Karen's Linguistics Issues, January 2004 | Previous Months

Integrating Digital Cameras into the Language Classroom: A Sample Project

by John Rucynski, Jr,, M.A., New Zealand


Introduction

Like many educators, I initially greeted the inevitable technology revolution in our classrooms with more fear than excitement. Fortunately, by coming to see technology as an element which enhances rather than dominates the classroom, I became a quick convert. Just as there is no best method of teaching language, there is also no one best tool. Technology is just another tool that needs experimentation and action research to gauge its true effectiveness.

One obvious obstacle to employing technology in any classroom is ensuring fair and sufficient student access. Fortunately, I work in an ESL environment in New Zealand, where in close to two years of teaching, I have yet to encounter a student who did not own a digital camera. Although visual imagery is an asset to any language classroom, digital cameras are superior to conventional cameras in the obvious areas of money and time saved on not needing to develop pictures. Spontaneity is something I always strive for in my classroom, and digital cameras contribute to this environment. In this article, I would like to describe step by step a project which combines the good ole story chain activity with the creative enhancement made possible by digital cameras. (I normally work with pre-intermediate to intermediate ESL learners with an average class size of 15, though this activity can easily be modified to fit a variety of classroom settings.)

Like many of the best classroom activities, I stumbled upon this project by accident. Realizing Halloween was fast approaching and I hadn’t covered the topic with my class, I decided to spend what I thought would be a few minutes introducing them to doing a story chain in English. After beginning the story for them, I instructed them that I wanted each student to add a sentence to the story, with the only guideline being that they keep it on a Halloween theme. Impressed with the spontaneous creativity my students suddenly generated, I decided to extend the activity and asked them to break into smaller groups and make their own Halloween stories from scratch. In what is a language teacher’s daydream, the students expanded on my very simple idea and came up with a selection of completely unique and entertaining stories. They pushed me to think further on how to extend the creativity they showed, and my next idea was to ask the students to “illustrate” their stories over the next week and then share them with the other groups. This storytelling project is now the highlight of my term, and helps to convince me that Fanselow (1987) was also referring to “teach” and “teaching” in the statement, “deliberate, conscious attempts to learn are effective partly because we alternate them with unplanned, unconscious moments of learning.”

Steps of the Project

I. Introducing the Concept

Introduce your students to the idea of the story chain. If you have the luxury of a small class, allow everyone to contribute in the example. For larger classes, choose the needed number of volunteers to help illustrate the concept. Just make sure that students understand that everyone must contribute and they must keep some semblance of continuity going in the story.

II. Dividing Into Story Groups

Divide the class into smaller groups of about four, and explain to them that each group is now responsible for making their own chain story. To give the students some guidance, you might want to require a particular theme. When assigning a Halloween story, for example, I told the class that each story must have a villain, a hero, a weapon, and a motive. Since most students will be familiar with American horror movies such as “Friday the 13th,” it is quite easy to explain this concept and vocabulary.

Finally, it is important to stress to the students that the story must take place in their immediate surroundings—their campus, the town they live in, etc.—and the characters must be people they know. (The reasoning for this will be explained later. DO NOT tell the students why at this stage.)

Time given to complete the story is obviously flexible. There will no doubt be occasional frustration from some groups, so reassure the students that coming up with a good idea is the hardest part. I usually set the assignment for homework to allow students to come up with a story they’re happy with. This is also important, as there is a large time investment in this project, so you want students to feel that they want to put more work into their creation.

III. Editing

I take two stages to editing the drafts of the stories: making grammar corrections and embellishing the story with new vocabulary.

I usually conference with each group to go over their grammatical problems. I see this as not just a case of correcting obvious errors, but also considering whether they have used the best tense, whether or not the grammar is accurate. Since they are creating stories, I encourage a lot of usage of the past continuous tense. Additionally, this is an excellent chance to practice complex sentences and time clauses. Since the students will tell the stories in class and their projects will later serve as peripheral learning, I invest a lot of time to ensure that every story contains perfect English.

Since each story has been completely created by the students, I also see this as an excellent chance to use their input to supply them with new vocabulary. After conferencing with each group to ensure that I understand exactly what they want to say in their story, I embellish the story with storytelling devices such as transitions, simple metaphors, and more specific vocabulary. This works well with intermediate learners, as they have sufficient language to express a basic story and then enough vocabulary to usually guess the meaning of new vocabulary I have added. (See appendix for some examples of basic changes I have made. Again, however, stress to the students that these are not necessarily mistakes, but just more advanced ways of expressing their ideas and telling a better story.)

IV. Recording (Optional)

Since all my students are also required to bring handheld tape recorders to class, I like to supply each group with a sample of the story they are going to present. I ask each group to record me or another teacher telling the story, giving them the chance to repeatedly listen for proper intonation and pronunciation.

V. Illustrating

Now comes the fun part. After each group is given back the final draft of their stories, students are required to go through and identify the main scenes. After they have done this, I spring the next part of the assignment on them—they are now to use their digital cameras to “capture” each scene of the story, and then use poster paper to design a visual summary of their creations. Students are not to write the whole story on the paper, but just write key scenes/sentences, add a title, other captions, etc.

Although some might claim it is a cardinal rule to never spring the unexpected on students, I find that designing the stages of the project in this way gives a real-life lesson to the students. There are obstacles to every goal, and students need to employ initiative and teamwork to overcome these obstacles. Additionally, I fret that if students know from the outset that they will need to take pictures of every scene in their story, this might cause them to take a conservative approach and make a simple a story as possible. As long as a supporting environment has been established, I find that my students thrive with an “expect the unexpected” approach I often like to take.

This stage of the project is usually where I see the students’ creativity blossom, as they have to find the best poses to add dramatic or comedic effect to their stories, manipulate the pictures to best add to the overall design, and come up with other necessary props to make a good design. With the added pressure of performing in front of their peers, I have been constantly delighted with the students’ creations.

VI. Presenting/Q&A

To begin with, each group is required to tell their story to the class twice—first without any visuals and second with. Since the pictures are usually the most entertaining aspect of the assignment, I find that if they show the pictures on the first telling this is obviously where all the audience attention lies. To keep the audience engaged, after the first telling, I ask random students comprehension questions and also ask them to summarize what they heard or think they heard. Additionally, I ask the students to jot down any unknown words which they hear, as they will need to ask for clarification later.

With the second telling, students are instructed to show each picture after re-telling the coordinating scene. Making the presenters tell the story twice has two benefits. First, it obviously gives the audience extra listening practice by forcing them to listen twice. By then telling it with the pictures, however, the audience can better understand the context and clarify or confirm meaning.

I tend to also devote a lot of time to a Q&A session for each group. Since the students have usually devoted a lot of time to their projects, I want to give them the necessary “stage” time they deserve. For the first section of Q&A, we focus on vocabulary and comprehension. The audience can ask confirming questions to the presenters, such as “So, he decided to attack them because he was really in love with Sayaka?” Additionally, the presenters must be the teachers for this session and give extra examples to clarify any new vocabulary which comes out of their story. I interrupt only if the students are completely stuck or are giving an explanation that is not correct.

Finally, the audience is required to ask “how” and “why” questions about the creative process of the story. By answering questions such as “Why did you choose Kazu to play the prince?” or “How did you get the president of the college to pose for your picture?” the students can both pass on tips for taking a creative approach to language learning and feel a sense of accomplishment of their product.

Advantages of the Project

Since I consider establishing consistency between our beliefs and actual classroom practices to be one of the biggest but most important challenges facing us at teachers, I would like to state what I find to be some of the advantages of this project. Although this may seem like stating the obvious, it is an important step for those who wish to try this project in their own classroom. Different teachers can use their own beliefs, styles, and skills to further exploit some of advantages I have found. Perhaps more importantly, I also invite you to allow the creativity of your learners to further shape and expand the steps I have taken with this project.

I. Language Reinforcement  

As suggested before, this project is especially good at reinforcing grammatical structures. I use it mostly to expand the practice of different verb tenses, particularly past continuous structures using time clauses. Since the students put so much practice into the stories before performing, it is an excellent way to repeat these complex structures. Additionally, since the posters (with perfect English!), will then be displayed in the classroom, these correct forms are always available for future reference as peripheral learning. Pictures used in textbooks as cues for these sorts of structures are often of questionable quality, hindering the students’ ability to produce the correct form. Furthermore, the main problem with textbook examples is that they lack context. With the accompanying picture and the clear memory of hearing each story in class, the student-produced pictures and sentences are often of greater value. The bonds formed between my students and the unique experiences they have in the classroom are of extreme importance when we consider that “most research indicates that discrete items are more deeply absorbed when they are encountered and reproduced within meaningful contexts.” (Guest, 2003)

II. Meaningful Group Work

As noted above, I have found this project to be of enormous using in creating bonds between my students. I define meaningful group work as work which creates an environment for students to overcome obstacles together, discover the hidden talents of individual students, and make bonds which last throughout and beyond the remainder of the term. Students often struggle with this project and seriously question what I am asking them to do. Once their ideas come together and they produce something of quality, however, they see value in this assignment and feel mutual respect for those that have helped them produce something to call their own. Each student is able to recognize their own contribution and I see it as an assignment which definitely has “value beyond language learning.” (Littlejohn, 1996)

III. Makes Students Responsible For Their Own Learning

Although I supply some guidelines and help to correct and embellish the story, the only limit to these stories is the students’ own imaginations. By creating their own vision of where they want this story to go, they are motivated to acquire the necessary vocabulary to express what they want to say. I usually assign this project about three weeks into the term, and I constantly see it as a turning point in helping my students to realize that they are indeed responsible for their own learning. They get out what they put in. Once they see that this is a much more fun and rewarding way to learn, it is easier for me to “move the students from a role as a ‘consumer’ in the classroom towards a role of ‘producer.’” (Littlejohn, 1997)

IV. Creates an Atmosphere of Playfulness

I don’t care how much of a cliché it is—learning should be fun. It is only when fun is the only goal that learning ceases to be learning. We have great fun with this project, but students are also responsible for editing their work and creating final stories with perfect English. It is through this project that I also hope to convey to my students that my philosophy in the classroom is that the potential monotony of language learning has to be enhanced with a dose of laughter. Educational institutions benefit from an element of playfulness. Since I am almost always asked to be a character in some group’s stories, I always take the time to pose for whatever goofy role my students have felt proper for me. Puzzled students from other classes come to know me as the teacher who has been dragged through the grass, stepped on by fellow staff members, and stabbed in the heart with chopsticks, all for the sake of a good yarn. Hopefully this has added to a sense of curiosity and taught learners that teachers are allowed to be playful too!

V. Integration of Language and Technology

Finally, we are back to where we started. As I have stated, we need not see technology as something that is overtaking our classrooms. Technology is yet another tool that has endless possibilities, but tried and true techniques and activities will never die out. I have always found story chains to be a rich and engaging class activity. With the added convenience of and access to digital cameras, we have a simple example of how we can use technology to enhance rather than replace classroom practices.

Conclusion

To best exploit this proposed project as an integration of language and technology, there is a considerable time investment. I usually use a full two-hour block to introduce the project and give examples and another two-hour block for student presentations. Additionally, students will have to work together in groups outside of class, sometimes on tasks which they consider to have nothing to do with the learning of language. As I have demonstrated, however, the work they will put in and the pressure of performing in front of their peers will help to reinforce the language needed for their story. Furthermore, there are advantages to this project beyond language, and we must remember that “the development of inquiry, initiative, and self-learning are as central as any language we may teach.” (Fanselow, 1987) I believe that this project satisfies all of these values. Additionally, what I have come to prize about this project is that it always begins with groans from the students when they realize what they have to do, but always ends in laughter. In that sense, we not only help our students to learn, but also help them to understand that learning is worth it.


Appendix

Here are some examples of ways I have helped to modify students work to add better transitions, more specific vocabulary, or idiomatic language:

S: She was very scared, so she ran very quickly to the police station.

T: She was terrified, so she ran like the wind to the police station.

S: He was afraid to jump. He waited and waited. Then he wasn’t afraid and jumped.

T: He got cold feet, but he went through with it and jumped. He didn’t chicken out!

S: He tried for a long time, but he couldn’t sleep. He was thinking of the scary story again and again.

T: No matter, how hard he tried, he couldn’t get to sleep. He tossed and turned and couldn’t get the scary story out of his mind.

S: They were standing there. They didn’t see it, but then a scary monster jumped out. They are very scared. They couldn’t move.

T: As they were standing there, the scary monster came out of nowhere. They were petrified.


References

Fanselow, J. (1987). Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching. Addison-Wesley Pub Co.

Guest, M. (2003). “Diverse learners, diverse skills”. The Daily Yomiuri.

Littlejohn, A. (1996). “What is a good task?” English Teaching Professional, Oct. 1996.

Littlejohn. A. (1997). “Making good tasks better”. English Teaching Professional, Issue 3, April 1997.


John Rucynski, Jr. is a roving American who has taught in Japan, Morocco, and New Zealand. His interests include the integration of language and content, such as “Music and Social Change,” a current elective topic he teaches. He received his Master of Arts in Teaching from the School for International Training and is currently a Visiting Lecturer (ESL) at International Pacific College in New Zealand.

 

©John Rucynski, Jr. 2004. All rights reserved.