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Herriman • When kids in Tami Ewell's language arts classes studied "Romeo and Juliet" a middle school rite of passage they didn't just write essays.
They also created Facebook profiles for characters in the play, complete with "likes," photos and interactions with other characters. They had to use direct quotes from the play and show how their characters changed as the plot progressed.
"They end up doing all the same type of analysis but it's in a way they find entertaining and they feel comfortable with," Ewell said.
"It was so much better than an essay," added ninth-grader Ashley Walker of the Facebook assignment. "It's more creative."
Ewell's language arts classes at Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman transcend books and essays into the frontiers of technology and social media. Her inventive approach is part of the reason Ewell was chosen as one of five winners of this year's KUED-The Salt Lake Tribune Teacher Innovation Awards, who will be profiled in a documentary airing at 7 p.m. Thursday on Channel 7.
"A lot of kids come to language arts and they think of it as just reading and writing, and it's not, because language arts is really critical thinking and learning how to see different perspectives and how to express yourself in different means," said Ewell, 33. "I think technology encourages us to do that in a different way."
Ewell's students also express themselves through correspondence with pen pals except few pens are involved. Instead, they chat face to face online and share projects and ideas over the Internet with students in Brazil, Wales and Montana.
"I did pen pals and stuff in fifth grade," said ninth-grader Avery Watt, "but it's so much cooler when you can instant-message someone in class. It's faster and more efficient."
Dozens of Utah teachers use technology to connect with others around the world, but it still isn't common enough, said Rick Gaisford, educational-technology specialist at the Utah State Office of Education.
That, however, may be changing as wireless devices become more reliable and teachers more familiar with tools such as FaceTime and Skype. A number of Utah schools, for example, participate in the Face to Faith program, in which classes in various parts of the world video-conference and chat online about global issues.
"That's one of the things that technology can do really, really well, is to bridge gaps of space and time and culture and make learning interesting and relevant and engaging," Gaisford said. "To realize that there are other people, other cultures and to be able to learn and grow from that, it brings a richness to their education."
Ewell, who met the educators from Brazil and Montana through a teaching fellowship last year, has tried to use the electronic meet-ups to help her kids practice their language-arts skills and learn more about other cultures.
Her students Skyped with the Brazilian teacher, made posters and wrote letters to his class. They've also exchanged videos and poems through Ewell's blog.
"It was cool to see their English improve," said ninth-grader Sydney Glazier, "and see how they were learning."
They've also been working with a fifth-grade class in Wales over blogs, helping with research about the Stuart period and producing picture books for the kids.
And they've been collaborating with Advanced Placement government students in Montana. Ewell's students researched issues in various countries and wrote essays and poems about them. The older students in Montana researched the issues as well, and helped Ewell's students with their essays.
By working with younger students, Ewell's kids get to be mentors, and by working with older ones, they get to be mentees, she said.
"I've always wanted to have my students work with younger or older students," Ewell said, "and technology is the perfect outlet for that."
Plus, she said, it gives her kids an "authentic audience" for their work, rather than just her.
Working with others around the globe helps students develop problem-solving skills and empathy as well.
"It's so important they understand where students are coming from that are outside the U.S.," Ewell said. "Sometimes we get a closed perspective. We only see our own perspective."
On a recent day, Ewell's students had to respond to a prompt: "And then a box appeared."
As a follow-up to the short stories they wrote, they gathered in groups, drew up storyboards and then scattered throughout the school with iPads to film their tales.
They followed Ewell's tips about using multiple angles and filming each scene several times.
Copper Mountain Principal Kim Baker nominated Ewell for the award, saying all the technology she uses helps kids develop their creativity.
"It's a scream," Baker said of watching the kids run around the school filming stories. "They have no idea that they're learning."
Innovation documentary airs Thursday
Five Utah teachers have been selected for KUED-The Salt Lake Tribune Teacher Innovation Awards, which celebrate their creative use of technology in classrooms.
The awards were given in the categories of arts, math, language arts, science and social studies.
The winners were profiled in a continuing Tribune series this week and in a half-hour documentary airing Thursday at 7 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7.