Dan Wolman is an Oak Park and River Forest history teacher. (Shanel Romain/Staff)

Dan Wolman, an Oak Park and River Forest High School history teacher, was just  named “teacher of the month” for the successful launch of a school-wide rule initiative he proposed on limiting student access to their cell phones during class periods. 

Last spring a school Cell Phone Committee decided to implement Wolman’s idea of a ‘phone home’ in each classroom throughout the school. Starting on the first day of the 2022-2023 academic school year, students were expected to drop their phone in a slot of a numbered hanging organizer and pick it up at the end of class. 

“In every instructional space, when students enter, they are supposed to put their phones in the phone home. At the end of class, they pick up their phones on the way out of class,” said Wolman.

Implementing a consistent no-phone rule maintains consistency throughout the school, as students have previously shown frustration over inconsistent practices among teachers, according to a FAQ sent to parents. Students are no longer subject to an array of faculty’s contrasting consequences and procedures.

Four years ago Wolman felt compelled to find a solution to phones disrupting the teaching and learning process, so he and other teachers started the Cell Phone Committee. Principal Lynda Parker and former principal and now Superintendent Greg Johnson had also joined the committee.

Parker was not available to comment on the phone home initiative for this story. 

Wolman did extensive research on the presence of cell phones in schools before recommending the “phone home” concept. He discovered related  social and emotional issues, mental health issues and learned about its role in school culture. 

“The more I read, the more kind of alarmed I became, at how sort of haphazard we seem to be as an institution around this particular issue,” Wolman said. 

The committee then published material educating parents and students. And they sent surveys to those groups as well as teachers to hear their input on possible approaches, such as no phones for the day, or no phones in class. 

From there, Wolman and the committee generated a solution that would suit their stakeholders — a phone home.

The phone home, Wolman said, would respect the purpose phones can serve in a classroom, but also eliminate its disruption in the learning process. 

The decision to adopt a new norm reflects a survey administered by the Cell Phone Committee. Over 200 faculty members responded, according to the FAQ, and 96.5% expressed strong agreement with maintaining phone-free classrooms. 

The rule does not apply to study hall, lunch or during passing periods. 

Faculty feedback thus far

The committee distributed a survey recently to faculty, accumulating 180 responses that offer feedback to phone homes thus far. In response to ‘did your mood improve since the implementation of the ‘phone home?’ about 70% of teachers said they noticed a significant positive effect on their daily mood, and about 20% saw a slight positive improvement.

Art teacher Mark Collins is a part of the committee and has taught at OPRF for 26 years. He’s witnessed the rise of cell phones over the last 7 to 10 years, he said. 

“When the phone came along it really, it became this sort of thing that you had to manage beyond all the other issues in the classroom,” Collins said.

He said phones constantly pulled students away from their art. In painting class, students would paint for 2-3 minutes, send a text, resume painting for a couple more minutes, and pick up their phone again. 

Collins says since removing the phone from the main purpose of school – learning, students are more present not only academically but socially and emotionally. 

“It’s made [learning] a deeper experience,” Collins said. 

The survey asked if the quality and quantity of instructional time had seen noticeable gains. About 72% of the teachers said they’ve noticed a significant improvement in instructional quality, and 23% specified slight improvement. 

“It’s just a non-existent frustration in the classroom because … nothing happens in between related to phones and that is just a transformation for me in the classroom,” Wolman said.

Wolman said for students in his history classes, they’re more focused in class and more engaged in the topic at hand — participating in livelier and deeper conversations. 

“I think students in 2022 were, on some level, ready for a bit of a break from their devices,” Wolman said. “Even if it goes against their sort of basic instincts, I think they get that being separate from their phones during class helps them in class, even if they don’t like it, I think they really understand that.” 

According to the survey sent to teachers, Wolman said there are bits of resistance among students, but generally teachers have reported seamless compliance rates.

It’s become habitual for students in Wolman’s class, he said. 

A survey will be sent to students in the near future to collect their thoughts on the new rule thus far. 

“There’s an incredible sort of power behind the whole building doing it simultaneously and in the same way, because now it’s just an expectation in every classroom,” Wolman said. “Students don’t have to wonder anymore.”

What do students and teachers make of new ‘phone home’ policy?

By ASHLEY BROWN/Contributing Reporter

Starting the new school year off strong Oak Park and River Forest High School greeted students with a new policy focused on limiting access to cell phones during class time. Under the policy students place their phones in designated “phone homes” — numbered pockets at the entrance of the classroom — instead of keeping the phone on their person.

The designated “phone homes” are organized by numbered pockets. | ASHLEY BROWN/Contributor

When the policy was first announced in early 2022 there was an uproar among students who made various statements such as “they can’t make me give up my phone” and “I don’t care what they, say it’s my property.”

The policy was created in hopes of establishing a more productive learning environment. This concept is new to students of all grades including Katie Ashton, a senior at OPRF who said, “for truly academic purposes I think it’s good, but I see both sides.” 

Studies have proven that when students do not have their phones physically on them, their academic performance improves due to a decrease in distraction.

When a survey was conducted to test parental response an overwhelming number of parents believed that students should have limited access to their phones during educational hours and use should be limited to emergencies only. 

Despite the expectation that many students would object to giving their phones up, Jolene Heinemann, a 5th year English teacher at OPRF, said there was not even a little resistance in her classes and describes the policy as “life changing.”

Heinemann adds that “when my students are distracting themselves, they are reading their books instead of being on their phones” which she finds is definitely a win for English teachers. She describes it as a different type of distraction. 

Brendon Culloton who has taught music at OPRF for 2 years, said there is a “lot more active participation” in his class. Even when not all the phones are in the phone homes, they are out of students’ hands with the students’ minds focused on their work which is the ultimate goal.

Ashley Brown is a student at OPRF and a contributing reporter to Wednesday Journal.

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