November 2004

Bird on a wireless

By David Feela

Standing in a grocery-store checkout line, I heard the unmistakable strains of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture coming from – of all places – a purse. After no more than two of those famous crescendos the music was cut short as a teenager reached inside and opened her cell phone. She was fast, the sort of lightning draw that would have been admired in the old West. Tchaikovsky , however, would have been pissed. To have the full beauty and complexity of his musical masterpiece reduced to a few recognizable notes, all for the purpose of getting this girl’s attention, would have sent the classical master fuming from the store, his tails in a twirl. I can sympathize.

At the high school where I teach we enforce a “no visible cell phone” rule, which means that though students are allowed to carry cell phones, they may not be turned on or used while inside the building. The logic here is that cell phones can be invaluable in an emergency, but teachers shouldn’t have to deal with interruptions during class. The policy works perfectly if I pretend the cell phones my students carry into the classroom don’t exist and if the students that clip them to their belts or forget to turn them off before setting them on their desks pretend that I don’t exist.

It’s not that I’m inflexible on the point of cell-phone use in the public arena, but if I’ve got to live with these electronic umbilical cords attached to the students I teach, why not put them to use in the service of education? Why not start with paging sounds that reproduce various bird or animal calls? With Nature’s Technology, cell phones won’t be just another lump of solder and plastic in our pockets. We’ll be able to hear from the exotic natural world in even the most unnatural settings. But that’s not all I have planned for my calling plan. Anyone under the age of 10 carrying a cell phone into our public schools would be required to identify that creature each time the phone rings.

Punching the correct spelling of the bird’s name into the key pad would allow the student to answer the call. The cell phone could be programmed to rotate through, say, Audubon’s entire repertoire. Of course, with the elementary- school crowd, cell phones might start with easy bird spellings, like Owl or Loon. Parents will appreciate this opportunity to reach their child with teachable moments. And what could be more motivating for young cell-phone users than learning to spell in order to find out who’s on the other end?

As cell-phone users mature, more complex information could be placed at their fingertips: sophisticated vocabulary words or short quotations that require an author’s identity, the multiplication tables, even practice test items. Colorado’s standardized scores would improve and suddenly students would be looking in my direction each time their cell phones ring – not in trepidation that I’ll give them detention – but in the hopes I will help them out.

I can hear the complaints already, that in an emergency some students may be unreachable. But that’s my point: these same students are mostly unteachable. And when I try to reach them, I’m accused of pushing their buttons. I don’t know what it takes to get through. Maybe the line’s just busy. I suppose there’s some constitutional clause that guarantees all students the right to carry a cell phone, and maybe the Supreme Court during the first lawsuit would rule in favor of the student that was denied access to an important call because he or she wasn’t smart enough to answer the phone. I don’t know, but I’d be willing to find out. Public schools already have file drawers filled with IEPs (individualized educational plans) and ILPs (individualized learning plans). What’s wrong with adding a few individualized calling plans? With the proliferation of cell phones as a part of a student’s school supplies, it may be the ICP that makes the difference.

David Feela is an English teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.