Teenagers sit at desks. One is passing a grey disk to another.
Berkeley High freshmen pass around a device that releases their phones from the magnetic pouches they’re stored in during class. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Berkeley High freshmen pass around a device that releases their phones from the magnetic pouches they’re stored in during class. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Cellphones were out on every single desk in Julie Panebianco’s freshman English class.

Yet no students were texting, double-tapping or TikTok-ing that early October morning.

Their phones might have been tantalizingly close, but the devices were locked up in neoprene pouches, inaccessible until a gadget that releases them was passed around the room at the end of the period.

This fall Berkeley High School introduced a new system to ensure phone-less learning to all freshmen and all students in the Communication Arts and Sciences small school. Before the academic year began, the school purchased hundreds of pouches and their round bases from the company Yondr.

When kids arrive in class each day, they shut their phones away, hanging onto the magnetically locked pouches until they’re finally allowed to tap them on the base that opens them at the end of the period. Then they carry their phones to their next class and start the process all over again.

One teacher said classroom phone use had made every period a “game of whack-a-mole.”

A product of the same industry and region that got us addicted to the tiny computers in our pockets in the first place, San Francisco startup Yondr says it supplies its pouches to hundreds of schools, music venues and even courthouses. Yondr was popularized in part by celebrities — the likes of Dave Chappelle and Alicia Keys — who make their audiences lock away phones for the duration of a concert or comedy set.

Unsurprisingly, the system is a draw for many educators. Virtually all U.S. teenagers have access to smartphones, and 45% of them say they’re online “almost constantly,” according to Pew’s latest survey on teens and technology.

Berkeley High teachers say classroom phone use has made every period a “game of whack-a-mole.”

“You tell one kid to put it away, and another takes their phone out,” said freshman history teacher Hasmig Minassian. “There was no effective method, short of taking a phone every time you saw it. It constantly puts you in the position of a police officer.”

Plastic grey disc on desk. On top of it lies a pouch. It has flaps at the top that are open, and a metal piece is sticking out of one side.
Yondr pouches lock closed with a magnet. They spring open when tapped on the round base. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Ten-minute power struggles between teacher and student turned into “theater shows for everyone in the class,” she said. “One of my colleagues who’s a really strong teacher said, ‘This could take me out of the profession.’”

Since Yondr was introduced in August, Minassian has only needed to confiscate two phones, she said.

Berkeley educators are still ironing out the system, and each one employs Yondr a bit differently. In Panebianco’s class, students walk in to find the pouches already on their desks. They lock their phones away and keep them right by their sides or in their backpacks. Yondr is supposed to make teenagers feel empowered — they get to keep their phones on their persons, rather than leave them in a paternalistic, theft-prone bin by the door. If a class has to evacuate in an emergency, the teacher can grab the Yondr base and let kids access their phones after leaving the room.

Each period, Panebianco waits until a few minutes before the bell rings to quickly pass around the UFO-like base. Other teachers have kids line up to “Yondr down” at the door, and kids complain the process has made them chronically late to their next classes.

In a Yondr marketing video, students at San Lorenzo High School — which went totally phone-less in 2017 — gush about the newfound time to actually get coursework done when they can’t access their group chats, and about replacing social media with real-life socializing during lunch.

“It’s probably better, in terms of learning. I do want to be paying attention… But it’s extra time. I’ve been late a lot.” — Julia, 14

The nine Berkeley High freshmen interviewed by Berkeleyside in October all had more cynical or neutral takes on the system.

Most called it “useless” or “unnecessary.” They insisted they’re not even tempted to check their phones during class.

“Most of us had way stricter policies in middle school, so it’s not really a problem,” said David, 14.

Others said Yondr ends up creating as many issues as it solves.

“It’s probably better, in terms of learning. I do want to be paying attention,” said Julia, 14. “But it’s extra time. I’ve been late a lot. Yesterday I forgot to un-Yondr, so I left my phone in math.”

Panebianco said kids coming to Berkeley High fresh from eighth grade might not believe it, but she watched her ninth graders develop into incessant phone users over the course of last school year at the more “permissive” Berkeley High. It’s only the English teacher’s second year in Berkeley, but she previously taught for 14 years in Union City, where she also saw classroom phone use become “a ridiculous problem,” taking way too much time away from lessons and energy from teachers.

Some teachers let kids leave the locked phones on their desks. They can’t open them until class ends. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Some teachers let kids leave the locked phones on their desks. They can’t open them until class ends. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Minassian, a longtime BHS teacher, said the positive effects of Yondr are already obvious. This year her students pay more attention to long lessons or films, and take their time on assignments. They pull out a book or have a conversation with a classmate if they finish early, instead of rushing through classwork so they can send Snapchats.

“They’re just with us,” she said. “They’re so much more present.”

When Berkeley High launched a brand-new ninth grade program last year, where all students take the same set of courses in small “hives,” or houses, “it felt like an opportunity to change cellphone culture with kids,” Panebianco said. “Part of me is hoping kids will feel just a sense of relief that they’re not expected to be on social media every second of every day. It’s out of their hands.”

Yondr has already become part of the school’s “culture” — in a sense.

Students have created a satirical “Yondr fan club” instagram account, where one can find intricate memes, impressive drawings of made-up Yondr mascot characters, photos of stolen or vandalized Yondr products, and plenty of sexual innuendo involving the pouches and the metal pins that protrude from them. But hey, at least the kids had to wait until they got out of class to create the account, right?

Panebianco herself is not “100% sold” on the branded product. For one, it’s pricey — too expensive to bring to the whole school.

Yondr uses a subscription model, where schools pay an annual fee for the products and return the pouches when they cancel the subscription. The 840 pouches and 28 bases rented for Berkeley High’s ninth grade cost $15,000 for the year. A third of that price was covered by the Berkeley High School Development Group and roughly another third by the Berkeley Public Schools Fund. Teachers sent out an appeal to parents this month, trying to raise the remaining $6,000.

Yondr allows subscribers to replace up to 5% of their pouches throughout a year, said Minassian. Less than two months in, Berkeley High already needs to replace more than that.

“Some classes are bleeding pouches,” said Panebianco.

Teen girl sitting at desk. She's placing a pouch on a round plastic disc.
A student unlocks her Yondr. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The teachers plan to start a system where each student is assigned a numbered pouch in each class, so it’s easy to track down the owner when one goes missing.

Vandalism is a big issue too: kids like to bend or break off the little pins attached to the pouches.

“I’ve heard about people putting ketchup and mustard inside,” said Naomi, 14.

One student suggested a cheaper, perhaps more washable alternative.

“We could literally just give everyone a plastic bag,” said Ansel, 15. If a kid reached for their phone, the loud crinkling noise would expose them.

“There’s obviously a problem, but this is way over the top,” the freshman said. “We could use the money for so many school supplies. It’s kind of pissing me off.”

That day in Panebianco’s first-period English class, Ansel and his peers were reviewing similes and metaphors, to prepare for an upcoming literature unit.

The teacher asked if anyone had an example to share.

Ansel raised his hand.

“The war we have is teachers against students,” he said. “Yondr is the atomic bomb that’s super unnecessary and over the top.”

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...