- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - Hunched over their iPads, the three seventh-graders took turns reading the document displayed on their screens.

One, Sam Seifert, followed along, while her special education teacher Jessica Waterstreet did the talking - Seifert has difficulty reading on her own. Seated near the center of the table, Blake Hanna recited the words softy, rushing through them quickly. Jacob Voracek, opposite Seifert, took the text more slowly, pronouncing each word with precision and care.

The day’s lesson, titled “Ben has good ideas,” focused on Benjamin Franklin and his scientific discoveries and inventions. Accessed via the app Educreations, the curriculum conforms to Mankato Public Schools’ seventh-grade standards but simplifies concepts so Seifert, Hanna and Voracek can understand them.

All three have developmental cognitive disabilities, The (Mankato) Free Press (https://bit.ly/1onBFDZ ) reported.

“It provides our students with access to the seventh- and eighth-grade standards but differentiates them,” Waterstreet said of the app. “We’re doing it at a level that matches our students’ ability.”

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In addition to making curriculum easier to access online, a new one-to-one digital learning initiative is helping the district’s special education students gain more independence, according to school staff.

Each of the district’s middle school students, including Seifert, Hanna and Voracek, were given an iPad this year.

“All of our kids have iPads this year and that’s huge,” Waterstreet said.

She and another special education teacher, Jodi Evers, work with kids who have disabilities that affect their ability to function intellectually. Many of them follow adapted lesson plans and use educational material that before the iPads were introduced, needed to be printed off for them.

“One big thing for us is the printing,” Evers said. “We’re just saving so much on printing.”

The iPads allow the students to access the same content digitally not only during class, but on their own. Using the tablets’ text-to-speech feature, children who cannot read well can highlight the content, plug in their headphones and listen to it instead.

The iPads’ many accessibility settings make them easily used by students with other types of disabilities, said the district’s special education technology coordinator Bambi Dubke. Some students now have Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids that can sync with the devices. VoiceOver, which lets someone use the iPad even if they can’t see it, helps students with visual impairments.

Zoom and font options make content on the iPad easier to read. Students can dictate text using the microphone.

For students that have trouble with fine motor functions, staff have adjusted the tablets’ touch and sensitivity setting. Guided Access helps students with autism or other attention/sensory deficits stay focused on the task at hand by allowing teachers or therapists to disable the home button and lock the iPad on one app.

Educreations allows students to leave text or video annotations on their worksheets or answer questions using sketches or pictures.

Linda Felsheim, a speech pathologist at Dakota Meadows, said another app, Notability, has many of the same features. Last year one of her students, who has a writing disability, used Notability and other apps to complete tests and homework using videos or pictures.

In the past, he would have had to dictate his answers to a paraprofessional and would have to leave class to complete assignments. Now he can do the work on his own.

Seifert has benefited from having an iPad in a similar way. Because she cannot read on her own, she previously left the classroom during silent reading activities so a paraprofessional could read to her. Now she can plug in her headphones, select one of the several audiobooks available on her iPad and stay in the classroom with her peers.

“A lot of the apps that allow (students) to access books and content also allow them to be more independent,” Waterstreet said.

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The school’s special education team said the iPads are engaging and keep students interested. They also provide some kids with needed audio/visual stimulation.

“The lighted background draws attention, keeps them focused,” Felsheim said.

When students run into a concept or vocabulary word they don’t understand, they can Google it or look at pictures of it, Waterstreet said. Because they can take the iPads home, they can use them to complete tasks or homework at home, as well.

The special education students are also learning important technology skills, Felsheim said. Today’s students are digital learners and it is essential they learn to use the now-prolific devices.

While the district still uses more traditional technology to serve some of its more challenged students, the iPad is even taking the place of large buttons or switches that are used by students to communicate and perform simple tasks.

“For some of those kids that can’t physically touch the button, we even have Bluetooth switches,” Dubke added.

The rate at which technology is evolving makes it hard to keep up with all the new developments, Felsheim said. But it also makes it a great time to be in special education.

Educators have more tools for serving students than ever before.

“I think we have a lot of tools in this district,” Felsheim said. “I find it very exciting.”

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Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com

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