"The reality is that the cellphone is such a distraction," Paley said in an interview. "The temptation to go and use it is patently obvious."
Paley is one of many teachers at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools who have devised their own ways to deal with what they describe as increasingly distracting cellphone use during class. Others ask students to put their phones into backpacks and put the backpacks at the back of the classroom. One teacher has asked students to put their phones into a basket prior to taking tests to prevent cheating (which one student reportedly circumvented by bringing more than one phone to class that day).
While cellphones have become a pervasive part of daily life, some high schools are taking steps to curtail their presence during school hours. Last year, San Lorenzo High School banned phones during the school day, citing research showing the detrimental effects of phones on learning and students' well-being. Inappropriate cellphone use had become the East Bay school's top discipline issue and was damaging relationships between students and staff, according to school leaders.
"We believe this change will make a dramatic difference in our school climate, culture and academic achievement," Allison Silvestri, then-principal of San Lorenzo High School, wrote in a letter to families.
San Mateo High School followed suit this fall in response to teachers who were at the end of their ropes with monitoring students' phone use. Post-ban, both high schools say students are more engaged during class and interacting more with classmates during breaks and lunch. Teachers and parents in neighboring districts, including in Palo Alto, are watching closely to see how the new policy goes at these schools.
While there is no concrete proposal for a cellphone ban in the Palo Alto Unified School District, there is an appetite for one among some frustrated teachers and a group of parents organizing around the issue. But others, including students, defend cellphones as valuable educational tools as well as an opportunity to teach teenagers responsible use before they go on to college or a career.
Having teachers decide
Both Palo Alto high schools' cellphone polices are laid out in their student handbooks. At Gunn, electronic drives — including cellphones, smart watches and computers — are not permitted in any class unless allowed by the teacher.
Paly prohibits use of social media, texting, messaging, gaming or streaming videos on devices at school. The handbook notes, "Students may find games, applications and social media available on cellphones addictive. In these cases, the education of such students is greatly disrupted, and this behavior may lead to further problems." Paly teachers and staff can confiscate phones if they are "judged to be disruptive," the handbook states.
At the private all-girls Castilleja School, middle schoolers are not allowed to use cellphones during the school day without adult permission and high schoolers can only use them during free time outside of classrooms, the student handbook states. Students who use phones "inappropriately" during school hours may have them taken away.
At Paly and Gunn, much is left to the discretion of individual teachers. Paley, who has taught computer science and mathematics at Gunn for 18 years, implemented the pouches last year. They make a difference, he said. He's supportive of a school-wide ban.
"What I really want is the student to be present in my classroom — present, alert, engaged in any kind of discussion we have, engaged with fellow students," he said.
Even as a computer science teacher, he doesn't see a need for smartphones at school.
"Until people have really good ideas on how to use the technology so that it's not more disruptive than it is productive," Paley said, "I want them out of the classroom."
Gunn's history and math departments, as well as the Focus on Success program for students who need additional academic support, exclusively use the pouches, according to teacher Marc Igler, who is also vice president of the teachers union. Teachers have asked the administration to develop a broader policy, he said. Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. Paly Principal Adam Paulson did not respond to emailed questions. Superintendent Don Austin declined an interview request.
Igler, who teaches English, typically relies on a "stern warning and lots of follow-up" on cellphone use during class but said he's going to try out the pouches with new freshman and sophomore classes next semester. Several teachers said they find upperclassmen to be better at self-regulating their phone use.
"It's almost like freshmen and sophomores, they can't resist it," Igler said. "The unconscious pull of the cellphone can be a problem."
The fight over phones can also create tension between students and teachers and damage the classroom dynamic, Igler said.
While a campus-wide ban would be a "clean solution," he's not sure there's broad support for one among Gunn teachers.
Kristy Blackburn, who teaches English and journalism at Gunn, acknowledged that phones have become a major distraction over the last decade but doesn't support a blanket ban. Her journalism students, for example, rely on their smartphones as a reporting tool — to take photos, record interviews and cover breaking news or events.
There's also a difference in opinion among teachers at Paly.
Eric Bloom reminds his students to put their phones away at the start of class. He attached an old iPhone to his classroom's door jamb as a humorous reminder to students to do so. He's not interested in policing students by taking away their phones. If there are a few free minutes at the end of a period, he encourages students to talk to each other instead of automatically reaching for their phones.
He questioned how well a campus-wide ban would be received by schools with strong cultures of autonomy.
"At Paly and Palo Alto in general those kinds of broad, sweeping command kinds of things just don't seem to work very well," Bloom said.
Paly history and social science teacher Chris Farina has for years been requiring students to put their phones away during class in backpacks or pockets. He pointed to research showing there's a cognitive cost to simply having a phone out, even if it's not turned on or in use.
But he's not completely for a ban. There's some value, he said, in leaving it to teachers' discretion to decide how to handle phones in their classrooms, particularly if they use it as an educational tool.
"Also, I think there's value in setting it as an expectation in your classroom and asking the students to develop the habits around responsibility and keeping it away, cultivating that behavior rather than just imposing it on them at this age level," Farina said. He talks with students about the research on cellphones' effects and more broadly, the role of technology in the classroom, such as taking long-hand notes versus on a laptop.
School board member Melissa Baten Caswell also argued that teaching students responsible use is preferable than trying to create a "hermetically sealed environment." She's heard from parents who want to ban phones at school and others who agree that teenagers need to learn to self-monitor.
"When you have a challenge with kids' behavior I think we immediately jump to, 'Let's just take away the thing that's creating that behavior,'" she said. "It's definitely harder to spend time on teaching kids to make good decisions, and maybe we haven't been spending enough time on that."
Working through the complications
One of Farina's AP psychology students, senior Ben Gordon, does feel more engaged when his phone is away. He thinks his peers also pay more attention in that class. He grapples with the compulsive pull of his phone — constantly wondering if there's a text or social media comment that's come in that he "needs" to check.
There's "that feeling when I finally get access to my phone: 'What'd I miss? What'd I miss?' It's almost like an unconscious, jittery fear," he said. "'What if it's important?' And even though it rarely is, there's always that constant notion of 'I feel like I'm missing something.'"
Senior Claire Cheng has had teachers using their own phone pockets since her freshman year. This year, two out of her seven classes use them and a third teacher asks students to put their phones away in their backpacks when they enter his classroom. These measures are effective from her perspective — she feels more engaged in those classes — but a complete ban would be "inflexible." What if a student needs to leave early, or has a mid-day prep period during which they need their phone to get work done? Students also use their phones to send each other reminders about club meetings and assignments throughout the day, she said.
"It definitely is harmful when you aren't able to communicate with people virtually during the day," Cheng said.
Both Gordon and Cheng said they would expect students to oppose a ban if proposed in Palo Alto.
At San Mateo High School, phasing in the ban with ample opportunity for public feedback helped reduce pushback, Assistant Principal Adam Gelb said in an interview with the Weekly. The school started by piloting a few phone-free classrooms last spring, and some students voluntarily gave up their phones for the day. The school held more than 10 public meetings to gather input from students, staff and parents. Most parents there support the ban, he said, but the top concern is how to reach students in the case of an emergency, such as a school shooting. Both schools encourage parents to call the front office if they need to get in touch with students in an emergency.
Both San Mateo and San Lorenzo high schools use Yondr pouches — small gray, cloth bags in which students lock their phones for the day. They keep the pouches on them but cannot access them until they're unlocked at the end of the day. The founder of the San Francisco company created the pouches to encourage more in-person interaction at concerts, but they're now being used at schools, courtrooms, medical facilities and other spaces. According to Yondr, San Lorenzo was the first school in California to use the pouches all day rather than in some classrooms.
The pouches cost about $12 each. For a high school the size of Paly or Gunn, that would cost about $24,000.
San Mateo High School created a procedure for when students need to access their phones. The school issues to all students bright yellow "consideration cards" that students can put on their desk in order to go to the front office to check in with an adult who either unlocks their pouch or lets them use a landline phone.
Students have found workarounds to the pouches but for the most part comply, Gelb said.
"I get there are benefits to having phone during the school day, but teachers saw it was a constant battle for attention. An engaging teacher who has put a lot of effort into a lesson might go unnoticed, and students might perform poorly on an assessment because of their distraction and addiction to the screen," he said.
For some teachers, cellphones are just the tip of the technological-distraction iceberg. To ban them would raise the question of what to do with the other kinds of electronic devices in classrooms across Paly and Gunn. Both schools provide all students with a district-issued Chromebook, for example, many of which are used during classes and have the same potential for distraction as a phone. Teachers said they're also seeing students listening to music during class using wireless earbuds.
Paley pointed to Schoology, the district's online school-management system, as another source of distraction and anxiety. Students — and parents — have immediate access to grades, homework assignments and other class content on website. If a student logs onto Schoology during class, they're "one click away from having a complete distraction," he said.
San Mateo High School also has Chromebooks in almost every classroom. Gelb said teachers monitor students' screens and ask them to close anything that's non-academic or class-related.
Differing opinions on the board
Todd Collins, vice president of the Board of Education, reached out to Gunn Principal Laurence and top district administrators last February about trying out Yondr after reading news stories about San Lorenzo High School. He said there wasn't much interest at the time.
"I'm increasingly concerned that there are public health risk type issues associated with universal cellphone usage at all times," Collins told the Weekly. "It just changes so fundamentally the way people interact with each other. Getting people to interact with each other is a huge part of what education is."
Collins thinks a ban could be tried on a limited basis in a single classroom, department or school even if there are logistical challenges or potential for student and parent pushback. The district can tap two local high schools that have actual experience in the process to navigate implementation issues; staff at both schools have offered to come and talk to teachers and administrators here.
"We're not doing our jobs right if we ignore an idea like this that other people are adopting," he said.
One of his board colleagues, however, thinks locking away students' phones would divert the schools' attention from more impactful changes, such as implementing the district's homework policy and having later school start times.
"Students who are stressed and deprived of sleep but without cellphones are still going to be stressed and deprived of sleep," board member Ken Dauber said. "I would rather focus on those I think more fundamental problems than focus on this specific issue."
A group of Palo Alto Unified parents who have become increasingly concerned about cellphone use are starting to organize around the issue. Dave Shen, whose children attend district elementary schools, is part of that informal effort and said they will likely lobby the superintendent, district administrators and school board members — as well as students — to propose a ban. Shen thinks the district should not simply institute a ban in isolation but make sure to also create classes or otherwise educate students about responsible technology use and technology's effects on the brain and body.
His own concerns run the gamut, from the detrimental social-emotional impact of phones and social media to health risks like excessive blue light exposure to eyes. Shen, the co-vice president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs' health and wellness committee, pointed to the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States, funded by the National Institutes of Heath (NIH), which found that children who spent more than seven hours a day on screens showed premature thinning of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning.
Above all, the cost of cellphones in an educational setting is obvious, Shen said.
"If we're stuck in a screen, we're not focusing on the world," he said.
This story contains 2588 words.
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