Op-Ed: iPads Transformed My Special Education Classroom

Fed up with the sad reality special education students face, Neil Virani changed his students’ lives with technology.
Like Neil Virani, Jane Good, a teacher in Boston, Mass,. helps Ari Anthony Almonte Vasquez with his motor control as he counts hamburgers using an iPad. Preschoolers with autism are using iPads to learn literacy skills.
Feb 28, 2013

As a teacher, there is no better feeling than witnessing a student reach a milestone that was previously perceived to be unattainable. These breakthroughs tend to be considered few and far between, a mentality that is particularly prevalent within the special education classroom.

I teach a Special Day Class at William Mulholland Middle School in Los Angeles, a self-contained multiple subject special education classroom. My class is populated by students with intellectual disabilities, autism, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, and other health impairments.

Prior to my arrival in this classroom, low expectations were the only type of expectations that my students had ever known. These are the students who are often placed in broken-down classrooms in the corners of schools, with little more than some boxes of crayons and a few coloring books. Three years ago, I walked into my classroom for the first time to discover this sad reality for my students with disabilities.

I remember thinking to myself that not only would they be facing the obstacles presented by their disabilities every day for the rest of their lives, but they are also facing an educational system that chooses to ignore their potential. I was determined to transform our classroom into an environment that breeds confidence, independence, and the highest expectations.

Through a classroom technology grant, I was able to obtain an iPad for each student in my class, along with an Apple TV and various other classroom technology tools. After implementing a one-to-one iPad program in my classroom, “unrealistic goals” were met and surpassed left and right.

A student who had never written a word before, due to his lack of fine motor skills and the ability to control only one finger, wrote his first word on the iPad. He then began to create sentences and graphic organizers through an application called Popplet. Three students utilized the iPad’s stimulating and interactive features, and finally learned to read at the ages of 12, 13, and 14 years old respectively.

The Apple TV has empowered my students to confidently share the work they create on their iPads with the class, regardless of disabilities. Students compete to share knowledge and participate in discussions, work in small groups to create original projects, brainstorm ideas, and continue to demonstrate creativity and a willingness to explore new concepts and content.

This positive learning environment has allowed my students to step outside of limitations previously established for them, and progress in a world where the sky is the limit.

In my classroom, I blend traditional teaching methods with technology tools to provide each student with engaging lessons. The implementation of the iPad within my blended instructional model has afforded my students the opportunity to access the curriculum through a variety of learning modalities, while using a device that they are extremely passionate about.

This platform of instruction has established an environment where students are stimulated through exciting, interactive lessons that motivate creativity and hands-on learning. Within this environment, the iPad has become each student’s personal learning device. This personal learning device has made learning more accessible with apps that help students with visual and hearing challenges and different learning styles connect with the world in new ways.

My class has emerged from a book, paper, and pencil world into the world of technology.

Programs are selected that provide multidisciplinary curriculum content, instant feedback, manipulative support, and creative opportunities. My class has emerged from a book, paper, and pencil world into the world of technology. This transition has redefined how each student learns. Now, when I ask my students if they are learning smarter, they excitedly say, “Yes!”

After a full academic year of incorporating this blended instructional learning model in my classroom, I was eager to receive the 2011-2012 state test results. In English language arts, two students ranked in the proficient range and the eleven others in the advanced range. In math, one student placed in the proficient range and the 12 others in advanced.

Needless to say, we’re very enthusiastic about the progress that they made. Every student improved his or her math and English language arts state test score, with all but one student progressing at least one range level.

Throughout the year, I could clearly see this progress taking place. My students began to think critically and express themselves creatively through hands-on learning projects. I witnessed huge jumps in confidence and motivation. I found that the more students participated in my lessons, the faster and more comprehensively they were able to learn. It turned out that every student in the class achieved his or her annual Individual Education Plan goals after only five months of instructional time.

The iPad, coupled with the Apple TV, has opened my students’ eyes to endless possibilities for learning. In our class, we now learn with confidence every day. General education students ask my students for iPad app tutorials on a regular basis. My students continue to think of new ways to implement technology in lessons to enhance their own learning process. They are proud of their accomplishments, and strive to progress more each day.

This success has not only affected my students, but it has also had a profound impact upon the rest of our school and the community. The faculty, student, and parent populations are clearly aware of the potential that my students possess, and better understand the fact that all members of society have talents to offer. My students are proud of our class and their accomplishments, continuing to inspire each other and their teacher to work harder and smarter each and every day.

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