Real-Time Technology in Middle School Language Instruction
The challenge of teaching language well is one that is central to the K-12 experience. Web 2.0 provides some tools to help meet that challenge.
The challenge of teaching language well is one that is central to the K-12 experience. Recently, I interviewed a German language middle school teacher from Hoffman Estates, IL. Her name is Mary Ann Dolezal, and she shared with me her uses for Web 2.0 tools in foreign language instruction.
Most language teachers will affirm that teaching a language as a second or foreign language necessarily involves cultural transmission at some level. Language and culture are integrated, they'd argue, and it's impossible to teach one without the other. Additionally, many foreign language teachers are not "authentic" to the language or culture they are teaching; they are teaching students in one language and culture about a language and culture foreign to their present life context. In that kind of situation, the language can often be taught almost vacuously and without the cultural framework necessary to make the language meaningful for the students.
Dolezal said she sees that using Web 2.0 tools for cultural exchange is incredibly beneficial for students in her work as a German language teacher--in particular using the tools to network with students from the target language culture so that her language students can learn both authentic language uses and within a cultural exchange that takes place as a natural flow of the language exchange. Additionally, the nature of communicative language use is conversational exchange, which is also a focus of Web 2.0 tools.
Teaching second or foreign language culture without the authentic flow from actual first language speakers and cultural participants is often contrived and seems artificial for language students. Dolezal described using Web 2.0 tools for students to speak in real-time exchanges, written or audio exchanges in both real and archived format, and also exchanges of cultural nuances and details that are fascinating for language students. Dolezal said, "... [H]earing personal accounts make it real for [United States] students and develop a deeper appreciation for the people and their situation on the other side of the globe."
An example of this from my own experience was an English lesson in which several teachers from my teacher education class at a university where I taught were conducting with a class of 30 eighth-grade students in a school in southern China using Skype (free Internet calling software) and NetMeeting (now Windows Meeting Space). One interesting exchange was when one of the teachers tried to encourage the Chinese students by exclaiming the following idiom, "Kiss your brains!" Of course, this not only immediately engaged the students but also their language teachers in China, and we began a cultural exchange explaining the idiom and how students in the United States hear that affirmation from their teachers when they respond correctly to a question. In every language lesson we held following that lesson, the Chinese students would exclaim, "Kiss your brains!" when they would respond correctly to a question.
This is not textbook English!
Most language teachers will affirm that idioms are difficult to teach as they are contextualized culturally and require cultural understanding in addition to language knowledge. In this real-time exchange, the culture was immediately and naturally exchanged between the students and the "authentic" language speakers in the United States.
Additional Technology Uses
Dolezal also suggested that using LCD projectors and Smart Boards in middle school classrooms enables spontaneous and ongoing use of Internet resources in every class. This interactive technology also provides rich visual and numerous examples to supplement teaching, "... helping to engage students and focus attention," she said. The technology can also capture and distribute language exchanges that students can practice on their own time and at their own pace, thus enhancing their language development.
The main challenges to these uses are, in Dolezal's opinion, the cost of the equipment and technical support for network connections. Dolezal stressed that without adequate and efficient technical support teachers will not be encouraged to use the technology and will become easily discouraged with lack of performance. Ultimately, this also confuses students and makes them think that the technology is only a distraction or unnecessary hassle.
While using instructional technology may differ according to subject or discipline, what is central is the mindset of the instructor to innovate, explore, and learn.
While there may be technology specific to the discipline area, most teachers who use technology to interact with their students, communicate information, deliver course material, and support collaboration report that each of these can happen more efficiently when using technology. That is, while teachers have always been concerned with encouraging students to learn, encouraging discussion and dialog, now, with new and emerging technology, students can take control of these processes for themselves and use them far beyond the immediate confines of each course. This also means that students are learning and developing skills that will benefit them as they continue to learn and become active and successful professionals and academicians.