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Fed up with nagging, Toronto teacher asks parents' help confiscating kids' cell phones

A Toronto teacher tired of nagging her students about cell phone use is implementing a new enforcement policy that asks parents for their help in policing the devices.

'As hip and connected as you want to be, you need to be able to think clearly,' teacher says

Toronto teacher Shahnaz Khan has sent a letter home to her students' parents asking for permission to take away their phones should they get distracted. (CBC News)

A Toronto teacher tired of nagging her students about cell phone use is implementing a new enforcement policy that asks parents for their help in policing the devices.

Shahnaz Khan, an English teacher at Northern Secondary School, has had to adapt as students increasingly come to class tethered to handheld screens. But while the devices are sometimes used as part of the learning experience, very often they simply distract -- both the students using them and others in the room.

"At the moment, our tactic or strategy of dealing with unwanted cell phone use is a negative or reactive one," Khan said in an interview on Metro Morning on Monday.

"We tend to nag. Our temper gets a little short sometimes."

With the school year in full swing, Khan is trying a new approach. In a letter sent home, she says parents can decide if they want her to confiscate their children's phones if used improperly during class.

"It's a pilot project," Khan said. "So if I need to swoop in and take a cell phone, I already know I'm backed by a parent to do that.

In the letter, she said: "Last year, I experimented with many ways of obstructing phones that were being abused in class. All took significant time and energy from myself, the administration, and engaged kids, and none of my methods succeeded."

So far, about nine parents of students at Northern Secondary School have signed the agreement. (CBC)

This year, hoping to put an end to all that wasted energy, Khan offers parents a choice. She'll confiscate phones only from students whose parents opt in to the policy. Parents can then pick up the phones from the vice-principal's office 24 hours later.

To parents who don't support the policy, she wrote: "If you believe instead that a 'natural consequences' approach would be more appropriate for your child, and are willing to accept that abuse of the cell phone may result in lower, even unsuccessful, academic performance, please do not sign the form."

It's an approach she hopes will put an end to the "tireless policing of phones [that's] created negative rapport" with students.

One of those methods, she told CBC Radio's Metro Morning, was to have students surrender their phones in a basket before the start of class. But inevitably a ringtone would go off during class from a device hidden in a pocket or bag, derailing the lesson plan as Khan found herself having to address the disruption — often with more nagging.

Tigana Bryan, right, says students can shell out around $1,000 for phones, which she does not believe teachers should confiscate for 24 hours. (CBC)

'This device is everything,' she says

"What seems to be happening is we're not having the same quality of discussion," Khan said. "There are kids who will tune out of the discussion…wait to be called on, not be actively engaged." 

The Toronto District School Board once tried to remove the devices from classes altogether. Cell phone use was banned from TDSB classrooms from 2007 to 2011. But the board eventually relented and spokesperson Ryan Bird said the TDSB had to "get with the times."

Khan, who doesn't own a cell phone herself, says teachers each have their own policy and many opt for a different strategy than hers.

Ilar Haydarian made a pact with herself to keep her phone off during class. (CBC)

"The [students] are probably coming from classes where a lot of their courses are online. They're invited, they're supposed to use their phones," Khan said. "So they are getting different messages about when to take out their phones, when to put it away. It's a lot for a teenager, I think, to handle."

So far, about nine parents have signed the agreement, but Khan says she understands why the hesitation is there. 

"This device is everything. This is a home entertainment centre, this is an educational tool, this is their parent's way of knowing they're safe," Khan said. "But we have to use this instrument carefully, really judiciously, so we're protecting diverse types of learning and teaching in the classroom."

"As hip and connected as you want to be, you need to be able to think clearly. [You need] the older hard-earned skills of reading and writing that require contemplation and quiet and tuning out and turning that thing off."

'We don't want to be bored,' says student

Some students at Northern Secondary School, including Ilar Haydarian, understand the need for such a policy.

"I'll be honest... sometimes I do get distracted," said Haydarian, who made a pact with herself starting this year to keep her phone off during class.

"When you have it in class and you're always checking and looking down on it, you can't focus well enough."

However, she does not agree with confiscating the phones for 24 hours.

"Probably not to that extent. I understand totally, though, during class time."

Madeleine Marchese says it's the teacher's job to make class fun for students. (CBC)

Grade 10 student Tigana Bryan, who admits to using social media on her phone during class, said holding a student's phone for that long is "not acceptable."

"It's not their property," she said. "These phones are like a thousand dollars sometimes. We paid for them ourselves."

Grade 10 Madeleine Marchese said the onus is on teachers to keep students engaged and off their phones.

"They have to show us that what we're learning is important, what we're doing is fun. If it's not fun for us, of course we're going to go on our phones because we don't want to be bored."

With files from Metro Morning