Published Online: January 15, 1997

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Freemansburg, Pa.

A veteran ESL teacher mixes literature and technology to help students break through the language barrier.

In her typical no-nonsense style, teacher Rita Hatton pads around her classroom at Freemansburg Elementary School near Bethlehem, Pa., in a pair of quilted floral slippers. She cast aside a pair of high-heel pumps earlier in the morning. As she floats among her 3rd graders, at work at seven computers lining the perimeter of her classroom, the veteran teacher dispenses praise and technical assistance as needed.

But Cristal Rodriguez seems unaware of her teacher's presence as she navigates the mouse on her computer to draw a house, a cloud, and a figure of herself sitting in a rocking chair on the screen. The black outlines done, she taps a key to fill the cloud with blue. "Better," she murmurs to herself as she toggles effortlessly on the keyboard. Cristal's computer drawing accompanies a story she wrote on paper in her journal: "My grandfather made me a rocking chair, and it is really special to me. He gave it to me on my birthday, and he surprised me. I was happy."

Another student is writing his journal entry on an Alpha Smart Pro laptop computer--essentially a keyboard with a small window that serves as a mini monitor. Hatton helps him transfer his work into a multimedia program so he can illustrate his story on another computer later on.

When Hatton tells the students to finish up, they flock around one computer where Hatton reminds them how to save their work. "Remember," she says just as the bell rings, "if you get stuck, 'cancel' gets you out of everything--usually."

As a 25-year veteran of teaching English as a second language and bilingual education, Hatton uses literature to teach students to read, write, and speak in English. Her classroom is a colorful explosion of words. Books are everywhere--perched on racks, stacked in crates, and displayed on a long countertop that runs the length of the room.

But a decade ago, Hatton discovered another effective way to reach her students--through technology. "It helps you seize the moment," she says. "I don't care about technology for technology's sake. I want it to bring forth reading and writing and expression."

Freemansburg Elementary sits on the outskirts of Bethlehem, a largely blue-collar community with roots in a dying steel industry. About 60 percent of the school's 400 students, grades K-5, are Hispanic, almost all the rest are white. Close to 80 percent are eligible for the federal school-meals programs.

Though Hatton first started using technology in the classroom a decade ago, she stepped up her reliance on it when the school district decided to abandon its bilingual-education program several years ago and replace it with an English-immersion program for students with limited English proficiency. For Hatton--a native Spanish speaker who left Cuba at age 11--that meant no longer working with just Spanish-speaking students and no more teaching in Spanish. She needed help, and technology was the answer.

Hatton points to Yuuhei Nomura, a 2nd grader from Japan who communicates at school almost entirely through the computer. The boy is a talented artist and understands a good deal of English but rarely speaks in class. He will, however, talk to the computer's recorder.

Hatton taps into the computer file from her summer school class and pulls up Yuuhei's folder. His voice comes out in short, enunciated clips, narrating the passage he wrote about a school field trip: "Our visit to the zoo. The zoo has a horse and zebra and kangaroo and giraffe and hamster and monkey and rabbit and camel. Yuuhei Nomura." A picture he drew accompanies the narrative.

Rita Hatton has been using books to help her young charges master English for 25 years. Now, she's found another way to reach out—with technology.

This, Hatton says, was the first time Yuuhei ever spoke in class. The computer gave her a rare opportunity to evaluate his oral English skills. And as the year wears on, she'll gather a cumulative record of Yuuhei's language progress on the computer.

"So if you ask me, 'What do you want to remove from your class, books or computers?' I have a hard time," Hatton says, "because I can't really do one without the other." Still, when technology doesn't lend itself to a particular lesson, Hatton says she has no qualms about letting it go. "Technology works for me; I don't work for technology."

Clearly, Hatton is making technology work for her and her students, but, she is quick to note, not without some help. She is the coordinator of a team of Freemansburg teachers that received a grant from the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, the philanthropic arm of the National Education Association, for a project on literacy and the family called "Sharing Our Stories." The money helped bring hardware, software, and technical assistance into Hatton's classroom and beyond.

The first participants in the SOS project are a small group of at-risk 3rd graders. The children are studying their family heritage, culture, and traditions so they can produce a multimedia autobiography in Hatton's class. Those students will then, in turn, help other 3rd graders work on similar projects in their classrooms. The grand finale will be a schoolwide family heritage day at the year's end.

What has also made Hatton's work possible is a school administration and community that have made technology a high priority. In 1992, local voters passed an $8 million bond dedicated to installing at least two computers in every classroom in the 13,000-student district. The school system offers teachers frequent technology-training sessions and interest-free loans to buy computers for home use. It also offers evening courses that teachers can take to earn credit toward a master's degree in educational technology--a degree Hatton earned six years ago from nearby Lehigh University.

"It's been my job to make sure teachers have as much time off as they need to actually do stuff and learn from each other here," says Freemansburg Principal James Bertoni.

As one of the school's designated technology leaders, Hatton is someone teachers turn to for help.

Lori Sivick, a 3rd grade teacher who works with Hatton on the SOS project, says she used to view technology not so much in terms of her students but as a tool for herself, something she could use to keep records and draft tests. "I had a philosophical problem with technology because I don't like the idea of just letting kids go on a computer without a real purpose," Sivick says. "Rita shows how to make it meaningful, how to have real learning."

Hatton's theory on technology is clear: Good teaching is what makes technology works, not the other way around. "Technology is just one more medium. I don't forget the pencil and paper and easel," she says. The only tool she's completely given up from her early days as a teacher is the blackboard. Hers is covered over with posters.

Though some critics charge that the computer is an isolating tool, Hatton believes it has actually brought her closer to her peers. "It's made me come out more," she says. "I can't just close the classroom door anymore because that's not the way things work." And because people are drawn to computers for different reasons--one person likes fiddling with hardware while another prefers mastering new software--teachers may also have to team up to make the best use of their resources, Hatton says.

After a quarter century in the classroom, Hatton says technology has revitalized her interest in teaching. But some things never change.

"Time is still my biggest limitation," she says. She gestures vaguely toward the monitors lining her classroom wall and says matter-of-factly: "And those won't ever solve that problem."


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