“Imagine you will be teaching a class full of Sheldons from The Big Bang Theory.”

That is how teaching students with unique learning was introduced to me as I interviewed for my current teaching position at a boarding school designed to support these challenges. The majority of my students are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or non-verbal learning disabilities. In my first days at this school, I realized that the TV comparison was about as accurate as it could get. Most of my students can read an entire textbook and have it memorized in half an hour, spouting facts like Sheldon can, but can also be stubborn just like him. That stubbornness especially appears when educational technology comes into the picture.

Because our students tend to have no problem accessing new information from textbooks or the internet, teaching content is not our primary focus as a school.

We try to focus more on teaching the skills students will need in their future, using content as the conduit to practice the skills.

There are a lot of educational technologies that can help students with academic and critical thinking skills, like online graphic organizers to help them learn how to organize their ideas before writing or even a student dashboard like Kiddom’s to help keep assignments and work organized all in one place. But here is where the Sheldon stubbornness can come into play. In their minds, they don’t need any technologies to help them, and nothing I offer them will work, simply because they don’t want to use it. I find myself having the following conversations over and over again:

“Here try this website, and you won’t have to worry about losing papers and missing assignments”

“I never lose my homework or forget about them, why would I need this?”

“I found this awesome program where you can highlight and look up words in a reading right on the same tab”

“I like having the reading, my notes and a dictionary separate, I’m not using that”

A teacher can tell their students that it is mandatory to use a site, or assign using an education tool for homework, and they may do it, but educational technologies are really only effective if students (like teachers) are bought in and truly willing to try it. Getting buy-in from students is where our energy is focused, and is the hardest part. I have a degree in special education with a concentration in assistive technology — I can come up with a list of different sites, apps or programs that can help a student with whatever they are struggling with ease. However, getting that student to follow through and use the tool in a way they will find it useful is where I struggle, especially when they will find any reason to argue it won’t work.

Sometimes, a whole class discussion so we can explain our views to each other so we are all on the same page will persuade them. Other times, though, no matter what I try seems to fail and I end up abandoning a technology that I originally thought would be perfect.

 

 

Sometimes, my own persistence and stubbornness is as effective as anything else (I guess I have some Sheldon in me, too). Recently, I refused to give in when I was confident that an online graphic organizer would work for my students as they learn how to write a lab report. They grumbled and groaned all marking period as I made them use it for each lab that we did, but when we had conferences, almost every single student admitted how helpful it was and asked if we could keep using it for the rest of the year.

I love teaching classes full of Sheldons. As frustrating as the inflexibility of my students can be, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know that it is making me a better teacher as I creatively develop new ways to incorporate an educational technology tool into the plan for each individual student. The lesson I have learned so far is that if you really believe in the benefits of a particular tool for an individual or a class, consider putting your Sheldon hat on. Then, and this is important, when the semester or year is over, reflect on the effectiveness of that tool with the student (or class) rather than in isolation. You’ll learn a lot, and they will too.

 

 

Guest Writer: Sara Giroux
Science Teacher in Franklin, CT

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