Larry Ferlazzo

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                                                       Accepted for publication by Language Magazine

                                                                    By Larry Ferlazzo
After spending 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 themselves.
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 machines.
However, skepticism 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 time.
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 “talking” stories.  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 accessed at .  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 face-to-face relationships?
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 time.
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.
Something called “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 friends.  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 restaurant).  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  (“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.  
Burbank is 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.
Larry Ferlazzo 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 Technology.
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