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Beginning this year, elementary and middle school students in France are no longer allowed to have cellphones. That ban through the eighth grade is meant to boost concentration in classrooms and cut down on cyberbullying. It was also a campaign promise by President Macron. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley looked in on a middle school to see just how it's working.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BELL)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: As the bell rings at Thomas Mann Middle School, kids bound down the stairway and jostle each other in the hallways. Sixteen hundred students from diverse backgrounds study at this school in a working-class neighborhood in northeast Paris.
KAMEL AIT BOUALI: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Principal Kamel Ait Bouali stands in the hallway greeting the children and nudging them on to class. He says there's been a radical change since cellphones were banned. For starters, he says, the children are a lot friendlier and politer.
AIT BOUALI: (Through interpreter) We were submerged in problems of cyber harassment and humiliating videos circulating on social networks. And this year, the atmosphere has completely changed. It's night and day. We just don't have to deal with that anymore.
BEARDSLEY: Ait Bouali says kids are interacting with each other more and playing games on the playground like he did as a boy.
MARWAN ZAFIR: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Thirteen-year-old Marwan Zafir (ph) says it's not as much fun this year. "Last year, it was better because we could play with our phones and listen to music on the playground," he says. "But it's true. Having the phones in class wasn't good for working." But some critics of the measure are skeptical. They say the ban can't be enforced. High school teacher Philippe Watrelot (ph) headed an education research group for many years. He says banning cellphones is ineffective.
PHILIPPE WATRELOT: (Through interpreter) It would be better to take a positive view rather than a prohibitive one. Yes, children need to concentrate better in school. But we should be using phones as a tool for learning, and if anything, we should try to make phones banal rather than make them more enticing by banning them.
BEARDSLEY: Jean-Michel Blanquer is the French Minister of Education. He says so far, teachers and parents think the ban is having a good effect. And it doesn't mean France isn't preparing its students for the digital future.
JEAN-MICHEL BLANQUER: We are going into a new century. This new century is very technological. This is good and bad at the same time. And we have to see how technologies help us to make this world more human. And it's very important to insist on this human dimension.
BEARDSLEY: Blanquer says kids must be the masters of the machines and not the reverse. This week, the use of cellphones in school was in the news again after a 15-year-old pointed a fake gun at his teacher's head while his friends videoed the scene. Pundits wondered if the boy would have done that if there had been no one to film him. They say the phone ban should be expanded to include high schools. Across Paris at Guillaume Apollinaire middle school, kids pull their phones from backpacks as classes end for the day. These 14-year-olds say they weren't allowed to use their phones in class before the ban, so it really hasn't changed much.
BEARDSLEY: "And, in fact, we're still using them," they say. "What else are we going to do at recess in a cement courtyard with no sports facilities?" Many French schools already banned or partially banned cellphones before the measure. They say the new nationwide law gives them more authority and confidence in enforcing those bans. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.