PORTLAND – Students in Sarah Shmitt’s classes take note: If you ignore repeated warnings to stop texting and put away your cell phone, she might toss it in the trash can.

It has happened before. The phone split into pieces. The student was shocked. He put the phone back together and it worked fine, but Shmitt had made her point.

“If they want to get me mad, they know that will do it,” said Shmitt, an English and world studies teacher at Portland High School.

Shmitt’s frustration reflects the changing atmosphere in schools across the country, where technology is taking hold in ways both positive and negative.

The overall use of technology in Maine classrooms has increased since high schools across the state issued laptop computers to all students last year, building on a middle school laptop program that started in 2002.

Many teachers, like Shmitt, teach lessons using computerized white boards and maintain Internet pages where they post homework assignments and other learning materials.

Students are connecting with an ever-expanding web of information online to get up-to-the-minute data for research papers, take tutorials or courses on special subjects, and form study groups with students who have common interests.

But the greatest contributor to a change in school atmosphere seems to be the proliferation of smartphones among students, giving them constant access to the Web, e-mail, texting and calls from friends and family members.

Teachers, who for centuries have been the center of learning in the classroom, are seeing increasingly distracted students struggle to stay focused and succeed. Some, like Shmitt, are switching up their games to hold students’ attention and teach the appropriate use of technology.

That’s the proper response, according to media and education experts who believe the benefits of smartphones, other information technology and social media far outweigh the problems they create.

“These are necessary things for learning in the 21st century,” said Michael Horn, co-author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”

“The golden rule is correct: moderation in everything,” Horn said. “And that applies to parents as well. If you’re always on the phone when you’re with your child, that’s not good parenting, either.”

While most schools ban or limit phone use on campus and especially in the classroom, many students admit to using cell phones in class. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 64 percent of teens with cell phones said they had texted in class and 43 percent said they texted in class at least once a day.

The same Pew study found that half of teens send 50 or more text messages per day, or 1,500 per month, and more than one-third of teens send more than 100 texts per day, or 3,000 per month.

Akari Ishii is a Portland High School junior who has sent as many as 8,000 texts in one month. Inevitably, some of that texting happens when she’s in class.

“We’re so used to doing it all the time, sometimes it happens during class,” Ishii said. “Some teachers don’t let you do it at all. Others let you do it during down times, when your work is done. It all depends on the teacher.”

Ishii and her friends said parents try to limit excessive texting but rarely ban phone use as a form of punishment. In many families, cell phones are tethers that give parents a sense of control.

“My mom wouldn’t take my phone away because she likes to be able to reach me wherever I am,” said Emily Krauss, also a junior. “I like to have my phone in my hand all the time.”

Students admit that constant phone use, especially texting, can complicate relationships with teachers and fellow students, sometimes leading to misunderstandings and arguments.

Social media in general have increased opportunities for bullying and abusive girlfriend-boyfriend relationships. When it comes to texting, students said they feel obligated to respond as soon as possible, especially if they’re dating the sender, for fear of causing anxiety or hurting the other person’s feelings.

“Sometimes people read (a different meaning) into things you write and get upset,” Ishii said. “If you don’t answer right away, they send another text, saying, ‘Why aren’t you texting me back?’ “

Many students mistakenly believe that technology allows them to do several things at once and do them well, said Maureen Ebben, Ph.D., a lecturer on communication and media studies at the University of Southern Maine.

“The human mind can only focus deeply on one thing at a time,” Ebben said. “Yes, you can fold your laundry and watch TV. But when we’re working on something seriously, we really need to focus on one thing at a time.”

Each semester, Ebben asks students in her media studies classes to log their technology use for five days. After the third day, she asks them to give up their favorite media source for the last two days. Usually it is a smartphone, a Facebook account or an iPod music player, in that order. They often fill their free time with reading. And smartphone users often express relief at having an excuse to ignore text messages from friends.

“It can make you feel compulsive,” Ebben said. “The teenage years have always been a time for working out your identity, developing a sense of independence and figuring out your place in a group. In the old days, teachers had to deal with students passing notes in class. Today, students need to learn how and when it’s appropriate to use their phones.”

Teachers say technology and social media in particular are changing the way students communicate in the classroom.

In the last two or three years, Shmitt has seen penmanship worsen and attempts to plagiarize increase. She also has noticed a growing inability among students to stay focused on what’s happening in the classroom.

“It seems that students don’t spend any time just thinking anymore,” said Shmitt, 54, who teaches seniors. “Maybe that’s fine. But with the constant distraction of technology and their already short attention spans, their reading and writing skills have suffered significantly and their vocabularies are shrinking.”

During a recent discussion of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Shmitt was shocked when a student didn’t know the meaning of the word “repent.” The informal tone and spelling that’s common in texting has infiltrated schoolwork, and even good students don’t seem to recognize the difference, she said. In a recent essay, one student described Hamlet as a “girly man” and used the term “freak out” for getting upset.

Concerned that her perspective may be skewed by her age, Shmitt asked one of her younger colleagues to share his views on students and technology. Stephen Atwood, 32, teaches English to sophomores and juniors at Portland High School.

Atwood agrees that students are struggling to learn the appropriate use of technology, especially hand-held devices. Some have told him they sleep with their phones on and wake up to answer text messages they get at night. Often, the text messages or calls that students receive in class are from parents checking up on them or confirming after-school plans.

“There’s no reason for a student to be texting in class,” Atwood said. “They don’t think it’s a distraction. They think they’re good at multitasking. But they’re always going to be connected, so we have to teach them how to use technology appropriately.”

To head off plagiarism in research papers, Atwood and Shmitt show their students how to find reputable sources on the Web and how to cite them properly. Atwood posts classroom lessons on his blog and recently made them accessible by smartphones.

Shmitt has a Web page that she’s in the process of upgrading, and she has altered classroom lessons to eliminate “busy work” and reduce the likelihood that students will lift answers from the Web.

She no longer assigns reading and follow-up questions as homework because she found that students were downloading study guides such as “Cliffs Notes” and getting answers online.

Now, Shmitt’s students read literature such as “Hamlet” in class, at times acting it out and reciting several lines from memory. For homework, she assigns essay questions, which they begin working on in class so she can monitor their progress and make sure their answers are organic.

“I’m rethinking how I assign homework and why,” Shmitt said. “And when I have their attention in the classroom, I don’t want to lose it and I don’t want to compete for it.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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