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Opinion
Special Education Opinion

Special Needs and the Whiteboard Effect

By Anthony Mullen — October 12, 2011 6 min read
Anthony Mullen with students at the ARCH School, an alternative public high school located in Greenwich, Conn.

The young man took his first sip of alcohol when he was 13 years old. Five years later he mixes psychotropic prescription medications with cheap gin, and tells me school is boring.

I regularly receive such students, young people who have slid down the “continuum of educational services” and landed hard at the high school where I work. Most arrive angry, and some threaten to drop out of school. They are part of a subculture of students classified with emotional and behavioral disabilities, the type of students who do not believe the meek will inherit the earth and consequently manage to alienate themselves from teachers and fellow students. This particular bored high school senior suffers from depression and alcoholism. But while he may not view life through a sober lens, he clearly understands one of the formidable challenges facing today’s teachers: how to make learning fun and exciting.

It’s not easy to create fun and exciting learning environments for all students because fun and exciting are relative terms, and the world in which we live is constantly truncating the attention span of our students. Teachers now must compete with such rabid addictions as Facebook, instant messaging, and Internet gaming. I pity the high school English teacher who is trying to teach Hamlet to a student who owns the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto.

My Millard Fillmore Moment

I was fortunate to meet many wonderful teachers during my journey as the National Teacher of the Year in 2009, and during this pilgrimage I sought better ways to meet both the academic and social/emotional needs of my students. I met many accomplished educators—master teachers who displayed a variety of effective teaching skills and possessed the singular ability to fill their classrooms with fun and excitement. How did they do it? For one thing, these teachers knew how to fight fire with fire: I noticed that they often had an interactive whiteboard at the front of the classroom.

I had the pleasure of seeing the benefits of an interactive whiteboard when I visited a rural schoolhouse in central Missouri. It was an unlikely place to find the latest educational technology; the recession had left the farm fields untilled and tractors idle like so many broken toys. But the people there shared a Midwestern wisdom that understood any investment in education would reap a harvest of students better prepared to face a global economy and workplace. I stood in the back of a third-floor classroom and watched an energetic middle school teacher busily circulate, deftly navigating an assortment of tables filled with students using laptops to gather information for a social studies project. One group had its shared laptop connected to the whiteboard and was watching a video of President Obama’s inauguration speech.

The students were expected to create multimedia and multisensory presentations—ones that access visual, audio, and tactile modalities while allowing students to experience using these senses—about American presidents. I watched each group of students work cooperatively to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information rather than passively listen to the teacher. She was, after all, too busy to lecture because she was facilitating instruction at half a dozen tables. The blend of middle and high school students was attentive, motivated, and eager to demonstrate intellect and creativity. The students were having fun manipulating images and data on the interactive whiteboard’s wide screen.

Active learning was unfolding before my eyes as I watched a 7th grade boy present a multimedia and multisensory social studies lesson about President Reagan. I was impressed by his project but wanted to know if the students in this class had developed an appreciation of presidents not so widely recognized. After all, these students were expected to have an understanding of the important contributions of all 44 presidents. But what about one like Millard Fillmore? Would any of the students know anything about our 13th president? I walked around the room and found my mark, a group of students who were working on a presentation about President Lincoln. “Anyone here know something about Millard Fillmore?” I asked. The group went silent.

“Which president?” a girl asked.

“Millard Fillmore,” I replied. “He was our nation’s—”

“Yes,” she interrupted. “He was our nation’s 13th president. He supported the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act.”

She then proceeded to open a notebook application file and show me pictures of the stout president, reminding me that Fillmore was never elected president. He assumed office after the death of Zachary Taylor.

Wow. Who knew anything about Millard Fillmore? I was impressed.

Connecting With Students With Disabilities

As I left that old schoolhouse I thought about my own students, particularly the young man who complained that school was boring. I had just experienced a vibrant and dynamic learning environment and wondered if I could replicate such a setting in my own classroom. Could better use of educational technology improve learning for students afflicted with significant emotional and behavioral disorders?

Much of the scholarly research concerning emotional and behavioral disabilities is focused on addressing conduct rather than academics, and that makes a lot of sense considering no learning can take place if a teacher cannot control his or her classroom. But the research largely ignores the important question of how to improve the academic success of ED and BD students. And this is one of the great failures of our education system. Why? Because, according to the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, students who are afflicted with severe emotional disabilities have the highest dropout rate of any population of students and comprise about half of the almost one million students who fail to graduate from high school each year. Furthermore, about three out of every four students diagnosed with a severe emotional disability who drop out will be incarcerated within five years of leaving school. We simply need to do a better job of educating and connecting with these students.

But the question remained: How could I help bring such dynamic learning to my classroom and school?

Providence may not always favor the pious or the penitent, but sometimes it comes looking for struggling students. I learned this firsthand when I met the founders of SMART Technologies, Nancy Knowlton and David Martin, during a visit to Washington, D.C. We spoke about my students, and Nancy and David listened to their stories. They politely wished me success as we parted company and I headed to a teachers convention in San Diego. What I did not know at the time, however, was that these two kind and generous people had decided to install an interactive whiteboard in each of my school’s four classrooms. When I returned to my classroom late last summer, I walked into the same type of technology-rich learning environment that I had visited in rural Missouri. My colleagues were diligently preparing lesson plans using laptops and their new interactive whiteboards.

My colleagues and I believed that we could use the whiteboards as both a behavioral management tool and the primary instructional means to improve the academic performance of our emotionally disabled students. We assigned students to cooperative-learning groups to focus on their social and academic concerns, and watched them foster teamwork as they completed class assignments. The combination of using laptops and an interactive whiteboard proved demonstrably better at engaging our students than previously applied “traditional” methods of instruction. My students did not act like, well, my students. Their myriad disabilities—anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, psychosis—seemed to abate as they used technology to create multimedia and multisensory presentations. Learning had suddenly become more fun and exciting.

But the real test came when my bored 18-year-old student entered my classroom in the fall. He stood in the middle of the room and waited to be seated. He moved his head and glanced around. He raised his right index finger and pointed it toward the ceiling. I quietly wondered if he was trying to judge the direction of the wind. And then he spoke.

“This looks like a real classroom,” he observed.

It certainly does.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Special Needs Whiteboard Effect

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