How Microsoft Translator empowered our district leaders, students and parents

When Mike Tholfsen, in his purple cape, sat next to me at ISTE 2017 in San Antonio, he  introduced me to the Microsoft Translator app.  I had a visceral reaction. My voice cracked as I said to him, “You don’t know what a game-changer this is going to be for our families.”

I imagined the lines of communication opening up for families even while district translators were unavailable – especially if they spoke languages other than Spanish and Chinese. I severely underestimated the impact that the Translator app would have on district leaders, newcomer students and their parents in one short year, and how it would charge up our plans for family engagement in the upcoming year.

I am aware that other translation tools provide support for translation of text, speech, and images. What sets the Microsoft Translator app apart from the rest, to me, is the conversation feature that allows two-way communication. I can now present information to an audience that speaks multiple languages and complete the communication loop by understanding their feedback and questions in real time. Two-way communication is especially critical to building community and buy-in. Our district, San Lorenzo Unified School District, serves a high-needs population just south of Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here are the easy steps I followed:

  1. Downloaded the Translator app to my personal Android phone
  2. Clicked on the Conversation icon from the main screen
  3. Since I was leading others, I chose to start a conversation. I shared the conversation code with participants (there’s also a QR code you can share).  As the presenter, I pressed the microphone icon and started speaking.


Empowering district leaders


My personal experience: We needed to make parents aware of the importance of having email accounts in the student information system, because we were taking registration online and migrating to a new communication management system. The persuasive and dynamic PTSA president at San Lorenzo High School gave me the opportunity as Director of Technology Integration Services to present this information at two PTSA meetings.

She suggested I introduce the Microsoft Translator because I would not have the support of a translator (most of the parents at the Friday morning meeting spoke Spanish).  I took a mini-lab of retired Nexus 7 tablets that had Translator installed on them (as well as a handful of other apps) to the meeting and offered them to parents who wanted translation support. I started a conversation, shared the code with them, and received a very enthusiastic response to my presentation.

Principal requests: I shared this experience with principals and offered them a pair of tablets to have on hand at the office. Some sites requested a mini-lab for their own parent meetings.

Teachers on Special Assignment (TSAs): Our two TSAs for Technology Integration spread the word to other ELL teachers and TSAs that mini-labs were available for long-term use. The ELL lead teacher at Washington Manor Middle School requested one mini-lab per grade level to support newcomer students.


Empowering newcomer students


The district needs to support a n number of languages that far exceeds our staffing capabilities, and the Translator app provides many of our students with a measure of support that helps them in the initial days and weeks. Most of our core classrooms in grades 1-12 enjoy a 1:1 device-to-student ratio, but many newcomer students find it helpful to be able to take a tablet from class to class, to use alongside their computers and in the halls. ELL teachers have found creative ways of incorporating the Translator app to help students through various stages of English language acquisition.


Empowering parents


The PTSA experience I described previously led to several side conversations and requests to share the Microsoft Translator app at other school PTA meetings and outreach meetings, such as District English Language Advisory Council (DELAC). One parent at the PTSA meeting took me aside and expressed profound appreciation. She said that this app would allow her to communicate with her son’s friends.

The Translator app has served as a gateway to parent involvement and requests for more opportunities for technology workshops for parents. In fact, support for parents’ use of technology was the highest trending idea in our Thought Exchange, when we requested feedback on which ideas to develop our district technology plan.


Next steps


We are excited about carrying the momentum forward in 2018-19. The cornerstone of our Continuous Learning Initiative in 2018-19 is family engagement. We have proposed a menu of seven different student-led family education fairs that we want to co-develop with principals and directors of the Educational Leadership Team.

Special Services has a parent outreach program and they have chosen three of the seven topics: Tech Basics (email, internet access, digital citizenship, Office 365 Education), Supporting Reading with Technology (Microsoft Learning Tools, literature sites, reading resources, etc.), and International Language Fair (destigmatizing English language learning by promoting the learning of multiple languages for all using technology).

Along the same lines, the district hosted a Parent University event with many concurrent sessions and booths on Saturday, September 8. We encouraged the use of the Translator app in order to include as many languages as possible.


Notes on implementation and helpful hints


  • Devices: We have used the Microsoft Translator app on tablets, laptops, and computers. Administrators and parents favor using smart phones.
  • Mini-labs: Each mini-lab consists of 10 retired Nexus 7 tablets with protective cases and a 10-port USB charging hub. They are housed in collapsible rolling carts with lids and loaded into LockNCharge cart baskets in sets of five.
  • Helpful tips: Use presenter mode so you don’t have to keep pressing the speaker button. There is also an option to display conversations in two languages: the organizer’s language and the joiner’s chosen language, which helps with language acquisition.
  • Presentation translator: This PowerPoint add-in provides live translation captions. We are upgrading to Windows 10 this year in order to be able to make Presentation Translator and other Microsoft features available to all users, staff and students alike.

As technology makes the world smaller and ramps up the speed of innovation, it’s important to become global in our thinking and in our reach. Communication, global citizenship, and the ability to speak multiple languages are critical to expanding our potential. While the Translator app fills a need for English Learners and their parents, it can be a catalyst for ALL students in preparing for a rich, global future.

This story was provided by Sam Sakai-Miller, Director, Technology Integration Services, San Lorenzo USD, San Lorenzo CA.

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