One of the best memories that I have from this year's TESOL Seattle conference was Ronald Carter's talk on language and creativity. I had always considered reading literature to be an essential part of language learning, mostly because I always held a personal belief that extensive reading not only helps in building learners' vocabulary but also allows the language learner to see how certain grammatical structures (e.g., verb tenses) are used in contexts. It always seemed to me more logical to try understanding grammar while reading stories rather than by looking at the context-deprived examples in grammar books (e.g., "The sun always rises in the east/The water boils at 100 degrees Celsius." - almost EVERY student stubbornly recites this memorized, context-deprived example when talking about the use of the present tense.)
Literature not only provided context for learning vocabulary or grammar; engaging with literary texts of various genre was also, I had always believed, a way to learn about cultural and social issues and life in general. Ron Carter not only strengthened this conviction, but also provided me with a new purpose for which literature could be used in a second language classroom: creativity.
Although Carter primarily emphasized creativity in its very linguistic sense - the idea of creating new linguistic forms while writing or speaking - he also indicated that creativity should be an integral part of language learning. Why would this be important? Are we creative when we teach language? What is creativity in the context of second language acquisition? Do we encourage students to explore their creativity? These were the thoughts storming in my mind and creating quite a creative havoc.
Shortly after that, I began teaching a literature seminar class for lower-intermediate and intermediate level students. At the same time, I came across an opinion piece, "The educated blogger: Using weblogs to promote literacy in the classroom," written by David Huffaker (2004), in which he makes a case for using blogs to promote literacy skills in the classroom through storytelling. What Huffaker emphasizes is that "Telling stories remains important from childhood to adulthood because stories allow people to express experiences and feelings in an engaging way, help them to understand the world around them, and develop and sustain peer relationships (Huffaker, 2004, p. 96). In his discussion, he also emphasizes that teaching the more traditional literacies (reading & writing) is not sufficient any more. By arguing that the verbal literacies (reading and writing) need to be combined with digital fluency, which, as he explains, is "a type of literacy (which) refers to the ways people become comfortable using technology as they would any other natural language (93)", he makes a point of bringing us to the realities of the 21st century learning. Huffaker argues that blogs are a perfect medium that provide the opportunity to develop verbal literacies through storytelling and digital fluency through students' engagement with technological tools.
Building on Carter's ideas of literature and creativity and on Huffaker's argument for developing the two literacies, I decided to engage my students in a new assignment: digital storytelling. I paired up students from two different countries to work together on finding and retelling two folk tales, one from each country, in English. The additional twist was that both folk tales had to have the same or a similar message. The final presentation of this assignment consisted of two parts: each group was asked to present orally the folk tales in class with PowerPoint slides illustrating the story line and to prepare a digital recording of the folk tale using the slides, an MP3 recording, and a movie making application, JumpCut, to pull it all together.
This first folk tale is from China, and it was retold by Maggie. The message: Nothing is impossible.
This second folk tale is from Korea, and it was retold by Seon. The message: The good always wins over evil.
From the perspective of a linguistic progress, the goal of this assignment was to create a series of scaffolding exercises through which students would be able to attain a higher proficiency level in English. This occurred at various points:
- students needed to engage in oral exchanges and negotiations to decide which folktales they were going to present together,
- they needed to summarize and explain the meaning of their folktale to their teammate,
- and they needed to simplify the story and put together an oral class presentation in which they retold the tales and explained the common thread between them.
From a pure second language acquisition stance, this process was extensive and sufficient enough to help the learners increase their proficiency level and, being successful in this regard, could have been left at that. Unfortunately, that would have left the students without much opportunity to develop other skills and proficiencies.
Developing both creativity and digital fluency, in addition to developing verbal literacies, are essential elements that language learners need to explore and develop while learning a second language. This, in my view, can help transform them into well-rounded individuals who will be able to function effectively in their new linguistic environment. As Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel wrote, in the 1970s, "reading and writing were seen as essential tools for learning to occur, and as vehicles for accessing and communicating meanings via printed texts" (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003, p. 4). In 2007, accessing and communicating meanings goes way beyond printed texts, and, because of that, it's absolutely essential to bring these new literacies into the second language learning as well.