Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Teacher's innovation

I've been reading a lot about autism lately.  What a challenging problem for parents...and for teaches.  How do we teach these children?  Before World War II, most challenged children were kept at home.  If the parents were financially secure, they could hire a private teacher or tutor.  But the lower the economic level of the family the less likely that would happen.

After World War II,  a division of the public schools elected to take on the challenge of dealing with children with different learning and behavior styles. This division is now called "Special Education."   Note that I did not write that these were mentally challenged children, rather they have a style of learning for which we have yet to gain some knowledge.  Before anyone writes me to challenge my knowledge of such children (which indeed is limited and I admit that fact) let me state that one of my family is....different.  But let me also state that she is a lovely lady and is smart in her own way.  She has taught me much over the years and I love her dearly.  She knows that she is different from others but she refuses to let that bother her or change her course of direction in life.  She gets up each day and looks forward to helping and taking care of others.  She has increased my knowledge of what is "smartness."

However my main focus today was to write about a special education teacher I met one time in a local high school.  Although I had some student teachers in the school at that time, I became aware of a special education teacher who was using technology to help his children learn.  I asked if I could watch and he agreed.

Robert Gibbs (not real names as usual) had a special education class of about eight or nine students of high school age but of primary grade aptitude.  The kids also had some behavior problems as well.  It must have been a challenging class for Robert.  But he was an innovating teacher and managed to use an early Radio Shack computer to help him with his students.

One objective for these students was number recognition.  They weren't ready to add or subtract yet--merely knowing that the number was a "1" or an "8" was what Robert wanted his kids to achieve.  So Robert on his own learned "Basic", a early programming language for the computer.  He spent nights practicing on a computer at home and soon developed a simple program that was perfect for his use.

He would sit one of his students at the computer and load the program.  The program's first activity was to ask what was the student's name using a speaking program that was available at that time.  Robert's student would type in their name and the program would say to them, "Welcome Tom" or Jim or whoever it might be in the class.  Robert said that his students were so delighted with the computer saying their name that they wanted to go back and back and back......  Robert rewrote the program so that the students could hear it over and over and Robert reported to me that he became slightly dazed after hearing "Welcome Tom" over a hundred times one morning.  So he added ear phones for his own sanity.  Smart teacher...

Once the student got by the name recognition segment, the program would place numbers between zero and nine on the screen in different locations. Then the program would ask "Tom" where is the number "six?"  Tom was suppose to place the curser on the number six and click return.  Then the computer would redo the screen with new numbers and ask for the curser to be placed on a new number.  If Tom did not select "six" the program would say, "No, find six."  It would continue this answer until Tom would eventually find six.

However Robert's students quickly realized that if they did everything right, the program would end but if they made mistakes the program would continue.  So I watched Tom place his curser on every number on the screen except the one requested until there were none left for him to pick except the correct number.  They he would look up at me and smile a big smile.  He had learned his number recognition and a little bit more.

Robert told me that he wasn't upset with this behavior that indeed the deliberate picking of the wrong numbers was actually good practice for his students.  It was like, "I am fooling this computer."  

Robert's computer program on number recognition was one of the more innovating ways of teaching special education children that I saw.  However, it was the beginning of my notion that the interaction between students (no matter what their age) and the computer had a decidedly valuable contribution to education.  The kids of today navigating the web are light years ahead of children who grew up in the fifties, sixties and seventies.  (Hi Moms and Dads of that era.  Makes you feel old, doesn't it?)  Like Louis Armstrong sang in his popular song, "It's a Small, Small World," the children of today know more then we did back then.  And that's good.

If you know how, why not write an e-mail thanking a teacher for all they do....  Or get your child to help you..

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