Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

August 27, 2012

Changing times

Students at Tahlequah High School now have limited access to their cellphones during the school day.

TAHLEQUAH — When Tahlequah High School Principal Jeff Thorne proposed a 30-day experiment giving students “free zones” for texting and listening to music at school, a few teachers probably thought he’d lost his academic marbles.

Thorne’s theory is just one example of how school administrators across the country are working to eliminate distractions while also taking full advantage of the good that comes from technology.

“I had some push-back from teachers,” said Thorne. “Some faculty did not like the idea, but they’re not embracing the technology of the new age. Sixty years ago, television was ‘evil,’ it was ‘of the devil,’ all this kind of stuff. Is it? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s like everything else; it’s a tool, and it all depends on how you use it. We have to stop fighting technology and use it.”

The experiment kicked off last week after Thorne made presentations to district administrators, the Tahlequah School Board of Education, and THS teachers and students. So far, the feedback has been especially welcome among students.

“It’s definitely better for freshmen coming in to a big school like this. Some of them come in from little tiny country schools, and being able to text your friends, people you know, at lunch and say, ‘Hey, where are you?’ helps a lot,” said THS freshman Seth Campbell. “I noticed the whole attitude of school is just more relaxed because everybody’s not tensed up. At lunch, it’s quiet; everybody’s on their phones, not yelling across the room.”

Campbell and others at THS witnessed an immediate change in students’ attitudes around campus in the first week of the experiment.

“I think it was a nuisance before, because you couldn’t use your phone in the halls, and it was definite that you were going to get caught; but now that you have the option to check your text messages in the halls, you really have no reason to do it in class,” said THS senior Travis Hooper. “You’d think that once they started this everybody would be on the phone all the time, but that’s not the case. A lot of people don’t use them. I think it has cut down on students wanting to use their phones in class.”

Students must have their cell phones on silent or vibrate modes at all times. Between classes and during lunch hours, students can text and can listen to music using one earbud.

“That’s a safety issue,” said Thorne. “If you have both earbuds in, I can’t tell you the school’s on fire.”

Phone calls aren’t allowed, but Campbell and Hooper both said they wouldn’t want to talk on the phone while walking down the hall, anyway.

Thorne hopes to see the test project cut down on classroom interruptions from students who receive a text message and feel an urge to sneak a peek.

“Our whole society is based on cell phones. Students all have a cell phone, whether it’s a smart phone or not. When it vibrates in their pocket, everybody’s just dying to see who’s calling. ‘Is that my girlfriend, is that my ride?’ So everybody would try to sneak a cell phone out and then get in trouble in the classroom. It’s natural,” said Thorne. “By allowing students to be responsible and use their phones at the appropriate time and method, I think it’s a better deal for everybody. If I give them a window, a ‘free zone’ after class, out in the passing period, they can wait until class is over. I think that’s rational, that’s real.”

Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Presley said school districts around the U.S. are trying to embrace technology to keep up with the ever-changing world – a world in which the U.S. is, in many ways, lagging behind other countries. She also realizes there must be limits, and administrators will be watching for issues that could bring a quick end to the project.

“This is seen as a privilege. If we find students misusing their cell phones, the whole concept will be reconsidered,” said Presley. “We’re going to experiment with it.”

Thorne calls it the “carrot-stick” approach, in which administrators offer something all students will want, while also explaining that abuse of the privileges can lead to something none of them want.

“This cannot take the place of education. If you stand out in the hall texting and are tardy, that’s a problem,” said Thorne. “If we have a huge increase in cyberbullying, or an increase in pornography or inappropriate websites, I’ll just stop the program.”

If the phones are used to capture video on the campus, and those videos end up online, that can also end the experiment.

“Any disruption to the educational process and I can stop this. That’s the bottom line,” said Thorne. “The kids all seemed to recognize that when I spoke to them. I think that the kids are respectful of that because I’m trying to respect their situation.”

Thorne believes administrators will ultimately take what they learn from the month-long project and alter the guidelines to address any noticeable problems. From there, he expects many teachers will find opportunities to introduce cell phones into their classrooms.

“Technology has changed and the new smart phone in the kids’ pocket is more powerful than the computer five years ago,” said Thorne. “Students’ smart phones can replace classroom equipment that we already have in short supply, and in the right situations, students can use their cell phones as research tools, but the teacher still has control in the classroom. The student handbook talks about what happens if you don’t do right with your cell phone. If you abuse the rules, your cell phone can be confiscated. The students have to respect that. That’s part of the learning process.”

Campbell and other students at THS have been allowed, on occasion, to use cell phones for research or other assignments. Though not all teachers are on board with that method, administrators recognize the educational process is quickly headed in that direction.

“To get to those goals, we have to start somewhere,” said Thorne.

Freshman Cara Nichols said she’s seen students respond respectfully toward teachers who might not be as open to using cell phones in the class.

“The students are pretty good about not using them in class if the teachers don’t want them to,” she said.

Though it’s not always true, students said the younger teachers at THS generally seem to be more accepting of cell phones in class than the older teachers.

Thorne hopes the experiment encourages students and teachers of all ages at THS to embrace the tools they have, and to continue easing into new educational experiences.

“If positive things come out of it, I’m all in favor. We just have to be careful that the negative things don’t outweigh the positive,” he said. “If students do the right thing, I’ll keep helping them. The only way to learn responsibility is to be given a privilege; you earn it, and if you don’t earn it, it’s taken back.”

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