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Students using cellphones – with their teacher’s blessing

By Reid Creager
Correspondent

Paty Prieto recalls with a chuckle how it must have looked to adults walking by: Students who were supposed to be sitting in her Spanish IV honors class were walking around outside, talking on their cellphones.

All part of the lesson plan; the students were talking to Prieto, in Spanish, as the Charlotte Country Day School teacher employed a new way to make learning more interesting for students while saving her important planning time.

Using Google Voice – a free product that allows users to deliver multiple phone lines to a single voicemail box – Prieto set up a phone number for each of her four classes.

During class, she gives students a spontaneous prompt that requires them to reply for two to three minutes in Spanish on subjects ranging from what they did over the weekend to what they think about international events. The exercise can focus on sentence construction, verbs or any particular language element.

“I remember the first couple of times I did it, some of the people from the admissions office were walking by with parents,” Prieto said. “I saw in their eyes a look like, ‘What was I doing?’ They didn’t know that I was cleared to use the phones during class time.”

Not only is the innovation a good fit with today’s tech-tethered generation, it makes Prieto’s life easier as well. She can listen to each student’s response, make an assessment and suggest improvements via text – all without students having to take turns on the computer at the language lab just so she can get their MP3 recordings onto her computer.

With the students calling the Google Voice number at the same time – they leave the class so they’re not all talking at once in a confined space – she can accomplish in two minutes what used to take much longer. “I used to have to come in on Sundays to listen to the voicemails,” she said.

Students say they like the time saved by not having to wait for a computer at the language lab, not to mention the ability to use their phone and texting for schoolwork.

“It’s a lot easier than logging on to a computer and using a headset and microphones,” said Allison Lee, a junior at Charlotte Country Day. “We only have about 10 computers in our foreign language lab, so we would have to take shifts to go do voice recordings.”

Akhil Singh, a junior at Charlotte Country Day, said he never envisioned a day when he would be texting in connection with schoolwork. “It’s definitely a cool way to learn,” he said.

The innovation is well-timed at a school that recently relaxed its cellphone policy.

Matt Less, Country Day head of upper school, worked with administrators, parents and students on a new policy that began with the 2011-12 school year: ninth- through 12th-grade students can use free periods and time between classes for phone calls and sending text messages.

“Before, the policy was that students couldn’t use their phones during the school day,” Less said. “But they would sneak them in anyway and use them in the bathroom, things like that.”

The new policy has its restrictions: Some teachers request that students place their phones in a basket in the class during tests. But Less said the language-class experiment, used by many teachers, is an extension of an environment that gives students an opportunity to make good choices.

“We’re trying to give teenagers as much responsibility as we can,” he said. “We want to let them learn that while they’re under our roof – because pretty soon they’re not going to be under anyone’s roof.”

Kinga Zay, a German teacher at the school, said Prieto is a “pioneer of this technology at the school and the most ambitious about it. … But everybody feels that instead of sending the students into language labs, where they’re sitting in front of a computer, they’re in their own element using their cellphones.”

Prieto laughed when asked if the innovation was strictly her idea: “Yes and no,” she said. “I’ve been to several workshops, and someone said something about having a free local number to call in where you would be able to record a voicemail.

“I thought it would be a great idea to use it in the classroom.”

Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at reidcreager@yahoo.com.
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