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As most teachers will tell you, class hasn't been the same since kids started bringing cellphones to school. Ancient Roman history will pretty much never win out when you're competing with Snapchat and Instagram. Now, as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, a growing number of teachers are trying an innovative strategy to turn their classes into phone-free zones.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The teachers all know what's going on with students' zombie looks and, can you say that again?
TONY PATELIS: You see that they're not listening to you. They're looking down. And they tell me they're checking the time even though the clock's on the wall.
SMITIH: Newton North High School history teacher Tony Patelis says he's a psycho about cell phones, constantly confiscating them.
PATELIS: It's a daily battle every class.
SMITIH: Who's winning?
PATELIS: The kids.
SMITIH: But now exasperated teachers have another weapon in their arsenal.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Phones this way - thank you. Good morning.
SMITIH: At the City on a Hill Charter School in Boston, a phalanx of administrators just inside the front door take phones from every entering student.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: J-22.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Got it.
SMITIH: Each phone is locked into a soft pouch with a snap on it like security tags in clothing stores and given back. Students can only unlock them with a machine at dismissal time nearly eight hours from now.
TONINHO EMANUEL: It sucks.
SMITIH: Needless to say, kids like Toninho Emanuel and Tyler Martin are not thrilled.
TYLER MARTIN: 'Cause it's, like, your toy. And they take it from you, and then you can't use it. Like, it's something - it just stays with you all the time. It's like glasses.
SMITIH: It's like - well, glasses you need.
TYLER: Yeah. It's my phone. I need it sometimes.
SMITIH: But their protests are not persuading school principal DeOtis Williams Jr.
DEOTIS WILLIAMS JR: It's like my mom used to always tell me. Kids know what they want but don't know what they need. We know what the students need.
SMITIH: Williams says kids have used tools and magnets to try to pry the bags open. Some bring decoy phones to pouch or cut the bags open. But overall, teachers say the pouch policy is paying off.
JOANIE DECOPAIN: All right, the last question - X to the third power minus 13-X...
SMITIH: In Joanie DeCopain's algebra class, all eyes are on the board.
DECOPAIN: ...Divided by X minus seven. How do I set it up?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: It's going to be X squared.
SMITIH: DeCopain says students are more engaged, and some are starting to see the virtue in the pouches - sort of.
DECOPAIN: They think, like, it's a good thing but for other people, not for them. So it's always about, like - someone else needs the medication, not me.
SMITIH: Some brave souls like senior Yalena Terrero Martinez do admit they're less distracted in school and even after.
YALENA TERRERO MARTINEZ: I don't reach for my phone as much because it's, like, if you don't feed into the habit, the habit eventually slows down.
SMITIH: Martinez says the pouches are also making a difference socially.
MARTINEZ: Yeah because, oh, my gosh, all my friends would be, like, on their phone during lunch. But now, like, we talk a lot more.
SMITIH: That's exactly what the folks who make the pouches were hoping for. Graham Dugoni founded the company called Yondr four years ago after he was annoyed by people using their phones at concerts. Turns out performers were, too, and now hundreds of them like Chris Rock and Ariana Grande have been forcing fans to lock up their phones.
GRAHAM DUGONI: I see it all as part of a social movement. You know, people are aware that something's out of whack, and they're looking for answers. There's a deep sense that the more efficient and faster everything gets in life and easier, the more meaning is being hollowed out.
SMITIH: Big performers pay about $2 a pouch. Schools can rent by the year for $30 each, and some 600 now are.
ALBERT CHO: Great, OK, have a good day.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Thank you, Mr. Cho.
CHO: Thank you.
SMITIH: The minute Albert Cho dismisses class at Newton North High School, students race for the unlocking device. Cho is the only teacher here using the pouches. But even a phone-free hour is a hard sell to students like Sheil Mehta.
SHEIL MEHTA: I think our generation gets pushed into this one image where we're all, like, crazed. And like, if you take away our phones, we'll start eating each other. Like, I don't think we're really all like that.
SMITIH: But their protests belie just how attached they are. Even with their phones in pouches, students like Carmen McCauliffe still clutch them in their hands.
CARMEN MCCAULIFFE: I guess it's, like, sickly therapeutic in a way (laughter), just being able to feel it. I, like, always am, like, pressing the button, like, even through the case.
SMITIH: Because their attachment is so intense, California State University professor Larry Rosen says cutting the cord cold turkey during class may actually backfire.
LARRY ROSEN: You're inducing massive anxiety. And you're going to get a group of people who really can't pay attention because that anxiety is an overriding feeling.
SMITIH: Rosen recommends what he calls a quick tech break every 15 or 30 minutes. But teachers who've tried the cold turkey approach insist most teens do adapt so much so, some actually forget their phones in class, which pretty much never happened before. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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