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.