Gobbler the Belch is talking, and 9-year-old Justin Wagner is all ears.
Thanks to the revolutionary program Bookshare, Justin actually hears Gobbler yell -- or at least utter in a measured monotone -- "Pay attention!" to Dogsbreath the Duhbrain on his classroom iPad at Toyon Elementary School.
As the iPad highlights each word it voices, the story -- "How to Train a Dragon" -- is so riveting that Justin skips the option to view accompanying illustrations. "I just keep reading. It doesn't really matter if it's a picture or note," the fourth grader said.
Since is debut in 2002, Bookshare has transformed not only reading but schooling for students with various disabilities. The program, an initiative of the Palo Alto-based non-profit Benetech, produces an online library of accessible books for those visually or severely physically disabled or with learning disabilities like dyslexia. Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education, Bookshare's library of nearly 160,000 titles are provided free to students who qualify.
On Tuesday, federal Department of Education officials will visit Toyon Elementary in San Jose to highlight the role of digital technology in improving learning. The department has awarded Benetech another five-year grant, for $6.5 million annually, to expand and maintain Bookshare.
Bookshare helps students by voicing words and highlighting them as they're read, with the options of
Toyon has used the program for four years, and has been catching and riding tech's latest waves, thanks in part to teacher Tammy Irving, who teaches 22 special-education students and also doubles as the K-5 school's technology guru. In April the school received 80 iPads, which were distributed/ to classrooms on three mobile carts; by May teachers already were enthusiastically using them daily, Irving said.
Besides Bookshare, which is only for students with disabilities, the 350-student school engages JiJi the online penguin to teach math, as one of the first local schools to use the ST (spacial temporal) Math program. Jonas Wagner, Justin's twin brother, is a fan. "If I get it right, JiJi walks across the screen," he explained. "If not, I lose a penguin."
At Toyon, English learners create videos recorded with their own voices, computers help teach phonics and fluency. It helps that the Berryessa Union School District installed WiFi at all its campuses, and boosted Internet speeds two years ago. Teachers employ Apple TV, which is to the overhead projector what mobile phones are to their desktop ancestors.
Irving credits technology for helping Toyon advance in achievement, as measured by standardized test scores. For instance, the number of students scoring in the bottom two levels -- below basic and far-below basic -- in reading dropped from 30 to 20 last spring, she said.
Technology is not a solution in itself; it is a tool that needs to be adeptly wielded, she said. Bookshare, for example, doesn't actually teach reading. "It doesn't help in building skills," Irving said. But until a dyslexic student learns to compensate for his disability, she said, Bookshare helps in comprehension and enables students to participate in class, and stay engaged in school.
"Technology has really bridged that divide to allow students to work at their own pace and be successful," Irving said.
But the software and gadgets aren't turnkey devices. "It takes really good teaching to be able to do this," said Principal Don Vu, who has worked to bring high tech to his campus. Part of tech's forte, he said, is in engaging students, whether via an animated penguin or the enticement of virtual rewards.
And Irving acknowledged that tech is not perfect, as in Bookshare's monotone reader. "But it's a whole heck of a lot better than not being able to read at all," she said.
Anyway, Justin already knows that when his iPad says "M. M. M. M.," what Gobbler really means is "mmmmmm!" as he's munching on a goodie. And then its on to the next page.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.