publication by Language
COMPUTERS, RELATIONSHIPS, and ENGLISH LANGUAGE
nineteen years as a community organizer helping people to improve their
communities, I believe that organizing is just another word for face-to-face
relationship building. And that
this kind of face-to-face relationship building can lead to individual and
collective action that helps people transform their communities and
After spending the
last three years teaching English Language Learners at Luther Burbank High
School in Sacramento, California, I believe this kind of relationship-building
is equally as important in the classroom. Without a genuine relationship,
teachers really won’t understand the self-interests of their students and
students won’t be able to build a “community of learners” among themselves and
with their teachers (see “Shaking
Up The ESL Classroom,” Language Magazine, July 2006). These are the types of
human relationships that can lead to transformational experiences for students
and their schools. Because of that belief, I had, and still have, a fair amount
of skepticism when it comes to the role of technology in schools today. The
relationships I see technology most creating are ones between students and
is not the same as closed-mindedness.
I entered the world
of public school teaching with many questions to explore about teaching in the
classroom. One of them, though not
particularly high on the list, was, in the face of all this new technology,
could it be used in a way to assist students to develop and deepen face-to-face
(and not virtual) relationships with others?
But before I tackled
that question, I had a few others to deal with, including issues like what were
the best ways to have students check-out books from the classroom library, how
to intervene with the student who just didn’t seem to care about anything -- not
to mention how to fix the Riso machine when a sheet of paper got stuck in it.
And then I was asked
to teach a class of pre-literate Hmong newcomers.
Nearly 2,000 Hmong
refugees came to Sacramento two years ago when the last refugee camp was closed
in Thailand. Most of the high
school age youth were sent to our school, Luther Burbank High School. The vast
majority of them had never attended a school before, and no one else in their
families had, either.
It was a great
opportunity. How often would a high
school teacher get to spend five hours each day with a classroom of students who
were going to school for the first time in their lives?
It was also,
obviously, a challenge.
One of the many
issues I faced was that our school, and I, strongly believed that a critical
component of literacy was having students read books that they were interested
in and providing a large number of books that they could choose from. How could I incorporate this methodology
with students who couldn’t read? I
certainly couldn’t help all twenty of my students read twenty different books at the same
I then remembered a
website that I had built during the previous year. I had been hired during my teacher
credential program to teach a self-contained class of retained seventh-graders
with behavioral challenges (and, boy, what challenges they were!). As part of my grasping at anything that
might engage them, I had developed a simple site compiled of links to various
academic subject activities and games on the Internet. Using the site had been fairly
successful. I vaguely remembered
coming across some other sites that had animated stories read aloud, and
wondered if that might be worth trying with my Newcomer class as part of a
voluntary reading program after-school.
We created an “ESL
Computer Lab” class after school for my twenty students and other students who
wanted to act as “peer tutors” to assist the newcomers.
It quickly grew to nearly one hundred
recent immigrant students coming in both before and after school to access these
The website began as
just a small list of links to these activities, and has now grown to having over
six thousand links (leading to hundreds of thousands of activities) divided into
hundreds of thematic categories covering all academic subjects. The site can be
It also now has a daily blog highlighting new
content added to the site.
I was just “winging
it” initially trying, and hoping, that using this technology would help our
students academically. In fact,
after one semester, students participating in the lab had a fifty percent
greater improvement in their English literacy assessments than students who did
not participate in the computer lab.
After awhile, I
began to have a little time to remember how important I believed relationships
to be. Could this technology be used to facilitate the building of these
I tried a few
things. Small groups would meet and
discuss the talking stories they read and demonstrate how they used the reading
strategies they had been learning in class (asking questions, making connections
with their own lives and experiences, what they liked and didn’t like and
why). English Language Learners
from various ethnic groups would move into adjacent computers and compete in
online activities (verb tense basketball, for example).
But even with these
interactions, students were still “consumers” and not “creators.” They were basically watching screens,
though they might be a little more active in certain activities. It was hard for them to implement
all the pro-active reading strategies they had learned as they were having the
computer read to them. It was challenging for them to visualize what they were
reading since the stories mostly already had animations that went along with the
text. And they had to spend so much
intellectual capital and physical energy into “decoding” words it was very
taxing for them to always be thinking about the strategies at the same
The question we
faced as teachers was how we could help our students use technology to become
creators and use higher-order thinking skills to develop face-to-face
relationships with their peers.
That’s when I began
to learn about Web 2.0 – the phrase used to describe the idea of computer users
creating content on the Internet.
Students could create online journals, read each other’s entries and
comment on them, and, at the same time, learn more about each other. Students could design their own online
English games and tests that other students would take. These activities, in
turn, would lead to further face-to-face conversations.
“viral marketing” also began to appear in what I was reading.
This is an online marketing device used
by companies to encourage computer users to pass along advertisements to their
The twist would be that
the user could personalize the ads – for example, you could have a plate of
scrambled eggs “say” what you wanted for breakfast (an ad for a
You can read a more
in-depth article about how I use Web 2.0 tools and viral marketing in the ESL
classroom in the April, 2007 issue of TechLearning at http://techlearning.com/
(“Samuel L. Jackson and Me”).
Our ESL Computer
Lab, which is designed to facilitate face-to-face relationship building, is now
being used as a model for others who have the same perspective. The Sacramento Mutual Housing
Association, a large affordable housing developer who also has a strong
community organizing component, is implementing this strategy in the computer
labs they have at their developments.
considering developing a similar Computer Lab focusing on Math and students who
are not recent immigrants. The idea
of using computers as tools to help students engage with and support each other
is helping guide its development, including creating strategies for participants
in the two labs to interact with each other.
But the ESL Computer
Lab is just one part of how we are using computers to build relationships. Another element in this strategy is our
Family Literacy Project.
After the Computer
Lab began, students invited their parents to come see what they were doing. Both at these open houses, and in
subsequent home visits, parents shared that they would love to be able to study
English at home using computers. It
was difficult for them to attend adult school or come to Burbank to use the lab
there because they didn’t have a driver’s license – you had to read English to
pass the test. And Sacramento’s
public transit system leaves a lot to be desired, especially since families
lived all over the city.
As a result, we
began the Luther Burbank Family Literacy Project. The school donated fifteen recently
replaced computers, and a small private grant provided money to give DSL service
for a year to fifteen families.
Eighty percent of family members had to commit to using our site to learn
English for one hour each day and keep a log. It would be easiest for the whole family
to do it together for that one hour instead of doing it individually. This way, families could read and
discuss a story together.
We did a pre and
post assessment with the families involved in the Project and with a control
group. After the first quarter, our
preliminary results showed that the students with home computers had a
thirty-three percent greater improvement in their English literacy level than
those in the control group. After
having math teachers review the data, though, it was clear the increase was much
greater. In fact, students with the
home computers had almost double the improvement than students in the control
group (this is why I teach English and not Math!).
In addition, most students and their families spoke about
how they felt the reading, speaking, listening and writing exercises they used
on the computer helped them to increase their ability and self-confidence in
speaking English. And, returning to the building relationship theme, they also
spoke how they enjoyed doing the same exercises with family members and others,
and then talking about them together.
Now, using some of those Web 2.0 tools I mentioned earlier, students are
writing and designing their own “Talking Stories” that we are posting on our
website that their entire families can read together and discuss.
This success has
prompted the Sacramento City Unified School District to provide funds to
increase the number of Burbank families (Hmong, Spanish-speaking, and Pacific
Islander) in the project from fifteen to fifty this year.
I’d like to end by adapting a quote I once heard about the
role of a market economy. In my
version, I’ll replace “market” with “technology” -- Technology has its place, but also has
to be kept in its place. Our students need the support, and power, that
face-to-face, flesh and blood, relationships bring – not the virtual ones of
MySpace “friends.” Instead of
having our students primarily relate to computers by sitting in front of screens
and just using well-intentioned learning programs, let’s have them use these
computers to relate to peers and help create a community of learners. This
can lead to students teaching, learning from, and supporting each other, as well
as challenging themselves.
teaches Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced English Language Learners at Luther
Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He is the Grand Prize Winner of the 2007
International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and
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