Broadband, Big Screen! Enlivening English Language Learning
A creative use of whiteboards, LCD projectors, and the Internet helps students in southeast Los Angeles learn English.
Two students' search on "microbes" brings up some creepy critters.
In 1998, I started teaching fourth grade full time at Montara Avenue Elementary School, located in South Gate, California, a mile east of Watts, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. South Gate has seen major changes over the last twenty years. Once a primarily white, blue-collar city, South Gate's current population is working-class Latino. Our students usually speak Spanish at home and, as a result of California's Proposition 227 (requiring English as the language of instruction), are taught almost entirely in English from kindergarten.
Although the demise of old-style bilingual education remains controversial, I have seen a dramatic improvement in English fluency with my students over the last few years. In addition to English immersion, K-3 students have benefited from lower class sizes. The new district-adopted reading program emphasizes phonics and phonemic awareness in the primary grades, which improves students' decoding skills (the ability to associate letters with sounds and blend them together into words).
Projected onto the big screen, these images of microbes enliven a reading lesson on the history of medicine.Credit: Bob Moore
Teaching the Richness of Vocabulary and Concepts
There remains a large gap for English-language learners to bridge, who often still lack richness and variety in English vocabulary usage. They know "red" but they may have no idea what "crimson" or "scarlet" are. A "big, bad dog" is clear enough but reading about an "enormous, ill-tempered canine" might leave them scratching their heads. These are words they don't hear at home or on Spanish-language radio and TV. The unfamiliar vocabulary in their textbooks requires a significant and boring amount of explanation by the teacher. Students' eyes glaze over as their attention wanders.
My challenge was: Given limited time to cover all the material required to meet the California State academic standards, how do I help a class of English learners cope with difficult texts?
This is where technology comes in. The chalkboard just doesn't cut it any more. Make way for the LCD projector and whiteboard! The students need an exciting, language-independent medium to enhance their textbooks.
Teacher Bob Moore takes a digital snapshot of a student's written response to the lesson on medicine.Credit: Bob Moore
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
I started using educational videos and PBS programming to get concepts across when the regular curricular material fell short. It's a lot easier for a non-English speaker to understand the concepts of "character, setting, and plot" watching Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (a silent film where language isn't an obstacle) than by struggling through a complex story in the reading anthology with 50-75 percent new vocabulary. Using videos requires frequent use of the pause button followed by discussion and note-taking to be effective. But the students don't mind. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million.
But that's just a start. Our school was selected by the district to be part of a U.S. Department of Education Technology Literacy Challenge Grant. I and several other upper-grade teachers received technology training, a personal laptop, four multimedia computers, a scanner, a digital camera, an LCD projector, and a classroom set of thirty AlphaSmarts®, a low-cost, text-only laptop computer. Through the federally funded E-Rate program, our school is fully networked and connected to the Internet with a T1 line.
I was ready to take my reading program to the next level. I connected my laptop with a wireless high-speed Internet connection to an LCD projector and reading lessons became dazzling! Now, when our reading selections are peppered with difficult vocabulary words, we turn to Internet resources to clear things up on the spot.
Projecting writing samples onto a white board allows students to review and discuss their work as a group.Credit: Bob Moore
Google Image Search: A New Visual Dictionary
My favorite tool is Google™, the popular search engine. Google has an image search capability that has revolutionized my effectiveness with English learners. Recently, we were reading an article reviewing the history of medicine. There were few pictures and lots of dense text describing microbes and Louis Pasteur's experiments with bacteria, vaccines, and antibodies. "What's a microbe, class?" Blank stares from wall to wall. "Let's see if we can find out on Google." I turned to the laptop and typed "microbe" in the search box.
In seconds, dozens of pictures flashed up on the white board in front of my class. "Ooh, that's gross!" squealed one of my students as they saw a particularly nasty little green beastie. I clicked on the picture of an influenza virus and a large version filled the screen. "Who would like to come up to the front and trace the virus?" I asked. Two dozen hands flew up. The lucky volunteer scurried to the whiteboard and traced the knobby virus with a green erasable marker.
From there, I clicked on the link to the main page with the flu virus photo. It came from a retired exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum entitled, "Epidemic! The Natural History of Disease." This site turned out to be a gold mine of information, with stimulating photos and illustrations that connected in a fun and meaningful way with the text of our reading.
It works because it's so spontaneous. The students help select which thumbnail images we go to. Every explanation becomes an exploration. Students quickly pick up the techniques of good Web searches. "Who can find out if people still use leeches for curing illness?" Three volunteers go back to the classroom computers to search for leech links. Shortly, one boy waggles his hand in the air excitedly and reads aloud from the Biopharm Leeches Online Web site that "the medicinal leech is making a comeback in modern medicine." He has just read for comprehension and had a blast doing it.
These new skills stick with the students. At conference time, students come in with their parents and show them things we've discovered during reading time. They put in keywords and click on links. When I ask a parent which town in Mexico or El Salvador they come from, their child amazes them by finding a dozen pictures of the town on the Internet. Few of my students have computers with Internet access at home, but this is changing as parents see their children demonstrate their skills. Los Angeles Unified School District will provide each student with a free Internet account. However, they must pass a test on the strict rules of the district's Acceptable Use Policy, which they and their parents must sign.
With a digital camera and LCD projector, the entire class is able to compete table vs. table in a round of Boggle.Credit: Bob Moore
Big Screen Projections of Word Games, Student Writing, and More
The LCD projector gives big-screen impact to all sorts of non-Web-related learning activities as well. We play Boggle © Hasbro, Inc. with the whole class at one time. One child shakes up the popular game's crossword letter cubes into its plastic grid box. Another student takes a picture of the letter grid with the digital camera and transfers the picture to my laptop. Finally, I project the fresh game grid in front of the class. Each table of students works furiously for three minutes finding as many words as they can in the connected cubes.
The digital camera and projector also come in handy for improving student writing. I can take a picture of a student's first draft narrative paragraph and project it on the board, exactly as written for the whole class to proofread. This kind of sentence lifting allows us to add proofing marks directly to the image on the whiteboard.
We even created a bulletin board display for the school hallway by compositing three of the children's scanned volcano drawings into a Hawaiian panorama using simple paint software. By projecting the panorama onto a long sheet of white butcher paper, the students were able to trace the image, color it, and add paper surfers, sharks, and palm trees for the final product.
Usiel and Mirella respond to the story using AlphaSmart keyboards.Credit: Bob Moore
Providing Teachers and Students with New Literacy Tools
I was lucky to participate in grants that put such wonderful technological tools in my classroom. This experience allowed me to help design state-of-the-art multimedia classrooms for Montara's new Math, Science, and Technology Magnet program. Several Magnet teachers have made the wireless Internet and LCD projector essential tools. A decent LCD projector still costs a few thousand dollars, but I encourage districts to include it as an important part of their computer budgets, lowering costs via group purchasing.
My students are growing up in a video culture. They relate to TV and to big-screen images. By tapping into their attention to visual images, a teacher can increase interest level, retention, and achievement for students with limited English. Coupled with an Internet search engine's unparalleled power to retrieve information instantly, educators have every reason to leave their chalkboards in the dust.