Highland Park Jr High Students Connect
Through e-Mail 'Buddy Exchange'
with Appalachian State University Students
Barbara Wollak, M.S., CCC-SLP at Highland Park Junior High, MN
Dr. David Koppenhaver, Professor, Language, Reading, and Exceptionalities Department, College of Education, Appalachian State University, NC
Breaking Down Traditional Learning Barriers
This unique e-learning program created by Mrs. Barbara Wollak and Dr. David Koppenhaver broke down the typical learning barriers for students with autism and developmental cognitive delays using email, video email, a blog and a supportive word prediction assistive technology tool. This creative learning approach has served students successfully for the past seven years on many learning fronts; giving students with disabilities new opportunities for reading, writing, and communicating with a real audience.
e-Mail Buddy Exchange
This distance learning ’email buddy exchange’, informally called ‘e-Pals’, uses authentic writing experiences with college students from Appalachian State University, NC to support improved reading, writing, and communication skills for students with disabilities in the Inclusion Program at Highland Park Junior High School, MN. The e-PALS program is the brainchild of Mrs. Barbara Wollak, M.S., CCC-SLP at Highland Park Junior High, Saint Paul Public Schools, MN and Dr. David Koppenhaver, Professor at Appalachian State University, NC.
Mrs. Wollak and Dr. Koppenhaver believe it’s never too late to teach anyone how to read, write, or communicate. Now in junior high, many students in the program work independently and have made considerable progress with literacy. They are taught to begin their emails with a greeting, respond to questions, ask new questions, and end with a salutation. Mrs. Wollak said, “Having a college e-PAL is extremely motivating. The Highland Park students consider their epals good friends. One student wrote, “A pen pal is a friend you can talk to if you are sad or happy.” Another wrote, “When I don’t feel like playing with my brother, I can write to my pen pal.” “It is exciting to see students’ writing skills carried over to speech.”
Mrs. Wollak is featured in this YouTube video with her student Joey, age 15, who is diagnosed with autism. Mrs. Wollak said, “Many students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) have visual memory as their strength. Last year Joey could read some sight words but had not learned how to decode unfamiliar words. He had difficulty comprehending what he read and wanted to copy text instead of writing for himself, which involves transferring his thoughts from his head to paper.”
Joey had difficulty answering and asking questions. Mrs. Wollak started him with Clicker, a picture supported word processor, to teach him the idea of writing instead of copying. She quickly moved him to Co:Writer, a word prediction assistive technology program that supports writing activity in anything written in a word processing application, such as an electronic greeting card or email. “Co:Writer works great in our Internet browser, which was critical for our e-Pals program,” continued Mrs. Wollak. “The speech feedback gives Joey the reinforcement he needs to self-select words and independently edit what he has written.”
Joey’s mother, Mrs. Veronica (Ronnie) Getter, said, “Mrs. Wollak has created a wonderful program for my son. At home, we see a new, happier kid! I didn’t think it would work, but it did. For Joey’s first semester, he wrote three-word prompted responses. After interacting with his e-PAL and using Co:Writer, he now writes a paragraph showing action, desire, emotion and reflection. His vocabulary is expanding and his ability to communicate is rapidly growing. He is becoming very social and tells me jokes. This experience has helped him gain self-confidence, independence and self-esteem. When we address the individual needs of a child, we see them rise, beyond our expectations. That’s what Mrs. Wollak has done for my son! I hope more educators and families will follow this great example of using new technologies and strategies to engage students who need extra support.”
Dustin, another student in the e-PAL program with the diagnosis of ASD, could not read sight words and had no letter sound correspondence. Co:Writer helped him make the leap from learning the first letter of a word to writing the word. Mrs. Wollak said, “Co:Writer is so good at word prediction that once Dustin was able to get the first letter, the tool would usually predict the word he wanted to write.”
Mrs. Wollak believes this e-learning interactive approach, along with a four-block instruction model, (working with words, guided reading, writing, and self-selected reading) provides the necessary tools, supports and dialogue to help students comprehend what they read, write and think.
Web 2.0 Tools
Students at NC Appalachian University and the Highland Park Inclusion Program, along with their parents, contribute to a blog called Virtual Authors. Mrs. Wollak posts a new topic each week related to current events or student interests. The blog provides additional opportunities for authentic reading and writing and question-answer relationships. Students take turns generating questions and creating posts using free Web 2.0 technologies. Through this unique e-learning exchange the college students learn about the interests and literacy skills of diverse adolescents with disabilities. They discover how using Web 2.0 tools and assistive technologies in real-life interactions can support students with disabilities and how to help them learn new literacy and communication skills.
Barb Wollak is a speech and language pathologist for the Saint Paul Public Schools, MN. She works directly with students at Highland Park Junior High and is also on the district's assistive technology team. Barb is the director of the AAC Camp for teens at Camp Courage and is coordinator of the Literacy Session at Camp Courage, which is under the direction of Drs. David Koppenhaver and Karen Erickson. Barb co-teaches "Effective Literacy Instruction for Students with Moderate to Severe Cognitive Disabilities" at the University of St. Thomas.
About Dr. David Koppenhaver:
Dr. David Koppenhaver focuses on developing literacy skills in children and adults with developmental disabilities. He presents in various workshops and lectures and writes papers and books about his work with K-12 students and their families. Dr. Koppenhaver continues to seek new ways to engage students in problem-solving processes (social constructivism) and integrate technology using student learning activities. A manuscript has been published by the American Reading Forum, April, 2007 about the technology-supported e-PAL interactions in this article.