Using Cell Phones to Bridge Gaps and Engage Youth

Maybe you’re thinking texting has no place in the classroom. This teacher found some practical applications.

When I first heard about teachers using texting as a classroom tool, I rolled my eyes. I am not a fan of texting. I find it distracting in everyday life, and couldn’t imagine encouraging its use in the classroom.

Then, while learning a second language, I enjoyed firsthand experience of texting as a teaching tool. “Hmm,” I thought, “there might be something to this.” Keeping an open mind, after all, is one of my top goals as an educator.

Texting is very popular in Spain, and my Spanish teacher used it to help teach us slang, proper texting etiquette and the Spanish language. The work sheets she created included little cellphone screens for us to write on. I even learned cute signatures and sayings. You can end a text with “1 beso,” for example, as if saying “Goodbye, hugs and kisses.”

Young people in this country—teenagers in particular—are already in love with texting. It’s been reported that as many as 75 percent of all teens text. So I’m thinking of embracing it. I envision texting students about assignments or sending a joke about my subject material. Polling for responses to a lesson or assignment. Asking students to text quick answers to questions for bonus points or pop quizzes, and even encouraging them to take photos of what’s written on the board.

By and large, early adopters are enthusiastic about the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) practice that has permeated many educational environments, increased interest in learning and improved test scores. But the use of mobile learning devices has a downside.

Teachers must encourage students to maintain focus in the face of inevitable—sometimes irresistible—distractions. Many students are more savvy than their instructors, and can make meaningful contributions to a policy that spells out what devices are acceptable in the classroom and how and when they may be used.

BYOD, of course, brings up the issue of equity in technology. Students who don’t have cellphones may pair up with students who do. You may purchase several cells to supply to students who don’t have their own. Contact foundations or providers to see if you can get special phones at a discounted rate for classroom use. Explain your strategy to parents, who might get on board to purchase a phone. Local businesses might be willing to sponsor purchases or donate used cellphones when they upgrade. Use social media and the Web to scout for donated or discounted phones. Hold a school-wide fundraiser and invite the community.

If you’re thinking this seems like a lot of trouble for a classroom gimmick, think again. It’s not a gimmick. Teachers are using smartphones and tablets as extensions of classroom resources. Texting, in particular, is a great way for teachers and students to exchange ideas about lessons, assignments and learning experiences.

As we prepare young people for jobs that don’t yet exist, we must not just keep up with the technology and teach them how to use it, but engage them with relevant lessons that challenge their modern, tech-wired minds. I used to frown at the development of technological advances from cellphones to videogames. I thought they undermined our time together and impeded human development and compassion. Now I realize that, used in moderation, they can be quite beneficial.

Lisa Nielsen, who is known as the Innovative Educator, has taught me a lot about how using technology in the classroom can be a boon to both teachers and students. I don’t agree with everything she says, but some of the solutions she proposes are well worth pondering. Nielsen features lots of helpful technological ideas on her blog. You can access it here: to use in your classroom. Teaching Tolerance has a few ideas, too.

Schmidt is a writer and editor based in Missouri.

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