Empowering Language Learners with Technology

No matter where you teach in the world, the opportunity to work in an immersion or bilingual setting is an extremely unique and rewarding experience. Dora Deboer and I met through the #IMMOOC, an Online Book Study and decided to work in collaboration to write this blog post to share our unique experiences.

Dora is a Bilingual Intervention Specialist at a Title I school in a suburb of North Texas and her school district follows an early exit bilingual program. This means Dora’s students receive initial instruction in Spanish (her students’ first language) then transition into English language instruction as soon as they are ready. I am the Director of Educational Technology and Innovation at Calgary French & International School in Canada. My school follows an immersion educational model to teach French as a second language. This means the students at my school receive their instruction in French from preschool to grade 12.

As we prepared for the #IMMOOC blogging buddy challenge, we learned that we both share the same love for our job! And although our work settings might seemed very different at first, we both encounter some of the same challenges.

One of the biggest challenges working in any bilingual/trilingual setting, is to keep students engaged and excited to learn a new language. Keeping students motivated to learn a language that is not spoken at home or spoken in the community can leave students often feeling frustrated. In addition, some students like Dora’s spanish speaking students can be passive learners and reluctant to participate in language production activities. In my French Immersion setting, students are excited to learn a new language when they are younger, however when they reach upper elementary, they become more reluctant to converse and communicate with their peers in French.

But this “challenge” is also one of the of the reasons we love our jobs so much because it forces us to find new and creative ways to engage students in the learning of a new language. We need to look at our instruction differently in order to design opportunities where our students are motivated to learn a language.

Thanks to having access to various technology tools, there are many ways they can be used to support second language instruction. At Calgary French & International, we use the iPads to create various types of videos, from digital storytelling, to interviews, to small videos clips on the ePortfolio, video is a great way to capture what students are capable of doing in their second language. Furthermore, using video allows the teacher to capture the learning and then share it with the child’s parents, who don’t always have the opportunity to see what their child is capable of doing in the other language. This also helps strengthening home-school connections because it creates a bird’s eye view into the classroom.

Another benefit of using videos is that it allows students to listen to themselves and provide opportunities to self-reflect, which empowers them to take ownership of their learning by setting personal goals. The reaction of watching students listen to themselves for the first time with their foreign language is priceless.


The Aurasma App allows students to get involved in critiquing each other’s language production and learning how to provide specific feedback. This App gives students the opportunity to become active participants in the learning process because the teachers is not longer the only one assessing students. Students learn to be critical listeners!

ChatterPix is another great tool to encourage oral language production. This provides an opportunity for students to practice the target language in a fun and creative way. Students love going around the classroom to take pictures of newly learned vocabulary and then recording themselves practicing their new words. This is perfect for reducing students’ speaking anxiety since it allows them to give voice to any object. Another favorite tool in grade 1 for learning new vocabulary is PicCollage. Below are some pictures the students created while learning the French terminology for different emotions.
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Technology tools like the ones described above can also help level the playing field in the classroom. This is especially the case when working with a language that learners are at different proficiency levels. These tools and many others like it can support and encourage students to develop their second language skills in engaging ways. Teachers can also benefit from incorporating technology into their teaching because it can help personalize instruction to address individual needs.

It is clear to us that technology has the power to transform the way we teach and learn; however, we understand that by just integrating technology in our lessons, we are not harnessing this power. We need to start with the learner and their individual needs, then we need to design lessons where students feel empowered and are active participants in their own learning.

How I embody the 8 characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset!

I believe that in order to be an innovator, you need to demonstrate an innovator’s mindset. During week two of the #IMMOOC discussion, one of the blog prompts was to reflect on these eight characteristics. To do so, I decided to create my own image of how I demonstrate these traits, using Canva, and answered the 8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (Interview Questions) created by George Couros.

As I am in a leadership role, I have slightly reworded some of these interview questions to reflect my day-to-day interaction with educators and students around the school.

1. Empathy – 
Describe your office from the viewpoint of a teacher or student. What would they tell me if I was to walk in?

I actually had a teacher tell me the other week that my office is calm and inviting. Between the pink lights that are up in my office, accompanied by music often playing, and a shelf a student built me as part of their Design & Innovation course that has pink flowers, the teacher explained that this all creates almost a spa ambiance and atmosphere. I was so touched to hear that because I wanted to create a safe space that is a reflection of my personality, but also a comfortable place that teachers and students feel welcome to visit to be able to ask me questions, get advice, discuss project ideas, or even to come ask for help when they need it.

2. Problem-Finders/Solvers – 
a) How do you encourage teachers and students to make an impact both locally and globally? 

I am very lucky to be working in a UNESCO school where at each grade level students are encourage to create partnerships with other schools and to organize and lead a philanthropic initiative.

Here is a list of ideas I shared with the school’s Core Experience representatives to support connecting with classrooms and schools from around the world.

Kidnected World * The Wonderment * Digital Pen Pals * Mystery Skype * The Wonder Guides * Dancing Around the World * Our Global Friendships * Global Read Aloud * Making sense of this world * Flick-It-On! * Peace Day – September 21st * Global School Net * Dot Day – September 15th * iEarn * Travelling Teddy – great for grade 1 * Flat Stanley Project – great for grade 2 * Global Education Conference – lots of great resources * Connected Learning Partnerships * Global Classroom Project * Taking IT global * Connect To Learn – connect classrooms in impoverished communities with classrooms around the world to foster collaborative learning, cross-cultural understanding, and global awareness. * Around the world in 80 schools

I also encouraged the Core Experience school representatives to follow #GlobalEdu on Twitter.

Furthermore, I began teaching a Design & Innovation course that encourages students to think about an invention that could help solve a problem or to work on something that could help make a difference. For example, one of my current students is working on a project to reduce the amount of plastic bags that are being used for shopping in Calgary. She has done a lot of research about other cities that have stopped using plastic bags in their stores and would like to be a part of that change here in Calgary.

b) What are some ways that you help tap into their passions for learning?

I tap into their passions for learning through conversations and relationship building, both with educators and students around the school. Taking the time to show an interest, asking how their weekend was, getting to know what activities outside of school they partake in, and following up after a competition, race, game, performance, and asking how it went. In addition, I try to attend school organized events, and volunteer with sports and the school musical to help build relationships with the students and teachers throughout the school. Furthermore, the goal of the Design & Innovation course that I am teaching, is also to tap into students interests. And one of the first activities I do in this course is to get to know my students and what their interests and passions are.

4. Risk Takers – 
Share a time that you tried something that didn’t work with students. What did you learn from the process?

Just like I teach my students when they print something for the first time with the 3D printer, is that everything doesn’t work perfectly the first time that you try something new. You may have to make small adjustments and try again. Just because it doesn’t work well the first time, don’t give up. Take a step back, reflect, and try again! As my role heavily involves tech integration and using technology, we all know that it is often two steps forward and one step back when using it. It is great when it works and it can get frustrating at times when it doesn’t! What I have learned over time with working with technology is to remain patient. Stop. Take a deep breath and think what are the reasons why this may not be working. I try my best to share this with anyone I work with, students and teachers, so that everyone can learn to be a troubleshooter.

4.  Networked –
a) Outside of teachers and leaders that you have worked with, who is a “current day” educator (or thinker) that has influenced your leadership role? How have you connected with them?

At the moment it is George Couros and all the amazing educators currently participating in the #IMMOOC discussion. I currently connect with George via Twitter through the online Twitter discussions and via private messaging.

b) How have you made connections both locally and globally? 

I am also currently connecting with teachers globally through the online book study #CogCoachStudy. This book study is organized by some leaders at a school in India. We will all be learning together for the next several months and I look forward to advancing my knowledge and skills on cognitive coaching with this group of educators.

c) What does networked mean to you?

Having a network of leaders, coaches, and educators available with a click of a button that I know that I can reach out to with questions and receive suggestions when something comes up, is being networked. This is especially important in my current position, as there is no one else at my school in a similar role. Therefore, it is so important to me that I have a community outside of school that I know I am able to connect with.

d) What opportunities will students and teachers have in your school to make connections outside of it?

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I introduce teachers from my school to other educators with similar interests via Twitter. I also coach and offer PD opportunities in my school to help guide teachers in Twitter chats using common hashtags to be part of a discussion about a topic that interests them. Some of the most recent Twitter chats I have introduced my team to are: #DesignThinking, #Gamification, #IMMOOC, #MinecraftEdu, #Frimm, #GlobalEdu and #flexibleseating. In addition, as previously mentioned, each grade level is encouraged to connect with another school, therefore I am always supporting and working with teachers to help them connect their classroom with other ones.

5. a) Observant – Share a time you were inspired by something outside of education and brought it into the school.

Recently I have begun the Miracle Morning and I often will speak about this or make reference to this when I get asked how do I have time to blog or to be on Social Media all the time. I share and explain that I have built these items into my Miracle Morning routine and it really helps me advance and stay on top of being connected.

b) Where do you find your “best ideas”?

Currently, I find my best ideas on Twitter & Pinterest!

6. Creators –
What have you created from your own learning? What impact did it have on you? Explain opportunities you have developed, or you would develop, for students to “create” to delve deeper into the curriculum. What about outside of the curriculum?

I have recently created a Design & Innovation course that encourages students to design an invention that helps solve a problem. Students work through the Design Cycle, based on the IB MYP Personal Project Design Cycle, that has students work through four steps: Inquiry, Planning, Creation, Reflection. This course is also very similar to what I have read about Genius Hour and Passion Project.

Cycle du projet -Design & Innovation- (1)

7. Resilient – 
Talk about a time that you overcame adversity in your life, either personally or professionally. What did you learn from the experience? How do you model resiliency to students? How do you develop resiliency in your students with varying levels of learning?

What I have learned so far to overcome adversity is to set goals and be determined to reach those goals. Having completed the Strengths Finder 2.0, I discovered that my top strength is achiever, which would most likely explain why I am a very determined individual who successfully reaches any desired objective. Therefore, this is something I constantly try and model for my students and teachers, and I work with them in putting together a realistic plan to help them reach their goals.

8. Reflective –
How do you make time for reflection in your practice? What impact has “reflection” had on your role as a leader? How do you implement reflection time in learning for your students and teachers?

I believe blogging is a way to reflect on your practice and participating in online Twitter discussions, such as #IMMOOC. I am quite impressed by the amount of questions being asked on Twitter chats that provoke reflection. As for the teachers I work with during our one-on-one meetings, I often ask questions to encourage them to reflect on something new they tried. For my students, they are asked to fill out a reflection journal at the end of each Design & Innovation class. Students are also asked to complete a self-evaluation that encourages them to reflect on some of the challenges they were faced with throughout their project. Next steps, in collaboration with the principles, we would like to incorporate reflection as part of something we ask of the teachers to do when they have completed a workshop, seminar or other PD opportunities. Reflection is a very important process of the role of an educator as it helps us improve and allows us to continue to tweak the things we do each day.

Question for you –
How do you demonstrate the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset?

Being a “change agent”

Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.  How are you embracing change to spur  innovation in your own context?

I try to embrace change every day and every way because I see myself as a change agent. Like George, I was also hired into a new position, as Director of Educational Technology & Innovation, to provide support to teachers and to help lead the way in innovating student learning at my school.

When I first started, I was assigned a teacher per grade level in the elementary division, as a “tech rep”, with whom I would meet with weekly to plan and discuss how we could integrate technology into their curriculum. Unfortunately, due to many challenges with technology and the school’s unreliable infrastructure, teachers felt very frustrated and found it hard to take risks in integrating tech into their classroom. Furthermore, most of my one-on-one meeting time turned into providing tech support and help troubleshoot issues, instead of planning.

After building trust in my team, and after several improvements were made to our infrastructure and tech support, I thought it would be a good time to refocus my team and get everyone back on track to invest their time with me on innovating their grade levels. Soon after, I changed their title from tech rep to innovation rep, to better reflect their role. Though we do discuss a lot about tech integration, I remind them that their role is to be a model of how to integrate, not just technology into the classroom, but to look at ways to innovate student learning. I constantly remind them that “Innovation can happen without technology, however technology can be used as a tool to drive innovation.”

The next step for me, in being a change agent for my team and my school was to help create a roadmap to help teachers build tech integration and project-based learning into their classroom. Over the past few months, we have been busy working all together to build our own K-12 EdTech Scope & Sequence.

As a result of having recently completed and updated grade level unit plans, the innovation reps have more easily been able to identify and link age-appropriate technology skills and projects into their curriculum.

Here is where the magic is happening: Because we have put together a scope & sequence and identified what needs to be accomplished at each grade level following the Alberta Ed ICT Learning Outcomes, those that have been more resistant to change and integrating tech into their classroom, have become more accepting that this is part of their curriculum. Also, in order to provide additional support to those that don’t feel as comfortable, my team has offered to go into their classroom and team teach. Furthermore, they have begun to model weekly, during their grade level meetings, a new innovative activity they are doing in their classroom. Little by little, the innovation reps are slowly becoming change agents for their grade level.

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