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Kiara Boyle, an eighth teacher at Excelsior Middle School in Byron, looks down at her monitor as she uses software called Infuse Learning to watch what each student is doing on their algebra problems using their cell phones or tablets in Byron, Calif., on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Some teachers in the Brentwood Union and Byron school districts are having students use their cell phones in class for educational purposes. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

Teens + cellphones = Instagram and Twitter.

Or at least that's been the reason schools have banned the use of these mobile devices during class.

But the ubiquitousness and power of these links to the Internet is turning them into more than a means for social networking as teachers harness the power of students' smart phones for their own purposes.

"There are so many whiz-bang things they can do on their phone, but I want them to realize that they can use this computer in their pocket to do their schoolwork," said Louise Colbert, a technology teacher at Byron's Excelsior School.

And Byron Union School District isn't the only one in far East Contra Costa where students are gaining new freedom to use smart phones as an educational tool.

Brentwood teacher Kim Sudweeks, along with the rest of her colleagues in Adams Middle School's math department, began sending mass text messages last fall alerting students who sign up on the website Remind101.com -- and most of them have -- to upcoming tests and projects.

She schedules two reminders for weekend homework, one for early Saturday afternoon explaining what the assignment entails and another for Sunday evening asking whether they've done it.

Sudweeks also has found another way of using kids' love affair with their phones to her advantage: Although they aren't crazy about textbooks, she says they're more likely to finish a required reading if she lets them take photos of the pages.

"They have an excuse to have the device out," she said.

The camera applications also help kids who shuttle between divorced parents: When they forget to take a book from one home to the next, they still can read the text off their phone.

Similarly, students regularly take a snapshot of notes and assignments their teacher has written on the whiteboard, preferring their iPhones and Samsungs to old-school pen and paper.

Colbert's seventh- and eighth-graders often use their cell phones to collaborate on a paper or slideshow they've created with Google Docs while enroute to some extracurricular activity.

As for cell phones' in-class applications, the possibilities are almost limitless.

Teachers have used their own cell phones to download apps that track students' participation in class and randomly choose names to call on, eliminating the chance of favoring those who always raise their hands.

When Sudweeks found herself trying to teach two students who barely spoke English, she turned to the app iTranslate to communicate. She'd type in a word or sentence they didn't understand and the software converted it to Spanish or Arabic, both written and spoken.

Adams Middle School's Brian Brown lets his language arts students consult their phones to look up definitions of unfamiliar words and he plans on allowing their use for online research when classes embark on an in-depth study of the science fiction novel "The Hunger Games" later this month.

Eighth-graders in Kiara Boyle's math classes have been taking tests on their phones this year, usually from home because the Excelsior School educator wants to maximize the amount of time she has to teach.

Students log into a virtual classroom and answer questions posed in various formats -- multiple choice, true/false, ones that require a text or hand-drawn response and others that gauge the intensity of their opinions from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."

The results are charted as a bar graph and displayed instantly, showing Boyle whether her class has grasped a concept.

Liberty High School students in Anita Kaddoura's algebra and geometry classes do their homework the old-fashioned way, then upload a photo of their answers to a website where she corrects the work.

Teens also can communicate with each other as well as her via the site, leaving notes that Kaddoura receives as text messages or posting comments on a blog.

In addition, they'll use their phones to download apps that help them figure out how to draw parabolas on a graph as well as to access a website that presents step-by-step solutions to equations they key in.

The way Kaddoura sees it, students' cell phones are a portal to other technology they'll need down the road.

"If we send them to university without giving them the skills to use, they get lost," she said, noting that at the start of the school year some of her freshmen didn't know how to upload photos to a website or message her via the Internet. "I don't want them to miss out on anything."

Teachers also point out that by allowing students to use cell phones in class, they don't have to jockey for space in crowded computer labs.

As for the potential distraction, those embracing cellular technology say it isn't an insurmountable problem.

Brown circles the room to ensure kids keep their devices where he can see them and directs them to specific websites rather than risk them stumbling across inappropriate content during a Google search.

"I have to be that filter," Brown said, noting that students are accessing the Web through their own data provider instead of the school's Wi-Fi network, which has a built-in screening function.

Although Boyle routinely confiscates cell phones from youngsters who can't resist responding to a friend's text message, she says there will always be those who find a way to flout the rules even if cell phones are verboten.

Freedom High School parent Kerri Seligman and her husband gave their 15-year-old daughter a Samsung after a couple of her teachers touted cell phones' usefulness at back-to-school night.

Now a believer, she thinks it's wiser for schools to incorporate cell phones into lessons instead of prohibiting them.

"It's not going away (and) if you can use it as a tool to help teach these kids other than the conventional ways, which don't always work ... a kid might ... get it quicker," Seligman said. "The whole object is to get them to learn, right?"

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.