“Pouch your cellphones”

Nicole Curci holds a container at the door of her classroom, collecting the cell phone empty pouches for the next class on March 7th at William E. Grady High School.

Two years ago, teacher Nicole Curci said she was fed up having to compete with her students’ cell phones for their attention. Nothing seemed to work to pry them away from their screens. Once she even caught some of them using their smartphone cameras to cheat on a writing test.

“I got really, really tired of telling the kids to get off their phones,” said Curci, a popular teacher at Brooklyn’s William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School for the last three years.

The Brighton Beach school has been experimenting with solutions ever since. One idea was the lock-down gadget that Curci now puts to use when her students enter her classroom.

A few weeks ago in early March, the history teacher dismissed her class a few minutes early to give students time to unlock their phones from magnetic pouches. As the students filed out of class, she held a big basket at the door, collecting the empty pouches that would be used two minutes later by the next class.

“Pouch your cellphones,” Curci reminded the next class of incoming juniors, as she oversaw the peaceful transfer of magnetic cell lockdowns. “Get your cell phone pouched, please.”

One girl arriving late tried to shove her cellphone into her bag. “Can I keep it? I have a lot of work to do,” begged Chidera R. The teacher stood firm.

William E. Grady High School has been trying out this magnetic phone lock gadget for the last two years as a new idea to combat an old, festering problem — classroom and learning disruption caused by electronic devices. Since then, the debate about whether this phone pouch really helps students focus on their work has been heating up among teachers and students. The jury is out among teachers and students whether it is the best idea to eliminate the distractions caused by electronic devices. Still, it’s being used in increasing numbers.

“It’s a never-ending battle,” said the principal, Tarah Montalbano. “No one has solved it yet.”

In 2006, in order to address the continuous struggle around cell phone use in classrooms, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared a citywide ban on cell phones in the public schools. On one episode of his weekly radio program in 2006, Bloomberg criticized the distractions causing by cellphones in the school area, saying, “We are not going to allow iPods and BlackBerrys and cellphones and things that are disruptive in the classroom. ”

Bloomberg’s ban was highly controversial from the beginning. Students complained that it was unfairly enforced. Parents worried about not being able to reach their children before and after school, which they considered a safety concern.

In 2015, the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, lifted the ban, citing parents’ safety concerns and giving autonomy back to the schools. “Students are allowed to bring their cell phones, computing devices, portable music, and entertainment systems to school,” according to the Department of Education website.

But the problems continue. Principals and teachers still face figuring out how to fairly and efficiently keep the devices from disturbing the classroom.

Two years ago, Montalbano saw a video online about magnetic pouches with a lock on the top that can be used to temporarily store student phones. The lock works just like magnetic tags in clothing stores. Once the students slip their phones in and close the pouch, their cellphones will be locked inside until the teacher releases them with a heavy unlocking device.

Montalbano decided to purchase 100 pouches and related accessories for over $2,200. This year, because of the increasing demand, Grady bought 300 more pouches, investing over $9,200 in total.

According to a marketing associate from YONDR, the company that sells the product, about 100 schools in the New York area are using them to regulate phone use.

In Grady, teachers use pouches in different ways. At first, Assistant Principal Rosemarie Tartaglione said they were used school-wide to punish students who abused the classroom ban. The school would “pouch” the phone of any student who violated the rule for the entire day. Later, some teachers such as Ms. Curci, chose to pouch every students’ phone for the entire class period.

“They are taking photos, sharing photos, and airdropping photos,” said Curci, “so it’s kind of a way to limit that ability.”

Mendel Nestlebaum, 64, who has taught English at Grady for six years, became an adapter of this new tool several months ago.

“I don’t think phones should be in the building at all if that’s possible,” he said. “I have students who take a full five minutes to disengage the headphones and put them away. I try not to let them take too much time from classwork, but it does.”

A recent study published in the journal Education Psychology, confirmed Nestlebaum’s concern. The 2018 study found that the distractions caused by electronic devices are more than just annoying — they may in fact impact long-term learning. Researchers at Rutgers University found that students who divided their attention between listening to classwork and multitasking on their devices were able to follow the immediate lesson, but their long-term retention of it was reduced, resulting in lower grades.

Still, not every student is harmed by using smartphones in class. Teachers recognize that for some students with special needs, smartphones can be the necessary learning tools.

Students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) use their phones to translate from their language into English, and to take photos of texts to study later. “It’s all about translating for them,” said Curci, “so they can write more efficiently.”

Stan Fevrine, a Grady paraprofessional, believes phones can be helpful for in-class research. In his leadership class for the school football team, Fevrine conducts discussions around themes such as “commitment” and “character,” and then encourages students to look up questions on their devices. “We’ve been dealing with these distractions way before cellphones in the classroom,” he said, adding that it’s not about the phones, it’s about how teachers manage their classrooms.

The Grady students surveyed expressed more ambiguity about how phones should be regulated. Micah Y., a junior student with special education needs, thought the pouch policy is good and bad. It forces him to focus, he said which is good. But, he argued, his phone also helps him to relax, giving him “some downtime from the stress of the work.”

Ninth grader Firdavs I. thought the pouching solution is a fair solution. However, he said another idea would be to get a five-minute-break in class for students to check their phones. Firdavs said his phone “is like my girlfriend.” He spends a long time with it every day.

Matthew H., a ninth-grade student with special education needs, is comfortable having his phone pouched for the whole day. It keeps it safe from getting lost or stolen, he said.

Sophia Z., a student from Moldova in Curci’s class said she was surprised when she saw how dependent American students were on their phones. For her, it was easier to accept getting her cellphone pouched. Nevertheless, Sophia thinks this method is only a temporary fix.

“I think the problem should be targeted at the root,” she said. Kids just try to open the pouches, causing even more disruption.

Sophia Z. is in the class with her cellphone pouch.

Grady educators realize students have figured out some tricks to breaking open the pouches, or other workarounds. “They don’t last very long,” said Montalbano. “We are going to figure out the next step.”

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