Tablet computers open ‘new world’ for special-needs students in Scarborough, South Portland

Posted Jan. 02, 2013, at 6:12 a.m.
Morrison Center teacher Paul Agnew guides student Tommy LaBerge through dressing a snowman, part of a lesson to increase verbal and vocabulary skills using iPads donated from grants by the Scarborough-based Robbie Foundation and the Davis Family Foundation of Falmouth.
David Harry | The Forecaster
Morrison Center teacher Paul Agnew guides student Tommy LaBerge through dressing a snowman, part of a lesson to increase verbal and vocabulary skills using iPads donated from grants by the Scarborough-based Robbie Foundation and the Davis Family Foundation of Falmouth.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Morrison Center teacher Paul Agnew circled the room, extending an iPad so his students could dress a snowman. Behind him, the image appeared on a screen as it went from naked white to fully clothed with a carrot nose.

Sitting in front of him, students Mindy Bisson, Cassy Gannett and Tommy LaBerge focused on picking wardrobe items and saying them out loud as they touched the iPad screen.

“The [students] all have a genuine interest for these,” Agnew said after the Dec. 20 tablet demonstration.

Lynn Gierie, whose son Robbie was born with cerebral palsy, knew the tablets would be a good way to give back to the school where her son was educated through eighth grade.

As president of the Robbie Foundation, a Scarborough-based nonprofit group that provides grants to buy adaptive equipment and fund services for children with special needs, she made it a goal to find the funding to buy tablets and training for students and staff at the Morrison Center.

“I see the impact it has made,” she said. “It opens a whole new world for them.”

With a $25,000 grant from the Falmouth-based Davis Family Foundation, Gierie supplied the Morrison Center with 24 iPads and three two-hour training sessions to help launch a new way of learning at the center. The tablets, with audio and video programs, were donated to the school earlier this month.

“This is a more dynamic device,” Agnew said. “I’m a gadget geek, and it couldn’t be more exciting.”

Once the snowman was dressed, Agnew printed what could become a holiday card pieced together as students learned and retained vocabulary and maintained a strong sense of engagement in the lesson.

The Morrision Center educates special-needs students from preschool through high school, and provides adult services. Agnew said students from York and Cumberland counties who need more specialized learning than can be provided in mainstream public schools attend day classes at the center on Chamberlain Road.

In South Portland public schools, tablets are also providing a new way to teach students who fit into the autism spectrum, according to Brown Elementary School teachers Lynda Reddy and Dina Derrick.

At a Dec. 10 South Portland board of education meeting, Reddy and Derrick presented ways the tablets help 10 students communicate, learn socialization skills and structure their daily environments, no matter where they might fit on the wide autism spectrum.

“These are 10 children who are incredibly complex, bright and sometimes mysterious,” Reddy said.

Within the spectrum, students can find social interaction difficult, become distressed when established routines are interrupted, and sometimes are completely nonverbal.

“What all people with autism share is they have difficulty making sense of the world,” Reddy said.

While considering it only one of the tools needed to reach and teach the students, the tablets provide versatility in programming, relative ease of use, and a center of attention that attracts students.

“We have their undivided attention, it draws them from every corner of the room,” she said.

To cap the presentation, Derrick replayed a segment made by a student who pieced together a sentence by pointing at specific words on the touch screen.

Although he was nonverbal when he started kindergarten, the student’s speech is progressing and the tablet offers him a way to say what he still doesn’t speak, Derrick said.

In South Portland and at the Morrison Center, the tablets are also used to provide visual and verbal reinforcements of daily routines.

At Morrison, Agnew showed one program where a screen changes colors to show elapsed time students likely would not otherwise understand.

He said the touch screen is easier to use than keyboards or writing utensils, although students may still need coaching in their motor skills. The tablets can also be programmed to guarantee success by limiting choices.

After the snowman was dressed, Agnew guided Mindy Bisson through a demonstration naming the months of the year. With only one tab available to touch, she could not fail, but Agnew said the lesson is a building block that can be expanded to wider choices as Bisson progresses.

Students use the tablets in groups of three to five, and the tablets can also be used to measure student progress by teachers.

“It allows you to focus on the student more,” Agnew said.

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