Bridging the Gap

Bringing technology into the ELA classroom

11/20/2009  |  JENNAH WATTERS

Alan Sitomer teaches English at Lynwood High School in Lynwood, Calif. The school has a dropout rate of approximately 12 percent and is over 99 percent minority. Over 50 percent of its students are considered economically disadvantaged. Class sizes have ballooned and now average 25 students per class.And yet, the school’s test scores have steadily climbed since 2003, led in part by Sitomer’s classes, whose scores are soaring above even state averages.

California High School Exit Exam data, collected from the California Department of Education, Lynwood High School, and UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, shows that from 2004–2007, Sitomer’s English and Language Arts students at Lynwood High School had at least a 35 percent higher passing rate than other ELA students at his school, and a passing rate at least 25 percent higher than ELA students in the entire state of California. In 2007, 96 percent of Sitomer’s 10th-grade students passed the California High School Exit Exam, and he’s proud that his teaching methods are making a difference.

“If I am most proud of anything, it’s my test scores,” Alan says.

How does he do it? First, he uses texts in his classroom that are relevant to his students — such as acclaimed contemporary novels like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Walter Dean Myers’ Monster to connect students to standards-based lessons. But one of the most effective ways Sitomer reaches his But for Sitomer, it’s important to allow students and engages them in the learn-flexibility for both the students and the ing process beyond the text is through teachers when using technology. Writing is technology. The ELA program he wrote, still at the center of every project in Alan’s

The Alan Sitomer BookJam, includes a large technology component.

“In an almost Pavlovian way, educators have been relying to an exceptionally large degree on the classic ‘essay’ for a few decades now,” says Sitomer. “In the 21st century, students can most certainly write an essay — but they can also compose a podcast. Or create a digital museum. Or make a short movie.”

Composition JamBox — a written guide to bringing multi-media projects into the classroom. In his own classroom and in the BookJam program, Sitomer offers opportunities to move from the written essay to no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech projects, depending on the students’ and teachers’ experience with technology.

“Every composition offered inside of The Composition JamBox begins with students thoughtfully, purposefully and deeply writing, adds Sitomer. “The point is non-negotiable. Strong writing leads to strong projects.” For each essay project, students in Sitomer’s class can choose to complete a written essay, compose and share a speech, make a podcast, construct a poster board or slide-show, stage a performance or create a film. Depending on the particular project and the student, there are vast possibilities.

“It’s not that the written essay is being replaced. It’s that the written essay now has peers, each with its own requisite skill set,” said Sitomer. Students are not only working on ELA core standards, but also digital literacy and technology skills — all indispensible in today’s world.

And students are latching on to Sitomer’s projects, as evidenced by his excellent test scores and enthusiastic students.

“All I can say is this stuff works. And it’s not rocket science, says Sitomer. “Kids are kids, and when you can get them to participate in their own education, the sky is the limit.”

Look at some of Sitomer’s students’ best work at the BookJam’s social network site,

Sitomer also reminds educators that if you’re just starting to use technology with your students, there’s no reason to be intimidated. Many students will want to dive right in to areas they’re familiar with, but teachers should be sure to outline parameters and take time to ensure expectations are clear. You may be surprised to find out how much students already know, and they’ll be excited to apply their skills. Some students may still feel more comfortable writing a classic essay, but you’ll see other students stand out when making a film, producing a podcast, or creating a website — students who couldn’t fully express themselves on paper, but whose creativity and understanding will shine when given other mediums of expression.

Jennah Watters is part of Alan Sitomer’s BookJam team. For more information on The Alan Sitomer BookJam, visit or join the teacher network at http://thebookjam.
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