How wikis, podcasts, and laptops help students with learning disabilities

I am passionate about helping kids with learning disabilities. (I'm not sure the PC word but that's the one I'll use.)

Any teacher can teach a smart kid -- a "smart kid" with regular learning abilities can learn from an inanimate object -- a book. They can teach themselves on the Internet. Teach them and you are knowledgeable about your subject. But it is the child who has challenges -- you are true teacher when you accommodate and reach that child.

I speak from experience. My younger sister was in fifth grade when she was labeled as "slow" and "dumb." She was belittled by classmates and put on the "stupid" track according to her peers. She couldn't spell, couldn't read her own writing, couldn't read her math problems, and was frustrated because her two older sisters had achieved so much academically. She thought she was adopted! She was tested in the 2nd grade and 5th grade and nothing showed up. Then, her sophomore year Mom and Dad had it! They sacrificed and took her to Atlanta Speech where she was tested for two days and viola -- learning disability with spatial processing, dysgraphia , and a few other issues.

My Mom took the recommendations from Atlanta Speech and typed up a list of responsibilities along with our learning lab coordinator, Mrs. Grace Adkins. They had a list of what the classroom teachers would do, what the learning lab would do, my parents, and ultimately my sister.

Let's make a long story short -- after accommodations and my sister "learning how she learned" (and taking notes with a laptop) she went from the bottom third of her class to the top third of her class from the 1st day of her junior year to the last day of her senior year. She graduated 3rd in her class from Brenau University, received a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design in Graphic Arts (Magna Cum Laude), and her MFA from there (Magna Cum Laude Again.) She now works in the Disney Travel Department as a Graphic Design intern designing ads. She couldn't draw sticks in 10th grade. Now, she can draw or paint anything and loves what she does!

She says her turning point was when she realized that she wasn't dumb -- she just learned differently!

I have another friend who was dyslexic and couldn't learn to read. He was taught to read using special accommodations and joint work between his parents, teachers, and the learning lab. He is completing his final residency and received offers of five major fellowships around the country.

But it hit home 2 years a go. My son was a "third grade melt down." I had suspected as early as first grade that he may have had some of the same issues as my sister but it didn't show with our testing locally. We struggled and saved and went to Atlanta Speech for my son. Voila! Yes -- he had some learning disabilities. (We call them learning differences in our house.) We followed the same process as my Mom did -- he's been back on the Honor Roll since the end of fourth grade and is now doing very well in fifth.

What is in common with all of these and how does it relate to new technology?

1 - Each of these students were tested early and effectively.
2 - An action plan was created where the teacher, parents, and learning lab (where our students go for one on one assistance) determined who would do what item.
3 - The child was talked to by the parent during which time they were talked with openly (don't keep kids in the dark). They were told:
a - You are mentally capable of handling the material in class
b - You learn differently and I will teach you how you learn.
c - You will have to work harder to make the same grades as others.
d - We will help you. You are not alone. We have a plan.
e - It is your job to do your part. (You can't push someone up a ladder.)
f - I love you and am here to help you be your best.
4 - The plans were followed, evolved, changed and used throughout their lives even through college.

In the case of my sister and son, one more thing was done that was vital:
5- They were given a way to ask for help that was unobtrusive and didn't call attention to them.

Highlighter for Help!

For my son, it was the highlighter. We selected a highlighter that wasn't used in the class -- red. He had it in is desk bag. When he needed help and didn't understand the directions he took the highlighter out of his desk bag and put it on his desk. That was his secret cue to the teacher, "I'm lost and clueless, I need help. Don't fuss at me for not doing anything -- I'm lost!" It made all the difference!

New Technology - The Laptop!

Here is the exciting part about all of this and where new technology comes in. Let me tell you first what we're doing with my son.

My son has difficulty copying from the board. He also has issues with spelling and punctuation where he has a processing sort of "overload." If he's writing a history paper, for example, he doesn't even see that he's misspelling words or forgetting punctuation. Atlanta Speech recommended a laptop for him to take notes. It took us two years to save and to get his keyboarding up to snuff. (I taught his whole fifth grade class keyboarding and he's up to 40 wpm.)

Since Christmas, he now uses a laptop and takes his notes in Microsoft One Note . He had already gone up in grades last semester, however, last week his lowest grade was an 88 -- the rest were 90's+. When typing paragraphs, he types everything in One Note and then exports it to word. (File--> Send To --> Microsoft Word for Office.) He saves it on his memory key and prints it on the teacher's computer. (We're working on a wi-fi setup, but until then this is the best we can do.) I adore One Note -- I can blog on that later if there's interest.

The teacher has been very willing. He doesn't use the laptop for math (he uses graph paper) or spelling tests. We decided that we were going to tough it out there and when he's focused on just one task - spelling - he can usually do pretty well.

Why did the laptop improve his grades?

I sat down with my son and asked him what the difference was. He basically told me it was a couple of things:
  • He doesn't have to struggle with a lot of notebooks.
  • His notes are no longer full of errors and mistakes and he can read his notes.
  • When he is writing he can focus on what he is writing and not get mad at himself because he can't read it and it is full of mistakes.
  • He can focus on studying and getting his work done because the things that "drive him crazy about himself" are under control.

Is that fair to the other kids?

My Mom explains it like this. (She has taught school for 20+ years.) A child with a learning disability is walking around school with one leg. All the other kids are walking to class on two legs. The LD child has their backpack on and they are hopping -- on their one leg. Can they get to class? Yes. But it takes longer. It is more difficult. It is frustrating. They feel slow and different. When an effective accommodation is made, Mom says it is like giving them a prosthetic leg. Does it work better than a real leg? No! But it levels the playing field. It makes it fair! It gives the child hope!

In my opinion, a laptop just levels the playing field -- if it is recommended as part of the accommodation for that child's diagnosed learning disability.

If a child is supposed to be in the front of the room -- they belong in the front! End of story! Put them there. (Of course in some classrooms all of them belong in the front -- that's an unfortunate state of events.) For me, I have two or three in each class which require that accommodation and I make it without anyone knowing.

Let me tell you what happened this week with one of my auditory learners.

I have a student I teach who I suspect has some undiagnosed issues with reading. He is a straight auditory learner, however, and knows it. (We test all sixth graders and give them their learning style and teach them how they learn.) He was learning his Hamlet "To Be or Not To Be" speech and struggling. He came to me and asked if he could record it into Audacity. I showed him how and he read it. I showed him how to convert it to an MP3 and he e-mailed it to himself. Later that afternoon when he arrived home, he downloaded it into Itunes and then put it in his iPod. He spent the evening driving, walking, eating, and even going to sleep listening to Hamlet's famous speech on his iPod. He learned the speech beautifully.

In my opinion, auditory learners need an MP3 player. With Librivox and other sources of auditory text -- this is the boon they've been waiting for!

Look. Say. Do.

Many of the students with LD have been told to use the Look - Say - Do method of learning.

Look. Say. Do. Using Wikis
Wikis fit this beautifully and I've found my ADHD kids are some of the best at it.

Look -- The students are looking in their textbook and on the Internet for information related to their topic. They are reading it.
Say -- Meanwhile, they are discussing the topic often in a very animated fashion with their partner to make sure they aren't posting the same thing and to discuss where it fits.
Do -- Then, they are summarizing the new information they have found and putting into their wiki.
Look - They reread the wiki to ask themselves where the "holes" in their information lie.
Say - They talk about it with their partner.
Do - They search for more information and add it to the wiki and it continues.


Look. Say. Do. Using Podcasts
Podcasting fits this well, and is especially wonderful for my precious but few auditory learners.

Look - Students look for information on their topic.
Say - Students discuss the most important parts with their partner.
Do - Students write their script.
Look - Students reread the script and ask themselves where the "holes" in their information lie.
Say - They talk about it with their partner.
Do/Say - They record their podcast.
(Listen -- they listen to it -- share it with their friends!)

Wikis and podcasting fit together wonderfully, particularly if you can pair an auditory and visual learner on a team. I've found the auditory learner will usually gravitate to the podcast and the visual will gravitate to the wiki. They make excellent teammates.

Laptops. Wikis. Podcasting.

These are tools to help all students. They can level the playing field for those with LD and give them renewed hope.

I'm passionate about helping all children learn -- not just the "superstar" that is going to be the superstar whether they had ever met me or not.

It is with the children who are frustrated, defeated, and down that I build my legacy that I made a difference. Call me simplistic. Criticize me. It is in helping these children turn the corner that I become a teacher!

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