Aiming to cut down on classroom distractions, teachers and administrators within Warwick Schools will have two more tools on their side as the new school year gets rolling – one rooted in policy and the other in technology.
During a special meeting of the Warwick School Committee on Thursday, director of secondary education Bob Littlefield discussed the latest iteration of the district’s cell phone ban, a policy that will make accessing electronic devices – everything from phones to smart watches – during school hours a strictly prohibited and punishable offense for students at the middle and high school level.
First offense for using a phone or electronic device, one that has not been clearly defined as an educational tool for a class activity (like a Chromebook), will result in a verbal warning to cease use of the device. A second offense will result in the confiscation of the device, which will be taken to a secure, locked location and given back to the student at the end of the school day. A third offense will result in confiscation of the device, which will only then be returned following a parental meeting with school officials.
There are slight variations between the middle school and high school levels. Middle school students are expected to keep electronic devices turned off and out of sight the entire day. High school students are given a little more leniency, allowing their use within the cafeteria during the lunch period or if they receive special permission from a teacher or administrator to do so during another time. The disciplinary steps at the high school and middle school levels are identical.
The policy also mentions that the refusal to surrender a phone to an administrator is “tantamount to direct insubordination and may result in discipline penalties up to an including suspension from school.” It further states that repeated violations of the cell phone policy “are not conducive to learning, can create unsafe learning environments and can substantially impede the ability of students to learn. Therefore out of school suspensions are an option in certain circumstances.”
The policy outlines that if a student needs to use a phone for an emergency situation during the day, they can utilize the phone in the school’s main office. It reminds parents and guardians that proper protocol for contacting students during the school day is to call the main office and have the student contacted by school staff.
bThe second means to curb down distraction in a school environment that is becoming more and more necessarily integrated with technology comes from a piece of software called GoGuardian Teacher – which technology director Doug Alexander described as “a Chromebook classroom management tool.”
Simply put, GoGuardian allows a teacher to see exactly what every student in their classroom is doing on their Chromebook. It will show the current website accessed, other tabs that are open and a history of sites that have been accessed during the session. Teachers have the power to close tabs that are clearly off task and send private messages to each individual Chromebook, as well as open up a common tab on every Chromebook if the teacher needs to get everyone back on the same page.
Alexander said that his overall hope with GoGuardian – which was approved unanimously by the school committee at a cost of about $120,000 – is that it will provide data-driven insights into how students stay on task and how many go off task, as well as help teachers observe and optimize their students’ use of technology within the classroom. Rather than look at it strictly as a disciplinary tool that will enable teachers to “catch” their students off task, he wants teachers to view it as an opportunity to boost engagement and cut down on distractions while using technology in the classroom.
“I believe that all of these tools are meant to guide students and teachers into more of an engaged classroom paradigm where, it's not like you don't have the ability to go off task and open a tab and go watch YouTube, it's that you don't want to or you don't have the time. You're busy,” he said. “You're being given things to do and you have to get them done by the end of the period or the end of the week. You're engaged. You don't need your cell phone for that. You can put it in your bag and you're good.”
While Alexander said that the software shouldn’t necessarily be utilized to completely restrict the students’ access to the Internet, GoGuardian does allow teachers and administrators to blacklist websites. The software will be in use at the secondary level this year, but Alexander hopes to expand it to the other grade levels should more dollars become available in the future.
“I think that's short money for long gain,” he said. “It all dovetails with the engaging classrooms initiative – this, cell phones, talking about deeper learning – we're all orbiting around the same concept, which is we need to keep these kids engaged.”
For those concerned about being spied on at all hours of the day when using their school Chromebooks, Alexander assured that the GoGuardian software only works when students are connected to the school WiFi, and is only active during school hours.
Both the cell phone policy and the acquisition of more robust GoGuardian software were praised by school officials.
“I'd jump around and a do a dance if I could,” said school committee at-large member David Testa on Thursday. “I think this [cell phone ban], coupled with the GoGuardian software that we approved, should dramatically reduce student distraction. Because that's what these things are. They provide distractions from the classroom, and I've seen it firsthand when I've shadowed students.”
“We fully, 150 percent support this,” said School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus. “Our kids are not learning as much or as well as they can if they're on their phone and are expected to do their studies.”
Superintendent Philip Thornton said on Thursday that the school committee would likely be briefed in October or November about how the cell phone policy is rolling out within the schools.
“It will take a little while but I think in the long run it will be beneficial to students and teachers and the environment of school,” Testa said.