Samuel L. Jackson, My ESL Students, and Me

from Educators' eZine

What do talking scrambled eggs, a scary sounding monster, a strange-looking monkey, "Snakes on a Plane," and a reflective Elvis Presley all have to do with educational technology?

They are all examples of a new marketing craze called "viral marketing." This new marketing strategy, I believe, along with some specific other opportunities created by the advent of "Web 2.0" and "user-generated content" (I hate "buzz" words!) can be used by K-12 teachers who have minimal computer savvy to help their students learn, along with helping them create educational content on the Internet.

A previous article, "Computers Help New Immigrants Learn English" described Luther Burbank High School's use of computers, both through our school's computer lab and through providing home computers and DSL service, to assist recent immigrant students and their families learn English. Students and families access the Website I call simply "Larry Ferlazzo", which is basically comprised of thousands of categorized links leading to hundreds of thousands of activities.

Other Burbank teachers and I also hoped to have students and family members themselves create content, linked to the Website, that they could develop, refine, and share. Theoretically, it was a great idea. Practically-speaking, however, there were several obstacles to overcome. These problems included having teachers who were very technologically-challenged and didn't really feel they could make the time, nor did they have the interest, in learning many of the "bells and whistles" involved in assisting students to create and upload projects to the Web. In addition, we wanted students to be able to spend minutes, not hours, developing these materials so they could have an immediate sense of accomplishment. Finally, we wanted our students to be able to easily teach their family members at home to create similar content — again, within minutes and not taking hours of instructional time.

And, then, I received a phone call from Samuel L. Jackson telling me to go see his new movie "Snakes on a Plane."

A friend had arranged it via a Website. People could go to the site, answer a series of questions, and then have Samuel Jackson say the message incorporating the answers to the questions. I began to wonder if something like this might be useful to ESL students — a fun activity where they would have to listen, write answers, and then hear the words played back to them. Of course, hearing Samuel Jackson say off-color language advertising an R-rated movie was not appropriate for high school students, but I thought there might be other more useful examples out there.

My search let me to the concept of "viral marketing." In this kind of marketing, potential consumers voluntarily E-mail what are basically product commercials to their friends in a cute or funny package. Many times, these messages are funny videos, but often they are songs, animations, e-Cards, or talking "heads" that include content that is at least partially created by the user. This user-created content is often hosted on the advertiser's server for months or years, and can be accessed through a link.

So we decided to adapt the concept. We have had students write what they had to eat for breakfast that day, and then a Website using a text-to-speech synthesizer had talking scrambled or hard-boiled eggs say it back to them and their friends. Students have selected various monsters saying the Halloween greetings they have composed. Students have also had talking monkeys (advertising an online job-search firm) describe the careers they hope to pursue. Since these sites all have "Send to a Friend" capabilities, all students have to do is E-mail it to me. Their E-mail will contain a URL, which I then link to our Website.

But use of viral marketing does not have to be limited to ESL students. Equally creative sites are available and suitable for social studies (there is a site advertising a world-wide hotel chain that uses a text-to-speech synthesizer so you can send "talking postcards" from different countries) and Language Arts (students can themselves make a commercial advertising the product and learn about persuasive techniques). You can see many of these activities and others I mention in this article at the "Student Work" page on our Website.

Use of these activities, of course, also provides opportunities to initiate discussions with students and their families about the market culture of our society, commercial manipulation, and our market economy. Our teachers believe that if we are going to use these commercial products to enhance reading, writing, speaking, and listening objectives, we must also assist students to critically engage in the world using higher order thinking skills.

There are also many other free sites with a less-obvious marketing focus or with no marketing focus at all. Students can select their favorite paintings in a museum and explain why they chose them; they can make animations with dialogue; they can create medieval tapestries telling epic tales. They can also easily and quickly create their own stories, lay-out their own gardens and describe them, and design their own homes or cities. Students can even use GIS mapping to create maps of neighborhoods showing, and comparing, various demographic information. Again, all these sites come with a "Send to a Friend" feature and are hosted on the Website's server. Equally as important, they are all free.

These kinds of sites are increasing in number exponentially. Educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and advertising agencies are literally creating scores of new viral marketing campaigns each month. Two of the best ways to learn about them are subscribing, at no-cost, to "The Viral Monitor" and to "iMedia Connection"

And, in case you're wondering, even though I might owe him one, I never did go see Samuel Jackson's "Snakes on a Plane."

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English, primarily to English Language Learners, at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, CA. He has a website designed to assist ESL students at