Jennifer Nelson

From Wisconsin to Ecuador: Improving language, technology skills and finding new friends

Student Impact:

  • Increased student global awareness through real-time contact with peers in a foreign country
  • Increased student motivation to learn a foreign language through authentic/real-life contact with native speakers
  • Increased confidence in speaking a foreign language through use of technology

Jennifer Nelson was the first to admit that her fourth-grade Spanish curriculum “was kind of dull,” and she knew that even the students who had been learning the language for years often lacked the confidence to use it. Infusing technology into the classroom not only made her students comfortable speaking and writing Spanish, but also led to lasting connections with peers in Ecuador and greater interest among students in sticking with Spanish language study

After setting up online resources about Ecuador for her students to explore and then use in their own multimedia projects, Nelson decided to reach out to a school in the South American country and have her students write their counterparts letters. “Many of them didn’t think they could write an entire letter in Spanish,” she says—but they did, and when the responses arrived from their pen pals, they worked together to translate the letters. “I was so impressed by their detective skills,” Nelson says.

But that was just the beginning. Nelson tapped a site called KidBlog to allow her students to blog back and forth with their Ecuadoran pen pals. “Penpaling is great, but it takes so long to get something back,” she says. “I want them to be able to communicate more quickly.” The next step was arranging a live Skype video session between the two schools, a conversation which was conducted in English and Spanish as the students from both countries excitedly shared their work and key facts about their schools with each other. Nelson says that students’ initial nervousness about conversing in Spanish quickly faded during the video session, which attracted the attention of the local media.

“The biggest excitement was being able to see our pen pals and have them see us,” she says. “But the most significant thing was how my students have gained self-confidence in their Spanish speaking—when students reflected on the process, several wrote that they realized they knew a lot more Spanish than they thought and needed to be more confident.”

As a result, Nelson has modified her assessments to include writing components and make them more rigorous.  Since the district’s high school Spanish students have the opportunity to take a trip to Ecuador, the experience has also served as “a great motivator for the students to continue learning Spanish all the way through high school,” Nelson says.

The biggest challenge involved with the Bringing Everyone Together With Technology project was finding a school in Ecuador interested in working with her class; Nelson wound up talking to other teachers and language professors at universities across Wisconsin before finally making a connection with a teacher in an Ecuadoran school. “The interesting thing was that she was from the United States and had been a sub in my school district,” she says.  Nelson has since connected with teachers in Nicaragua and Spain interested in similar partnerships; other teachers in her district are now making connections of their own.   

Nelson credits the NEA Foundation’s Student Achievement grant with providing her with the impetus to get the project rolling. “I’d wanted to do something like this for a long time, but I’d never even tried Skype,” she says. “The grant made me take the first step forward and go for it.”