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Toronto’s all-boys Crescent School gives high school teachers freedom to decide their own policies around cell phone use, which students Noah Behar, left, and Caleb McLeod, right, say comes with both positive and negative implications.

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This fall, the Ontario government is imposing a classroom ban on cellphones in public schools, with exceptions for instructional use.

But it’s an issue many private schools across the country have already developed policies on. While some impose limitations on use in classrooms and lunchrooms, others use cellphones as educational tools to enhance students’ learning.

At Crescent School, a private all-ages boys’ school in Toronto, elementary students are encouraged against bringing cellphones to school entirely, while middle-school students are asked to keep them in their lockers. At the high-school level, teachers are given freedom to decide their own policies around cellphone use, says Rob Costanzo, who served as assistant head of upper school for Crescent until the end of the spring 2019 term.

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Some teachers impose a “digital day care,” Constanzo says, in which they ask students to check their phones at the classroom door. Others use the phones routinely in class, for photos and scanning and for special apps that fit into the curriculum. Crescent has a digital-integration specialist who keeps teachers up-to-date on educational apps and resources for this very purpose.

“We aim to teach good digital citizenship to our boys, some of which will go on to have important roles and jobs. We want them to have good self-discipline practices with the use of these devices,” Costanzo says.

Constanzo acknowledges that cellphones and social media present a risk to students’ well-being. For every positive use of phones there’s a potential negative abuse, including cheating and bullying, he says.

Crescent School also bans phone use in the dining hall and at assembly, in the name of enhancing “the student experience and dining brotherhood,” Constanzo says.

Grade 11 student Caleb McLeod agrees with the restriction.

“In any social situation where phones are present, I think the level of conversation degrades,” he says.

Other private schools have imposed more broad bans on cellphones, such as Toronto’s Bishop Strachan School, an all-girls day and boarding school. Bishop Strachan does not allow phones except in instances where a teacher specifically requires them for class – in which case, the instructor alerts their colleagues so students aren’t stopped in the halls for having their phones out.

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While it’s commonly argued that giving students cellphone freedoms forces them to develop self-restraint from distraction, Bishop Strachan lead teacher Monica Hodgson says she isn’t convinced students need to learn to cope with the disruption of cellphones in their high-school years. Rather, she believes university is the right time to learn that skill.

“It’s a very intuitive skill to learn,” Hodgson says. “I don’t think you need a cellphone to learn how to focus and not multitask.”

Jason Rogers, headmaster at Rundle College, a private co-ed day school in Calgary, believes cellphones can be an important learning tool and teaching digital responsibility requires teachers modelling good cellphone behaviour.

“If we see teachers in the hallway checking e-mail, checking text messages or the like, we’re signalling to our students that that’s an appropriate way to be,” Rogers said.

The school encourages staff to establish boundaries with their technology use; they have a policy against teachers e-mailing students before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m.. Similarly, the school discourages administration from e-mailing teachers between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., when their primary focus should be teaching.

The school takes a more nuanced approach to cellphone use than many, Rogers says, referencing an experiment one Rundle junior-high teacher conducted in which students kept their cellphones on their desks, and every time a notification sounded from Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, they went to the board and recorded the interruption.

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“The students are part of the exploration, and there’s this understanding of deep work and the impact of distraction on deep work,” Rogers says.

At Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., the need to develop a policy around cellphone use has become increasingly evident as students of younger and younger ages begin bringing the devices to class.

“I can’t think of any of the Grade 7s who don’t have a phone, and that’s changed significantly in the last five years,” said Fraser Grant, Appleby College assistant head of school, academics. “So we thought we needed to address it.”

Appleby students are asked to leave cellphones in their bags or lockers unless teachers give them explicit permission to use them for academic purposes. They are also not allowed to use phones in the dining hall, though this is more difficult to regulate outside of class or the lunchroom since Appleby is a boarding school, Grant says.

“If they’re calling home and there’s a time difference, it’s not reasonable to keep them off their phones.”

Grade 12 Appleby student Aline Maybank agrees with the curtailment of phone time because it helps focus her classes. However, she admits her phone is occasionally useful as a learning tool.

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“I’m a big fan of taking pictures of the board because I don’t want to hold the teacher back if there’s a large concept to be understood,” she says. “I take a picture to remind me where I got lost, and I’ll refer back to YouTube for a video or talk to the teacher afterwards.”

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