Sunday, December 2, 2012

Podcasting: Capturing Global Voices

This week, I got to explore some more a technology tool I use sometimes, but not to its fullest potential: podcasting. As Lee LeFever talks about on Podcasting in Plain English, podcasting is a great medium through which people around the world are able to share information on almost any topic imaginable with interested listeners.

One source of educational podcasts I really like and have used with my students in the past is An interesting feature on this news website is something called "Special English" a series of news broadcasts that are slowed down by 1/3 of the normal speed and are aimed at intermediate and high beginner level English speakers. VOA Special English offers weekly podcasts on a variety of topics that might be of interest to English language learners such as education, current events, health, technology, and American history. I thought the podcasts on American history might be of particular interest to immigrant and refugee English language learners who have been in the United States for several years and are interested in learning about American history in preparation for taking the citizenship exam.

After some exploring on VOA's website, I decided to listen in on a podcast about the Cold War. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services lists 100 questions students need to know the answers to in preparation for taking the citizenship exam. If I were to use this podcast in the classroom with intermediate level adult refugee students, I might begin by introducing the related citizenship test question, "During the Cold War, what was the main concern of the United States?" I would also engage students in a background building discussion to see if any of them had heard of the Cold War before, knew anything about it, or could guess why it might be described as a "cold" war before having them listen to the podcast. As this podcast is 15 minutes long and includes much more information than students would need to know for the citizenship exam, I could have them listen to the entire pod cast or just parts of it, depending on their English language ability. To aid with listening comprehension, I could have students take notes on a graphic organizer.  I could also pre-teach key vocabulary critical to understanding the podcast. I could stop and show pictures of key people and events to provide further scaffolding.

After introducing students to part of this pod podcast in class, I could have them listen to another part of it at home. Students could be responsible for taking notes on the part of the podcast they had listened to at home as well as any questions they had about it or anything they didn't understand. They could read along with the podcast on the website as they listened to it. One great feature of VOA Special English is that if students come across a word they don't know, all they have to do is double click on it and a screen will pop-up with its definition form the Webster-Merriam dictionary. After discussing the remainder of the podcast in class the next day, the class could wrap up by coming back to the question about the Cold War students needed to know for the citizenship exam.

As my students gained practice in listening to podcasts and became more proficient in their listening comprehension skills, I could eventually have them subscribe to and listen to these podcasts on American history at home on their own, before coming in and discussing the information in them in class.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Connecting Students with Global Voices

In a TED talk entitled How to Listen to Global Voices, Ethan Zuckerman makes the point that while innovations in technology have made it possible for more and more people from around the world to become globally connected, many of us are under the illusion that the world is a lot flatter than it really is. "The world isn't even close to flat - it's extremely lumpy," Zuckerman says, referring to the fact that while the internet creates the potential for connecting people with a diversity of global voices and perspectives, the reality is that most of us are listening to the same conversations we always have, conversations by people who look like us, think like us, and mostly live in the same cultural context as we do. And it's likely that most of our students are too.

This week, I learned about one online technology tool that can help with reversing this trend. Epals  is a tool for connecting classrooms around the world in collaborative, project-based learning. A teacher can sign up for a classroom account, choose from a variety of projects she'd like to have her students do, and then find a classroom to collaborate with her's on that project. A third grade class of Spanish language learners from the United States, for example, can partner with a third grade class of English language learners in Latin America to share about similarities and differences between schools in North America and Latin America, using both the Spanish and English language. In the process of collaborative projects like these, students and teachers gain valuable insight into what life and school is like for individuals who may live in a very different cultural context, whether that context is across town or on the other side of the world.

Epals has a variety of ready-made projects in various subject areas that instructors can choose from, or they can design their own. One project I thought was interesting was entitled, "Outside my Classroom Window."In this project, groups of students took pictures, or drew pictures of scenes taking place in the community outside their school. They then shared these through skype or powerpoint with their partner classroom. In the subject area of science, "Weather: A National Geographic Project" provided a forum for students to collaborate with classrooms around the world to learn about weather patterns and conditions in their own and their partner classroom's part of the world. What I liked about these projects was that not only did they contain lesson plans and ideas for implementation in the classroom, they also included objectives and standards to be met through them.

Three Students As I thought about how I could use a tool like Epals in my own teaching practice, the idea of connecting refugee students with other students who are also going through or have gone the process of adjusting to life in a new culture was one idea that came to mind. An Epals project like this might first involve having students from both classrooms describe the current context in which they live to each other. Next, they could compare and contrast similarities and differences between living in that context and living in the country they came from. Finally, they could volunteer to share about the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country and offer suggestions to the students in their partner classroom of things that have helped them in this adjustment. The goal of an Epals project like this is that students in both classrooms might find it encouraging to interact with others who are experiencing some of the same things they are going through, even if the cultural contexts are different.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Digital Storytelling Revisited: Photo Story Tools

Last week, I wrote about combining digital bookmaking and the Language Experience Approach to give ELLs with emerging literacy skills the opportunity to publish their stories. This week, I looked at a few other tech tools that could be used for bringing students' stories to life in the L2 classroom. Photo story tools, such as imovie, stupeflix, and animoto, are an example of these kinds of tools.

I wonder
A photo story is a short video which usually features a slideshow of images that may be accompanied by speech, music, or text. Being a mac user, I decided to begin my foray into the realm of photo stories by trying out a program  I already had on my computer; imovie. Taking the text and images from the story my students had written about their field trip to the Garden Walk, I used this program to create a slideshow of their story. Not only did imovie give me the option of adding text to each of these images, it also let me add a sound recording of myself reading the sentence that went along with that image. In a classroom equipped with the appropriate technology, a tool like imovie could be a great resource for differentiating instruction, allowing students who needed extra reading practice with a story the class had created to use headphones to listen to it being read at their own pace while following along with the text on the bottom of each of the images.

Since not all instructors will have access to a program like imovie in their classrooms, I decided to also try out one of the free photo story tools offered online. The tool I chose was stupeflix, because I liked that it offered the option of adding text and sound to each of the images in the slideshow. I ended up uploading pictures I had on my computer of my family members and myself doing different things and make a simple story using the present progressive, as this is one of the first grammatical structures I teach my students to use. Although I was not able to record myself reading the story the way I had with imovie, stupeflix does have a "text to speech" feature that lets you type out a sentence you want the computer to read for each image. Although computer generated, the speech was surprisingly native-speaker-like.

I imagine a tool like stupeflix could be a great resource to give students who already have some basic literacy skills the chance to demonstrate their command of a specific grammatical feature by creating a photo story with photos that have been taken by the class or that they themselves have taken. They can then use the "text to speech" feature to listen to their story being read by a "native speaker," before themselves reading and presenting it to the class. In a class of students with emerging literacy, on the other hand, the instructor could use stupeflix to create a photostory like the one below that highlights vocabulary or grammar currently being taught in class. Students could listen to the videos with headphones and follow along with the words on each slide as they heard them being read aloud.

Conversations in the cloud...

This week, I learned about yet another interesting tech tool that can be used for educational purposes in the second language classroom; voicethread. Voicethread is an online tool for collecting and recording conversations that occur around an image or a video. It is something akin to an online discussion board, except that the options for commenting are much more versatile. Not only can individuals type up their comments, they can also voice or video record them. The variety of comment formats creates the impression of a much more authentic and interactive conversation. This week, my classmates and I each  experimented with creating our own voicethreads that we might be able to use with the students in the various settings in which each of us teach. It was interesting to see the variety of topics - from characterization in literature, to Chinese culture, to Spanish verb conjugations - which my classmates chose to create voicethreads about. It was also interesting to see the variety of purposes they had their students use voicethread for.

Alicia's voicethread, for example, was created for the purpose of giving her students a forum for becoming more comfortable using their English speaking skills in front of their classmates, without actually having to stand up and speak in front of the class. Her first assignment for her students was to leave a comment telling what country they were from and to tell about some similarities and differences between their the country or culture they were from and the United States. It seems like this would be a topic of relevance and interest to her students, and as a result an effective way to get them to practice their oral communication skills. Additionally, a voicethread like this could be well suited to building a positive sense of community among learners as they listen to and learn from the unique perspectives each of their classmates brings to the question about cultural similarities and differences.

The purpose of the voicethread Alyssa made for her students, on the other hand, was a lot more narrow and specific. Rather than posing an open-ended question for the purpose of prompting discussion and conversation, Alyssa's voicethread asked her students to give three sentences to demonstrate their knowledge of how to use a specific grammatical tense; the present progressive form in Spanish. A voicethread like Alyssa's could be used quite effectively as an assessment tool after a grammar lesson and in-class practice activities on a specific grammar point. By listening to the sentences students gave in their comments, the instructor could get a pretty good idea of how well students could use the grammar in their speech, without the logistically difficult and time consuming task of conducting speaking tests with each of her students.

While these two examples show how voicethread can be used for the purpose of creating classroom community, helping students develop speaking skills, and assessing speaking skills, there are many other purposes for how this tool can be used with L2 learners or in the L2 classroom.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Digital Bookmaking: Bringing Students' Stories to Life

How do you help students who have never learned how to read and write in their first language make the connection between written text and spoken language? I think this has to be one of the biggest challenges instructors working with beginner-level adult refugee students face. Recently, I've been trying out something called the Language Experience Approach, or LEA for short, and I've had some encouraging results.

 LEA begins with a group activity or experience, such as a class field trip to a nearby neighborhood location or a cooking lesson. The instructor takes pictures during the activity, and with the help of the pictures, students come up with a story about the experience they've just shared. The students take turns adding to the story to tell what happened, while the instructor writes down what they say, word for word. The class can then spend the next few classes using the words in the story in different activities to practice skills like spelling, phonics, pronunciation, sight words and sentence formation. What works well about this approach is that you are basing your instruction in language students are already familiar with as well as connecting this language to a real life experience. To get a clearer idea of what LEA looks like, check out this video.

One of the LEA stories the students in my classroom have written is about a field trip we took this summer on the Buffalo Garden Walk. Most of my students are very interested in gardening, and several have their own garden plots in the summer, or at least grow a few vegetables in containers in their back yards. I thought it would be interesting for them to see some of the other gardens in their community as well to have the chance to meet and practice using English with some of their American neighbors. During the trip we took pictures, and afterwards my students created a story made up of sentences they told about all of the pictures. Even my most shy student was able to contribute a sentence, and therefore have an important role in the story writing. As students were telling the story, I wrote it out on a large piece of chart paper, and had the students who were able to copy it out in their notebooks (I typed up a copy for students who weren't able to do this). This story became the basis of our sight word practice, word study, and phonics instruction over the next few class sessions.

Now here's where digital bookmaking comes in. LEA is great because it helps students make a connection between spoken language that they can understand and written language that they can't yet read. This happens first of all when pre-literate students hear one of their classmates saying a phrase and watch the instructor writing the phrase down. It should also happen during the various follow-up activities that are based on the vocabulary and sentences in the story. A digital bookmaking tool like Bookr or Bubblr can further reinforce the connection between written text, spoken language, and meaning. 

Depending on the technology available in the classroom as well as students' familiarity and level of comfort with using it, the instructor can either create on her own, or have students help her create a digital flipbook that juxtaposes the pictures from the trip with the sentences the students have generated for each of them. For example, the instructor might add an image to the book and have a student volunteer to tell her the sentence that goes with that image, or conversely, type and read a sentence and have a student pick out the image that goes along with it. This gives the students another opportunity to hear each of the sentences being read while also seeing them in writing.

Another variation on this, which comes closer to digital storytelling, might be to use a tool like imovie to create a slideshow that includes images, audio and text, allowing students to hear the story being read while seeing the corresponding pictures and sentences that go with each sentence. I experimented with both of these tools to see how they would work with the LEA story my students wrote. Here's what I came up with!

In addition to helping reinforce the connection between spoken and written language, another objective of using a digital bookmaking tool with the Language Experience Approach might be to build students' self-confidence as writers. How empowering for students who have never had the chance to learn how to read and write in their first language to see their own words published in a book, even if it's just a digital book, for now.

Digital Storytelling: Giving Voice to Student Stories

ruaha_jonarensenOne of my most memorable classes as an undergraduate student was the Intro to Anthropology class I took with a professor called Dr. Arensen. Having spent over half of his life in East Africa, Dr. A., as the students called him, had a wealth of knowledge and experiences to share and was an incredible story teller. Most of our lectures consisted of a story or series of stories that illustrated the aspect of culture we were learning about that day. Gender roles. Rites of passage. African Traditional Religion. Although I've forgotten a lot of what I've learned in my undergraduate college classes, I still remember vividly many of the stories Dr. A. told and the cultural lessons that accompanied them.

There is something incredibly compelling and memorable about storytelling as a medium of communication. This week, I learned about a tech tool that can be used to both capture stories and share them with a digital audience: Digital Storytelling. As defined by the Educause Learning Initiative, "digital storytelling is the practice of combining narrative with digital content including images, sound, and video to create a short movie, typically with a strong emotional component."

With its range of formats, digital storytelling holds endless possibilities for use both in and outside of the classroom. The University of Houston's Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling site suggests how this medium might be used in an ESL classroom for the purpose of vocabulary building, with the instructor creating a slideshow that presents an image of each new vocabulary term accompanied by both the written and spoken form of the word. This slideshow could be viewed individually by students for further practice, either on the classroom computers, or possibly, on their computers at home. Or, assuming the classroom were equipped with the appropriate technology, the instructor could have the students themselves participate in the process of creating a digital story, like Maria's. I imagine it could be a very empowering experience for students to be given the tools to to share stories about themselves, their families, the countries they come from, or their experience in the United States with their peers using the multiple modalities available in digital story telling.

Student in the Computer Room

Another aspect of digital storytelling that intrigues me is its potential for being used outside of the classroom to educate individuals about issues and causes. The nonprofit organization I work at, Jericho Road Ministries, has used digital storytelling with images and audio to give voice to some of the incredible individuals in our community who have come as refugees from countries like Burma, Congo, Somalia, and Bhutan, and to share these with the wider Buffalo community on the following blog. More recently, our medical branch has also launched an audio-documentary series on the website, sharing the stories of patients and community members to advocate for healthcare reform. These stories, like Raleigh's below, are a much more compelling way of educating voters about the impact of healthcare legislation on individuals with the least access to medical care than a list of statistics about the inequities of the current healthcare system.


Similarly, the Center for Digital Storytelling works with various groups and organizations to raise awareness and educate individuals about issues such as discrimination, gender-based violence, volunteerism, and HIV/AIDS through the sharing of digital stories. As sharing stories connected to issues like these can be a sensitive matter, I appreciated that this site also included a page on Ethical Practice in Digital Storytelling. I think these issues of ethics are especially important to keep in mind when working with vulnerable populations and with those whose stories include traumatic or deeply personal experiences. This page suggested that digital storytelling may not be appropriate with individuals displaying symptoms of PTSD, which makes me think it should be used with caution with students who are refugees.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Serious Games: An Oxymoron?

A serious game is a game whose purpose is not primarily to entertain, but instead to solve a problem or sometimes, provide a simulation. In my exploration of the various "serious" games out there, I was surprised to find that there was even a game created by the UNHCR, the branch of the United Nations that works with refugees and other forcibly displaced peoples across the world. As I spend a lot of my time working with and teaching refugees who have been resettled to Buffalo, this piqued my interest right away.

Against All Odds describes itself as "the game which lets you experience what it is like to be a refugee." You pick a character and embark on a three-part quest, which includes fleeing persecution in your home country, crossing an international border, and finally starting life over in a new country. Depending on the decisions you make and your ability to evade those who are trying to harm you, you may or may not make it. The game is broken up into several segments and I played most of these, several of them multiple times. 

This isn't a game I would use with English Language Learners who are themselves refugees. Rather, I could see using it with American students learning about global issues. One part of the game that I particularly liked was an activity toward the end, during which your character walks around a mall trying to buy a cellphone and you hear people talking about you. Some people express suspicion, resentment and ignorance about you as a refugee and what you're doing in their country, while others have a more informed perspective and welcoming attitude. I think this activity shows particularly well the range of perspectives and attitudes towards the refugees who make their new homes in our country, and could be particularly helpful for building students' sensitivity to these new members of their community. 

One challenge serious games like Against All Odds face is to help players understand issues that are real and serious without trivializing them. For example, any excitement or adrenalin you might feel as you try to dodge the secret police while running across a dark city in Against All Odds is nothing like actually running for your life from people who are trying to kill you and your family. In the game when you make a wrong decision or get caught by the bad guys there are an infinite number of opportunities to start over. In real life there aren't. 
The last thing I would want is for students playing a game like this to walk away from it with the idea that now they know what it's like to be a refugee. (And, as you can guess, for this reason I'm not the biggest fan of the game's tagline). Instead, I hope that what a game like this could help students start to do is to imagine themselves in the shoes of these people who are coming to their country, and to realize that refugees are people just like them, except they are people who have experienced the unimaginable. 

I think this game would be a great jumping off point for a middle school global issues class about to begin a unit studying about world conflict or refugees. The game could be assigned to students for homework, and students required to write a journal entry about their game character's journey to allow the instructor to assess that the activity learning objectives had been met. This homework assignment could be followed up by a class discussion, and students could be asked to identify a specific part of the world or a specific part of a refugee's journey to do more research on and then share with the rest of the class. The unit could even end with a service learning opportunity at a local organization that works with resettled refugees.

Virtual Burgers and Refugee Learners

A couple of years ago, my little brother, a self-professed online game addict, introduced me to a series of point-and-click games with a common theme: food preparation. These games included Papa's Pizzeria, Papa's Burgeria, and Papa's Taco Mia, among many other variations! Your role in each of these games is the same. You are a worker at a fast food franchise (a pizzeria, taco shop, burger place, etc...) and your goal is to earn tip money by taking and accurately fulfilling your customers orders. The funny thing was that although I used to work at a fast food restaurant and did not enjoy it, there was something about these games that kept me playing one round after another.

"One of the defining attributes of any game," says Zac Hill in a post entitled Sculpting Flow and Fiero, "is that it is, in some sense, voluntary work." He goes on to say that there is something about the way games make people feel that intrinsically motivates people to continue doing this "voluntary work," whether that work is killing zombies, figuring out a way to escape a room, or making virtual tacos. I think it must be this realization that is, at least in part, behind the recent trend toward Gamification in education, business, and other arenas.

The nonprofit organization Educause describes gamification as "the application of game elements in non-gaming situations, often to motivate or influence behavior." In  7 Things You Should Know About Gamification it describes how games provide intrinsic motivation to their participants by offering immediate feedback, an appropriate level of challenge, and rewards. A rationale behind the move towards gamification in the field of education specifically is that incorporating game-like elements like these into teaching holds promise for creating more intrinsic motivation for our students to learn as well as helping them see coursework less as a chore and more as a challenge.

In light of the move towards both gamification and the integration of technology in current educational practice, some instructors might decide to incorporate not just game-like elements but computer games themselves into their classroom instruction. This brings us back to the example of Papa's Burgeria.

I imagine an adult ESL instructor seeking to incorporate more technology and more game-like elements into her classroom might choose to use a game like Papa's Burgeria during a unit on employment and food services. The language objectives of using this game in the classroom could be for students to practice giving and receiving commands using the correct command form of verbs and food preparation vocabulary. For many refugees and immigrants, their first job in the US could likely be in the area of food preparation, which would make a knowledge of this vocabulary relevant. In an ESL classroom with a computer lab, pairs of partners could play this game together, taking turns giving commands to each other.

In order to prepare her students to play this game, the instructor could introduce vocabulary such as hamburger, lettuce, ketchup, pick up, and flip to her students and have them practice it using TPR or other similar activities. When introducing food vocabulary, she might use both photographs of the actual items as well as the visual representation used for these items in the game, to help students  make the connection between the real item and its "cartoon" version. She could then have them pair up with a partner and go to a computer. One partner would play the game while the other partner gave him or her instructions on what to do, based on each customer's order (ie. pick up the bun, flip the burger, add ketchup, etc...) After each round, students could switch roles so that both partners would have the opportunity to practice both giving and receiving commands. During the activity, the instructor could circulate around the room, using a checklist to mark off whether each of the students giving instructions was using the correct verbs and nouns matching the images on the screen.

The reason I write about this example in third person is that although I consider it a way of incorporating game-like elements and technology into the language classroom, I would have reservations about actually using an activity like this with the students I teach. Most of the refugee adult students I teach have had and continue to have limited exposure to technology. Using a computer for them, period, is something scary and challenging and not very comfortable. I have a hard time seeing them pick up a new computer game as easily and effortlessly as their thirteen-year-old son would, for example. I'm afraid that rather than creating a positive atmosphere, a computer game like Papa's Burgeria might result in anxiety and frustration, raising the affective filter and taking away from their language learning experience. I also worry that providing students with all the background information needed to play a game like this successfully may just take up too much classroom time to be worth the potential language gains that may result from it.

All that to say, while computer games may not be the best fit for the adult refugee ESL class room, I do think there are many game-like elements such as maintaining an appropriate level of challenge, giving immediate feedback, and even providing opportunities for some healthy classroom competition that can be a great way of increasing motivation and success experienced by refugee adult learners.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Confessions of a Microblogging Skeptic...

I admit, I was skeptical. Although I’ve heard a lot of people talking about using twitter, I’ve never had any desire to get one of my own. Twitter has always struck me as something that had the potential of taking up a lot of time while offering little substance in return. So it was a bit begrudgingly that I created my twitter account for this class. After all, I wondered, how much useful content can really be conveyed in tweets of 140 characters or less? 
Apparently a lot. Perhaps I just got lucky, but over the last week I’ve spent following a dozen educational microbloggers, I’ve come across a LOT of useful information – blog posts about classroom strategies, links to articles and videos about teaching , a webchat on working with ELLs, to just name a few. Yes, not everything that’s tweeted is relevant to the context in which I teach (a lot is not) but it only takes a few moments to glance through the unhelpful tweets to find ones that point to exactly the kind of resources I’m looking for. 

Not only can twitter be used for the purposes of personal professional development, educators are coming up with new ways to creatively use it with their students and in the classroom. In 28 Creative Ways Teachers are Using Twitter the authors suggest using twitter to make announcements, have students follow conferences, and keep a class discussion going even outside the walls of the classroom to just name three possible uses. 

One interesting video called Leveraging Twitter in Large Lecture Classes to Increase Participation describes how a tech tool like twitter can be especially useful with large class sizes in which there is often not enough time during class for every student to contribute something to the discussion in the traditional sense, and in which many students do not feel comfortable speaking out in front of the whole class. While I'm not sure my concerns about using twitter with younger students outweigh the benefits, I could see twitter being used effectively as a discussion boosting tool in the large classes in which so many college freshman find themselves.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Keeping up With the Smart Kids...

In the words of Alan Levine, of New Media Consortium, "It's really important to stay connected to people that are smarter than us because we can't know everything." To me, this simple statement sums up perfectly the value of using social media for networking in today's rapidly changing world. To stay current in one's field as a professional, whether that be an engineer, a business executive, or an educator, involves a lifelong pursuit of learning. And what better way to do this than to be intentionally connected to a community of other lifelong learners? Introducing... Ning, a social networking site created to help individuals connect with others who have similar professional interests.

Ning is like facebook or myspace, except that it allows individuals to create networks with a much narrower focus. One particular Ning network that caught my interest belonged to the National Council of Teachers of English. Not only was this network composed of close to 6,000 English teachers from across the US, it also contained a more specific focus group of educators interested in working with ESL students. Members of this network are able to start online discussions, post videos, ask questions, provide suggestions, and even chat with each other through this network.

I think of the relevance of a tech tool like this in the field of refugee adult education. As of yet, there is not all that much scholarly research on best practices in working with adult ELL's with limited educational and literacy background. The research that does exist on this narrow demographic of learners is very foundational and rarely goes into practical teaching strategies I encounter a need for on a day to day basis. How wonderful, then, to think about the possibility that there might exist a network of educators who are encountering many of the same challenges, asking many of the same questions, and coming up with solutions to many of the same issues I face in my Buffalo, New York classroom.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Brief Introduction to Connectivism

According to George Siemens' learning theory of Connectivism, technology development over the last twenty years has drastically reorganized the way we live our lives, how we communicate with each other, and as a result, also the way we learn. Siemens points out that while today's most common learning theories, such as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism define learning as something that occurs inside the individual, "these theories do not address learning that occurs outside of people (ie. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology). They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations." In today's world of ever increasing technological development communication, dialogue, and interaction between learners more often than not occur through the medium of technology, rather than within the four walls of the traditional classroom. No longer does it make sense to think of today's learners in individualistic terms. Rather, today's "connected" learner can more accurately be thought of as a single thread within an intricately woven piece of fabric, or a tapestry. This tapestry is not a finished work but rather a "work in progress" that is constantly and continuously being added to and expanded.

Just as a beautiful tapestry is woven as many different pieces of thread coming from different directions become intertwined with each other, so learning also occurs as individuals from a variety of backgrounds cross paths, share ideas, and dialogue with each other. Just as some of the most beautiful and intricate tapestries are those woven from a huge diversity of colors and textures, so also diversity of perspectives, experiences, and ideas is key to the learning that occurs between individuals. The various pieces of thread in an intricate tapestry work together to bring out color and nuance in each other. In the same way, individuals not only gain knowledge from each other through dialogue, but also often gain a greater understanding of the knowledge they already possess. This is one of the key points Siemens makes in a youtube video entitled The Impact of Social Media on Learning. He also states that today's technology tools allow learning to occur in a way that's both effortless and very human. "If you think about it," Siemens says, "most of us enjoy dialogue, most of us enjoy conversation. We're social beings." Rather than reducing learning to something that occurs apart from this, connectivism claims that learning in today's rapidly changing world can hardly occur without it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fraud Prevention in the ESL Classroom

What do promises of lowered utility bills, mailings about life insurance, and phone calls requesting personal information all have in common? Not sure? All are examples of potential fraud or scams teachers and service providers working with refugee adults should be aware of and know how to warn their students against.

Although it is from several months ago, Heidi's post entitled Fraud Prevention Month on the ESL Literacy Network Blog brought to mind a number of situations the volunteers I supervise have encountered while teaching English to refugee adults in their homes. One volunteer told me how the family in whose home she was teaching English received seven phone calls from someone claiming to be calling on behalf of an insurance company and requesting their personal information over the course of single one and a half hour class. Another volunteer recently encountered a situation in which a man came to the door of the house she was teaching in and asked the family if he could see their gas and electric bill. He was very pushy about the whole thing and after the volunteer finally convinced him to leave, all of the students in the group expressed great relief. We later found out he was most likely a door-to-door salesman for an "alternative" energy company that promises low rates and then locks individuals into expensive multi-year contacts with high cancellation fees.

Teachers and service providers working with refugee adults have an important role to play in helping them adjust to and navigate life in the United States. An important part of this is teaching them how to avoid falling prey to these and other examples of fraud. Heidi's post includes a link to a list of topics instructors might cover in an ESL unit on avoiding fraud, as well as a number of other online fraud prevention resources. One of the most interesting of these is a website called which includes all kinds of fascinating information you might want to know about urban legends, frauds, scams, myths, and all other kinds of misinformation.

Inspired by this post, I decided to come up with my own list of simple tips for ESL teachers and other service providers who would like to help their adult refugee students avoid becoming victims of fraud.

 Tip #1: Teach your students to never sign anything unless they understand exactly what it says. This also means that as service providers we must set the precedent of not asking our clients to sign something without explaining what it is and why we are asking them to sign it, even if it's less convenient to do these things. 

Tip #2: Teach your students when it's appropriate to give out personal information and who it's appropriate to give this information out to. Follow up a unit on giving personal information with a discussion of whether it's "ok" or "not ok" to share each of these pieces of information with individuals like their doctor, their case worker, their neighbor, somebody on the phone, someone they just met, etc.

Tip #3: Teach your students that it's okay to say "no." Make sure your students know that it's always safer to say no if they're not sure whether or not they should say yes to an offer or if they don't understand exactly what they would be saying yes to. Teach and have your students practice saying phrases like "No thank you," "Sorry, I'm not interested," or "Sorry, I don't understand" that can allow them to still be polite while declining the offer.

Tip #4: Give students opportunities to practice saying "no" to sketchy offers and situations. Have students role play situations of how they would respond when someone comes to the door or calls on the phone about something that may be a scam.

Going back to the story I shared earlier about the utility salesman who came to English class, here's what the volunteer teaching the class did. Recognizing the importance of teaching her  students how to stand up for themselves in this situation and avoid being taken advantage of, she decided to follow up on this incident by teaching her students the phrase, "Please go away or I'll call the police/911." She wrote this phrase out on card stock for each of her pre-literate learners and role played a situation in which the utility salesman came to the door and students held up the sign with this message in the window instead of opening the door. The students felt empowered knowing they no longer had to feel like they were at the mercy of this unwanted (and in their eyes threatening) solicitor.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cellphones, Ipads, and the Digital Learner: A Call for Reflective Use of Classroom Technology

Did you know...

 If facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world?

There are over 12 billion searches performed on google each month?

The number of text messages sent and received daily now exceeds the total population of the human planet?

Now that you know, how will you let it inform your teaching? One youtube video entitled Pay Attention suggests having students text individuals outside their school to gather data for the class to use in lessons on topics like graphing, food preparation, and economic trends. Since we live in an age of digital learners, this video argues, why not use the technology our students love to engage our students and teach them more effectively? Another thought provoking video, Did You Know? calls attention to the rapid technological change going on in the world today and points to the need to prepare students for jobs that don't yet exist and that will utilize technologies that haven't yet been invented.

I appreciate the arguments these videos make about the urgency of incorporating technology in the twenty-first century classroom in a way that is relevant and engaging. Yet there is also a part of me that isn't fully convinced of the feasibility of their argument given the population of students I'm likely to work with.

Technology can be extremely expensive. If Buffalo private schools like Elmwood Franklin, where most of the students are middle class and Caucasian, can afford to put ipads into the hands of all their students, this is hardly the case in most of the schools attended by children of color on Buffalo's East and West Sides. Rather, in many of these classrooms, teachers have to reach into their own pockets just to purchase basic classroom supplies, not to speak of expensive technology. The students in these mostly low-income neighborhoods, and especially those who are recent immigrants and refugees may not have personal cell phones, ipods, or internet access at home, as these videos seems to suggest every teenager today does. It makes me wonder whether technology is just another area which will continue to accentuate the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" in our society.

I also wonder whether catering to our students' 24/7 connection to technology is all good. In a speech given at the RSA, Sir Ken Robinson makes the following statement, "Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth. They're being besieged with information and calls to their attention from every platform; computers, iphones, advertisements, and hundreds of television channels. And we're penalizing them for getting distracted..."

If anything, this statement makes me wonder whether many kids (and adults!) today haven't developed an unhealthy addiction or over-dependance on technology. If our constant exposure to technology makes it difficult for us to commit to and focus on a single task, or results in us being disconnected from what's happening around us in the here and now, is that really a good thing? I can't tell you how many individuals I've talked to who've commented on the fact that while we now have the capacity to build larger and larger electronic social networks, many of us seem to be losing touch with the people immediately present around us, who we interact with in our daily lives. After all, how many of us have tried to carry on a conversation with someone only to have them be texting or checking facebook on their iphone the entire time they're talking to us.

Yes, technology provides students with some incredible possibilities for learning and connection, but perhaps this should be tempered with fostering healthy relationships and connections with the "flesh and blood" individuals who inhabit their physical lives. Maybe in this age of over-digitalization part of our role as instructors should be not only to help students use technology as a tool for learning, but also to help them "unplug" and relearn how to engage in healthy, non-digital interactions.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Writing in the "Real World"

One mark of a successful teacher is that he or she is able to engage her students in tasks that are both authentic and relevant to their daily lives. As educators, we cringe when we hear students making comments like, "What's the point of this?" or, "When am I ever going to have to use this in real life?" The reality is that a lot of what students do in the classroom or for homework can feel very much like busy work. By providing students with an audience for their writing and the opportunity to share their work with a community of learners, blogs provide an interesting solution to the dilemma of creating connections between classroom learning and the "real world."

Big-time proponent of the use of blogs and other web-tools in the classroom setting, Will Richardson, describes how blogging has created a new genre or writing which he calls, "connective writing." When a student posts a journal entry, homework assignment, or response to a discussion question on a blog, she is not just completing an assignment; she is contributing her knowledge, opinions, and perspectives to a larger discussion.

Richardson describes how a blog can serve as a kind of "online filing cabinet" containing student work from over the course of the entire school year. Rather than handing in assignments directly to their teacher, students post them on the classroom blog, where they can receive feedback from their peers as well as from their teacher. I could see this use of the blog as being especially effective with creative writing tasks or in a writing workshop setting, where peers, the teacher, and the authors themselves comment on various drafts of a writing assignment before it is posted in its final form. The blog as "online filing cabinet" also easily provides the opportunity for students, their teacher, and even their parents to look back over student work over the course of the school year and identify areas of progress and growth.

I am also intrigued by the use of blogs to connect students to a community of learners outside of the immediate classroom. For example, I imagine that a classroom blog could be used to promote cultural sensitivity and understanding by facilitating connections between a class of inner city refugee students and a class of rural or suburban students. Students in both classes could read a book like The City Kid & The Suburb Kid and then share about things they like to do for fun where they live, or even, in the case of the refugee students, in the countries they came from. Both groups of students would have the chance to learn about life in a community very different from their own from individuals who actually lived in that community.

If used in the ways I've just described, blogs can be an effective way of incorporating technology to address the following New York State Learning Standards:

STANDARD 1: Students will listen, speak, read, and write in English
for information and understanding.

STANDARD 2: Students will listen, speak, read, and write in English
for literary response, enjoyment, and expression.

STANDARD 3: Students will listen, speak, read, and write in English
for critical analysis and evaluation.

STANDARD 4: Students will listen, speak, read, and write in English
for classroom and social interaction.

STANDARD 5: Students will demonstrate cross-cultural knowledge
and understanding.