National Writing Project

Book Review: Ten Easy Ways to Use Technology in the English Classroom

By: Cheryl Wozniak
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Ten Easy Ways to Use Technology in the English Classroom offers techniques for using video, television, movies, and the Internet to present material in a way that engages and makes more sense to contemporary students.

 

Heinemann, 2003. $15; 128 pages.
ISBN 0-325-00547-8
"Can't you just teach me something I can use in my classroom tomorrow?" So goes the cry not only from the middle and high school English teachers enrolled in Hilve Firek's technology class, but also from ourselves as we search for practical ways to improve our classroom instruction. Hilve Firek's Ten Easy Ways to Use Technology in the English Classroom offers readers that and more. Whether you are technologically minded or technologically challenged, one thing is certain: you cannot read Firek's book without feeling its impact on your teaching, almost immediately.

Take me, for example. It was a lazy Saturday morning and I had hardly begun reading the first chapter when I was inspired to open my laptop and explore some of Firek's ideas. By noon I had listened to a commentary about the death of Pope John Paul II on the National Public Radio website, www.npr.org; learned of a teen poetry slam in my area; joined an organization called Teachers Without Borders; listened to the voices of everyday Americans sharing stories about September 11; and planned a lesson on using technology in my reading/writing workshop for that Monday. I would have my students find and access one audio work to supplement their research on a historical figure. Although it was just the first step in Firek's series of lessons on creating audio theatre, it was a simple yet meaningful way for me to bring technology into what was already happening in my classroom. Not bad for one morning's work and only fourteen pages of reading.

And the results? One student said it helped to listen to a report on Frederick Douglass because it reinforced what he had learned from reading. Another, who had been researching Muhammad Ali, was excited when he listened to an interview with Ali's daughter, also a boxer. The following week a student who had been researching Anne Frank told me that—over the weekend—she had listened to an interview with Miep Gies, one of the people who had helped to hide the Frank family. "I was dazzled by all the current information I was hearing," she told me. "I wondered if she was still alive because the interview was dated 2001. I went to askjeeves.com and typed `Is Miep Gies still alive?' and was pleased to hear that she is 96 and still kicking! I also found out that she receives tons of letters every month and writes back to every one of them! Now I am going to write her myself."

Was my fruitful experience simply luck? I don't think so. Ten Easy Ways will provide language arts teachers (and eventually their students) with tools for using technology that deepen students' understanding of the standards currently taught. To make the job easier, Firek has created a companion website for the book: www.teneasyways.com. Here, readers will find links to websites that Firek recommends, ready-to-copy handouts for students, assessment rubrics, and a forum for communicating with other teachers who are using the book.

An English teacher herself, Firek knows all too well that technology is not the writing teacher's best friend. While most English teachers agree that students as early as third grade should word-process at least some of their writing assignments, they still resist using technology as part of their everyday curriculum. And for good reason—who has the time? With so much content to cover, why add the frills of technology, especially if you don't know as much about technology as your students? Yet I can hear Firek's message reverberating in my mind: It's not about doing something new or using technology just for the sake of using it. It's about taking what we already teach and presenting it in a new light—one that might make sense to more of our students. It's doing what we already do but finding a way to do it even better. What English teacher doesn't advocate this sort of revision?

Let's face it. We live in a media-driven world where our students not only want, but practically expect, to be entertained. I have fought this idea for years, saying to my students: "It's not my job to entertain you; it's my job to teach you." While I still have days when I feel this way, I have come to realize that the audio and visual tools available in today's technology are a curricular gift I can no longer ignore. Luckily, Firek makes using those tools as simple as the title of her book implies.

One of the most appealing features of the book is its easy accessibility. Firek devotes one chapter to each of the ten ways she recommends we integrate technology in our classrooms. What's more, there's no specific sequence you have to follow to proceed through the book. You might choose to begin somewhere in the first four chapters, which deal with mediums that most classroom teachers are already comfortable with—audio, video, television, and movies. Or you could begin with chapter five or six, which focus on two familiar computer applications—email and word processing. The more tech-savvy teacher might skip to chapters seven through ten and explore less-familiar computer areas such as WebQuest, concept-mapping software, Web design, and PowerPoint. There is no right way to navigate; you need only open the book and explore. From then on, it's almost contagious. The more comfortable you become using technology, the more you will return to Firek's book for ideas.

Another key benefit to this book is its simple, step-by-step guide to the practical application of each form of technology. Each chapter begins with an overview of the topic, then outlines the steps for completing a project, and includes a teacher or student testimony on using that mode of technology. You may decide to complete all the steps for the project or simply try one step, as I did when I introduced my students to the NPR website. However you begin, the companion website will serve as a useful tool for you along the way, and you can even send comments to the author from the website's Discussion Area.

As easy as this book makes using technology appear, there is no escaping the technical difficulties every teacher has encountered. Technology can be so frustrating that you find yourself wondering Why bother? Don't look to this book to answer that question or to help you troubleshoot glitches. Firek steers clear of these areas. But the rest of us have to grapple with them. Undoubtedly each of us at one time or another has planned a Web-based lesson only to have the LCD projector blow a bulb. Perhaps you've decided to visit the NPR website and the school server goes on the blink that day, or, as in my case, the audio player on the laptop computers works for only half your students. At times like these you want to throw up your hands and say, "Forget it! Forget the bells and whistles of computers; I'm going back to teaching the way I've always done it."

If you're like me, however, you recognize that the way you've always done it isn't working for all your students; and, just maybe, using technology might reach them in a way that your previous lessons never did. For example, after reading Firek's third chapter, "Television and Short Stories: Building a Bridge," I decided to try her recommendation and use television to build a bridge to storytelling. At the core of constructivist theory is the claim that students learn best when they create new understandings based on what they already know. Given that the average teenager will have viewed more than fifteen thousand hours of television by the time he graduates from high school (Firek, 2003), we can safely say that our students know television, especially the television sitcom. As Firek suggests, I used the thirty-minute sitcom to teach my students the elements of story: characterization, plot, and setting. Although I had worked extensively on these elements with my sixth-graders earlier in the year, it was as if a lightbulb was turned on for some when we compared the elements of story to their sense of story from shows such as Malcolm in the Middle, Full House, and The Simpsons.

I began the lesson with a discussion of plot line and what the writer of a sitcom must accomplish within an episode. I asked students to name the sitcoms they watch regularly and to think about how each episode told a complete story and had an introduction to the characters, the setting, and the main problem, including complications, climax, falling action, and resolution. Within minutes my classroom was buzzing with excitement. The students' energy was contagious and I found myself more enthusiastic about teaching plot than ever before. We then discussed characterization and again I could see that it works to build upon what students know. Their insights into the qualities of a character went deeper than any other discussion we had had all year. The icing on the cake came when I assigned that night's homework: watch a thirty-minute sitcom, take notes on the plot elements, and list the qualities of the main characters.

For the remainder of the week, my students and I continued to discuss story elements. Each day in class we watched a segment of one episode of The Lucy Show, charting each section of the plot line and analyzing Lucy's character and how it influenced the plot. Each night for homework my students watched a sitcom and applied that day's lesson to their viewing. At the end of the week I asked my students to write a response to this question: "How have these lessons affected the way you watch a television sitcom?" I was delighted. One wrote: "Ever since the lessons I catch myself judging the characters' personalities. When I watch a show that I've never seen before, I find myself predicting what is going to happen next. I was so amazed that in every show that I watched, there was a story line with an introduction, conflict, climax, falling point, and resolution. I never noticed all of the problems in the domcoms [domestic comedies] that I usually watch and how they are resolved." Another claimed that because of the lessons, "Every time I watch Full House or Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it's like I have X-ray glasses on; I'm looking through the problems and predictions. I have a better picture in my head of what characters are like in sitcoms and my imagination and predictions are more vivid."

The best part was the way this lesson fit into what I already teach, requiring very little extra work for me. Meanwhile my students had a blast with the lesson, and now some of them are considering writing their own sitcom episodes during writing workshop. A few even hope to cast their classmates as characters in their stories and videotape their shows before the year ends.

And so I ask myself: Is technology simply bells and whistles or can it be a means for teaching particular standards in a way that otherwise might not be as successfully taught? For me, Firek's book clearly shows the latter to be true. Ten Easy Ways to Use Technology in the English Classroom not only demonstrates ways teachers can use technology to teach English standards, it expands your thinking and attitude toward technology in general. Technology can provide students with background knowledge necessary for understanding a difficult text. It can help students explore concepts in all content areas, including English. It leads to inquiry, which is at the core of higher-level thinking. It is also a means for leveling the playing field among students, because the very act of using classroom computers or visiting the computer lab gives some students access to technology they otherwise would not have. Just as we feel obligated to take our students to the library, isn't it our responsibility to provide our students with access to digital literacy?

In the forward to Firek's book, Jeffrey Wilhelm quotes Deborah Brandt, the award-winning author of Literacy in American Lives (2001), as having once told him "technology had little to do with literacy. Now I know that technology has everything to do with literacy, and literacy has everything to do with technology." We can no longer consider ourselves truly literate without an ability to use the tools of technology. While that may not be at all what we bargained for when we became English teachers, it is now our reality. Fortunately for us, Hilve Firek has written a valuable user's manual.

Reference

Brandt, Deborah. 2001. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author Cheryl Wozniak is a teacher-consultant and technology liaison with the Bay Area Writing Project. She was the San Lorenzo Unified School District Teacher of the Year in 2004.

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