(a rough draft of what was actually said, in Santiago and Santo Domingo, in closing plenaries of the Annual Conference for Teachers of English, June 9, and June 12, see note).
Digital fluency and the role of the teacher
Welcome to the Annual Conference for Teachers of English; I want to say first that I've had a great time here in the Dominican Republic; I've especially enjoyed the food, the people and the music. It's a great place, and you've been really good to me.
I am a high-level writing teacher at CESL at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale; Illinois is the land of Lincoln, who I see is big here, and also the land of Obama, who we're very proud of. I started using weblogs, and getting my students to put their writing on weblogs, many years ago, and I went ahead and integrated technology in many other ways, until just recently I was asked to write a book about Twitter, which I guess puts me in the center of this new technological movement, at least in informal writing. You may have noticed that the explosion in use of the new technologies has caused people to communicate differently, and do things differently than they have in the past, and this is what I'm here to talk about. We are preparing our students for a different world than the one we entered when we first got our jobs. If you would kindly take a few minutes and write your opinions on the 40 questions in front of you, then compare your answers with those of your neighbor; what I'd like to see is whether you have anything you disagree about strongly; what I mean is, when you have a 1, and he or she has a 4; or, the other way around.
Now you might think there's a right answer to some of these; in fact, we're all just teachers, and might very well disagree, even strongly, about some of them. And just because you integrate technology doesn't mean you'll get a free answer to any of them, or get out of justifying what you do in the classroom and elsewhere. I can tell you my opinion, though, starting with 34 to 40; these are all true, very true; technology can do all of these things. But 24 to 33 are also true, or at least true for me; these are the barriers to integrate technology, the things that make it difficult, at least for me. They're almost all true for me. I'm not naturally gifted at it; I have to do extra work to figure out how to fit it into the objectives; I'm not always successful, and because I'm fairly business oriented, I don't do it if it doesn't work in terms of helping my students have better language skills. So I'll be the first to say that getting to the benefits at the bottom of this sheet, you have to go through the middle part, the part where you have the most natural resistance and resistance from the daily rigors of your classroom experience.
But what about the questions at the top? I became a teacher in the communicative era, and communicative practitioners took strong stands on some of these questions. For example, they would disagree strongly with 4, and agree strongly with 5; and then disagree again with 6. After twenty years of teaching, I can tell you that I can live without drilling grammar, but I find it hard to teach English to an adult and not explain it once in awhile; it's just hard not to. But my point is, the communicative theorists felt most strongly about number 1 and number 8; students have to be interested in what they are using English to talk and write about; they have to be involved in things that are very meaningful to them. And that's why I first got interested in technology. If you give today's students a range of issues to discuss, and consistently stick with the ones that light their eyes up, and make them interested every time, technology will be there consistently, because they know it will be important to their future; they know that they have a lot to learn in this area, and that it's important. So many of these are very true, and they lead you straight into technology. We must prepare them for the future; we must let them use the tools they will need in their future.
So the communicative theorists were right about many things. You should make sure your students are interested in whatever they are studying; you should help them with strategies for becoming better learners, and help them become more independent. But here was the core of the communicative philosophy: you must teach them English in the environment that they will use it in. If we look carefully at that maxim, that is what has changed in the time that I became a teacher and now. They will almost certainly be using English in a technological environment, and that's why you have to go there. You can no longer call yourself communicative, and separate their English from the environment they will use it in. And, they were wrong about one other thing: they assumed that the oral language was the center, the heart of the language, and that all written words represented spoken words, which then, at the center, represented concepts. Oral language, conversational language, is at the center, that's why so many languages are oral and only a few were ever written. But I think that the world of technology may prove this wrong also. Just because, historically, oral language came before written language, doesn't mean it's always that way, or that all written language has to come from oral language. Some chat symbols have no spoken root, and deaf language is the same. And the world is shifting toward these written symbols, which is trouble for those of you who agreed with question 2 instead of question 3.
Now let's get back to integrating technology. I got my start, as I said, with writing, because I'm a writing teacher, and I knew it was good for my writers to put things online. But I also listen carefully to my students, and talk about subjects that they are interested in. One of those subjects is the prevalence of YouTube, the ability of people to make movies and post them, and the unbelievable time people spend just watching these clips. Even now I have trouble actually getting important information from video clips, but, I decided that if my students are all over YouTube, I would figure it out and use it too. So one day I asked them if they could make a movie from their cameras, right now, in class, and upload it and they said they could. Another class wanted to do that same thing, same day, and we did; we made two. Later on I started to figure out how to make grammar movies, or movies that actually had a role in teaching them something. That's because, if it's just for fun, you can do it during break, or after school, but if you know it's part of their learning, you do it during class time. I never forced anyone to act in a movie, and wouldn't let my students do that to each other; in one of these movies you can see them try to push each other to act but I always intervened in favor of the shy person. I'd insist on some participation but not acting if they didn't want that. Of the two movies shown here, one is the one that the TOEFL class made; it was just for fun, done after class, not intended to teach anything. The second one (still private but may not remain that way) was done after a hard semester of studying facial gestures and body language from a textbook that insisted that it was a science and tested people in formal psychological tests. So we decided we'd see if the things the book said were true, and this helped students connect to the topic as a real thing. The book said our facial gestures could show twelve different emotions, and it listed them, so we put them on cardboard which you'll see. To make a long story short, we proved that they could, and also that it's very difficult to separate facial gestures from body language. Enjoy the movies:
In Your Face, weblog version
You may not have a computer, or maybe your students don't have access to one. Still, don't forget: you can connect to the world. You can show the world your life and your beautiful island. You can give your students experience with English in every medium- because that's what they need. Thank you.