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Schools are struggling with smartphones in classrooms. This AZ teacher has some suggestions

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs in April vetoed a bill that would have required all schools in the state to enforce policies limiting device usage during the school day. The move prompted criticismfrom Republican schools chief Tom Horne.

In her veto letter, Hobbs wrote that the mandate was unnecessary and said schools are already enforcing their own policies around phone use.

Our next guest agrees with Hobbs that the bill was probably not necessary, but he still thinks schools should be doing more to regulate smartphones in the classroom.

Billy Robb is a teacher in the Valley and writes a Substack about it called The Cholla Express. In a recent post, he outlines all of the ways schools and districts can regulate phones in schools — from strict rules to no policy at all.

He says there is an overwhelming feeling from teachers that phones have become a distraction from learning. And I spoke with him more about how schools might tackle the problem.

Full conversation

BILLY ROBB: When I first started teaching, I didn't have a smartphone and and the students didn't have a smartphone. So definitely I've been here in Phoenix for the last 10 years teaching and, and it has gotten more and more, we're the point where everyone's got a cellphone now and a smartphone now and tend to see them want to be on it and looking at it almost all the time.

LAUREN GILGER: Right. So they're on, this is different than when I was in school. So let me be clear. So kids are on their laptops often in class. Right. But the cellphones, what's the policy at your school?

ROBB: For example, my school this year has adopted the cellphone pockets and, and this is a schoolwide policy where all the, all the classrooms have a, a wall mounted pocket of, sometimes they call it a phone caddy where there's 30 or so numbered little pockets where students walk in, they have their cellphones on them, they'll walk in and just place their cellphones in this little pocket before they sit down. So they have it on them during the, during the school day at lunch. But during class, they're supposed to have those phones placed there, and then sit down without them and conduct a class without smartphones in front of them.

GILGER: So we'll talk about some of the other options, the other ways that schools approach this as well in a moment. But what was the motivation for that? Like, why did your school or, you know, why do schools in general, why have they had to start creating policies to keep kids off of their phones during class, it seems like a given.

ROBB: I think, I think every school struggles with how to manage this, this problem. It is, it is new. And if there is no schoolwide policy, you just, you just end up having a patchwork where every, every teacher is almost on an island trying to enforce this policy on their own. It can feel overwhelming because it's just a constant distraction and trying to enforce it, you know, differently in different, different classrooms can create inconsistencies for the students. And, and some resistance in, in, in following policies that are put in place by individual teacher. So it just creates a hassle where a teacher is constantly feeling like they have to address that issue rather than focus on their, on their, on the learning that's supposed to be taking place. 

GILGER: So you'd have students like during class, you're doing a lecture, talking, giving a presentation, whatever it may be and kids are just looking at their phones.

ROBB: Yes, if, if you're not strictly enforcing it and, and, and even if a teacher is strictly enforcing it can still be a problem because if you have to address a problem again, you know, usually you would have a consequence like maybe taking the cellphone away or, or something like that. But then even that it's very, you know, a smartphone is very personal thing that's almost attached to your body. So having that be a little confrontational in the middle of class. It's, it's already a problem if, if, if that's happening. So, in my viewpoint of a schoolwide policy where that's addressed, consistently and that it's removed from the, at least removed from the classroom setting would be the best approach at the minimum.

GILGER: How has that particular approach worked for you where the cellphones are put away in these pockets on a wall?

ROBB: Right. It's, it's better in the sense that you can address before the class starts the compliance with it. And I find that that students are, are less resistant to it. Students are able to access it later. So they're not as, they're not constantly feeling the impulse to just check their phones during, during the lesson, which is the main problem from a teacher's perspective, right?

GILGER: Because it's, it's like an addiction. We, we all have it, right? So this is, this is an interesting thing though because you are taking different approaches as you say and you kind of broke them down in this most recent post on your Substack talking about more strict policies, less strict policies. What are the most strict ones look like? Scottsdale is doing something like this?

ROBB: Right. Yeah, Scottsdale. OK. There's a, there's a report that their policy is they call it a way for the day where the phones are supposed to be turned off and in the student backpacks for the duration of the day they're not supposed to look at it all, even during lunch or during breaks. And I think that could work. My assessment of that would be, it totally depends on the enforcement levels and that can be a challenge to just keep up the consistent enforcement of it because students are constantly going to be checking and testing those boundaries of, of the enforcement. You know, it's tough because, you know, teachers are busy, everyone's, everyone's busy and, and it gets tiring by the end of the year. So, you know, if a student is just looking at it briefly at lunch, you know, are you going to have a consequence for that or are you just going to remind a student to put it away? 

GILGER: Are there districts that you know of here around the country that are just saying you can't even bring a phone onto campus.

ROBB: I'm not aware of any here in Phoenix that have that policy. I've read accounts of other, of schools that have, have tried it. And I think that from a teacher's perspective, that would be ideal because the other problem is that I think having access at lunch and breaks and before class and after class, it just, it kills some of the vibrancy of the school culture because you know, instead of sitting around talking and, and laughing, oftentimes students will be just walking around looking and scrolling at their, at their phones, which is just, you know, it's boring, you know, I think at some level, the students have an awareness that student life could be better. It could be more vibrant but, but it's not because everyone's, you know, engaged and addicted to scrolling whatever's on whatever videos are scrolling on their, on their social media feeds.

GILGER: I wonder, like, about the other side of this, the arguments, right. Like parents might want to contact their kids during the day. I know some kids, like, you know, if you're diabetic, you're tracking, you know, your insulin on your phone, there are some things like that, that could be concerned. So maybe your exceptions, but not exceedingly rare. I wonder, you know, how do you balance those things in these conversations?

ROBB: Yeah, that's definitely a new and again, this is all, this is all new last 12 to 13 years or so that smartphones have become part of everyday life. So that's a new thing, right? That parents want to be able to contact their, their, their kids directly because that's what they're used to, you know, 10 to 15 years ago, you just call the office. So, but I, but I understand that's what people are used to and, and people have that concern, you know, one option might be, there's still dumb phones that, that you can, that you can buy where you can have the phone where it's where it doesn't have access to social media and it just can do the simple, simple things like calls and texts so maybe that would be an option. 

But, but then just having a conversation between the school and the parents and just weighing the the trade-offs of it, like, you know, one on one side, access to phones during the day, you'll be able to contact their students. But it comes with a cost because there's a increasing evidence that there's mental health issues perhaps that is, that's being created by social life, being on the digital realm and it's, it's taken away from from a academic outcomes as well. 

GILGER: Yeah, there's, there's growing evidence, there's like a growing conversation around that now that goes beyond just what do you do with a phone while class is happening, right? Like it goes much further. Have you seen changes like that in your students in recent years where, you know, it's harder to keep their attention or they're, they're used to six second videos on TikTok.

ROBB: I think everyone, right? I think that's, that's, that's something that's affecting society as a whole because everyone's, everyone's doing it. But the difference is that as students, their brains are still developing, right? So they're still, they're still learning how to socialize. So I think there's something different about growing up and, and having constant attention diversions and these, these platforms and social media platforms are designed the business model designed for constant compulsive use and you know, it's just better to have that you're removed, at least from the from the classroom experience. So it's, it's hard to tell from, you know, from a class to class or individual. It's so gradual, you know, I, I think it does have an effect on, on students attention spans, but I think it has probably an effect on everyone attention spans as well in society. 

And I think schools can play a big part of what, Jonathan Hay, who is a social psychologist who does a lot of research and advocacy on this topic. Cause the collective action problem is that one student or one parent thinks it'd be better to not be on it. Well, that's great, but then you're cut off from the socialization happening, but schools can play a vital role I think in, in helping this collaboration, talking to parents and creating a policy and getting buy in from the parents so that we can, you know, collectively create some new and better guidelines for the students. This is a new and, and real issue that it would be better if we all work together and improve the lived experience of the students.

GILGER: Yeah. All right. We'll leave it there for now, Billy Rob, a teacher and the author of the Substack newsletter, the Cholla Express, breaking this down for us. Billy, thank you for coming in. I appreciate it. 

ROBB: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.