Learning a foreign language is no longer contingent on textbooks filled with stiff vocabulary exercises. Today, classes have context, from live connections with native speakers to project-based learning in which Skype, wikis, and a dozen other new technologies serve as powerful connecting tools.
More than 400 million people in the world speak Hindi, yet the language is rarely taught in any K–12 schools in the U.S. In 2007, the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) partnered with the Edison School District in New Jersey to create a collaborative, project-based curriculum that allowed students to virtually connect with their peers in India, as described in a PDF press release from the project's launch.
Supported by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Foreign Language Assistance Program, the partnership functioned through an iEARN site (equipped to handle all non-Roman scripts) that served as a forum for discussion and collaboration between Edison's two high schools and St. Gregorios High School in Mumbai. American students dove right in, inquiring about Hindi words, finding out what Indian students do after school, and asking questions about Indian history. They post daily questions and journal entries to the iEARN forum and set up a time to video Skype with their foreign correspondents.
"Skype is a very exciting tool," says Neelam Mishra, a multilevel Hindi teacher at Edison High who helped launch the program in 2007. There's something about hearing (and seeing) a language directly from a native speaker that makes a piece of information more viable. "My students enjoy my class, but when they talk to their peers, they feel more comfortable sharing."
In addition to providing her students with opportunities for online collaboration and constant feedback from native Hindi speakers, Mishra has designed her class thematically so that each unit (Gandhi's life, school days in India, or Indian tourism, for instance) is paced according to its various projects, such as skits, PowerPoint presentations, or travel brochures. Students complete two big projects and four to five smaller ones per ten-week unit. Edison students share many of these projects with the Mumbai students by, for example, performing a skit during a Skype videoconference.
Once this program grows past the infancy stage, Mishra would like to see high-level collaborations take place between Americans and Indians, like a solutions-oriented project about global warming, which everyone finds relevant and which will offer an even greater incentive to work on language.
When students know someone is listening on the other side of the globe, they take the lead, she says.
Technology? Mais Oui
For Loveland, Colorado, high school French teacher Toni Theisen, technology is just a tool, albeit a really useful one. "If it's already well developed, aligned, and standards-based, technology can enhance a lesson -- that's all," she says. As the recipient of the 2009 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Teacher of the Year Award, along with numerous other accolades, Theisen has a knack for enhancing her lessons with technology. Not only do students benefit, but her efforts also reach a network of teachers worldwide with whom she shares her experiences, ideas, and step-by-step instructions for tech tools that work.
Theisen's technology treasure trove is indeed dizzying. Her students are making wikis, VoiceThreads, and Voki avatars; they're commenting on class films in real time using a free chat room site called TodaysMeet; and they're answering questions using their cell phones and the Poll Everywhere site. From creating videos with Animoto.com to comic strips with ToonDoo, they're veritable multimedia mavens -- and they're learning French along the way. But perhaps most exciting, Theisen says, is technology's ability to connect her classes instantaneously with people across the world.
For instance, when her students were reading Le Petit Prince in spring 2009, Theisen stumbled across a Twitter post from a teacher in New Zealand who mentioned that her class was reading it, too. Within days, Theisen had set up a wiki for the two classes to share, and students began posting audio podcasts describing the character they most identified with and creative videos interpreting the text. Today, Theisen's students manage a wiki with a partner school in La Réole, France, and through videos, podcasts, and VoiceThreads, Loveland students practice French and La Réole students practice English, sharing cultural tidbits about one another's lives (such as a Flip cam tour of Loveland High).
Wikis also serve as landing zones for student portfolios, showcasing their work for the year, such as a curriculum vitae and cover letter for an imagined future occupation or a documentary about a current environmental problem.
At Maloney Interdistrict Magnet School, a pre-K–5 public school in Waterbury, Connecticut, all students learn Japanese, even the four-year-olds. The program, in which students take 75 minutes of Japanese class per week using immersion techniques, differentiated instruction, and hands-on, visual technologies -- bodes well for early language teaching.
Jessica Haxhi, Maloney's pre-K and grades 3–5 Japanese teacher, and her colleague, Kazumi Yamashita, have been perfecting their curriculum for sixteen years. Now it's available for download from the program's site. Haxhi shares that curriculum with other language teachers around the state during the K–8 World Languages Summer Institute each year.
Technology paves the way for both differentiated instruction and language immersion. For instance, she uses an interactive whiteboard because it's such a simple tool for showing, not telling. "I don't have to deliver instruction in English when I use it," she notes. Haxhi spells out a word in Japanese on the whiteboard, and her kids throw Koosh balls at the image of what they think it is.
They also play language games in pairs on laptops and watch and respond to videos that Haxhi has created of various puppets introducing themselves in Japanese. The class wiki, bulked up in part by parent feedback, allows students to practice at home using PowerPoint slide shows, videos, and outside links to games and tutorials. Haxhi also sends home at least one DVD of the students doing something fun -- making a commercial, say, or acting as animals giving speeches at a Japanese wedding.
Haxhi also landed $5,000 for her classroom as the 2008 recipient of the United States–Japan Foundation's Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher Award. She purchased iPods so that her students can use them for listening, viewing, and voice recording -- a real boon for what Haxhi calls learning centers, or small-group instruction. "In the old days, I'd have to stand there with a puppet and do it five times," says Haxhi. "Now, the kids who can do it can play through it, and the kids who need extra help can pause the video. It's all about different learning styles."
Eisenhower International Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is one of just two language-immersion schools in the state; the other, Zarrow International, was begun eight years ago because of Eisenhower's overwhelming success. Time-proven Spanish and French immersion methods, combined with sister school partnerships, foreign exchanges, and an emphasis on world cultures have helped the award-winning school achieve the highest test scores for an elementary school its size in Oklahoma -- four years in a row.
Tight-knit relationships play a big part, too. "We have a real stable climate," says Eisenhower principal Stacy Strow. "It's very rare that we lose students and rare that we take them in," since all recruiting happens at the kindergarten level.
This is because at Eisenhower, foreign language is the vehicle of instruction, not the content. With the exception of one 45-minute period a day of P.E., music, or art, students learn completely in the target language until the middle of second grade, when teachers begin introducing an hour per day of English language arts. By grade five, subjects are split about 50/50 -- social studies and English language arts in English, math and science in Spanish or French.
But perhaps the two initiatives Eisenhower is best known for are its multi-week exchange programs with sister schools in Mexico and France, and the Culture Box Program, a rich collection of artifacts from 46 countries (such as clothing, games, and musical instruments) that are available for use in the Eisenhower curriculum as well as any school in the district (or a non-school group for a $15 fee).
Thanks to a partnership with the Tulsa Global Alliance, the Culture Boxes continue to receive grant support and material donations, and Tulsa continues to build its sister city relationships with Amiens, France and San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Each year, Eisenhower sends ten students to the Instituto Cervantes Apostolica in San Luis Potosi for an eight-week homestay and ten to Ecole La Salle in Amiens for three weeks. Then, students from France and Mexico come to Oklahoma to stay with the student they hosted.
By third grade, Eisenhower students are corresponding with pen pals in the sister schools through letters, email, Facebook, and Skype, so that by the time they can apply for the fifth grade exchange program, they already have a relationship with an exchange partner. Students chat at least once a month via Skype, but during the homestay, classroom correspondence often ramps up to once a week. These conversations are informal, says fifth grade French teacher Michelle Barnes: "Once they've built these relationships, it's just chatting with friends."