Don’t Miss the Bus!

Regardless of how you’re keeping track, the 21st Century is almost one-tenth over. Remember all the hoopla for the new millennium? Can you believe that was 10 years ago? An entire decade? We were worried about what the “millennium bug” was going to do to our computer systems, and educators were being encouraged to help students develop “21st Century skills.” Well, a decade pretty much places us into that new century. Are we there yet?

My November TechTips article explored the 21st Century theme from a broad perspective, and I’m glad to say I received some great feedback! Some asked me to “just tell us how to do it,” with “it” being technology. Others wanted to know more about “just what these 21st Century Skills are.” Over the next few months I hope to provide some more specific strategies to help world language teachers not just get ready for the 21st Century but put them square in the driver’s seat in their 21st Century classrooms. We’re already there, after all. That bus may be on the road, but there’s still time to get aboard. I’ll explore some of the “its” but also have contacted several exemplary teachers whose stories I hope to share in subsequent articles. If you know of some additional exemplary teachers, please contact me. I’d love to talk with them.

“It” Is All About Learning

I get the “just show me how to do it” response a lot in my line of work, and I have to admit I’ve been guilty of saying it, at least in the past. I sympathize but want to shift that line of thinking just a bit. As I’ve mentioned, the “it” that most people want me to tell them about is technology, whether a laptop, a podcast, or some other application. They want me to tell them which buttons to press, which menus to use, which steps to follow, but technology varies, and it all changes so quickly.

I recently developed a workshop for a school that had just gotten new laptops running Windows 7, so I upgraded to that operating system and created some step-by-step handouts with screenshots from the latest version of Microsoft Office. What I didn’t know was that they didn’t have the latest version of Office, just Windows. My handouts didn’t look like their screens or have the same steps. What to do?

This is a pretty common occurrence in technology, actually. Trying to tell people how to complete a task in common software, like Microsoft Office, varies depending on which computer you have, the version of the operating system on that computer, and the version of the software. In a single workshop I can have Macs and PCs, two or three different versions of either operating system, and a similar range of application versions on each. All of these differences change the steps to follow. What I do—or try to do—is to focus on the learning, not the technology.

In this case, I took an activity like inserting an image into a document and I turned it around on them. I showed them some common places to find images. I demonstrated how I would insert an image on my computer, highlighting some common commands or menus to look for. We even talked about when and why to insert an image. Then, I told them to work together. They had to figure out how it worked on their computer and then share it with the rest of us. They could go online and find tutorials or ask me for help, but mostly they shared with each other. We revised the handout together which they could then use with students or other teachers in their schools. I got new handouts out of the deal, too.

That’s a simple—and true—story of 21st Century skills in action. It also demonstrates shifting the focus from teacher-directed to student-centered instruction. Instead of telling them what to do, walking through a handout step-by-step, ending up with cookie cutter products that all looked the same, my teachers had a very real-world problem to solve. They were going to have to teach these skills to other teachers in their district after I left! It was an authentic problem that required them to do a little critical thinking along with communication and collaboration. And some of their results were more creative than my solution, including one who posted her handout to her blog.

Beyond the Handout

Moving from teacher-directed to student-centered instruction can be a hard shift if you’ve never been given autonomy as a student. I started out teaching the way I was taught, and probably so did you. But just like my handout story above, you can take small steps and don’t have to give yourself over to full-scale student autonomy—at least not right away. Digital resources make this easier, because we’ve gotten to a point where there are more high quality materials and applications that are available 24/7. These give you more opportunities to interact with or engage your students in language acquisition in and beyond the classroom.

While sometimes a handout or two may be helpful, I’m encouraging moving beyond relying solely on prescriptive activities in instruction—whether that instruction involves teaching teachers or younger students. Think about when we use our own language skills. Maybe you’re trying to figure out a train schedule in a foreign country, or you’ve been asked to talk with a new parent who doesn’t speak English, or you’re going to chaperone a student group to another country. How often will you have to fill in a blank or answer a multiple-choice question in that setting? Now consider the situations where your students will use their language skills.

As I mentioned last month, it’s not all or nothing. There’s no cosmic switch that will help a teacher magically transport to 21st Century teaching and learning every lesson of every day. And sometimes, you may not want to. Language acquisition, like all content areas, requires foundational skills and knowledge, and sometimes students have to practice those. But we can move to more authentic and relevant instruction for our students, often relying on the many free digital resources available now.

What would I suggest if you wanted to do that? What would I do if I wanted to move to more 21st Century teaching and learning? Following are a few suggestions.

Set a goal and monitor your effectiveness.
Remember, it is generally understood that teachers progress along a continuum as they learn new technologies. One of the best strategies to move forward is to set a periodic target to incorporate technology that promotes 21st Century skills (e.g., creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, or communication and collaboration) until you feel more comfortable and they become second nature. You can start a class discussion list or blog. You might incorporate a weekly podcast, that you or your students create or find. Or have students create newscasts—print, web, or video—in the language they are studying. You may want to conduct one of these activities once a week, or maybe try a longer activity once a month if you have limited technology access. If your students have access to laptops, I’ve seen technology experts recommend once a day.

Use what you have. We don’t all have access to interactive whiteboards or a laptop for every student, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create more authentic learning opportunities that rely on the digital technologies at our disposal. Using one computer a teacher can still create concept maps, digital stories, or explore web resources during whole-class instruction. It can become a student center during small group activities. When relying on a lab, plan ahead and prepare students in during class before getting to the lab, so time is focused on applying language skills and knowledge, not the technology. Technology is not required to create 21st Century teaching and learning, but in this century we use technology for everything from shopping to finding medical breakthroughs. Technology is the way we do things in the 21st Century, so use what you’ve got.

Practice, but you don’t have to be perfect. I know, as a teacher, I want to be the authority and don’t want to look like I didn’t know something in front of my students. But when I visit and interview exemplary technology-using teachers, they all tell me, “I learn from the kids.” All of them. Remember, technology is going to change. I planned a workshop on Delicious, the social-bookmarking website, which I have been using for years. When I got to the workshop, I discovered that Delicious is now owned by Yahoo! and registering was much different than when I had first created my account. You’re the learning expert. Keep the learning goals in mind, and when technology throws a wrench at you, use it as an opportunity to learn along with your students. You’re modeling valuable 21st Century skills when you do.

Find a buddy. You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, research on exemplary technology-using teachers shows that they don’t. These teachers have a network they can rely on to learn new things, bounce off new ideas, and even try new technologies and techniques with. It’s nice when your buddies are in your own school, but with technologies like webconferencing and web-based resources, including those from the NCLRC, you can find a buddy around the block or across the globe. You can communicate through webconferencing (e.g., iChat, ooVoo, or Skype), jointly create documents (e.g., using GoogleDocs,, or, and share your results (e.g., creating a podcast with Audacity or GarageBand or even uploading a video to YouTube or TeacherTube).

Technology Tip: Getting Your Act Together

In an effort to comply more with the “just show me how to do it” requests, I want to offer this real, bonafide technology tip. In the 21st Century, we have to deal with a lot of information, and now a lot of that information is found on the web. It can be hard to sort, store, and find when you need it. In order to deal with that information, I encourage you to set the goal of using a social bookmarking service, if you are not already doing so. It should help you get started in moving up the continuum.

Many of us are used to bookmarking information on our own computers, but what happens when we have to use a different one, or we buy a new computer? Yes, you can transfer bookmarks to new computers, but a more useful solution is to use a social bookmarking service. Essentially, this service allows you to store all of your bookmarks online, so you can get to them any time you want to, from any computer with an Internet connection.

They allow you to create tags, or groupings, so you can organize your bookmarks in different categories. Then you can share them (or not) with others. Coming up with the tagging scheme may be the most complex aspect of using them. You may want to do it by general categories (e.g., travel sites, government-sponsored resources, language practice, etc.) or organize them by lessons or units. This latter arrangement will take more planning and is probably something you might accomplish over time.

In homage to 21st Century skills (which encourage you to be creative, solve problems, incorporate critical thinking, and communicate and collaborate), I’m not going to tell you how to do it step by step. Each site contains tutorials and answers to frequently asked questions that provide that information. There are three social bookmarking services I know of, two that I use routinely and one that I have read reviews of that seems to be promising. You can decide which one works best for you, but I encourage you to use one of these free services to organize information for your language instruction and to model 21st Century skills for your students. Already use one? Be a buddy and help someone out who doesn’t, or check into one of the other ones. They may offer functionality you didn’t know about.

Social bookmarking services:

  • Delicious ( One of the earliest bookmarking sites with an easy-to-use toolbar you can add to your web browser. You do have to create or use a Yahoo! account for this service. Unfortunately, if you have more than one Yahoo! account, you’ll have to switch back and forth, which is cumbersome. This is my problem because I have a Yahoo! personal e-mail account and one I created just for trainings.
  • Diigo ( Another easy-to-use service that has really ramped up its social networking aspect. It also allows you to annotate websites, so you can highlight the most important information on the site for your students. There is an educator version ( that allows you to share your bookmarks with a class and does not require students to have an e-mail account. Unfortunately, because it does have this social networking aspect, which I think can be pretty useful, you may have to get it unblocked on some school networks.
  • iCyte ( I have only read about this service and viewed some of the tutorials, so I admit I’m not an expert on this one, but maybe you are and can let me know how you use it better. iCyte claims to be more than a bookmarking site, but both Delicious and Diigo are constantly evolving, so if you find a feature you like on one, chances are it will be on one of the others—if not now, then soon. Like the others, it appears to be very easy to use, allows you to annotate, and you can install the iCyte toolbar on your favorite web browser.

Creating and maintaining a social bookmarking site is a good way to get started with moving along the continuum towards more 21st Century teaching and learning, and it will help you organize all the information you collect, from the NCLRC and elsewhere. If you’d like to see one in action, please feel free to review the sites I maintain at the links below. If you do need some more help to learn more about social bookmarking, want to suggest additional topics, or just send some feedback, please feel free to contact me. I appreciate all the advice I’ve received.

My Delicious account:
My Diigo account: