Mason carried his stuffed monkey Seahawk around his classroom in Washington's Tacoma Public Schools district.
Seahawk was the seven-year-old's pride and joy, and he helped Mason learn how to write. In the deaf and hard of hearing program at his elementary school, Mason hadn't written anything before. But that changed when the district brought an interactive table to his class, and incorporated Seahawk into the learning process.
The tables allow multiple students to manipulate objects, trace letters and write on one big touch screen. Much like interactive whiteboards, these tables can be programmed with lessons, and they light up when a student does something well.
Mason traces letters on an interactive table while his prized monkey Seahawk watches. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Schools
At first, Mason didn't want anything to do with the table. But then Sherri Desseau, an instructional technology facilitator, came up with the idea to use his prized monkey to help him.
Mason acted like a teacher and had Seahawk trace letters. Less than two weeks later, he did an activity on the table by himself, with Seahawk sitting beside him. Then he was able to write his name on paper.
Stories like this have become more common this year at Tacoma Public Schools, thanks to a consulting group's recommendation several years ago to integrate more technology for special needs students into the district -- something Director of Instructional Technology Michael Farmer was very excited about.
"That's been my whole goal is to get as much technology into the hands of kids and teachers as I can," Farmer said. "This was just another avenue to make that happen."
The district is trying a number of different pilots for students with special needs, and has embedded Desseau as an assistive technology coach to work with staff and students. Over the last four months, an interactive table pilot with SMART Technologies has paid big dividends in students' physical, academic and social skills.
Students stretch for learning
For some students, just moving their muscles is a huge accomplishment. In multi-ortho programs, students who have severe physical and developmental challenges have goals including reaching for something, stretching, walking and intentionally moving their limbs, Desseau said.
Before the interactive table pilot started, staff members measured how many times students in four different schools used their muscles in these ways during a January pre-assessment. After six weeks, students in the four pilot schools went from just over 50 to just under 80 touches on average. In 12 weeks, they rose above 100.
Interactive tables inspire students to write
Many times, students don't make progress on their academic goals until they start improving their physical and social skills. And this pilot has shown major gains in academics.
Take Madi for example. This nine-year-old girl, who has a seizure disorder, had never written an "M" for her name before, Desseau said. Her brain seized so much that she had a hard time with academics.
Madi writes the letter "M" for the first time on the interactive table. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Schools
When the interactive tables came in, Desseau planned an activity where students would see a picture of themselves on the table and trace the first letter of their names. Her teacher watched another girl named Mista write an "M" on the table. Madi was there at the table too, and her teacher asked if she could make an "M" like Mista did. And she did! That skill also transferred to paper.
The data from the pilot backs up this student success story. Before the pilot, they were making less than 20 percent of their academic goals on average. By the end, the students had accomplished nearly 80 percent of their goals.
While Desseau isn't exactly sure why, many students in the special education program gravitate toward touchscreen activities on hardware, including the interactive tables and tablets. And this touch technology has helped them progress toward their goals.
"The smart tables have absolutely been incredible," Desseau said. "They've blown us away with both the individual student results that we've seen and just the overall impact that the tables have made."
Social skills leap forward
Daniel (middle) takes turns with another student to solve a math problem while his teacher watches. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Schools
Along with gains in muscle use and academics, Tacoma Public Schools also saw major improvement in soft skills. Students more than tripled the amount of times they took turns with each other, surpassing 90 turns on average.
Daniel, a seven-year-old in the self-contained autism program, didn't participate in academics, didn't interact with other students and threw temper tantrums frequently, Desseau said. He came to the interactive table for the first time with a student and a teacher. After the teacher showed him what to do, he was able to do it himself.
He took turns solving a math problem with the other student on the table and made eye contact with him. He also counted objects on the table out loud, and that was the first time Desseau had heard him speak. In less than two months, instructors incorporated him into a reading group, which they didn't anticipate doing before. And for the most part, his meltdowns have come to a halt.
Now that the pilot is over, the district plans to continue using the interactive tables it already has, Desseau said, and ultimately put one in every elementary school.