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In the classroom of Burns Park Elementary teacher consultant Jen Barnes, all children of all abilities can take advantage of the latest technology to help them excel.
That means a child with a learning disability who struggles to write even a simple sentence, and a child who has a severe speech impediment, can each use technology to communicate fluently with their peers and teachers.
Technology helps bridge the achievement gap between her students and the general education students, says Barnes.
“Technology is a tool,” she says, “that allows all students to shine.”
Barnes is eager to attend the upcoming Assistive Technology Fall Expo—”Building a Circle of Success: Teachable Moments.” Sponsored by the AAPS Student Intervention & Support Services, the event will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 16 in the Morris Lawrence Building of Washtenaw Community College.
Keynote speaker will be Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, who will share his inspiring personal journey from 4 to 5 p.m. Bernstein, who has been blind since birth, will meet with students for about an hour before his talk.
AAPS is forming initiatives to collaborate between special education, information technology department, and general education, said Raleigh Sadlier, an occupational therapist at the Preschool & Family Center, who also works with other students in the district.
Assistive technology in the district is “emerging,” she says, estimating that it gives students with special needs about 25 percent more access.
“But I know there’s more potential out there, “ she says, “and it will take locating what’s out there, and staff development and sharing, as well as parents developing and sharing.”
Like most of her peers at Clague Middle School, Kaitlin Barrett-Huff says her favorite piece of technology is her cell phone. Kaitlin, who has spinal bifada and uses a wheelchair, says she uses the SnapType app to take a picture of a worksheet, types her answers on the page, and emails it to her teachers. Her laptop is her “virtual binder,” and allows her to use speech-to-text software.
“I type what we’re doing in class on a sticky note (on the computer),” says Kaitlin, 13, who is the first adaptive rower on the Ann Arbor Rowing Team, and is also a member of an adaptive basketball team.
Sadlier says there are many applications available for iPads and iPhones that aren’t available for laptops, which is another reason why smart phones are so valuable to some students. She says students with special needs will have amazing opportunities for employment with the use of technology, and need to learn how to use the technology while they’re in school.
“I’ve been in the schools for 16 years, and I do see that technology is going to improve, and advance all students’ abilities,” says Sadlier.
But she says there is more to be done. Just as everyone benefits from the curb cuts that were originally used for those in wheelchairs, everyone can benefit from a universal design for learning, she said.
“As universal design for learning and more technology is integrated for all students, not to supplant the teacher or reading or things like that, I think this generation will exceed in their abilities,” she says.
The key, she says, is universal access to things such as electronic textbooks that have imbedded definitions for students to look up words they don’t know, or imbedded math problems so students can tailor and supplement their own learning without carrying around heavy backpacks.
Sadlier would like to see more ways for kids to complete homework without having to do pencil and paper tasks if it’s difficult for them; electronic ways of taking notes so students can practice auditory listening and not overwhelmed by the rate they have to take hand-written notes in class; and teachers with more information on their websites, so they can download worksheets from home.
“No more running back to get your assignment in your locker with your mom when she gets home from work, and looking for the nighttime janitor,” she says. “You could just go to your teacher’s website and print off an extra copy at home.”
Jen Barnes uses a variety of technology in her Burns Park classroom, including desktop computers, (Moby Max, RazKids, Co-writer, etc…); iPod Touches that includes 138 recorded books, decoding and math applications; iPads with many applications to suit a variety of needs; and the Ladibug portable document camera now available in every AAPS classroom.
Her intern, Nicole Kleinschmidt, said technology helps her special education students get excited about learning.
The Co:Writer software, for instance, lets students concentrate on the content of their work more than the semantics.
“So we wrote fairy tales, and they were able to worry about the actual fairy tale they were coming up with, rather than, `Am I typing it right? Is it all spelled correctly?'” says Kleinschmidt.
Younger children like to listen to books on the iPods.
“A lot of our kids have processing issues and have a hard time comprehending,” says Kleinschmidt. “They can read it just fine, but when it comes to understanding the story, they get so bogged down to reading the words, they’re not paying attention.”
So being able to listen to a story while following along with the words frees them up to actually understand what they’re hearing, she says.
Student Intervention & Support Services Executive Director Elaine Brown hopes to see many AAPS staff, parents and students at the fall expo, which will feature vendors and exhibit sessions, raffles, refreshments and resources.
“It is crucial for parents, students, and staff to attend the Assistive Technology Expo,” says Brown. “There will be many vendors on site that will provide opportunities for all to ask questions about new technology and what may be a best fit for some identified needs for students.”
And she said everyone will get an opportunity to interact with Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein and hear the dynamic speaker share his story and experiences as a person with a disability.
“He engages the audience,” she says, “on a level that is truly personal and rare.”