Monday, February 20, 2012

Low Hanging Fruit: Why Technology in Our Schools is a Matter of Equity

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by Sean Wheeler

There are things that we could be doing for kids that we are not.  And more importantly, there are things we should be doing for our students that we are not.  I'd like to look at two relatively easy uses of technology that would go a long way towards helping two distinct subgroups of students in my district, and at the same time, would push our staff deeper into adoption of technology as a way to provide equity in our classrooms.

English Language Learners

I work in a district that serves a variety of English language learners.  There are close to twenty-five languages spoken in our district, and many of our students have been in the country for fewer than two years.  Needless to say, they aren't faring very well on our annual state assessment, the Ohio Graduation Test.  This year, our district has identified improving the education of these students as a major goal.  However, after six months of this intense focus, little has changed in our district that would point to any sort of real improvement in how we are working with our English language learners.  Our main ELL teacher, a colleague of mine that I really admire, recently spoke up with a tone of frustration at a staff meeting and asked for any kind of help that we could offer her students.  I started poking around online, and found something that I think could help, but it's going to have to be adopted school-wide, maybe district-wide, and the only way we're going to get that done is to tell the right story to our staff.

One of the problems confronting our ELL students is that they have trouble translating assignments in their core classes (LA, Math, SS, Sci) and conversing with their teacher.  Even if a student manages to translate the assignments and complete the work they miss out on getting good feedback from their teacher due to the language barrier.  We can't have every teacher learn every language spoken in our school and we can't expect students who have been in the country for a very short time to be able to have these detailed learning conversations with their limited English.  But what if we could find a way to take a teacher's worksheet and make it readable by the student in their native language?  What if every student had a translator with them throughout the school day who could help the students get the feedback that they need, as well as allow the students to ask questions and participate in class conversations? Would it help and could we get our district to do it?  Before I get to the answers, I want to examine a different issue with a different subgroup of our students.

Special Education Learners

My district has also identified our special-education learners as a main focus for this year.  Again, this focus is prompted by a perceived need to raise test scores.  I have found that our special educators are a dedicated group that really fights to help their students, but they face a good deal of frustration in enlisting the full support of the rest of our staff in inclusion settings.  As a result of their disability, many of the special-education learners in my classes struggle with organization, long-term memory, and follow-through.  These issues lead towards a learning minefield, a seemingly endless cycle of lost papers, forgotten due dates, and incomplete learning tasks.  Our response to these problems has mainly involved having students organize their backpacks and carry around a planner that gets signed by the teachers.  Of course the planner always winds up lost, but at least we gave it a shot.  

The Low-Hanging Fruit

If we digitized our classrooms, we could go a long way towards helping each of these two groups of students, and help the rest of our student population as well.  In this instance, I'm not saying that teachers need to adopt digital learning and jump to blended-instruction, mastery learning, or problem-based projects.    Though I think all of these would also help, I'm thinking on a much smaller scale and much more about equitable access to teachers and instructional material.  

To go back to our English Language learners, what if we did provide each student with a translator?  I recently checked into the Google Translate and this seems like something that could easily be used to aid in the communication between teacher and student, student and assignment, and involve ELL parents in the process as well.  While several of our students speak languages not currently used in Google Translate, it could really help to serve the majority of our students who do speak languages recognized by the software.  I envision a situation in which students could copy-and-paste assignments into Translate and get them translated into the students' native languages.  Students could compose their responses either in English or their native language, and then copy-and-paste them into Translate for proofreading and/or translation into English.  Teacher comments and student questions could be conducted via email or instant messages with Translatete working on either end to facilitate the conversation.  This is something that can't be done with hand-written or photocopied paper assignments.  Those assignments would need to be scanned into a digital version that could be text-edited, and all assignments would need to be hosted online where students could easily locate them.  Students would also need regular access to the internet in school, and would most benefit from a handheld device (phone, iPod, tablet, netbook, laptop, etc.) with online connectivity.  These are both hurdles, no doubt, but they are not walls.  If we want our ELL students to thrive, and we feel that they deserve access to course materials, the ability to engage in classroom conversations, and to receive meaningful feedback from their teachers, than we can take the step of learning how to work with these digital tools.

Posting all student work and feedback digitally would also work towards helping our special-education students overcome several of the key barriers mentioned earlier.  An assignment isn't lost if it's also located online.  A due date is rarely missed when it is programmed into their digital calendar, complete with weekly, daily, and hourly reminders.  Students rarely forget class content when it is always accessible via a link, a video, or a set of class notes posted online.  If digitizing class content affords equitable access to tools that help our students overcome some of the affects of their disabilities, isn't that what we should be doing?

Every student in my district would benefit from having these tools available as well.  My fourth grader regularly loses the hand-out that holds his daily-journal assignments for the week.  When this happens, my wife and I are at a loss to help, and my son frequently has to stay after school for not doing his journal writing because we couldn't find the assignment.  It sure would help us if we could go online and look up the assignments, just like we do everyday when we go online and decide if our child will pack or buy his lunch by consulting the online lunch menu.  It would be fantastic if our students were not limited to learning from materials printed only in English.  Google Translate has helped me to read Brazilian literary reviews, Arabic-language tweets, and Norwegian song lyrics.  My students can now communicate via blogs and messages that are written in a wide variety of languages and with people who would be otherwise unreachable due to language barriers.  And all we'd have to do is teach teachers to take what they're doing and post it online.  It would open the door to our teaching and learning in a way that would be truly transformative.  I'm pretty sure that even the most technology-challenged of us could take this step in much less time than it's taken the district to do anything else that we've tried.

Eric Sheninger recently spoke at the eTech Ohio conference, and he said something that really hit home with me.  He said, "I'm not looking for buy-in, because I'm not selling anything.  It's an expectation that we should have, that we will do what we can do because it's the right thing to do for students."  I think this is one of those things;  easy to do and for the right reasons.