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by Mary Pembleton
Taya, a student in Portland Public Schools, wasn’t supposed to be in occupational therapy. But it was an awfully happy coincidence that she was pulled into a small group of students in her classroom who were, because Taya, who has dyslexia, gleaned an introduction to the assistive technology that changed her academic life.
Kristy McFarland, the occupational therapist working with the group, says she’ll never forget the moment when Taya looked at her and said, “You mean I can read everything by myself? I don’t have to ask anyone else to read anything for me ever again?”
At the time, Taya, now a seventh-grader, was in fifth grade. “If you consider what it’s like to have gone that long and never really feel like you’re good at something that’s a huge part of your academic day, and to have something pretty simple liberate you in such a fashion, it just shifts everything,” Kristy says. “It’s incalculable how powerful that is.”
Kristy is one of four members of the assistive technology team serving the Portland Public School District. And she says Taya’s reaction, though incredibly moving and obviously memorable, isn’t exclusive to Taya’s situation. Many of the students Kristy works with have been struggling for so long that they “feel like a failure,” she says. “So whenever I’m called to do this particular toolset, it’s so yummy, because every single time they’re like, ‘This is going to change my life.’ That’s a really consistent response.”
The assistive technology that empowered Taya, whose grades used to be “average” according to her mother Breana, to achieve straight A’s, are Don Johnston’s Snap&Read and Co:Writer. Both of these toolsets were created with people with dyslexia and other learning challenges in mind, with the goal for full inclusion by removing as many of the barriers to reading and writing as possible.
Dyslexia, as Taya explained to her fifth-grade class in a report about her disability, has nothing to do with how smart a person is or what they can accomplish, especially when given the right support. And this is true of many of the learning differences experienced by children who qualify for special education.
Snap&Read and Co:Writer were initially only available to a handful of special education students like Taya at Portland Public Schools. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. A virtual learning platform demanded that students read and comprehend assignments independently, as well as write fluently to complete them. And Portland Public Schools remained fully virtual from March 2020 to April 2021, when they returned to in-person learning part-time.
The increased reading and writing demands of virtual school gave many Portland educators a new perspective of how many learners struggle with these skills. “One of the important things that came out of the pandemic situation is that we realized how many kids can’t actually read, and how many of the adults who support them can’t read as well,” says Kristy.
Important, because once you identify a problem, you can address it. The district’s Information Technology team approached Kristy’s assistive technology team in 2020 to ask for help, and Kristy was more than happy to offer a solution. In the Fall of 2020, Portland introduced Snap&Read and Co:Writer district-wide. These tools were made available to each of their 46,624 students, and it was a game-changer for the students who were struggling.
Snap&Read and Co:Writer are able to integrate with most platforms, so Portland’s students were able to apply the tools to their virtual learning pretty seamlessly. Snap&Read could read aloud the Google Slides prepared by teachers and from their online books and PDFs too. And Snap&Read’s translation tool was particularly helpful in allowing English Language Learners (ELLs) to access the curriculum. Co:Writer assisted with spelling, vocabulary, and word suggestions.
“Snap&Read is literally a godsend,” says Cheri Shea, a Portland Learning Center teacher who was already familiar with Snap&Read and Co:Writer prior to the pandemic. She was tasked with introducing the tools to Laurelhurst’s general education classes during distance learning. In addition, Cheri works with Taya, Riley, and Shula, the three Portland students we had the pleasure of interviewing for this article.
Riley is a fifth-grader who Cheri describes as “a super bright kid with a little fire of a personality.” Riley likes drawing designs and playing Connect Four with her parents. She also loves taking evening walks with her father to look at the flowers blooming along the streets of Portland.
“I love evening because it’s sunny in part, but it’s also kind of easing into night time,” Riley says, with poetic flair.
Riley has a way with words. She writes stories about herself and her brother using the speech-to-text function on the touchscreen device that Cheri and Kristy set her up with for remote learning. Riley has a rare syndrome that impacts her eyesight and dexterity, and assistive technology is an integral part of her education.
Riley started using Snap&Read and Co:Writer during distance learning because she would often fall behind during remote classes. “It felt really stressful,” Riley says, “because I just wasn’t able to go as fast with the work as I can now with Co:Writer and Snap&Read.”
Shea says that Riley particularly enjoyed Snap&Read’s highlighting options. “Riley is one of those kids who loves colors, so having the choices of colors for highlighting, she was super enamored with it,” says Shea.
Which sort of makes sense, because Riley’s presence is bold and warm and deeply kind. Riley would like to be a teacher someday, but Shea says that during virtual school, she was already teaching her peers. Cheri would show Riley a particular feature of Snap&Read in a one-on-one setting, then ask her to explain it to her small group the next time they met. “And boy, that girl could just coach her classmates through it,” Cheri says.
When it comes to teaching learners how to use the tools, Kristy advises OTs and educators to “just open the program.”
“They’re 21st century learners. Many of them will just figure it out. You don’t have to be the leader in this scenario, which can be hard for educators.”
Beyond that, Kristy says that, until using the tools becomes a habit, their learners will often need to simply be reminded to use Snap&Read and Co:Writer for their assignments. And both Kristy and Cheri share how effectively students will instruct other learners how to use the tools.
“I think that the kids can teach each other better than we can because, hey, they live it, right?” says Cheri. “They’re overwhelmed and looking at this slideshow or this page of reading, they see it from a different lens, from a kid perspective. So I ask them, ‘how can you help your classmates?’”
The tools are very simple, and most students can get up and running independently, but for any learner or family who needs more help, Kristy recommends the Learning Academy, which provides video-delivered instruction on Snap&Read and Co:Writer. “I tell them that The Learning Academy is available to answer your questions, 24 hours a day. And then there’s [Don Johnston’s] help website that is also available all the time. Don’t get stuck and feel like you have to wait until you can talk to me to figure something out.”
When asked what it’s like to have dyslexia, Shula, a sixth-grade Portland student, says this: “It’s confusing when everyone talks about how they like to read, it never felt like fun or something I’d choose to do. It feels like homework.”
And yet, in addition to cross-stitching, sewing, and drawing, Shula is an avid reader. The only difference is that Shula mostly listens to audiobooks.
“She’s brighter than bright,” says Cheri, “And that was the thing that was just the driving force for me [pursuing assistive technology for Shula]. We can’t let words get in her way of her learning. Because this girl could be the next astronaut.”
Shula has many tools to help her thrive as a learner. Besides utilizing audiobooks, Shula uses a C-Pen, an instrument that helps her read and understand physical books. And she relies on Snap&Read for schoolwork. “I use it quite a lot,” Shula says, “Usually for instructions for assignments in class.”
As for helping other students with dyslexia, Shula gives the advice, “I feel like it’s important for them to want to read. I highly recommend audiobooks or those audiobooks that highlight where you are in the reading. They need to be engaged in reading. And reading by themselves is hard. But you also want to be able to read if you need to.”
One thing that was true for each student in this story: assistive technology gives them much more independence, autonomy, and confidence. AT allows them to be able to work on schoolwork more effectively and efficiently, and with less help from adults, and dive deeper into their interests when they aren’t at school.
“I just tell them how lucky they are just because, you know, there shouldn’t be any barriers getting in their way,” Cheri says. “If there are, we need to figure out what those barriers are and find a tool to address them.”
“I really see technology as a way to help kids show the gifts they have,” she continues, “Because we’re all different, and it’s a beautiful thing.”