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2. The Always-On Student: Why Socializing Can’t Wait until Passing Period

Published onApr 10, 2020
2. The Always-On Student: Why Socializing Can’t Wait until Passing Period

Antero: Can you tell me how much time you spend at school on your phone?

Minerva: The whole day!

Antero: You spend the whole day on the phone?

Minerva: Mostly.

Antero: What do you do?

Minerva: Everything.

Although I interviewed more than one hundred students to gather the data that informs this book, one of my ninth-grade students, Minerva, got to the heart of mobile media use in schools today. For students, nearly all decisions at all hours of the school day—deciding where to meet during periods, coordinating bathroom breaks, staying connected with peers at other schools or on other tracks of the school’s calendar, and staying abreast of various pop culture updates—are channeled through their phones.

In many ways, the pervasiveness of mobile use in schools isn’t surprising: it mirrors how many adults spend their time with phones. As I write at my desk or participate in a meeting, my mobile device is next to me or in a pocket, occasionally vibrating with a query from a friend, a reminder from a family member, or some other notification of the world beyond the immediately present one. Media scholar Douglas Rushkoff warns of the “present shock” of the constant background noise of updates that funnel into the lives we live in the moment.1 The amount of time that kids spend on their phones during school hours likely isn’t very different from adult usage. According to data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, mobile devices are used frequently in both home and workplace contexts by people of all ages.2 And although this data emphasizes that teens are “much more likely to use their phones to avoid boredom … and also to avoid other people,”3 the findings show that teenage socialization practices with mobile devices do not make them a demographic that is necessarily more connected than working adults.

As I began asking questions of the students who participated in focus groups for my study, they quickly corroborated the assumption teachers made that most students at South Central High School were utilizing mobile media devices. In all of the focus groups that I conducted, only eight students claimed not to have a mobile device, and even these students noted that they often used other students’ devices to contact friends and family when necessary. All other participants owned a mobile device. Statistics on tech use and ownership corroborated these student claims. Surveys of teens from around the same time that I conducted this study found that more than three quarters of American teens owned smartphones and 79 percent of teens claimed to own iPods or mp3 players.4 In the few years since completing this research, these numbers have increased. In addition, recent research has illuminated a growing “smartphone-dependent” population that can access the Internet from home only via their mobile devices.5 Although only 7 percent of the U.S. population, this group is made up of young adults, nonwhites, and individuals with low household incomes and levels of education. The students at SCHS were likely to be smartphone dependent, which reinforced the existence of a “participation gap” between youth who can regularly access online activities through laptops and computer and those who rely on small screens and keyboards.6 (A detailed description of my methodology for these focus groups and the findings throughout this chapter can be found in appendix A.)

When discussing student digital life at South Central High School with students, I learned that during some parts of their daily schedules they did not use their phones. However, as is discussed below, even these instances were carefully planned through prior mobile media use.

Although I focus much of this chapter on mobile media use specifically at South Central High School, I believe this data can be used to explore mobile media during the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in schools across the country.

Before diving more fully into my conversations with SCHS students, I should confess that I conducted the interviews and observations for this chapter with preconceived feelings about the role that mobile devices play within schools. I provide more details about my researcher positionality in this book’s appendices, but as a classroom teacher, I initially felt that these devices often interfered with my curriculum and instruction during class time. My goal with the data presented here is to attempt to see mobile use from a student perspective and to help other adults also understand not only what students are using their devices for but why and how these devices change youth culture today.

Proximity and Purposes of Mobile-Device Use: A Conflict in Policy and Space

Of all of the findings this research revealed, most surprising is the way that youth mobile use runs almost completely counter to adult provisional use of mobile devices. Students want to use mobile devices in ways that are opposite to how and when they are allowed to. At South Central High School, students generally are allowed to use mobile devices during lunch and nutrition periods during the day and generally are not allowed to use their mobile devices during class time.7 Pretty simple and intuitive, right? “During class time, put away your phones. You can use them at lunch.”

This type of structure may be problematic if teachers intend to use mobile devices as part of the learning process, which has its own pitfalls (as I show in chapters 3 and 4). The use-your-phones-on-your-own-time model is most problematic in how it illustrates that adults largely misunderstand youth engagement and mobile media use.

In conducting focus groups with students, observing campus spaces, and sitting in various classrooms, I began to see that there was a tension between what transpires during class periods and what happens between class periods. Most students didn’t want to use mobile devices during lunchtime or nutrition period, and some students who received a text message or call during lunch waited until they were heading back to their classes to respond. So the time that students were allowed to use their phones was precisely the time they did not want to use their phones. This might seem counterintuitive to adults, but it makes sense when looking at what students do on their phones when they pretend to read a book or search for something in their backpack.

Figure 2.1 A student demonstrating how to use a phone while pretending to read a book

In classes, students used their mobile devices to socialize with each other, update each other on the latest chisme (gossip), and discuss meeting places and upcoming activities. After doing all of this organizing, planning, and chatting, teens didn’t want to waste the precious minutes of their lunch break in isolated relationships with their devices. They used this extracurricular time to talk with friends and socialize without the mediation of handheld devices. My ninth-grade students told me the purposes behind when students use mobile devices:

Antero: Do you use it as much during breaks?

Dede: No.

Minerva: Uh-uh.

Antero: Why not, Dede?

Dede: Because you’re interested in something else.

Minerva: Yeah.

Dede: Now that people are out there, you can put it away.

Solomon: Yeah, you don’t need the phone to go out and start talking.

Minerva: It’s just that when we’re in class time, we got nothing else to do.

Antero: You’ve got nothing else to do? [laughs]

Solomon: You text someone instead of walking up to someone during class time.

Antero: Help me understand. Teachers think you should have your phones put away during class and take them out during lunch and nutrition. Right?

Minerva: Right.

Antero: But students use their phones during class and mostly put them away during lunch. Is that right?

Minerva: Cuz at lunch you’re having fun, and people are around.

Ras: There’s so much to do, like, during lunch that I might say, “Hold up. Imma check this message during fourth period.”

How we organize schools today limits how much time students get to socialize with one another. Because educators want students to focus on academics during class time, socialization is pushed to the margins of the school day—passing periods, lunch time, before and after school. However, students see time as much more fluid than the binaries of adults. Instead of academics and socializing being two separate areas of focus, they intermingle these two times. This fluidity is reflected in many college-educated adults’ workplaces. However, the lessons that adults could teach students about how to negotiate time are not only ignored but actively blocked by current school structures. The contradiction between how teens use their time and how adults reinforce the rules of time leads students to use their mobile devices to plan their precious moments of face-to-face socializing.

The comments like the ones from my students above were unanimously echoed by students in all of my focus groups, confirming that school time at South Central High School is interpreted differently by students and adults. Considering the contested space between student practice (using mobile devices for socializing during class time) and adult policy (reserving mobile devices for use during lunch and nutrition breaks) from a student perspective, it seems that students negotiate social time in ways that mimic adult interactions. I felt conflicted as a researcher and teacher when I saw students using devices at times not allowed by school policy. However, when I am in a meeting, I discreetly send text messages, respond to requests, and quickly scan my text messages, e-mails, and social networks for information immediately pertinent to me (and I have received negative comments about this behavior). Seeing my own activities mirrored and reflected back to me by students challenged my teacher perspective.

Although school policies are in place to hold students’ attention during class time, adults need to consider the lessons we are delivering with these policies. I can think of occasional times at dinners, happy hours, and other social outings where a friend or family member’s phone use takes him or her out of the present moment in ways that many of us would consider rude. Sherry Turkle’s research has looked at how the alienating role of technology continues to affect generations of young people and their relationships with each other.8 People of all ages are still figuring out how to use their devices in social contexts. And as mobile devices move to our wrists and to various devices through the silent takeover of the “Internet of Things,”9 the constant prodding for our attention continues.

By asking students to interact with their mobile devices only during social times, we are focusing on the technological affordances of complex, online devices and are avoiding a shared examination of how these devices affect relationships. For educators, disciplinary issues arise, and we can spend time discussing whether student texting in class signals a problem related to an unengaging curriculum. However, schools that want to be up to speed on a quickly shifting world where students socialize with peers must contend with the fact that students are breaking school policies that interfere with student interpretations of school time.

Similarly, students at SCHS uphold an implied social norm about the amount of time that can be taken to respond to a text message. Most students I talked to said that they try to respond to text messages as quickly as possible, even if they are in the middle of a class. One student noted, “At least you should say you’re busy and can’t text right now. Otherwise, that’s rude.” Immediate responses to in-class texts are so accepted, in fact, that one student said that if someone doesn’t respond right away, “It probably means their phone was taken away.” Several students nodded in agreement. This cultural norm can frustrate students who feel that the demands on their attention are not manageable. Most students discussing this expectation of immediate response found it to be exhausting. Further, these students were aware of rules about no phone use in class but felt that the rules governing their social lives were more meaningful than the school’s oppressive policies. Evidently, all of the rules regarding student behavior were not adult-instituted; youth-created policies on mobile use also were demanding.

Asking my own students why they use their phones when they know they are not supposed to, Solomon shrugged and said, “It’s fun.”

Ras: Just because.

Minerva: Because if it’s vibrating, you need to see who it is.

Antero: Why can’t you wait?

Minerva: It could be important.

By silently challenging the rules and expectations of adult-dictated policies and following their own rules, today’s students exert their agency through discrete mobile use. The rhetoric of frustration from teachers is clear: teachers I spoke with echoed popular media sentiments that students are “distracted,” “rebellious,” or “rude.” But these comments came from a challenged authority commenting on school rules. Because of the ubiquity and compactness of mobile media, students are redefining school behavior. Their social rules are superseding school policy.

Similarly, several students offered disconfirming evidence of being annoyed when friends texted them too often in class. Minerva, for instance, said that she tried to respond to friends within five minutes, but she also said she is frustrated when, “They [friends], like, send you one text, and if you don’t write back in like two minutes, they send you, like, three fucking messages. That’s dumb.” Discussing the reasons behind her frustration, Minerva explained that sometimes, “I just want to pay attention to what’s going on [in class].” Minerva’s experiences highlight the student perspective that time in school is fluid: it is both academic and social, and the boundaries of these two uses of time in school are not dictated by school bells or peer demands.

Not a Phone

Continuing the analysis of how students use their mobile devices, it is necessary to reflect on the vocabulary we use for the things we carry in our pockets and purses. How often are the “phones” we carry in our pockets actually used in the “old school” ways that telephones used to function? As a colleague noted, people in many other countries use the word mobile for what Americans call cell phone.

Considering how infrequently we actually hold the devices to our ears as receivers, calling mobile devices “phones” seems like a misnomer. Recognizing this, I began my work by asking students what kinds of things are “mobile.” The inner-city youth I worked with identified phones, iPods, and game devices like Nintendo’s DS as typical “mobile” devices that might be used numerous times throughout the day. Two students I interviewed suggested iPads and tablets (two years before the Los Angeles Unified School District purchased iPads for every student in the district). Not one student identified a laptop computer as a mobile device.

Sound, Talk, Privacy

For a campus that is always connected, SCHS is a generally quiet one when students are in their classes (aside from the occasional helicopter overhead). The most frequent sound heard on the mobile-enabled campus is the warble of music from earphones that are hung over ears—but with the speakers positioned outward to project publicly the music students experience. Rather than using headphones to curate personal listening experiences, students blast their music at maximum volume, using earbuds as miniature speakers to DJ for nearby peers. Similarly, students roaming the halls often played a customized ringtone to echo and be heard by students in classrooms with open doors.

Despite the prevalence of public curation through mobile sounds, students had very different visions of how private information should be shared. One common concern among students was whether information could be overheard or seen. For example, in one focus group, a student said that when he was talking with “his girl,” he did not want his classmates to hear their entire exchange, even if snippets of his end of the conversation were audible. As such, both texts and phone calls in schools can be challenging for students. Phone calls can be overheard, and the emotions of the speakers inferred. As one student noted, “With a phone call, you don’t want nobody to see it.” Likewise, text messages invite wayward eyes to peek at the exchanges. Both auditory and visual communications in the school are found at the divide between private and public.

For many of my students, text messages and Facebook messages that they assumed were private have been forwarded to third parties and beyond in ways that have been hurtful and embarrassing. Dante and Katherine recounted an incident when a classmate’s nude photograph was forwarded to many students at the school and perhaps beyond. These troublesome instances of teen “sexting” are among the many student communication practices that are shaped by mobile devices.10 In fact, the ethics of mobile devices and students’ understanding of privacy have grown increasingly complex, as researcher Carrie James explores in Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap.11 Because it is relatively easy to forward content from one device to another, students relate incidents like the one described above as a warning about some forms of mobile use. In this sense, many students balance public and private conversations through mobile devices. For conversations of the most sensitive and immediate nature (those that students feel can’t wait to be shared in person), many students quietly whisper phone calls in corners and bathrooms. However, the content of a conversation or an informal exchange via text or Facebook often is edited to ensure it appears innocuous enough to be shared with a larger, unknown audience. Many students profess love and also write cryptically in public Facebook posts that both encourage dialogue and occlude explicit meaning from all but a handful of close confidants.

In the introduction to a book for teachers in the digital age,12 I shared my thoughts on seeing many of my high school students migrate from MySpace to Facebook (a divide that initially was tied to socioeconomic and racial demographics).13 Students used the comments section of a Facebook post as the equivalent of an instant messaging or chat client. It wasn’t uncommon for a student’s post to generate forty to fifty different comments within a short amount of time—an entire archived conversation. Initially, I saw this use of Facebook as wrong. That’s just not how Facebook is supposed to be used, I thought. But eventually, I came to understand that the “networked privacy” of students revealed a new paradigm for using digital tools. The contexts of digital tools and the ways they are used depend on who utilizes them: what looked wrong to me was simply a different kind of practice for my students.14

School Tasks, School Time. Social Tasks, Social Time

In talking with students and observing how they relied on mobile devices for social purposes at school, it became clear to me that their use of mobile devices in school was not simply about student pushback on existing policy. Instead, the ways that they engaged in mobile-mediated social practices during school hours was redefining how they used time, how they understood time, and how social time and school time were elastic and overlapping. Students are not sending text messages instead of participating in academic work. Instead, they see these two areas as overlapping and as occurring concurrently. As a researcher focused on the literacies of young people, I am interested in how students engage in literacy practices in two parallel spaces throughout the day. Numerous studies have looked at the academic affordances of texting, but I would add to this corpus the notion that time in schools oscillates haphazardly between academic and social. Further, when students are communicating with friends and looking at social networks, they are engaged in robust literacy practices.

In recognizing how student socializing interferes with time that is otherwise primarily academic and defined by adults, it is worth considering how students try to balance their roles as social agents with peers and as students within adult-run classrooms. Talking with my students days before the school’s annual state standardized test, I learned that many students anticipated using the testing days as an opportunity to catch up with friends through mobile devices. Many students said that even when answering test questions, they also would listen to music. In general, there are conflicting visions about time and its use within school spaces. Mobile media is seen as a resource for shifting the nature of time in academic spaces to function both socially and academically. It is a duality that reinforces the multitasking behaviors that stereotype or vilify the learning habits of today’s youth.15

Although such seemingly constant use of mobile devices echoes Minerva’s comments that begin this chapter, my observations show focused pockets of engagement with both phones and instructional content at SCHS. Most students said they were willing to respond to text messages or check updates from their social networks with several minutes of delays. Essentially, when students felt bored or noticed a lull within the classroom structure (regardless of teachers’ lesson plans), they shifted their attention back to their mobile devices. Although some students stated that they needed to respond to peers’ text messages immediately, “they obviously know you can’t get back” right away, as one student put it. This spectrum of responses illustrates that although student perspectives tend to coalesce around specific practices, their mobile ways of being at SCHS are not monolithic.

On Using Mobile Devices Academically

Starting in the next chapter, the scope of my research shifts from understanding the larger social landscape of the school and student relationships with their phones to a narrower focus on the needs of students in my own classroom. However, before getting to this conversation, I asked students for their thoughts about formally incorporating mobile devices in the classroom. Although there is a growing body of published strategies for using mobile devices in classrooms, these articles tend to discuss the pragmatics of using devices and apps while disregarding the orientations and expertise of young people. My focus groups with students showed that students have their own beliefs about possible uses for mobile devices for academic purposes in classrooms.

As with many other aspects of school designs and operations, adults rarely ask the key participants in schools—students—what they feel would benefit them. The expertise of youth is far too frequently overlooked or disregarded. For instance, discussing the learning implications of mobile devices, Minerva said they should be allowed in classrooms: “It’s one way you can concentrate more at work, like listening to music. I can. And if they let you like text or something and let you do something that you want to do, then you could probably do something that they want you to do. You get me?”

In one discussion with students about the ways that teachers could use mobile devices for academic purposes, I recorded the following exchange with my ninth graders:

Antero: Can you think of a time you would text an adult?

Dante: I can.

Antero: Go ahead.

Dante: Like if you were absent and want to catch up.

Minerva: We ain’t gonna do that!

Antero: If everybody had a phone and I said, “Text me your answer now,” would you do that?

Minerva: Yeah, that would be tight. Then we would get our points and shit.

Dante: I wouldn’t even give you my number.

Antero: Dante, you bring up a really good point. Are you worried if I had your phone number, I would use it in a way that would make you uncomfortable?

Dante: Yeah.

Antero: So you’d feel weird if I texted you?

Dante: I guess. I mean, you’re my teacher. I don’t know you like that.

Antero: So is a text message more personal than a phone call?

Dante: No, I’d rather talk on the phone to someone but rather you text me than call.

Minerva: I feel weird and uncomfortable and awkward talking on the phone to you, so I’d rather you just text me.

Antero: Okay. Well, have you ever been on Facebook with a teacher?

Dede: Yours.

Antero: Oh, yeah. [laughs]

Ras: Really?

Antero: Yep. Remember, you can be my Facebook friend. The info is on our syllabus.

Dante: Naw. You gonna burn me out.

Antero: What do you mean?

Dante: You’d find out too much about me.

Minerva: Yeah.

The nuanced nature of participatory media tools like phones and social networks means that there is no clear endorsement of digital device use in classes by students. Minerva was excited that a phone means “we would get our points,” but she also was wary like Dante that a teacher would “find out too much” in a social network like Facebook. Although some students saw opportunities to engage academically if a teacher opened a space for mobile use as part of the classroom practice, this exchange highlights the fact that student opinions vary. Their comments were tied to specific components of my own class structure, but they exemplify the differing opinions I encountered in students at various schools. Some students, like Minerva, saw using mobile devices in classes as opportunities to increase their class participation, but many others, like Dante, were concerned about how teacher access to their mobile devices could uncomfortably extend the student-teacher relationship. Finally, even the various applications available on most phones are seen differently. Minerva seemed initially eager to use her phone to text responses to the class, but she would “feel weird and uncomfortable and awkward” speaking with a teacher via a phone call.

Because mobile devices were strictly the domain of social circles at SCHS, using them in an academic context felt alien and threatening for many students. But the fact that these devices connect students socially while in classrooms is an important feature that could be used to rethink student orientation to learning in schools. However, the skepticism, distrust, and apprehension that students expressed revealed that simply placing mobile devices within a classroom would do nothing to build stronger relationships or academic outcomes. Data from this study directly influenced how I approach classroom design with mobile devices in the next chapter.

In exploring how mobile devices affect classroom learning, I asked students if they were already communicating or socializing with teachers through digital devices. Some students were in social networks and texted teachers that they trusted. “She’s just different from other teachers, way cooler,” one student said about the teacher she felt comfortable texting. Aside from these few teachers, most students said that they would feel uncomfortable communicating with teachers with mobile devices. Although students saw mobile devices as tools for communication with peers and family members, the devices did not signal the same opportunities for communicating with educators. In fact, this aspect of student use reinforces traditional adult-student interactions. The introduction of mobile-device use on campus technically introduced a new means of communication between teachers and students, but in general this opportunity was ignored. Students did not see their devices as connecting to their classrooms. Although student time mixed fluidly between academic time and social time, the tool that facilitated this fluctuation was used solely for social purposes.

Finally, in exploring trust and the academic opportunities for mobile devices, the social and academic divide in schools must be addressed. In the focus groups for this study, I tried to incorporate representatives from as many diverse groups of SCHS students as possible. However, as a school that is comprised solely of black and Latino students, SCHS can show the significant ways that mobile-device penetration affects student social life. Research identifies these students as richly literate during their “out-of-school time,”16 even though the same students perform poorly in academic contexts. If teachers can bridge social time and academic time within schools and utilize students’ vast mobile literacy skills, perhaps they can help students increase their academic engagement and improve academic outcomes. My own attempts at this are detailed in the following chapters.

Resources and Finances

Mobile devices are expensive. I focused parts of my research on exploring how students were able to afford mobile devices and texting plans and what strategies they used to save on these costs. Because students at SCHS were and continue to be seen as “economically disadvantaged”17 and because many of my students needed to work to help support their families, the financial challenges of owning and using mobile devices were particularly worth looking at. Most students told me that they bought used phones or received new phones by signing multiyear contracts with cell phone carriers. These two different avenues to smartphone ownership highlighted two different financial strategies. On the one hand, many students who had multiyear phone contracts said that they got minutes for their devices on a “family plan.” On the other hand, other students paid lower rates through popular month-to-month carriers.18 Ownership of these devices is required for engaging socially in schools, but it is intriguing to think of how this ownership extends beyond the social bonds of the school. According to focus groups, when students have to share monthly minutes with family members, parental decisions and budgetary constraints often affected their mobile use.

Students also took advantage, as much as possible, of applications that can replace carrier fees for texting and calling. Additionally, students’ awareness of the possibilities for ownership and the limitations of plans points to their ability to negotiate cost and plan limitations. Solomon, for example, showed me several applications that he uses to text for free. He said he has had less success with the apps that allow for free calling than the texting apps but comfortably changed from one texting app to another, demonstrating by sending random missives to friends. In heeding the lesson that Solomon provided, I later used the free texting app with my ninth graders to communicate using iPods (chapter 3).

Youth Knowledge

Each time I buy a new mobile device (every few years, when the devices seem to break just as my mobile carrier’s contract is up for renewal), I find myself flummoxed by the functional skills each device requires. I asked the students in this study if they, too, ever had difficulty figuring out or using their devices:

Student 1:

No. Only adults.

Student 2:

Yeah, my moms be having trouble, but now she’s got the hang out it.

Student 1:

Every phone’s got the same shit. It’s just in a little different ways that takes a bit of time to figure out.

Because students often look at each other’s screens, sometimes share devices to listen to music, and often upgrade to newer devices when financially available, youth technological knowledge is implicit and abundant. In two different focus groups, students shared ways they used features on their phone in rapid exchanges that, for me, were difficult to follow. The technical aspects of using these devices and talking about their technical aspects were such common knowledge that it was easily shared among peers and demonstrated. In most focus groups, I asked students to show me how they text messaged quickly in class. They demonstrated on several different devices, and I appreciated the sophisticated thumb tapping, finger swiping, and other hand gestures that are second nature to students. Watching their high-speed dexterity, I saw how these students’ hands understand, interpret, and send out information in artistic bursts and seemingly haphazard taps. The physicality of this writing is significantly different from typing with all ten fingers on a keyboard or using a select set of digits when wielding a pen or pencil. The thumb-based writing encouraged in a digital age shifts the reflexes and muscular process of writing.

Similarly, students said that the popularity of certain devices nearly always was equated with price. The features that are prominently advertised are valued on these devices. Although they may not be the most practical features, most students wanted their phones to have “the 4g,” a touchscreen, and GPS (Global Positioning System). But when one student was asked if she used the GPS on her phone, she said, “Hell, no. What I need to be using that for? You know we ain’t going anywhere but the hood.”

Aside from the phone’s features, the other important factor in how students decided which devices to use was the cost of data and talk time based on various plans. Students seemed generally split. About half of the students had month-to-month plans that typically were paid for by a parent. The other half were part of a family plan in which data and calling minutes were shared in a pool with parents and siblings. Although both types of plans had limitations, students generally had strategies for the days near the end of the month when data or minutes ran low:

Antero: Do you ever run out?

Student: Yes.

Antero: So what do you do when I know you’re about to run out?

Student: I stop using it as much.

Antero: You stop texting?

Student: Yeah.

Antero: So if someone texts you, you tell them you can’t text right now?

Student: I tell them to, like, call me on my house phone.

Further, the locations that students found themselves in throughout the school day also affected student mobile use. Students told me that they deliberately went to bathrooms at various locations on campus to have more time to use their devices or to meet up with friends in ways that were preplanned through mobile media use. Additionally, students were keenly aware of where phone reception was weakest at the school. When asked if there were particular areas at school that had bad phone reception, students gave the same answers. One student said the school’s basement, where the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program was housed, was known to have bad reception. Another student replied, “Yeah, in the JROTC building, you got to be in the one corner at the end to get reception.” Students knew about this known space of reception in the basement and told me, “There’s, like, half the class standing there.” In following up, the students said that the JROTC chiefs were oblivious to the reason that students converged in one corner of the basement.

As noted before, student social interactions superseded adult academic expectations and policies. Students navigated the school space searching for mobile signals that could leverage and maximize their social engagement, with or without adult permission

Mobilizing Activism: Communicating a “for Real Thing”

As a portal for civic engagement, a mobile device can function as a personal system for organization and participation. During the time frame of my study, many of my students participated in a walkout and two campus sit-ins related to school budget cuts in California. Although teachers and administrators were aware that students communicated protest plans via mobile devices, the kinds of preparation involved in such practices have not been clearly articulated in prior research. During my years at SCHS, I witnessed numerous student walkouts at the school, and students leveraged text messaging features on mobile devices to plan and participate in these school-based civic protests. In this way, handheld technologies were integrated into civic identity in urban schools. After discussing in-class use of devices in my focus groups, I asked students how they became aware of the on-campus sit-ins and walkout activities that were organized by students:

Student 1: I got a text.

Antero: Who did you get a text from?

Student 1: I don’t know. Just random people forward it to you.

Student 2: It says, like, “Send it to your friends and their friends and their friends.”

Student 3: Almost everyone knew and knew the day before.

Student 2: I got a text message and saw it on Facebook.

Antero: What did the message say?

Student 2: It said, “Walkout tomorrow after nutrition.”

Antero: So how did you know what to do? Did you just follow the text’s directions when it was the end of nutrition?

Student 1: People started walking to the yard.

Antero: So you could see them.

Student 1: Yeah, they were walking, so we knew it was a for real thing.

After students in this group saw other students acting, it was clear that this message detailed “a for real thing.” There is a sense of chance and discretion for students when receiving these text messages that invite them into civic actions—activities that respond to and focus on issues related to their school life. Additionally, the time between receiving a text or Facebook message and the walkout was only one or two days, but no students expressed frustration at this short time frame. These students paint a picture of last-minute and sometimes faulty plans when using mobile devices for civic engagement. Their hesitancy to assume that the texts could be trusted signaled ways that students felt disconnected from the sources of information and needed more trust before they would act.

What is also striking about the way that mobile media informs and guides student organizing is that it does so anonymously. I talked to several students who authored the initial text messages announcing school walkouts that were circulated among peers anonymously. However, most students did not know or ask about the text’s origins. In this way, text messages about walkouts and sit-ins seem to run counter to many of the general tenets of how students understand and utilize their devices at schools—that mobile devices are extremely personal. With texts related to student-organized activism, the information is depersonalized:

Antero: I’ve heard students tell me it’s going to happen again tomorrow?

Student 1: Yeah.

Antero: How do you know that?

Student 1: Cuz it went around again.

Antero: You already got it?

Student 1: Yeah, I got it back on Wednesday.

Antero: But you don’t know who sent it?

Student 1: No, it’s like this little survey thing you’re doing now. You said it’s anony- …

Student 2: Anonymous.

Student 1: We don’t know who started it.

Student 2: We just got it.

The anonymity of these messages can be seen as problematic when trying to tease out the actual civic engagement experienced by students. For most students participating in the school walkout and sit-ins, information about these events was communicated through anonymous text messages. Although marginal participation in activism and grassroots efforts are key ways to add to public engagement and important steps for youth to see avenues for more engaged, future civic participation,19 the anonymity of these text messages ruptures student connection to identifiable groups or individuals. Instead, students said they felt united in these civic actions by seeing their peers participating in a “for real thing.” The anonymous text message as tool for leveraging mass mobilization at school is a modern method of engagement and protest. Movements like Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter are notable examples of how digital publics leverage digital tools like Twitter and Facebook to organize, communicate updates, and provide live footage of protests and police responses. Similarly, online protests are often anonymous. Perhaps the most notorious such group is aptly called Anonymous, which staged physical-world protests against Scientology and virtual protests against the Stop Online Privacy Act while masking (both literally and figuratively) the identities of its participants.

After my focus group sessions, several students forwarded me the text message that spurred students to participate in a school sit-in. Here is one of the messages I received:


This text message’s defining characteristics speak to the nature of dialogue and communication in a digital age. The anonymity of the message (with the numerous forward notices) can be used to protect the text’s original authors. The all capitalized letters that “shout” to the reader also signal that this text speaks from a place of urgency that differs from most student text messages and Facebook posts. Finally, it offers clear instructions for students, which encourages action. It is easy for students to enter the handful of keystrokes required to comply with the message’s request to continue to forward the message to others.

Teachers Have Mobile Phones, Too

Although this chapter focuses on student use of mobile media, I want to discuss briefly how my students perceived adult mobile media use in school spaces. Students in one focus group said their math teacher used his cell phone just as much as the students and perceived adult mobile use as frequent and hypocritical. “It ain’t fair that he’s texting and I can’t,” one student told me. Student responses point to parallels between adult dispositions toward mobile media use and student behavior. As the student above noted, some teachers ignored the restrictions and rules they set for the students in their classroom and openly used their phones.

In some cases, teachers utilized mobile media to connect with the world that loomed beyond the walls of the classroom. Students discussed one teacher who brought her own Internet router to school to access blocked websites. Because this teacher “doesn’t have a lock on it,” students in her class and in rooms nearby used the teacher’s router for their own Internet use, allowing students to access Facebook and music downloading programs without using their own data plans, which may cost them money or be limited to monthly quotas.

Trust and Deception with Adults

For students to engage with mobile media use responsibly in classes, they require teacher trust. If they do not feel that their teachers trust them, as reflected in classroom structure and pedagogy, their mobile use may not comply with teacher goals. Perhaps more than any other challenge that schools presently face with mobile devices, the issue of trust looms largest and does not have any simple or clear answers in policy changes. Asking students in focus groups if they felt comfortable about giving me their cell phone number, a student said, “We have to work on our trust.” Although this echoes Dante’s concern that I’d know “too much” about him if I were to see his Facebook page and Minerva’s preference for texting than talking with a teacher, this student’s comment also signals a pedagogical path forward. Much as this study explored the ways mobile devices were being used by students and could be leveraged in classes, this student reminded me that the relational aspects of learning trump other concerns. Unlike other pieces of technology, the persistence of “always on” mobile devices in classrooms means that a temporary ban of these devices positions students to act out against adult-created rules. Similarly, within many business settings that exist beyond students’ school careers, young people will be required to understand appropriate and inappropriate times to engage in on-the-job mobile-device use.

In a different context, regarding student phone numbers, one student told me, “Sometimes you have to give your number to a teacher if they are going to call your parents.” This statement led to the following:

Antero: Oh, and then they call you?

Student: Yeah.

Antero: And then what happens?

Student: I keep my phone on silent.

Antero: Do you answer trying to be your parent?

Student: No, but I have an older sister answer mine.

A phone number given under false pretenses is useless information. If the teacher does not think the number is the student’s, he or she cannot use it for in-class purposes. If students do not trust teachers and teacher-imposed rules, the likelihood that mobile devices will be used for academic purposes diminishes. In addition to the above example, students shared other minor deceptive practices. Students in every focus group told me that they would often text “behind a book,” “in my backpack,” or under a desk. These in-the-moment deceptive practices were necessary for facilitating the fluid social-academic nature of student time in schools.

Conclusion: The Digital Twilight

Two months into the school year, on another hot August day, the South Central High School campus was locked down. Lockdowns—a word that was lifted directly from the prison system and reinforced feelings of control and incarceration on the campus—required all students and teachers to remain inside their classrooms until a security concern was safely dealt with. Because this was not an uncommon occurrence at SCHS, teachers and students knew what to do when a lockdown or “Code 1000” was announced over the school’s speaker system. This particular August lockdown was unique because it was due to a bomb threat. And also because it lasted for five and a half hours.

After evacuating our classrooms and moving into the school’s auditorium and gymnasium, students and adults passed the time chatting, watching television shows on their phones, calling friends, and playing games. Aside from the wasted school day, the crowd was calm and easy to manage, all things considered.

Four hours into the lockdown, however, the police notified all students, teachers, and administrators that phones needed to be temporarily turned off. They were about to broadcast a signal to attempt to disable any explosive devices, and the effort could potentially break or damage phones. Dutifully, everyone on campus pressed buttons, swiped screens, and toggled options to turn off their phones and gaming devices. The hour that followed is probably the longest stretch of time during school hours in the past decade that mobile-device use ceased. No other classroom management strategy, threat, or coercive tactic effectively convinced every student, teacher, and administrator to shut off their mobile devices as well as the power a harmful police signal did.

During the hour of digital twilight, the school did not enter some sort of analog bliss, students did not suddenly look at each other in new ways, and the school did not roll into anarchy. This brief window of disrupted mobile use at school did not seem to reveal that we could not function without technology, except for one thing—time. I wasn’t aware that an hour had passed until I was able to turn on my phone again. Without a wristwatch and with a broken wall clock in the auditorium, I shifted into feeling time pass in the conversations with colleagues and the giggles I tried to elicit from distressed students around me. The majority of the students and teachers I interacted with told me they shared this same feeling.

Our relationships with mobile devices and “smart” watches extend far beyond socialization and beyond classroom life. Although the chapters that follow focus on how mobile media and games can leverage, promote, and incite civic action, the existing landscape of teen social use of mobile media in class guides students in school life in fundamental and overlooked ways.

Time, as students noted in my focus groups, moved fluidly from social to academic. Time also was delineated and noted by our mobile devices (particularly when the school’s bell schedule could not be relied on). Phones mediated schooling and the ways that students experienced it. They also mediated the world beyond school. Just as academic preparedness is a clear objective of public schools today, so too is the need for students to see themselves as participants in the world beyond high school. Our school systems need to do a better job demonstrating and supporting social uses of phones. In shunning mobile devices in schools, we are creating an artificial experience that does not reflect how people produce, develop, and interact in the “real” world. Likewise, by encouraging students to use their mobile devices only during passing periods and lunch breaks, we are promoting behavior that runs counter to the norms of most groups of friends. I have been reminded more than once that checking an e-mail or replying to a text message at the dinner table is less than polite. These poor habits feel all too similar to the ways that students hide their devices behind books while pretending to read.

Mobile devices present unique opportunities for engagement, socialization, and learning, and students recognize this by using these devices for continually communicating with families and peers, planning, and accessing sites of trust. At the same time, the data collected during my research revealed that the presence of mobile devices in poorly managed classrooms sometimes resulted in chaos. I heard horror stories of mobile devices gone wild. Even in my own classroom, mobile-device use—by the persistent in-the-backpack texter and the student who answered calls during silent reading—was often frustrating.20 Although the data I collected allowed me to take a close look at the campus through my students’ perspective, these devices played a lasting role in shaping how I grew as a teacher at SCHS. Even though phones have been present in classrooms for more than a decade, they are still relatively new disruptions to the archaic factory model of schooling. More than perhaps any other form of cultural wealth that students bring to school or perform within school spaces, mobile devices mediate interactions between peers, adults, and parents. Digital twilights are a utopic myth. Rather than forcing devices to be off and away, our schools need to understand how they have shifted culture and our students’ understanding of time.

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