The Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Programme is for highly accomplished New Zealand teachers in primary or secondary schooling to participate in an intensive professional development programme in the US. Two awards are granted each year for this four month programme.
Fiona Jeffries is Paraparaumu College Assistant Head of Department of English. She researched the use of digital technology in English classrooms in the US.
My time in Bloomington, Indiana, as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Award for Teachers Programme, has been one of the most incredible opportunities I have had in my life. I feel it has changed me as a person and everything I have experienced has added to my understanding of different cultures, different education systems and that there are many people working together to improve learning for students, both in the US and also around the world.
As part of the programme, I got to choose two classes to take at Indiana University. One class covered Content Area Literacy, teaching ways literacy can be incorporated into all subject areas. The other was on Motivation, Engagement and Critical Thinking, and was a highly interactive course that promoted the 21st century skills of collaboration, cooperative learning, communication and critical thinking.
The other wonderful thing about being part of the Distinguished Award for Teachers Programme was the opportunity to go to professional conferences in the United States. I attended the Indiana State Reading Association Conference in Indianapolis and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference in Maryland. Both were great learning opportunities. Members of staff at Indiana University help by providing information about the grant application process when applying to go to conferences. Having a personal academic adviser at the university was also useful in both deciding on relevant conferences to attend, and also in helping through each step of the process when carrying out the Capstone Project.
During my Fulbright exchange, I was attached to a high school in Bloomington, Indiana where I had a host teacher who was also an English teacher. I had expected to see a lot of digital technology in use, and despite this teacher having a set of iPads in the classroom, they were not used very often. I also visited other classes, including a Reading Comprehension class and an Advanced Placement class. The Advanced Placement class used Google Classroom for storing work and for turning in papers. Again, not a great deal of digital technology was used in these classes as part of the learning process. I went further afield and visited maths classes that used “flipped” learning, whereby students watched video lessons at home and carried out the practice activities at class the next time they met. These maths classes were using digital technology every day, but largely at home.
As I was not seeing what I had expected in the high school I had been allocated, I decided to visit other schools to get a broader sample of ways digital technology was used in the US during English/Language Arts classes. I went to two elementary schools, one middle school and an alternative high school for students who were in their last chance of receiving a formal high school education.
My project was ‘Digital technology and its connection to literacy development in the US’.
The areas I decided to investigate were:
I had five interesting findings as part of this inquiry.
Interesting finding #1. Elementary schools showed a greater uptake of regular iPad use than secondary schools in English Language Arts classes. When visiting elementary schools, iPads were a regular part of the rotational cycle for both maths and English language arts. Students were highly engaged in using apps and programs for their learning. Tools such as Study Island, Front Row, Quizlet, Brain Pop, QuickVoice and more were used. Students were aware of why they were using an app. One student, when reading a poem to herself on Quick Voice, then listening to herself through earplugs, stated that when she listened, if she stumbled over a section, she would know she needed to work on that. She said it helped with her fluency. There were, however, some students in a maths class who were just guessing at answers on an app, rather than using strategies to work out a solution, and this showed the need for direct skill teaching before the app was applied. I also discovered a programme called Read 180 which is put out by Scholastic. It is for students who have the most difficulty in reading. It combines reading using a computer programme, writing activities on the computer, independent reading and small group teacher guided reading. This programme had empirical data that showed growth in literacy for the most struggling of students.
Interesting finding #2. Young Adult Literature classes – CHOICE not TECH makes the difference. An elective English class at the high school allowed students to select from a range of texts to read, and a variety of genres, all on a given topic. There was no pre-assigned text for this class that all students had to complete; they had the choice of a range of ten books. Students used iPads to find book reviews on each of the texts, and gave a reason as to why, or why not, that text would be one they might choose. After this was completed, they would then read the chosen text. They worked in small book-groups to carry out activities on theme, character development, setting etc. This was a very interesting class because most of the students were not active readers before taking this class. Many said they did not read outside of school time. As a result of being in this class, all students read three texts in a semester (18 weeks) and some went on to read more. Literacy development came as a result of freedom of choice rather than the use of digital tools.
Interesting finding #3. Multi-genre responses – A wonderful find at the NCTE Conference was the use of multimodal tools. This approach was a way of having a both/and approach rather than either/or approach to literacy development and was a way of braiding new and old technologies. Basic literacy requires decoding, comprehension and production, and by using digital tools, students are provided with a lot more possibilities of moving beyond just reading a text and writing about it. Starting with an area of interest, and by using a variety of genres, students are able to use graphics and creativity skills to create something that is both auditorily and visually engaging. Students can use sites such as Powtoon, Tumblr, emaze.com, but can also create using something as simple as PowerPoint or Prezi. This is often so engaging for students that it becomes their favourite piece of work.
Interesting finding #4. Project Based Learning Schools. Seeing schools in action that had a problem, or a challenge, at the centre of all learning was a very interesting style of learning. This type of learning fosters a more active learning experience, both inside and outside the classroom. By having a problem at the centre, the curriculum is connected to real-life issues and makes the learning relevant. Students stated that they felt they were being prepared for the modern world. One student stated that in “traditional schools you get a desk, you write from a notebook; we get a table that we share with three other kids and work on projects that benefit us and the community. We use computers a lot more often than other teams.” Not only was the project going to benefit the community, but students were using 21st century skills of collaboration, cooperation, creativity and critical thinking.
Interesting finding #5. Many students found writing more engaging when using a keyboard. Being able to compose, revise and edit using a keyboard was less labour-intensive and more engaging for struggling learners. It kept them engaged and made them persist with their reading and writing activities. Some students who had difficulty with their handwriting found that their success at school increased through being able to type their work. Teachers were actually able to read their work.
Finally, there were different types of technology used outside of school compared to inside of school. In my readings I found that high-achieving students are more likely to use technology for internet-driven research or collaborating online. They are also more likely to have adult involvement or supervision. Low-achieving students were more likely to use digital media for socially-driven activities such as chatting, gaming, surfing celebrities or sports stars. “This does little to shrink the knowledge gap; in fact it exacerbates it. Students need more than access to technology; they need to learn how to apply it strategically to advance their literacy skills” (Warshauer & Matuchniak, 2010).
There are a lot of questions that remain after this inquiry. As the iPad is a relatively new tool (only four years old at the time of writing) there is not a lot of research that provides quantitative data about the difference it makes to literacy development. I did, however, find a lot of anecdotal evidence of the engagement factor that using digital tools has for learning. Upon returning to New Zealand, I have developed a unit that uses multi-modal tools to further develop students understanding of a studied English text. I have provided more choices in texts, rather than assigning texts to a whole class, and have seen the impact this has on engagement, particularly for my dyslexic learners. I have also been fortunate to receive a Fulbright grant to develop the use of audio books alongside written texts in our school.
The Fulbright experience
As a New Zealander, adapting to US culture was very easy. Bloomington is a small city, with wide open spaces and many green areas. It felt like home very quickly (apart from the fact that there is no sea). One thing that took a bit of adapting to was a total reliance on public transport. Being used to easily driving to and from work in New Zealand meant that having to plan in extra time to allow for buses was something to adapt to. We were, however, incredibly fortunate that with the Indiana University bus card, all our public transport in Bloomington was free.
Bloomington offered many cultural activities and the university had many shows that were either free or inexpensive. Performances such as jazz, the Philharmonic Orchestra, ballet, theatre, sporting events such as basketball and football, a Native American Pow-wow were available to us and for such a small city, there was always an interesting activity going on.
I had the wonderful opportunity to share my apartment with a Hindu vegetarian roommate from India, and a Muslim halal-eating roommate from Morocco. If you have been married for a long time and have a family, just be aware that it can be a bit of an adjustment going “flatting” all over again. Adapting to different cultural ways of doing things in my apartment was probably the biggest challenge I faced. Things like types of food, cleaning up after cooking and doing household chores are treated differently by different cultures. For me I had to learn to “chill” a bit.
If there is one way of gaining understanding about different cultures and different ways of life, it is to live with people and this experience has indeed allowed me to ‘take it global’. I have a better awareness of life in each of my roommates’ countries; I have learned that culturally we do things differently, we think differently, we express ourselves in different ways (indirect versus direct) and I have developed patience and understanding through this experience. It was not always easy, and there were issues that arose from different expectations or ways of doing things, however, our global afternoon tea sessions, where we would alternate between drinking Indian chai, Moroccan mint or English black tea, gave us a chance to chat and share. We laughed a lot and I came to feel that my roommates were my family whilst in Bloomington. We still keep in touch regularly.
A final thought for anyone who is thinking of applying for the Fulbright Distinguished Award for Teachers is to have a Kiwi dish that you know how to prepare. I found that as a Kiwi, having the skill of making a pavlova was a hit on the four occasions that I made one. Certainly being able to cook a Kiwi dish is a handy skill to have.