Sunday, January 2, 2011

Students Change School’s Cell Phone Policy - A case for inquiry/project based learning

I started this blog with the intention of writing every Sunday. That was a summertime dream! Once into the thick of the school year, that intention evaporated quickly. This holiday break gave me the time to write up and summarize all that I had wanted to try to put down each Sunday night. However, I think this will prove to be a better post, albeit a rather long one, because it tells a comprehensive story.

Under the Muscatine Community School District’s new G² inquiry/project based learning pilot program, the cell phone policy project was born at Central Middle School. The project set out to answer the question: “What factors impact cell phone usage policies in schools?” Language arts teacher, Tanise Colvin, and I decided on this project because it would provide an opportunity for students to develop their information literacy skills and to engage in authentic civic action should they choose to pursue a change in their school’s cell phone policy (which they did and we suspected they would!) An overview of the project can be viewed here.

We began by having our students generate the factors they believed currently influenced cell phone policies (mostly cons) and those that they felt would have a positive impact in school. We finalized a list of 32 factors, half of which were pros and half cons. Mrs. Colvin worked with the “cons” groups and I worked with the “pros” groups. Working in groups of three, the students researched one factor per group which were then collectively presented at our Exhibition Night on November 4, 2010.

As Mrs. Colvin worked with the groups researching the potentially negative consequences of cell phone use in schools, we came to realize that we needed a way to address these proactively if the proposal we were planning to make to administration had any chance of approval. Originally, Mrs. Colvin’s groups attempted to devise a set of proactive slogans to thwart inappropriate cell phone use by students, but soon came to realize that this was a project in and of itself and could not be included in the original project and Exhibition Night.

As part of my social studies curriculum then, I took over the idea of a Responsible Use Campaign and I scrapped my pending project for the time being. Before we could set to work on the campaign, we had to devise a comprehensive policy proposal based on our research and feedback from the Exhibition Night audience. The students were very careful to write a balanced and rather conservative proposal to administration, but we didn’t submit the proposal immediately. We knew we needed to submit our Responsible Use Campaign ideas in unison with the proposal to help make and keep the new policy a success. The students were keen to work on a proactive scheme rather than focus on disciplinary consequences (although they were asked by administration to submit their ideas for that as well). So the Responsible Use Campaign began in earnest.

Students were arranged in groups of eight and all were responsible for creating a unique slogan, logo or mascot, posters, intercom announcements, a video and ideas for promotional items. In thirteen days, we completed twelve campaigns that are poised for deployment every three weeks should our student body manage responsible cell phone use to keep the new pilot policy in place until the end of the year. The campaigns are collected in a website and can be viewed here
We are still making some final touches to the pages and some uploads at the time of this writing.

Once we had our campaigns well under way, we invited the administration in to view our work and to consider our proposal. The students’ work paid off. They didn’t quite get all they asked for, but they understand that what has been approved is a good start and one that they made possible. Beginning on January 3, 2011, 7th and 8th grade students will be allowed to use their mobile devices in the classroom for educational purposes and at the teacher’s discretion, and during the lunch period. But this story doesn’t end there. Our administrators were so impressed with what the students had accomplished that they asked them to do one more thing: to launch the new policy to the entire school via an assembly.

The holiday break was looming, so we had just five days to coordinate an assembly and our students unfailingly stepped up to the task. Each class period was responsible for one aspect of the assembly. One group choreographed the majority of a “flash mob” dance for all 100 of our students to open the assembly with, one group storyboarded a movie and filmed transitional vignettes, one group made huge Responsible Use pledge banners for all the students to sign, and one group coordinated a Poll Everywhere poll for the students to interact with during the assembly and to show off one benefit of using cell phones in the classroom. It was messy, it was crazy, it was rushed, it was nuts, it was exhilarating! Best of all, it served a real purpose and need.

The day of the assembly my G² colleagues put aside their own lessons for the day and we all joined together in the auditorium to practice for two hours before showtime. It was really shaky to begin with, but everyone persevered and in the end, our students pulled off one of the most entertaining informative assemblies that I have every witnessed. The only adults that got up on stage, were the administrators when they had to discuss the disciplinary aspects, otherwise, our students controlled the show (admittedly, with a little help from me in the background, but had we more time, I could have easily turned over entire control to them).

The movie, which provides an overview of the initial project, shown at the assembly:

The Flash mob dance, performed to MC Hammer’s “Can't Touch This, since the slogan of our first campaign is, “Can’t Text This.”

The remaining clips from the assembly:

After the assembly, we had one last component to prepare before the new policy launch on January 3rd. During our campaign preparations, an idea bubbled up out of a conversation regarding the promotional pieces. Just how were we going to make those happen? Students had designed t-shirts, water bottles, stickers, bookmarks and bracelets. I hadn’t put any real planning to that idea, it just sort of seemed to be a natural part of a promo campaign and I figured I’d deal with it if the proposal was approved. Well, the time came to deal with it and I did the only thing I could do and really should do, I took it to the kids.

Serendipitously, the promo piece question came up at the same time another concern was voiced. We were pretty sure that the G² students would mostly comply with the new policy because they had invested so much time and effort (note: ownership) but we were uncertain just how effective the Responsible Use Campaign would be for everyone else. How could we get the other students to invest in behaving responsibly? That’s when a voice popped up from the crowd and suggested we have the other students make the promo items - we could provide kits. That is exactly what we managed to put together in a day - bookmark kits for 400 students at only 7 ½ cents apiece.

We arranged two assembly lines, and created kits of three pieces of yarn, two beads and a mini card-stock “banner” bearing our first slogan, “Can’t Text This” and the reminder,”Use Ur Cell Well.” We provide a lot of reading time at our school, so we determined that a bookmark would keep the idea of responsible use close to mind and the hope is that students will actually use them because they made them.

Footage of the kids assembling the bookmarks:

At the same time the bookmark kit assembly lines were in operation, a few students took off with a Flip cam in hand and prepared a tutorial for how to make the bookmark. I finished it up into a final video to be shown during homeroom time, where the students will assemble them.

The bookmark tutorial:

Now, that all the pieces are in place, the new policy is ready to launch in just a couple of days. It is a scenario I could never have imagined last summer when Mrs. Colvin and I were first putting this idea together, and that is precisely my point.

The point of this narrative is not only to record and tell the story of our first project, but to emphasize the evolutionary, very real, nature of the project. The space that we were given to create and follow a natural course of events made all the difference in the world for what our students were able to create and accomplish. Our original question was, “What factors impact cell phone usage policies in schools?” What we couldn’t foresee to add was, “If a change in policy is desired, requested and granted, how will we make that happen successfully?”

One cannot predict a natural progression or evolution because it has to take into consideration everyone else’s ideas and the resulting consequences. Isn’t that how the “real world” works? Isn’t that what all the 21st Century chatter is all about in educational circles? This then, is my first argument for more inquiry/project based learning in Iowa.

In the coming week, I will be deconstructing this first project with my students. We have completed reflections along the way, but I intend for us to identify more about the definition and process of learning - an effort in metacognition and to provide valuable feedback for me. There is one identifiable outcome I am sure of: when students have to put themselves and their work up in front of others, especially their peers, and when that work truly impacts others, especially their peers, quality becomes a major concern - in their words, “we don’t wanna look stupid.” Our quality wasn’t too bad this first semester; I expect to see improvements next semester. But that is a post for another time.

Note: How lucky am I? To be able to write a story of teaching and learning - something I would never be able to do with nothing but a parade of textbooks and worksheets. There’s no story in that.

Local newspaper picked up the story!


  1. Very ,very cool. Thanks for sharing. The use of cell phones in school is inevitable. The only issue will really be equity, much as it is with computers.
    The future gets closer everyday.Apparently it is closer in Iowa than it is here in least for now:)

  2. What a great post! I am so inspired by you and your students. I am going to start a project like this. I don't think mine will be as involved as the one your students did.
    How incredible.

    Would you be willing to skype in with my class so we could interview your students?

  3. Robin, Thank you for the compliment! We would certainly be willing to Skype. You can look for Penny Burger in Muscatine, Iowa or perhaps misspb2
    which is my Skype username. You can leave me a message there.

  4. I am a great proponent for cell phones in the classroom, as long as the teacher has override ability to switch them on and off using a protocol switch. All emergency calls and two parental numbers can always be dialed. This technology can be seen at:

  5. Believe me, our pilot policy is quite conservative. Use in the classroom is at the teacher's discretion, and students still must check in through a central location for any contact with parents that involve making arrangements to leave school. Thanks for the link - looks like an interesting product. Here at CMS we are working to teach appropriate behavior for internal monitoring rather than rely on an external monitor.

  6. Penny,

    It sounds to me like this exercise is a great lesson in civics. I read the article in my paper with interest and scepticism, but after reading your blog here (which obvioulsy most of the commenters to my newspaper web site didn't do), it sounds like a very worthwhile project.

    I just enrolled my daughter at CMS today. It sounds like a wonderful school. Thank you for educating our children.

    Steve Jameson
    Muscatine Journal

  7. Thank you Mr. Jameson for your informed response. Welcome to Muscatine and we welcome your daughter to CMS!

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