Coconino High School and other Flagstaff-area schools are turning possible classroom distractions like smartphones and tablets into new learning tools.
Today’s smartphones and tablets can be both a help and a hindrance in the classroom, said Coconino High Principal Stacie Zanzucchi. Students need to know how to use the technology but it can be a major distraction.
Flagstaff Unified School District doesn’t have the money to buy each student and each teacher a tablet. Each school does have at least two carts that are each furnished with enough iPads to cover a class of students and one teacher. The carts have to be reserved ahead of time and signed in and out.
But sometimes there’s just not enough or both carts are signed out, Zanzucchi said. Which is why CHS and some of the other schools in the district don’t ban the carrying or use of smart phones or tablets in the classroom. Allowing students to bring their own device can cover that gap.
Each school in Flagstaff Unified School District has its own policy on the use of digital devices in the classroom. For example, at Sechrist Elementary School, students are required to keep their smartphones and cell phones in their backpacks and the devices are not used in the classroom for instruction. DeMiguel Elementary School also requires phones to be stashed in a backpack but smart watches like the Apple Watch are allowed as long as the student isn’t playing with or using the watch in class.
At the high school level it’s a bit different, Zanzucchi said.
Instead of banning digital devices from classroom use, CHS and some of the other schools in the district try to use technology to teach students at their level and in their style of communication, she said.
Teachers use digital devices for all sorts of classroom exercises, Zanzucchi said. Apps can be loaded onto the device that allow students to use them to answer quiz or trivia questions on the classroom smart board. Students can work in teams on projects and send documents back and forth, as well as Google items.
“Every year we have a few parents who are surprised we don’t have a zero-tolerance policy on the use of smartphones or other electronic devices in our classroom,” she said.
But parents, who grew up in a time before smartphones and tablets, sometimes don’t realize how much a part of students’ lives these technological wonders are.
Some adults are just a little afraid of technology, she said. It’s something new, something different and we don’t quite understand how it works or what to use it for. But to this generation of students it’s something they grew up with. It’s one of the many ways that they communicate with each other and research the world around them. It doesn’t make sense to them to walk down to the library to look through several books to find an answer when they can just Google it at their desk, Zanzucchi said.
At the same time, students have to learn when it is and is not appropriate to use a digital device, something that even adults struggle with. That’s something that schools can help teach them while incorporating technology into the classroom, she said.
In order to curtail the digital distraction problem, each classroom at CHS has a poster with a stoplight printed on it and a little cellphone “dude” that can be moved from red to yellow to green, she said. Each color lets students know when digital devices can be used in class.
A red light means that digital devices cannot be used for the entire hour of class and cannot be visible or audible during that hour. A yellow light means that students can use digital devices under the direction of the teacher. A green light allows students to use devices at any time during the class.
Teachers are responsible for setting the level of use is acceptable at the beginning of class. That level has to be maintained for the entire class. Teachers are also responsible for enforcing the use level, she said.
For their first violation of the traffic light, students are given a verbal reminder of the policy. A second violation gets a note sent home to mom and dad. A third violation includes a note sent home and the device being confiscated. The confiscated device can be picked up by a parent.
Zanzucchi said Coconino came up with the posters in 2013 as digital devices including music players, smartphones and tablets started to become more common place and more a distraction in the classroom. The school’s structural team researched how other schools in the state and across the country were dealing with the problem and adapted a program they found at Lake Havasu High School into the stoplight poster they use now.
At first some teachers and parents weren’t keen on the idea of allowing the use of personal smartphones and tablets in the classroom.
“I used to be a red (light),” said CHS English teacher Derek Born. “I thought it would just be a constant distraction, but it really wasn’t. Now, I’m almost always a yellow.”
Born said he treats digital devices like any other classroom distraction.
“If you’re passing a note or leaning over to ask a question from a classmate. I might notice it, but if it’s quick and quiet, I’m probably not going to say anything,” he said. “The same with a quick text message or email. But if you’re constantly talking or staring at your phone, I’m going to give you a warning. If it continues, I might confiscate the phone.”
Students also seem to like the policy.
“I think it works really well. I think we’re all addicted to our phones,” said Makynzie Miller-Smith. The poster lets students know what to expect when they walk into a classroom. This class you might need your phone for a project, the next class you might not, so you leave it in your backpack.
Reid Hatch, who recently graduated from CHS, said he actually kind of enjoyed the times when cell phone use was curtailed in his classes. It was a bit of a break and allowed him to concentrate more on the tasks at hand. It also kept you from getting your phone confiscated.