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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Is the Future of Individualized Education Programs?

By Steve Wandler — May 30, 2017 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Steve Wandler, the director and co-founder of FreshGrade.

I have two children, Noah and Faith. Noah is 11 and Faith is 17. Faith is an academic student, who thrives at school. She does what she needs to do to meet her grades, and she’s good at it. Noah, on the other hand, really struggles in class. He has a learning disability and is on an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

To have an IEP, your child needs a label. In the past, I thought a label was bad. But in this case, labels are really good because Noah gets accommodations that aren’t available to other students. For example, if he’s in a class and it’s noisy and he needs time to concentrate, Noah can just say, “Teacher, this isn’t working for me. I need to either go somewhere else or have a different environment.” He’s allowed to do that. If the teacher asks him to write things out and he decides he wants to do it on a laptop, he can do that. He doesn’t have to do things that typical students do as long as it’s in his IEP.

The challenge around that is, of course, you get singled out because you’re different. And the older children get, the more they want to fit in with their peers. Many educators want to make these accommodations available to everyone to remove the stigma of being different. But until that happens, I tell my son these are superpowers. When children embrace their superpowers, it changes their whole perspective on education.

A Living Document
IEPs are a roadmap. They help provide an individualized pathway based on a student’s strengths and needs so they can move forward in their learning. For teachers, IEPs are a LOT of work. Before Noah’s teacher started using a digital portfolio, his IEP was about ten pages long. In a lot of cases after completion, those plans are stored until it is time to report on them. As a parent, I admit it -- I often didn’t check in with the IEP after I signed it. At the end of the year, it’s not surprising that some of the goals aren’t met. The IEP can sometimes feel like a requirement to be completed, rather than the roadmap it was meant to be.

What I love about digital portfolios and assessment platforms is the way they make the IEP a living document. The personalized nature of a portfolio allows teachers to set relevant, individualized goals, then capture and share progression in real time with both the student and the parent. It’s immediate, it’s visible, and IEP goals don’t get lost in the day-to-day running of the classroom.

Teachers can create activities or “collections” in the digital portfolio that address the goals of the IEP. Then the teacher can collect notes and evidence, and the student can capture pictures, audio, and video of his learning. Everyone, parents included, can watch the student grow over time. For special education teachers, portfolios can help to completely change everyone’s perspective about a special learner.

Providing Voice and Choice to Students who Struggle
Digital portfolios let students have voice and choice about how they access information and how they show their learning. They can upload videos of themselves talking about their work and what they need to do to improve it, or they can add photos of their written work and do a voiceover, or they can take a photo and add comments using speech to text. Students can also choose the method that works for them, based on the subject, the skill, or even how they feel that day. This range of options gives kids the voice they need and teachers the data they’re looking for.

Noah’s dyslexic; he has a hard time reading. When the focus was on what he couldn’t do, he became frustrated and he didn’t want to read. But when teachers started documenting his reading through audio recordings on his portfolio, they were easy to compare. You could hear the difference, and the growth was obvious. The teachers stopped saying, “You’re not good at it.” They started saying, “Noah, listen to how much better you read.” Even more importantly, he says, “I’m better.”

Since I started working in Ed-Tech, I’ve heard from lots of special education teachers about how they are using digital portfolios with their students. Their stories just blow me away. Emily Molina, who is an amazing teacher from Eanes ISD in Austin, Texas is currently using portfolios with her 6th Grade class. Emily loves using digital portfolios with her kids -- and she’s having a lot of success with them.

“My goals and objectives with the kids are out in the open,” she says. “They’re able to see their growth, and I’m able to see their growth. It changes their perspective; they’re able to see themselves as learners.”

One of Emily’s students doesn’t speak a lot in class at all. But when she uses a digital portfolio, she is able to record herself talking about her work. “She shows what she’s done and talks about it, says Emily. “It’s a wonderful way for her to advocate for herself and be able to interact with me without feeling uncomfortable.

Communicating and Collaborating with Parents
Sometimes it’s a difficult conversation with parents of students who have special needs. Some parents might have struggled in school themselves. I’m a prime example of that. In the industry, I’m successful, but I struggled at school, and I dropped out in 10th grade because I was told over and over again that I was a failure. I didn’t want to be there. Who would?

I wasn’t going to let what happened to me happen to Noah. I want him to love what he’s doing. I want him to wake up in the morning and want to go to school and tell his teachers about the progress he made with a project. That’s what it should be about.

For me, digital portfolios are a great way to have that ongoing conversation and see what’s happening in the classroom. It’s amazing when you can see the learning right in front of you. Not only do parents get to see what their child is doing at school, but they also get to talk to their child about it. It totally changes the way you connect.

Parents see that, and they say, “I never want to lose this. I’m having amazing conversations with my kids at the dinner table because we’re not talking about grades, we’re talking about what did you learn in school today? We’re actually talking about it.”

We’ve heard some amazing stories about parents rushing into a school to see their child and celebrate a moment with them after seeing something being uploaded to the digital portfolio. Sometimes these goals are social-emotional, and they’re not easily seen through traditional assessment. Portfolios let teachers capture that and parents are stoked!

Noah is absolutely thriving in the public school he’s in. When you know what you know, you’re more confident. When you’re confident in what you can do, you’re less afraid of challenges. You can focus on growth. There are things that I’m not good at -- that’s why I’ve got an amazing team. We shouldn’t expect our kids to be good at everything.

If I had my way, Noah wouldn’t need an IEP. Barriers to learning would be removed for all kids, and the needs of all learners would be addressed. Let’s stop asking, why isn’t that child doing well at school and start focusing on, “What does this student want to learn? How can we help them achieve their goals? Are there other ways for them to show us what they know?” That’s the power of personalized learning. Teachers can help every child learn and thrive to his or her own potential -- and given the tools to do it, they will.

Steve Wandler is the director and co-founder of FreshGrade, a learning collaboration and portfolio tool. Steve has 19 years of entrepreneurial and leadership experience despite never graduating from high school. Teachers, students, and parents can sign up for a free account at www.freshgrade.com and can learn more about using FreshGrade with IEPs in this webinar.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.