The Translator

By Lynn Schnaiberg — January 01, 1997 6 min read
A veteran ESL instructor taps technology to break the language barrier.

In her typical no-nonsense style, teacher Rita Hatton pads around her classroom at Freemansburg Elementary School near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in a pair of quilted floral slippers, having cast aside her high-heel pumps earlier in the morning. As she moves among the 3rd graders working at seven computers along a classroom wall, she 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 in a rocking chair on the screen. The black outlines done, she taps a key to make the cloud blue. “Better,” she murmurs to herself, toggling effortlessly on the keyboard. Cristal’s computer drawing goes with a story she wrote: “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 writes his journal entry on an Alpha Smart Pro laptop computer. Hatton helps him transfer his work into a multimedia program so he can illustrate it later on another computer.

When Hatton tells the students to finish up, they flock around one computer, and the teacher 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.”

A 25-year veteran of teaching English as a second language and bilingual education, Hatton uses literature to build her student’s reading, writing, and vocabulary skills. Her classroom is a colorful explosion of words. Books are everywhere—perched on racks, stacked in crates, and displayed on a long counter running 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,” Hatton explains. “I don’t care about technology for technology’s sake. I want it to bring forth reading and writing and expression.”

Freemansburg sits on the outskirts of Bethlehem, a blue-collar community with strong ties to the area’s dying steel industry. About 60 percent of the school’s 400 K-5 students are Hispanic; almost all the others are white. Close to 80 percent are eligible for federal meal


Though Hatton first started using technology in her classroom 10 years ago, she stepped up her reliance when the Bethlehem Area School District abandoned bilingual education several years ago and replaced it with an English immersion program. For Hatton, a native Spanish speaker—she came to the United States from Cuba at age 11—that change meant two things: She would no longer be working solely with Spanish-speaking students, and she would no longer be 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 solely through the computer. The boy is a talented artist and understands a good deal of English, but he is shy and rarely speaks in class. He will, however, talk to a computer equipped with a recording


Hatton taps into a computer and pulls up Yuuhei’s folder. His voice comes out in short, well-enunciated clips, reading a passage he wrote about a trip to the zoo: “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.’' The narrative is accompanied by a picture he drew.

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. As time passes, 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, she doesn’t use computers all the time; sometimes they simply aren’t appropriate. “Technology works for me,” she says. “I don’t work for technology.”

Clearly Hatton is making technology work for her and her students, but 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, a philanthropic arm of the National Education Association, for a project on literacy and the family called “Sharing Our Stories.” The money helped Hatton acquire computers and software, among other things.

The first participants in the SOS project are a small group of at-risk 3rd graders. The children study their family heritage, culture, and traditions and produce a multimedia autobiography. Those students then help other 3rd graders work on the project in their classrooms. The grand finale is a schoolwide family-heritage day at the year’s end.

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

“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.’'

It is Hatton’s view that good teaching makes technology work, not the other way around. “Technology is just one more medium,” she says. “I don’t forget the pencil and paper and easel.” The only thing she has completely given up from her early days as a teacher is the blackboard. Hers is plastered with posters.

Some critics maintain that the computer is an isolating tool, but 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 likes exploring software—teachers may also have to team up to make the best use of their equipment.

After a quarter century in the classroom, Hatton admits that computers have revitalized her interest in teaching. Still, some things never change. “Time is still my biggest limitation,” she says. “And those"—she gestures toward the computers lining the wall—"won’t ever solve that problem.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as The Translator