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A music lesson in Virani’s classroom

When Neil Virani walked into his middle school special education classroom at Mulholland Middle School, part of the LA Unified School district, three years ago, he encountered a roomful of students with a range of cognitive, emotional and physical challenges. But the most toxic problem they had to combat was the low expectations from the school system they’d been in since kindergarten. “All they had was coloring books and watercolors. They were not working on any academic aspects of the curriculum,” he says. “When I saw a [previous] teacher had written of a student, “they don’t require ELA writing instruction because they’re never going to manipulate a writing device,’ I said, before I met him, this kid is going to write.”

Today, not only are most of his students reading and discussing stories, producing sophisticated written essays, and scoring proficient in math, they are drawing mind maps to organize their thoughts, building catapults in class to demonstrate physics principles learned from the game Angry Birds, and shooting and editing video documentaries of their experiences, which they storyboard in advance with cartoons. Virani’s secret weapon of accessibility, besides his own award-winning combination of creativity and the “highest possible realistic expectations,” is the iPad and a wide range of apps.

In at least one case, a $500 iPad, with its intuitive swipe interface and pop-up onscreen keyboard, is replacing a $15,000 assistive technology setup for a student with control over only one finger. “He had a special chair so he can hold his arm in a certain position–a custom chair that cost a fortune. It’s useless now. He’d try to type on the keyboard, get the cursor in the right place, and he’d have an involuntary muscle movement and erase it all. He’d cry, he was so frustrated. In one hour from opening the iPad, he wrote his name [for the first time].”

One thing that all education could potentially learn from special ed is that every student is an individual who deserves individually crafted learning goals and paths to reach them. Virani’s approach to teaching with the iPad is remarkable not only for its emphasis on inclusion but his use of apps to enhance students’ self expression–what I’d call “technology for learners.” A small sampling of his favorite apps include Day One for journaling, Popplet for mindmapping, and Toontastic for animation and storyboarding. He also uses Aver’s document camera software to enable his students to record lessons, play them back, or share the teacher’s screen in class. His students regularly come up with their own suggestions for apps or provide tutorials in their use to other students in regular and gifted classes.

But more important than the technology itself, Virani says, is the power of an open-ended and accessible device to expand students’ sense of themselves, and to raise the expectations of everyone around them.

“It’s been so powerful in our classroom,” he says. “It’s changed their whole thinking. They believe in themselves; they can do what anyone else can do. “

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