Bringing 21st Century Skills to Early English Learners
The Internationals Network is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development and support of Internationals High Schools. These small public high schools, in New York City and the San Francisco area, meet the needs of recently arrived immigrant youth from over ninety countries who speak more than fifty-two languages.
In any Internationals School you may find students who would be at the top of another high school’s class rankings were it not for the language barrier. You may also find students who have never so much as held a pencil before. All of these students have been in the United States for less than four years and are still learning the English language.
The challenge facing the Internationals Network Schools is to integrate English language instruction with other content areas, so that students may progress in their studies as they develop their English language skills. The New Learning Institute, partnering with the Internationals Schools over several years, is working to meet that challenge, bringing 21st century skills to their students.
The NLI partnership with the Internationals Network began with a series of professional development workshops in May and June of 2007. Following the same project-based approach the NLI uses in student workshops, the educators learned technology skills in the context of broader educational goals, in this case their need to summarize and publicize the best practices at Internationals Schools.
Dara Ross, a teacher at Brooklyn International High School, created a digital story detailing her use of book making as a teaching method in her classroom. Amy Morgan explained the use of peer group advisories at the International High School at Prospect Heights. Chris Wilson, the media arts teacher at Brooklyn International, was already involved in teaching digital media and animation to his students through projects that were integrated into other curriculum areas. He created a best practices digital story that contained examples of his students’ work.
Subsequent professional development workshops focused on other topics, including introducing International Network staff to the NLI Earth Day Challenge. In all, several dozen educators from schools in the Internationals Network have taken part in an NLI professional development workshop and gone on to help lead classroom residencies for their students.
Teamwork and Self-Expression
In classroom residencies, the hands-on approach of the NLI proved to be a perfect fit with the collaborative, cross-disciplinary teaching methods of the Internationals Schools. For example, students in Internationals Network schools must work at developing teamwork skills, because much of their class work is done in groups of mixed English proficiency. In the same classroom there are students who are brand new to the United States alongside students who have been in the country for up to three years.
In all areas of the curriculum, Internationals Network faculty develop student group assignments that have multiple entry points, allowing students of all abilities to contribute. This approach worked well within the NLI residency as students with different levels of English proficiency were grouped in teams to produce digital stories. Students were able to develop and apply skills regardless of their fluency with English and, at the same time, the process of writing, recording, and editing a digital story was an excellent framework for improving English language skills.
Chris Wilson, the media arts teacher at Brooklyn Internationals High School, developed a digital story project for the NLI residency that asked his 10th grade students to describe themselves in words, images and sound. Each student was asked to answer a set of questions covering his or her experience as an immigrant, including the story of their travels, and their aspirations for their life in the United States. As usual, the NLI team worked with the student groups to help them create, edit and produce their work. This assignment was much more than a chance to learn technology skills. It was an extension and enrichment of the process all Internationals Network students are required to complete. The digital stories created by the students were often moving accounts of their experiences as young immigrants to this country.
“Every student in our school must develop a portfolio through the junior and senior year,” Wilson explains. “It’s a fairly comprehensive document and the students graduate from the school by presenting and defending the document. Part of the portfolio is self-evaluation; I felt this would be a good opportunity to use digital means to tell a story that would capture the students as they are now. When they’re in the 12th grade they can revisit themselves.”
Building Language Through Learning
Working with digital technology in the NLI residencies offered the Internationals Networks students another avenue in which to enrich their language skills while learning core curriculum. At the International School at Lafayette (formerly Kingsborough International High School), teachers asked their students to create digital stories on the theme of the human impact on the environment. Working in teams, students had to choose topics, research, write, and record narration, find or create images, and then edit the assembled elements into a digital story.
For early English learners, creating a narrated digital story meant investigating language in a new way. The knowledge that they were producing media for an audience and not just themselves gave an added urgency to their work. “When they realized that other people would hear them speak,” says (Tiffany), “they began practicing much harder. They really wanted to do a good job.”
The finished stories also had the added advantage of allowing the students to hear their own voices in their new language. This not only gave them important feedback for their language skills, but a sense of pride, accomplishment, and self-expression. This was also true for some students who chose to write and record their narrations in their native tongues. For some students, it was the first time they had heard a recording of themselves in any language.
Technology as a Bridge
Working in partnership with the International Networks schools, the New Learning Institute has used digital technology to provide a bridge for early English learners. Becoming media producers allows these students to overcome and transcend language barriers and find new ways to express themselves.
“Some of our students wrote in Spanish or Creole or another language,” says (Kara). “But even when the audience didn’t understand their words, they could follow the story through the images and music.”
The NLI residencies at the Internationals Network High Schools have been a great success, building digital skills with language and personal development for diverse groups of immigrant students. This is a partnership that continues to create new opportunities for growth and learning for these distinctive educational communities.