Part of the regular routine for students in Jessica Sanner’s math classes at West High School are pretty familiar — getting one’s notebooks and pencils out, looking at any practice problems listed on the board, and catching up on conversations with classmates before the bell rings. But one added step is new: grabbing a small pouch from the front of the classroom and placing your cell phone in it.
About a dozen classes at West are part of a pilot program that has students use Yondr cases as a way to help students who might have an urge to constantly check their phones during class. It’s the latest experiment by schools as teachers and administrators note that the problem of students losing focus and being distracted by cell phones has only gotten worse in recent years.
Originally pitched as a way to create phone-free spaces at concerts and comedy shows, Yondr cases are a patented device made by a company of the same name. Users of the cases can slide their phone into the pouch, where they stay locked until tapping the pouch onto a magnetic saucer-like item that unlocks the pouch. The cases fit even some of the biggest phones on the current market. Students keep the pouch on their desk or in their backpack throughout class, but just can’t look at the screen itself or hear any vibrations. They can still charge their phones or plug earbuds into them, however.
“(Cell phones) are a powerful distraction. A wonderful tool for learning and communicating, and probably the one biggest addiction that our students face,” principal Karen Boran said. “It’s a highly addictive thing, so we have to go through the process of trying to figure out how to manage this addiction.”
The balance of using cell phones as a tool and not getting distracted with it is tricky. Students like junior Jessica Evans said that she uses her cell phone as a calculator in her math class, and can see her phone being a resource instead of a distraction.
The pilot, funded through a grant from the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools, started in March and will run through May. In some classes like Sanner’s, every student has to put his or her phone away in a Yondr pouch at the beginning of class. For others, like Cory Hayden’s ninth grade biology class, students can opt-in, or their parents can opt-in for them.
“It’s challenging because (students) are so habituated to it,” said Sanner, who wrote a grant last school year to get funding for the pouches. “Anytime they have a down moment, the first thing they do is grab their phones. And for some kids, I think it’s a comfort measure. You tell yourself, ‘I’m uncomfortable with what we’re learning in class, so let me just pull out my phone and avoid it.”
Sanner said she was surprised by how many parents told her they were supportive of the move to use Yondr cases.
Prior to introducing Yondr to some classes, West often relied on simply telling students to put their phones away when they were out and taking them away if students didn’t comply. But Sanner and other teachers told the Cap Times that using Yondr allows teachers and students to avoid a conflict over phone usage.
“Having something to break that cycle of habitually checking your phone, for some students, is a good solution,” Hayden said. “If it was able to become a full-on program that we followed routinely, it could help us not have this argument or confrontation with students over phones.”
Hayden said he was surprised that many students opted in to using Yondr pouches. He generally observed students rerouting more attention and energy to what was going on in class.
“It’s helped me get better grades in class,” said Eja Brody, a freshman in Hayden’s biology class. “I think we’re all distracted by our phones even if we don’t know it, so having to put it away is nice. You still have it with you, so it’s different than having a teacher take your phone away."
Boran said that at a previous school she worked at, students put their phones into a “cell-phone locker” at the beginning of the day and didn’t access them until the end. She said that idea wasn’t feasible at West because having 2,300 students entering one area of the school to put their phones away is logistically challenging.
The potential upside for Yondr is that students can keep what, for many, is the most expensive item they own with them during classes.
“My biggest issue was not being able to have access to my property,” said Jessica, the junior. “Not being able to touch it is a big thing for a lot of (students)."
Ingrid Ebeling, a freshman, also said she felt anxious over not being able to check her phone when she wanted to.
“Personally, when I know I have my phone in a case and I can’t open it, it’s really stressful,” Ingrid said. “I feel like it’s bad that I feel so detached and stressed out that I don’t have my phone with me, but that’s the world we live in right now.”
While students noted that using Yondr cases have helped them or their classmates stay focused on class content, many said the pilot isn’t perfect. Several students described the ways in which people would rip open the cases if they were strong enough, which permanently breaks the case. In some classrooms, students try to be slick by taking a Yondr case at the beginning of class but not actually putting their phone inside of it.
“A lot of kids don’t Yondr their phones, or they will leave the classroom to use their phones and plan around it, or slide a pencil into it to try and pop the case open,” said Cheyenne White, a ninth-grader in Anne Braunschwig’s Algebra 1 class. “There’s also kids who think the magnets are hurting their phones so they don’t want to use them.”
Enrique Gonzalez, a junior, said students who want to use their cell phones will always find a way to do so, even with the cases.
“I don’t mind Yondr but would just much rather have it in my pocket as normal,” Enrique said. "For some kids, there’s a temptation to just rip them open. It’s an obstacle they can easily overcome. There are a lot of broken cases already.”
For some students, the key is trying to figure out whether they can self-regulate or not.
“I think I can control myself if I don’t put my phone in the case,” said Carlos Lopez, a junior in Sanner’s math class. “I know when to not be on my phone and when it needs to be away. Yondr helps a lot of kids, but I don’t make a show of being on my phone during class.”
Though the pilot has only been around for about a month, numerous teachers emphasized the benefits of having even just a few students using the cases.
“Students often are asking more relevant questions and working with people around them, asking me things they wouldn’t have earlier because they’re distracted on their phones,” said Caitlyn McKelvey, a math teacher. “I try to remind students why we’re doing this. We’re not trying to be super mean or take away something that’s important to them but using this as a tool for learning."
In a survey of 100 students across Braunschweig’s classes, just under 70 percent of students said they are distracted by their phone in her math class. More than half of those who said they were distracted listed Snapchat and other social media applications as their top uses of their phones. And nearly two-thirds of students in that survey said they would do better in class if they stayed off of their phone.
“They’re thinking about regulating their cell-phone usage more, even if they’re not using the pouches,” Braunschweig said. “I don’t know if (Yondr) is the answer, but it might be part of the answer to increasing cell phone usage. It’s the most successful intervention that we’ve tried.”
The pilot marks the first time Yondr cases have been experimented with in one of Madison’s four conventional high schools, according to Lynn Glueck, an instructional coach at West who is helping shepherd the program. Glueck said Capital High students have also used the cases before.
Whether the cases become more common in Madison’s schools is an open question. Each case comes with a steep $25 price tag to rent for a school year. The pilot program cost $900 but bringing the cases to the entire school would pose a significant recurring cost for schools.
“We’re still collecting data and finding out what’s the right way to do it,” Boran said. “Cost is obviously a challenge, but if (Yondr) is the right thing to do to help kids learn and focus on content, we are going to find a way to do it.”