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.