A Classroom Cell Phone Policy that Builds Community

The first time a student’s cell phone rang in my class, I was angry and frustrated. With their musical ringers, cell phones that go off in class are rude and distracting. But how to respond? I’ve never been very good at playing the heavy. Was there any way I could take this annoying occurrence and twist so that it would contribute to a more positive classroom environment?

I’ve devised a “cell phone protocol” that has enabled me to make peace with the problem. As it appears in the syllabus, the protocol reads: “Please turn off your cell phone ringer while in class. Mind you, violation of this protocol will demand punishment—though one that clearly does not infringe on your eighth amendment rights.” I then ask someone to identify the eighth amendment, and as a history professor, I’m happy to report that someone can always explain the constitutional limits on cruel and unusual punishment.

I advise students to turn off their ringers in class, and I note that if someone’s phone rings, he or she will have to provide the class with food. It doesn’t have to be an extravagant meal (remember the eighth amendment!), but there must be enough for everyone. In the beginning, I offered the possibility of a subsidy to economically unable students. However, I abandoned it once I realized that if students could afford a cell-phone package, they could provide treats to about 30 classmates.

The community-building process develops in earnest when a phone actually rings in class. During an episode that otherwise involves an unpleasant exchange, there is now occasion for celebration, as students cheer at the prospect of their upcoming snack. The cell phone protocol, much like a kangaroo court in baseball, which exacts minor fines for small indiscretions, helps to build an esprit de corps and I push this outcome even further. When it is difficult to discern whether the cell phone rang or was in vibration mode, I encourage the students to vote as to whether or not a violation has occurred.

So what are the drawbacks of this policy? There are few. The biggest is that even with my policy, cell phones still ring in class and they are just as rude and distracting. I see no way around this problem. In my class, students are distracted, but we grow closer as a result of it. The other potential problem is that an instructor might not want food in the classroom. Fair enough, just have the punishment be something like telling a joke or sharing a poem.

The policy also has produced some wonderful surprises that make me proud of my students. Once a student decided to skip the standard fare of candy and brought in dried fruit. Although most of her peers (and her teacher) were disappointed with the healthy alternative, this student took the opportunity to encourage people to eat a more healthy diet. And at the end of this past semester, one of my quietest students informed the class that she was disappointed in a classmate who still hadn’t brought in food for his transgression. The chastened student, who apparently had extra money on his meal card, brought in a buffet for his dumbfounded classmates.

Ultimately, though, the greatest advantage of the cell phone protocol occurs when someone’s phone rings in class and the other students start hooting joyously. It doesn’t make the phone ringing less distracting; but on the other hand, how often do you hear students cheering in the classroom?

Dr. Alan Bloom is an associate professor of history at Valparaiso University.

Excerpted from Making Cell Phones in the Class a Community Builder, The Teaching Professor, March 2007.