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High Tech Ideas for Low Tech Classrooms

*Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

I frequently meet teachers who want to learn how to use technology and the Internet to improve their lessons and teaching skills, but don’t know how to start. In Japan, where I live, most teachers of young learners have computers and Internet access at home, but very few teach in classrooms with either. If you happen to face similar technological challenges in your teaching environment, here are three simple ways you can use technology to enhance your teaching, even if you don’t have computers or easy Internet access.

Find and create resources to supplement your lessons.

Language teachers use a lot of pictures—for vocabulary cards, for games, and for activities. When I first started teaching (pre-Internet), I kept a huge file of pictures and had stacks of old magazines and catalogs to mine for more pictures. Now, I can do an online search for public domain or Creative Common licensed photos and illustrations as I need them. One of my favorite photo collections is ELTpics on Flickr. Teachers on Twitter contribute photos on a weekly theme, using the hashtag #eltpics and teachers on Facebook share pictures in the ELTPics group. Because it’s a collection by language teachers for language teachers, the images are grouped by themes that most of us cover in our lessons: household objects, animals, appearance, actions, etc. The ELTpics collection also includes images open to multiple interpretations, perfect for generating language or as a starting point for creative writing projects.

Even if you can’t access Internet tools in your classroom, you can use them from home to create materials for use in class. For example, word clouds are a fun way to practice sight reading skills, but take a long time to create from scratch. With Wordle, I can type the results of a class survey or paste the text of a reading passage, click a button, and instantly have a beautiful word cloud to use as a handout for class activities. One of the key features of a word cloud is that frequency determines the size of words. Students can immediately infer the most common responses to a survey, or the main idea of a reading. The default setting on Wordle is to arrange words vertically as well as horizontally, to use color in the design and to eliminate common words. If I adjust the settings so that all the words are horizontal and black and white, I can reinforce grammar by asking students to use different colors to identify parts of speech. If I include the common words, they dominate the cloud, making it easy for students to see which words are the most important to learn how to read.

Create and share student projects.

Creating digital projects without Internet in class requires another step or two, but is worth the extra effort. Somehow, turning a writing project into a digital book motivates my students to revise and edit without complaint.A microphone turns speaking practice into rehearsal, and the option of re-recording until students are satisfied with the results means that the repetition is self-motivated rather than teacher-directed.

Presentation software programs like Power Point or Keynote make it easy to create digital stories offline. Begin by having students look at a series of related images, and build language by talking about what is happening in the pictures. Then, have students select the images they want to use and create a story to go along with the pictures. Fluent writers can create and revise their own stories, transitional writers can work on group stories, and the teacher can transcribe the stories for pre-literate students. It’s a simple matter to transfer the images to slides and add text, and then record students reading their stories and embed the sound files on the slides. In slideshow mode, the slides become an audio e-book that can be copied to a DVD to share with parents or converted to a video and shared on YouTube.

Students have just as much fun creating very, very short digital stories to go with single images. The challenge of creating a story in six words allows students to focus on grammar in a fun and meaningful way. Students who don’t see the point of small words like the, a, and is discover that they carry equal weight when counting words, and students become so intent on the task that they don’t realize that they’re strengthening their awareness of word order, parts of speech, and grammar rules as they go from The cat surprised the dog (5 words) to The cat surprised the tricky dog, or from The cat is sleeping with his eyes open (8 words) to He’s sleeping with his eyes open. Eventually, you can create a class e-book of mini stories, with audio. Just as students tried to tell a story in just a few words, you can encourage them to use inflection and emphasis in order to express the entire story as they record themselves.

Connect with other teachers around the world.

Teaching English as a foreign language can be a lonely job. Luckily, there are teacher organizations like NELTA that provide conferences and a chance to network with other teachers. While nothing beats a chance to meet with other teachers face-to-face, it’s not always possible. Online groups give teachers a chance to talk with other teachers every day.

International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi) is dedicated to making excellent professional development opportunities available to any teacher around the world with an Internet connection. iTDi’s philosophy is that all teachers matter, and that teachers learn best when they have a chance to work together in a supportive, nurturing environment. The international iTDi community includes more than 4000 teachers in more over 90 countries, supporting each other across the social online platforms where they connect. iTDi provides reasonably priced paid courses in TESOL teaching skills, English for Teachers, and Advanced Teaching Skills, allowing teachers to receive certification and evaluation and can enhance their teaching portfolio. In August, iTDi organized its first free MOOC for teachers to learn from each other using the online platform WizIQ. The iTDi Summer School MOOC brought together more than 1300 teachers from around the world who were eager to learn in more than 30 online sessions. While the MOOC has finished, the recordings are available to any teacher who chooses to join this vibrant community. The iTDi Blog is another place where teachers learn through active discussions started by articles written by community members, related to weekly themes. The blog archive is a rich resource for teachers who are looking for thought-provoking reading about education and teaching.

Twitter is one of the simplest online platforms, and has become another most valuable resource for teachers who want to learn about new teaching tools and ideas. Since the messages are short (140 characters is the maximum), they’re easy to follow. The conversations on Twitter are live, and since there are teachers on every continent there’s always someone awake when you have a question. It’s like having a 24-hour teacher’s room filled with supportive colleagues.

Every Wednesday, teachers around the globe meet on Twitter to discuss topics related to teaching English as a foreign language. The topics are suggested by teachers, and selected by popular vote. All you need to do to participate is to be on Twitter at 12 noon or 9 pm GMT and follow the hashtag #ELTchat. Chat transcripts and summaries are archived on ELTChat.org, so even if you can’t join the chat you can still benefit from the discussion. #ELTChat is active on Twitter during the rest of the week as well, with teachers sharing resources, tools and useful information. 

Are you ready to begin?

You can get more information about additional online tools and resources for teachers on my wiki, TeachingVillage.net. You can meet other EFL teachers who write about their teaching experiences on my blog, TeachingVillage.org. There’s even a special category about High Tech Ideas for Low Tech Classrooms. If you have found ways to use high tech tools in your own low tech classroom, please consider sharing your experience with other teachers on my blog. Learning from each other is the best part of connecting with each other online!

(* Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto is program director for the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi.pro) and co-author of one of the world’s best-selling English courses for children, Let’s Go (Oxford University Press). She earned her secondary English teaching certificate and her MATESOL degree in the USA, and has taught English and ESL in the US, and EFL in Japan. An EFL teacher and teacher trainer since 1985, she has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the USA and Latin America. Her motto is “Always try new things,” so these days, when she’s not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, you’ll often find her online exploring the potential of social media for professional development. If you’d like to explore with her, you can usually find her on her award winning blog, TeachingVillage.org, her wiki, TeachingVillage.net, on Twitter, or on Facebook.)

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