Unlocking Genius: One Special Needs Student at a Time

Student using Chromebook
Written by: Chad Shaner

Curiosity took the better of me as I walked by Ms. Post’s moderate to severe functional skills class one recent afternoon. A quick glance revealed smiling students glued to Chromebook screens; one student clapping joyfully at his desk while others seemed unphased by his antics. Rachel Post, one of our special education teachers at Perris High School teaches a self-contained functional skills class for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Somebody who might not have known better might assume that students were cheering at an entertaining video on their Chromebooks, but knowing Ms. Post, I knew that wasn’t the case. Upon closer inspection, I saw visual coding blocks displayed on the overhead projector, and I knew I had to step inside.

Ms. Post excitedly told me that her students were using tynker.com, an online visual coding website that teaches kids basic programming logic through a drag and drop interface. What makes Tynker great is the gamified aspect, taking students through levels of greater complexity using compelling characters that the user navigates through a series of obstacles. Ms. Post’s students were fully engaged in the activity, challenging one another to see who could pass the next level first. I was enthralled that these students were learning basic computer science and had the ability to understand the logic behind the coding blocks, but I was not surprised. Having taught a special education computer applications class for several years, I know that many students with intellectual disabilities have talents that are locked away given a traditional classroom setting. But given the right tools and proper guidance, these students can blow you away with what they can create.

Teacher assisting student using Chromebook
According to the United States 2010 Census, approximately 2.4% of school-aged children in Southern California have a cognitive disability, defined as a child having serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Given these statistics, it’s not difficult to see why these students represent an often forgotten and underserved population. Despite these challenges, special needs students in the Perris Union High School District are granted access to technology tools that minimize accessibility gaps and unlock hidden potentials. In addition to free online sources like Tynker, Ms. Post uses Khan Academy to help her students learn basic math facts, and text-to-speech Chrome extensions like SpeakIt! to make text accessible to her students.

Students using chromebooks
Some might question the value of teaching introductory computer programming to students with intellectual disabilities, perhaps assuming that these students would never have the capability of becoming professional software engineers or game designers. I beg to differ. Many scholars have speculated on the presence of intellectual and psychological disabilities amongst some of the world’s greatest geniuses. In today’s app-driven world, all it takes is the release of a simple smart-phone game (case in point, Flappy Bird), to turn someone with a little coding knowledge into an instant millionaire. Regardless of disability, socioeconomic status, race, or gender, all it takes is a little knowledge, patient guidance, and access to technology to unlock anyone’s potential genius. Ms. Post told me that once her students get good enough at the guided games on Tynker, they will start moving on to designing their own games using platforms like Scratch. Don’t tell Ms. Post’s students that they can’t learn computer programming. They’re already doing it!

Chad Shaner served as a special education teacher for 15 years and currently serves Perris High School as an educational technology coach. Find him on Twitter: @Chad_Shaner