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Administrator Profile

Reaching ELLs With Mobile Devices

This creative media specialist uses MP3 players to engage with students learning English.
Grace Poli and her middle-school students enjoy their upgraded, fifth-generation iPods.

Call it a case of "vertigo." Middle school media specialist Grace Poli was determined to find a way to use technology to help her ELL and special-needs students learn English more quickly. As she watched the Apple ad featuring the U2 song "Vertigo," something clicked.

"I thought, 'This will motivate kids,'" says Poli. After looking into the benefits of music and how audiobooks can help struggling readers, Poli approached her superintendent with a proposal for an after-school iPod program.

Poli needed something special. Union City (N.J.) Schools has a high population of limited-English speakers, many of whom come in to the district with no formal education. Luckily for her, the district is keen on reform. Anthony N. Dragona, school business administrator, originally thought Poli's idea to use iPods was silly. As he learned more, though, he gave her the green light. "Grace had power strips all over the media center to keep her iPods charged. Whenever she downloaded a song, she had to sync it 24 times. That's dedication," he says.

Listen to the Music

"When we worked with the iPods, the students were so engaged," recalls Poli. "I didn't even realize some of the kids could speak until they came to the program, but they listened to songs over and over and quickly started singing."

To teach contractions, she used Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love"; to teach adjectives, she turned to Shania Twain. Students corrected the bad grammar in lyrics in their native languages, discussed the songs' meanings and read lyrics out loud. Poli's activities not only challenged the advanced students but encouraged the beginners.

In addition to music, students listened to audiobooks in their native language and then in English. Poli typed in vocabulary words so they could view the meanings while hearing the stories. She paired students and had them interview each other, using the iPod's voice recorder. They asked questions they pulled from ESL Web sites. "They had to answer in complete sentences," she says. "It was all very hands-on and engaging."

The Results Are In

Within weeks Poli saw an increase in the student's self-esteem. At the end of the year, half of the kids transitioned into English-only classes. Poli says children typically take ESL classes for four to six years. The principal was so pleased he let her start holding iPod classes during the school day.

When her colleagues expressed interest, she showed them how to use the iPod. Teachers and students began using GarageBand and making podcasts and iMovies. "The students gained all sorts of essential skills, such as learning to do citations and bibliographies and finding out about copyright issues."

Spreading Her Gospel

When a new high school opened this year, Dragona asked Poli to be the technology supervisor. "She is probably the most caring, dedicated and inspiring educator that students can share their classroom with," he says. "You want to be able to clone her."

These days, Poli and her two technology coaches hold monthly professional development classes on everything from using Inspiration to identifying the differences between netTrekker and Google. They conduct follow-up workshops and visit classes to see how teachers are integrating their new skills.

In December, she started doing weekly in-service sessions to teach Web 2.0 tools such as social bookmarking. "Teachers need technology models and support. They have it with us," she says.

Based on how he sees the high school teachers responding, Dragona is pleased with his recruit. "When you find a teacher like Grace, you support her requests," he says. "Anything you provide her with, she'll turn it around and make it better for the kids."

Ellen Ullman is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.