Special education students can often feel isolated. They may not communicate easily or well with others and can have challenges saying hi to their friends, visitors, or teachers. Some don’t read or know the letters of the alphabet. Some might not know what a country or state is. They might not even know that there are other students in the world – let alone that there are others just like them.
Six special education teachers from five different countries set out to change that with “SMARTee the Global Project.” The teachers met last year at SMART’s SEE Summit, an event that brings together over 50 teachers from countries all over the world to collaborate, network, and learn. It was during one of the sessions that they discussed ways to bring their special education students together. The objective wouldn’t be so much about learning new things. It would be about getting to know people in other countries – people just like them – and give them a feeling of being connected.
In total, 60 students with special needs worked together with other students around the world to learn, communicate, and teach one another.
Teachers created themes that resonated with the students and applied to everyone no matter what country they were in. They developed projects about New Mexico’s balloon festival, Earth Day, the different seasons, the weather, holidays, and their homes. The important part was to demonstrate that no matter how exotic their location might seem, the students were all still very much alike.
“One of my students is almost always silent in the classroom,” says special education teacher Jörgen Holmgren in Finland. “She lives on an island. She comes to school every day, with rain or snow. She sometimes comes by boat, sometimes by snowmobile (ice on the sea) and sometimes by Hovercraft. For her this was really normal, but I made her understand how unique this is in the eyes of everyone else in the project. This project is not just about understanding how other people live, but about yourself too.”
Students participated in both online and real-world activities. For instance, they sent each other packages and presents in the mail but they also used technology to make videos to say “hello” to each other; they sent digital postcards to their new friends; and they connected on Skype and SMART amp to communicate regularly and develop workspaces that they could share and collaborate on.
Special education teacher Lotta Ramqvist in Sweden remembers the first time her students used SMART amp. When one of the girls saw that her friend was typing in the same workspace as she was, she stood up and jumped up and down, getting so excited. She understood that they were all working together.
Lotta’s class has a workspace called “My Home,” first developed by Jörgen. The assignment for her students was to write about their home and find it on Google Earth. Then they took a screenshot of their house and added it into the workspace so that participating students in New Mexico, Sweden, Finland, South Africa and Germany could see it, too.
“The students loved this assignment,” Lotta said. “They learned how to use Google Earth, how to take screenshots and they practiced how to write so others could understand. In the end of that lesson we also looked at Google Earth to find the other schools. We looked at what the surroundings were like and talked about the climate. One boy in the class took us on a trip to find Freddy’s pizza, all the way to Thailand!”
Says special education teacher Stefan Schwarz in Germany, “When at work on our global collaboration project, my students are more motivated and engaged than during their normal lessons. They’ve improved their English skills and learned how to use different kinds of digital media and software. For instance, they can now work more independently when using SMART amp and Google Translator.”
Through the global collaboration project, students grew tremendously. Jörgen says, “They learned that they are important. They have new friends around the world. They’ve learned about other cultures, but at the same time they learned about their own everyday life.”
“My students are very proud to be part of this unique global collaboration project,” says Stefan.
Special education teacher Staci Gelbaum in Atlanta adds, “Students who would not typically be in conversations with their peers were chatting up a storm in the chat feature on SMART amp. This digital communication outlet helped build the face-to-face communication skills that my students so needed. At the end of the year, they were all more comfortable with their social peers and had gained a new set of friends from around the world!”
For special education teacher Brianna Owens in New Mexico, her greatest success has been “taking kids from around the world who often can’t speak, don’t speak, or who have struggles in many different ways – who ultimately feel like a failure or an outcast – and giving them a voice. Some for the first time.”
The project has empowered her students, she says. “The SMARTee Project taught them that in teaching one another, they actually had something to say. It’s been life-changing for my students.”
She adds, “For the first time, my students who were once so isolated had the opportunity to experience that they are not alone. While I’ve witnessed huge progress in all academic areas through this project, it’s this experience that’s been the most important lesson I think any teacher could ever strive to teach students.”
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