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American Immigrants, Digital Natives

Project-based learning has been a subject du jour at this year's annual ISTE conference. But while building real-world, collaborative skills is certainly a desired focus for many tech-friendly educators, is it possible to do when those students are English-language learners?

It can be, so long as you measure expectations, said Vicki Reed, a digital-integration specialist at Lancaster County, Pa.'s, Hempfield High School, in a presentation Wednesday afternoon. And in cases where secondary students of many nationalities are learning English together for the first time, she said it's sometimes necessary to find material that addresses language deficiencies while remaining interesting to a high school student.

For example, using digital cameras, students took pictures of their new school environment and labeled the landscape in English. As their English proficiency advanced, they'd move on to projects like a virtual tour of their home countries using Google Earth, and eventually to video projects where they introduce themselves to their other teachers.

"As much as possible, we are integrating the speaking, listening, reading, and writing into project-based lessons," Reed said. "It's so easy to do age-appropriate lessons when you have the technology to do that."

Other projects Reed demonstrated included videos exploring the history of students' families and a video montage several students put together for a videoconferencing project in which they communicated with classes from across the globe to attempt to dispel national stereotypes.

In Lancaster County, a long-established region about an hour west of Philadelphia that is known as the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish Country, the challenges for ELLs could potentially even be greater than they are in other environments, because the largely Latino ELL population is relatively new to a region that is unused to population influx.

And Reed, who said her past travel experiences helped her relate to Hempfield's ELL students' plight of unfamiliarity, grew emotional toward the end of the presentation.

"For every project that I show you, there's an emotion that goes along with it," said Reed, who assists ELL instructor Donna Goserud in designing and implementing the projects. "Sometimes it's hard to present the project because you only see the project. If you think about all the planning and all the work that goes into it, .... that's what's so hard to make [the presentation] just about technology."

Reed's presentation was one of several focused on ed-tech initiatives in Philadelphia, southeastern Pennsylvania, and the state as a whole. Keep an eye out tomorrow for an entry about another one and some general reflection on the whirlwind that was ISTE 2011. And in the meantime, check out Mary Ann Zehr's awesome coverage of ELLs on her Learning the Language blog.

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