The potential value of Out of Eden Learn for English language learners

Ann Rooney teaches at Wilderness School, an all-girls school in Adelaide, Australia. She teaches English as a second language to international students aged 16-17, who come from China. You can read more about Ann’s work on her Edublog The Possibility Post.

I teach a small class consisting of eight students whose English abilities range from intermediate to upper-intermediate levels. Some students have been at Wilderness School since year 9 or 10 but most are new arrivals. They have had English lessons back home in China and have attended a foundation semester in Adelaide before joining in the mainstream classes at senior secondary level. My students are boarders at the school and one student has relatives living in Adelaide. Hence, the school is their ‘family’ and local community. Their challenges are to understand and thrive in an unfamiliar Western education system and social environment.

In this blog post I share how participating in Out of Eden Learn has helped my students to develop cultural awareness and interpersonal language skills, motivated them and provided them with an opportunity to write for an authentic, online audience.

In what ways does a cross-cultural learning environment benefit ELL students?
For my students the Out of Eden Learn cross-cultural learning environment is a perfect fit. Students who are learning English as a second language, especially international students, contend daily with the challenge of ‘fitting in’ with the mainstream Western culture at school. Out of Eden Learn gives them a wider global social group with whom to interact in a cross-cultural situation. For example, in our ELL classes we started the lesson with reading posts and comments from students in our ‘walking party’. Out of Eden Learn organises groups of classes into ‘walking parties’ and we had schools from America, Indonesia and Spain in our group. This cross-cultural environment led to curiosity and inquiry about others and in class, we had lively discussions about different cultures, places and people, about similarities and differences and the perspectives expressed in other students’ photography.

How does slow observation develop interpersonal language skills?
The Out of Eden Learn focus on slow observation opened up creative opportunities for students to express themselves and verbalise their opinions about people and topics through written text, photography and video. This created a context to teach interpersonal language, especially the clause, a crucial resource for observing the world – the basic unit of meaning. My students wanted to express their thoughts about people, places and relationships so we explored the grammar and vocabulary necessary to express attitudes and appreciation of things. Moreover, Paul’s articles are excellent sources to analyse interpersonal language, concepts, sentence structure and vocabulary.

Aspects of Grammar OOEL

Students also developed important reading skills. As an ELL teacher, I am cautious about using journalism due to the idiomatic and descriptive language and presumed knowledge. However, to my happy surprise when we read our first article, Electronic Oasis, my ELL students were so curious that they were quick to infer meaning using the annotated version and then they used Google translate to check any other language queries. I think it is the idea of a person walking and documenting their journey that fascinated my students. The places Paul goes to are new to them and reading his articles led to discussions about language, Paul’s purpose and his audience and the genre of journalismfield, tenor and mode.

How does Out of Eden Learn motivate ELL students to write?
In the footstep activities, students are motivated to communicate by posting photographs and text for other young people to read and comment on. Out of Eden Learn thus creates purpose and an authentic online audience in which students enjoy the commitment of communicating. My students took ownership of their work and gave greater care and attention to their written expression by drafting their writing. In addition to students’ formal drafted posts, I encouraged my students to write more spontaneously in their comments on other students’ posts and to follow the Out of Eden Learn dialogue prompts. Here the Dialogue Toolkit was very useful, especially the sentence starters. One of the dialogue prompts is to make connections and this leads to teaching comparative language and clauses. Writing comments is also a great activity for ELLs to gain confidence in communicating as well as giving a short daily writing activity to build their written skills. Participating in Out of Eden Learn gave the students an audience and hence produced a context to teach digital literacies such as online safety, cultural awareness, being respectful and exploring empathy to understand new perspectives. Having this audience created a real desire, a spark, to communicate and my students wrote at length on their own initiative using the Out of Eden Learn prompts and Paul’s articles.

Reading my students’ posts made me aware of their deep thinking and heart-warming responses to the Out of Eden Learn activities. As a result, I have learnt more about my students and how they see themselves than in any other language activity I have previously done. From the very start of the project, my Chinese girls amazed me with their personal reflections. My students who are so far away from their families have embraced diversity with kindness and empathy and Out of Eden Learn gave them an online platform to learn, connect and express themselves in text and images. I close by sharing the first introductory post by one of my students, Lily. It reflects the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness with which my students approached Out of Eden Learn.


Adelaide, Australia

Hi everyone, my name is Lily. I am an international student from Shanghai, China, who is currently studying in Australia. I am interested in subjects which are science related. My favourite subject is chemistry, as I think it is so systematic and logical. The knowledge is easy to make sense of, and the experiments are so interesting. I also enjoy Mathematics, as when I have finally solved a difficult Math problem, I feel so satisfied with myself. I believe overcoming challenges helps me build my strength.

In my spare time, I am keen on photography. I think it is a miraculous technology, since it can freeze-frame the best impression at the moment. The very first photo I took is a vase with blooming red roses when I was 4 years old. I didn’t get the permission from my parents to use the camera, but for some reason, I turned on the camera curiously. I didn’t know how to delete the photo from the camera at that time, so my mother found the image, and she started to cultivate photography as an interest for me. As I grew older, I got my own camera as a birthday present. I brought it everywhere as one of my closest friends. My camera only records my ordinary life time, but I really enjoy to look at the photos, looking into the past.

My avatar is Homer Simpson, who is one of the main character in the American animated sitcom, The Simpsons. Homer embodies several American working class stereotypes. He is a bald, overweight, clumsy, lazy and heavy drinking person. However, he is essentially a decent man and fiercely devoted to his family. I quite like this fictional character because of his unique personality. The quote on the image ‘No brain, no pain’ is somehow right to stop me from perfectionism.

I would like Paul to pay attention to the stories he heard on the way he walked. I believe that everyone around the world has a story that the world needs to hear. As he walks, he can hear various humanity’s stories from different people. If he could record all these stories in his journal, the collection of human wisdom can be shared all over the world, which is such a meaningful event. Through this process, people can learn from these stories, finding good qualities that are shining on other people’s personality, including forgiveness, courage, kindness, decency and dignity.

After I read the article ‘Electronic Oasis’ by Paul, I realized how significant the electricity is in our daily life. In the past, I used to think that water is the most important thing in the desert. However, the world is actually changing in the way that I have not imagined. Electricity is also important in the countryside regions, instead of water, camels and sheep. Establishing electric oasis in the desert is becoming more and more popular in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia. The government there is continuously expanding its state-run network. It is hopeful that fixed power lines will arrive in the next few years, which is likely to change the lifestyles in Ethiopia.

Amorebieta, Spain

Hi Lily! I am interested in subjects which are science related too. My favourite subject is technical drawing, as I think it’s very relaxing. I enjoy Mathematics like you do as well. I also like photography, but I don’t take such beautiful photos like you do…
Keep enjoying what you do, it’s the best thing!!!!
Best regards from the Basque Country!


  1. Very interesting experience that I would like to experience. However, a question come to my mind and it is *how can we do this with a mixed ability class?

    1. Hi Claudia, thanks for your comment. I also have a mixed ability class and to get everyone involved I pair students up and print Paul’s articles so we can annotate and discuss together. I also use the thinking routine of Think, Pair Share in discussions to build confidence with speaking about Paul’s dispatches. The students’ posts on Out of Eden Learn, benefit a mixed ability class in that there is a wide range of student writing for my students to comment on. The sentence starters that Out of Eden Learn provides help students express themselves. Overall, I have found that student curiosity about other students motivates all students to communicate and with support, write.

  2. Ana delia · · Reply

    I think that out of eden is a really effective and interesting way to learn English and to learn about others culture.

    1. Hi Ana Delia, I agree that it is an interesting way to learn about other cultures. My class cohort consists of Chinese girls aged 15 -16 and it has been a fascinating journey exploring not only the cultures that Paul visits but the cultures of the students with whom they correspond. We have four schools from America in our Walking Party and their students’ migration stories have led to deep discussions. Just yesterday, I had a talk with one of my students about the word ‘slave’ and to make a connection she linked it to England and the Opium Wars. This conversation made me think of how understanding and appreciating other cultures comes from making connections to ideas and historical events such as the history of oppression and migration.

  3. I also am doing this with an intermediate-level ESL class. I would love to read more of Paul’s dispatch’s with my students, but find that they are a bit out of reach for young high schoolers. The philosophical content is, I think, better geared toward older high school students. Anyone else finding this as well?

  4. Hi Dana, and thanks for commenting. Currently, I’m reading Paul’s dispatches with my intermediate-level ESL class of Chinese students aged 15 to 16. Some of the idioms in Paul’s writing are challenging but this leads to discussions about concepts and how journalism uses idioms and extended noun groups to engage their audience in descriptions. By noticing these language features in Paul’s writing, our Out of Eden Learn lessons provide a bridge for understanding journalism and descriptions that are used in other subjects such as biology and physics. I find the text, photographs and videos in Paul’s dispatches are wonderful resources for developing the language for observing and describing and to focus on multimodal meanings. Because Paul’s articles vary in length I often use the shorter ones. Lastly, my students have told me that the accompanying resources in the Stories of Human Migration project have been easier to understand than Paul’s articles. For example, Chimamanda Adichie’s speech on the global migrant crisis in Footstep 3. I hope this helps.

    1. Hi Ann,
      It sounds like you are getting a lot of value out of the Out of Eden Learn project. I really appreciate your examples of ways in which you are using Paul’s missives. I will try the Stories of Human Migration resources. The footstep which involved interviewing a neighbor proved very difficult for some, not all, of my students. Some of my students live in tall apartment buildings in very busy parts of the city. They are very hesitant to talk to even the doorman, and I felt hesitant asking them to talk to the barista at the local Starbucks. What about your Chinese students, were they able to find someone to interview in their neighborhood?
      Thanks so much for your feedback!

  5. Hi Dana, my students interviewed staff and teachers at our school. Because they are boarders, the school is their neighborhood and it provides an option for ESL learners to participate in this footstep. Here is the link to one of my student’s interview.
    The comments from other schools are amazing!
    If you cannot open this page her video is here;

    When given this footstep my students were really excited to tell others about their chosen person and I was surprised by the relationships they have built with people in our school community/neighborhood.

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