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Teachers and parents learn to live with texting

Emily Faria, 11, and her brother Matthew Faria, 8, use their new cellphones in Toronto on Tuesday, August 30, 2011.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Danny Faria allowed his daughter to have a mobile phone at the tender age of 10. He knew she was mature enough to walk to school on her own, but felt he would be more at ease if she called home once at her destination.

Many parents and teachers who grew up without electronic devices at their disposal are having to deal with tech-savvy kids who want the latest gadgets for school.

Mr. Faria, a Toronto-based communications consultant, and his wife were strict about the phone being used only as a necessity. They disabled the texting function and reminded their daughter, Emily, that the phone was to be turned off during school hours.

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The rules were working well for everyone until this past August, when 11-year-old Emily's pal upgraded her mobile phone. The friend gave her old phone – one with a slide-out keyboard for texting – to Emily.

Mr. Faria then had to deal with the inevitable: "How come I can't text?"

U.S. research shows that the age at which kids acquire a cellphone has consistently grown younger.

In a 2004 survey, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 18 per cent of 12-year-olds owned a cellphone. In 2009, that number grew to 58 per cent. (The Pew Research Center is a non-partisan group in the United States that provides information on issues, attitudes and trends.)

Jesse Hirsh, a technology analyst in Toronto, says kids are taking their tech cues from adults. They see their parents and other people continually talking or texting and, as a result, "kids have internalized the ADD [attention deficit disorder]of society."

Kids have dozens of different things competing for their attention, Mr. Hirsh says, and they can be fickle as to whom, when and where they give it. This can be a problem when it comes to school curriculum and teaching.

Mr. Hirsh remembers his school days – before laptops and Internet access – when he would sit passively and listen to teachers in the classroom. He felt that was a mediocre learning experience because if he wanted more facts on a particular topic, he'd have to wait until he could do research on his own.

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Students today don't have any lag time between wanting to know and then discovering the information. With cellphones, Mr. Hirsh says, "they have the fantastic in their pocket."

Some teachers don't agree.

"The pocket isn't fantastic," says Domenico Capilongo, a high-school teacher in Thornhill, Ont. "They aren't searching for knowledge when they pull out their phone. They are texting about each other."

"The real issue is how to keep [cellphones]from turning into a distraction. It's hard to compete with a text from a boyfriend."

The Toronto District School Board amended its policy this past May: Now, electronic devices are allowed in the classroom at the discretion of each teacher.

Mr. Capilongo acknowledges that cellphones can be useful. He has encouraged his students to take part in class discussions through online chats where they can ask questions anonymously by text message. He says good class discussions often result.

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But if a cellphone comes out during tests, he says dealing with it depends on the sensitivity of the teacher and the relationship he or she has with the student.

"Students have electronic stimulation 24/7 and teachers think we have to entertain and engage students with the Internet … but really our job is to enable students to be successful people through teaching critical thinking, empathy and self-discipline."

Mr. Faria decided to deal with his daughter's cellphone texting issues before this school year started.

He got two new cellphones, one for his daughter and another for his eight-year-old son, Matthew. The whole family is able to text now, but Mr. Faria says his daughter is the one who gets into text discussions while he, his wife and his son keep their sentences short.

Emily's texting led Mr. Faria and his wife to learn something: Her spelling was not good.

He recalls one message his daughter texted to his wife. Emily was excited about some jewellery she had just purchased. Every item she mentioned in the text was misspelled. Mr. Faria's wife responded with: "I wonder if you meant earrings, necklace and bracelet?"

"We get there are abbreviations and short forms of words, but if you are going to spell a whole word, why not use the correct spelling?" he asks.

In addition to reminding the kids about spelling, there are other rules surrounding cellphone usage in the Faria home: Always answer when they get a call from home; turn the cellphone off during school hours; and know that mom and dad – as the service is in their name – can keep track of how many messages are sent.

Mr. Faria emphasizes to his children that having a cellphone is a privilege and it can be taken away if misused.

"It's basic parenting – the same rules of trust."

The Canadian Press

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