voice in the community and among students and staff that’s just been growing louder for the last three years,” he said.

The hope is that devices will serve as a kind of educational Swiss-Army knife: graphing calculator, assignment calendar and dictionary in one tidy package -- and one the district doesn’t have to pay for.

The district is not requiring anyone to buy or bring a smartphone to school. BYOD is optional for students. Those without smartphones can use school-owned technology, such as laptops or tablets.

It’s not just in Anchorage. School districts in places such as Mankato, Minn., and Avon Lake, Ohio, are doing the same thing.

Now, as devices seep into the school day even further, teachers and administrators are grappling with how best to manage the technology.

“It used to be a knee-jerk thing,” said Holly Morris, an assistant principal at Dimond High, which isn’t part of this year’s BYOD pilot program. “The attitude was if you’re on your phone you’re doing something bad. And now you can’t fall back on that.”

‘We’re giving in’

The change reflects the reality of a connected world, says East High principal Sam Spinella: Smartphones are in the hands of students from nearly the moment they wake up in the morning to the time they go to sleep.

That’s visible in the hallways of East, the largest and most ethnically and economically diverse high school in the state.

On a recent afternoon, every one of the dozen students waiting for rides in the school’s atrium was glued to a screen: The girl in a ROTC uniform carrying a ukulele under her arm studied her iPhone. The girl with rhinestone-studded headphones around her neck blasted Eamon’s gleefully profane R&B song “I Don’t Want You Back” from her phone-turned-boombox. The boy in sneakers and a North Fleece vest played Angry Birds with steely intensity.

Teenagers say they see phones as an extension of their body.

“If it’s not in my pocket, I freak out,” said Mark Villasin, an East senior standing with a knot of wrestlers before practice.

Megan Hatswell, an assistant principal at East, says even at a school where many students come from low-income families, nine out of 10 students carry smartphones.

Sven Gustafson, the principal of Romig Middle School, says the figure is more like eight in 10 in his school of seventh and eighth-graders. Parents see connectedness as a safety issue and phones as essential, Gustafson said.

The average age that kids first get a smartphone, according to more than a dozen students from three schools interviewed, is seventh grade.

A few reported getting a smartphone as early as third or fourth grade.

Ja Dorris, an East High assistant principal, keeps a three-ring binder packed with names in his office: a log of students who have had their phones confiscated. It happened more than 180 times last year.

A small filing cabinet labeled with alphabetized cubbies used to fill up with phones taken away for in-class discipline problems.

Some students would rather be suspended than hand over a phone, said Dorris.

“I have to Dr. Phil the phone away from them,” he said.

Phone problems are down this year at East. But not everyone is on board with smartphones in class.

Some teachers there say it’s too hard to determine whether a kid is using their phone to calculate the volume of a cylinder or to text about Friday night.

“Some teachers initially had a negative response,” he said. “Like, ‘We’re giving in.’”

Ultimately it will be up to individual teachers to make rules about phone use in class, said Hackenmueller, the district’s educational technology head.

“We’d hope they aren’t going to issue a blanket no,” he said. “I hope they’d consider creative ways to leverage those technologies.”

Discipline issue or educational tool?

In Adam Johnson’s social studies class at Romig Middle School, students cluster at tables with smartphones in hand, looking up facts about North American countries.

Kids who don’t have smartphones use gleaming MacBook pro computers owned by the school. Some use both at the same time.

Johnson, who has taught at Romig for seven years, says he was initially a stickler about smartphone use.

Over the years, managing smartphones has “become less of a discipline issue and more of an educational tool,” he said.

He thinks devices can help students develop critical thinking skills. Textbooks are static, he said. The Internet is endless and dynamic.

“But one thing we do a lot more of now is tech literacy,” he said. “Students have to be able to evaluate the quality of information they are reading.”

Teachers see other practical advantages: The dog can’t eat homework stored in a Google document file.

Classmates virtually gather during homework time using apps like EdModo, check grades on Zangle, and use Quizlet, a flashcard-like app, to study for tests, said Astrid Williams and Emily Biering, seniors at East and members of the student advisory board there.

Lockers are often empty of textbooks because everything can be accessed on devices, Biering said.

“I think in the future we’ll probably all be issued iPads,” she said. “It would save a lot of paper.”

Student-teacher communication is smoother than it used to be, said Missy Nurmi, who has taught government at Dimond High for 15 years.

“There’s no such thing as, ‘I didn’t know’ anymore. Or, ‘I left my book in the locker.’”

She sees bringing smartphones into the classroom as an issue of fairness. Adults are similarly addicted to their phones -- she admits checking hers for breaking news more than once during class.

But as smartphones enter the classroom, teachers say they must fight harder for the attention of students who hold their entire bubbling social cauldron in their hands.

At the BYOD schools, the district has tried to limit students’ ability to Facebook, Instagram and tweet during school hours by blocking popular social sites from the free Wi-Fi students can use in class.

But students say they circumvent that rule by switching back and forth between Wi-Fi and wireless phone company 4G networks where social sites are accessible.

“Honestly, I (switch between wireless and 4G) all day,” said Villasin, the East High senior.

Some students are always going to socialize in class, Nurmi said.

When she sees students smiling at their lap she knows they’re probably using Snapchat, an instant messaging app where students can send ephemeral photo texts.

But those students -- among the many adept at what she calls “lap-texting” -- will do that whether smartphones are banned or not, she said.

Her philosophy is that they’re only cheating themselves.

Smartphone saturation?

Some parents worry that as smartphones are integrated into classroom life, bullying will become inescapable.

What Dimond senior Chandler Barrett calls “Twitter drama,” is the backdrop for modern high school social life.

The scary part, he says, is that a rumor can be spread to your entire peer group instantaneously.

“Let’s say you did something and you want to forget about it, and then boom, it’s on Twitter. It’s like what now?” he said.

Romig seventh-grader Kelsey Ross says one common tactic is anonymous Instagram “hate pages.”

“When parents were going to school there wasn’t as much bullying because it was face-to-face conversations,” she said. “But now it’s on a screen. And people have more guts to say something on a screen than in person. They can also disguise themselves.”

Holly Morris, the Dimond assistant principal, says she takes a hard line on cyberbullying when it creeps from social networks inside school walls.

“I say, ‘This stops now,’” she said. “And if it starts again it’ll be considered harassment.”

Morris says she’s disturbed by the endless life of photos, words and videos students casually lob onto the Internet.

“As a teenager, it’s hard to control what comes out of your mouth,” she said. “They don’t even seem to have that second-guess when it comes to their fingers.”

There are signs that smartphones may have reached a saturation point.

Dimond senior Chandler Barrett laments the days when kids biked around the neighborhood to round up friends instead of mass-texting.

And teenagers bristle at the idea that they are uniformly obsessed with their phones.

For Astrid Williams, an East senior with pale pink hair and her mind on college applications, the smartphone is still just a tool. One that she really likes but isn’t addicted to.

“You can, like, live without them,” she said.

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