Michael Sullivan (left) and Vin Barrett say the new one-to-one notebook program at The Gow School has helped students write term papers and create more robust fighting robots.

Jul 23 2007

Personalizing Technology

A new one-to-one computing program helps a special group of students overcome the challenges of dyslexia.

A new one-to-one computing program helps a special group of students overcome the challenges of dyslexia.

Oak Whitbread-Hardman knew what he wanted to say. Technology is good for society when used in moderation. The trick was stretching that into a coherent 15-page essay, so he put his thesis to the test. He used assistive technology to write his class paper about the benefits of technology.

“I was thinking about how ironic it was. I’m talking about how to use [technology] and I’m using it to write this paper,” says Whitbread-Hardman, who graduated this spring from The Gow School, a boarding school for young men, grades 7–12, with dyslexia and similar language-based learning disabilities in South Wales, N.Y.


For years, most, if not all, of the 143 students at Gow brought their notebook PCs to school. Last year, the school tried something new, giving each student a school-issued computer, while their own notebook PCs were to be left at home.

Just one year into the program, the new notebook PCs, loaded with the educational software and processes designed for students with dyslexia, have begun to help Gow’s students bridge the gap between their innate abilities and their learning disabilities. By equipping them with and teaching them to use these assistive technologies, Gow is preparing its students for college and the workforce, where they’ll have to learn to adapt and work independently. More immediately, the technology helped earn Whitbread-Hardman an A on his paper.

Gow by the numbers

  • Founded: 1926 by Peter Gow Jr.
  • Campus: Located on 100 acres 30 miles south of Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Students: 143 students from 30 states and 11 countries
  • Grades: 7–12
  • Faculty: 38 teachers
  • Student-faculty ratio: 1 teacher for every 4 students
  • College placement: 100 percent of students accepted to college

Source: Gow Fast Facts.

For more information, go to the school’s Web site at www.gow.org.

For his paper, he used software that reads Web sites and textbooks aloud while he follows along on the page. Inspiration concept-mapping software let Whitbread-Hardman, a visual-spatial learner similar to many students with dyslexia, write his ideas inside color-coded bubbles, draw lines between related concepts and convert them to outlines. Many of his classmates used Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate, instead of type, their papers on a Microsoft Word document.

“The software is tremendously helpful,” says his mother, Kristen Whitbread. “It’s better that he had the learning curve this year rather than freshman year of college.”

The Case for Computers

Each year, the students in Vin Barrett’s class prepare for war. Rather, they prepare robots for war.

The robotics class uses computer -aided design (CAD) software to develop prototypes, and then builds a 120-pound robot to compete in the national BattleBots IQ robot face-off competition. Unlike previous classes, which were limited to the computer lab, this year’s students had 24 x 7 access to CAD-equipped notebook PCs and spent more time perfecting their designs.

Their fighting machine is one tangible measure of the technology program’s success, says Barrett, chairman of the applied technology department at Gow. The 120 pounds went toward a stronger shell, better weapons and a more powerful motor than previous classes’ robots.

In past years, teachers weren’t able to incorporate technology into the daily curriculum because the hardware and software of each student’s computer was piecemeal and computers were often out being repaired, explains Michael Sullivan, Gow’s director of technology and robotics instructor.

“It was a constant headache dealing with notebooks that were purchased from all over the world,” he says. Gow’s information technology department purchased 185 Lenovo ThinkPad T60p notebooks and burned an image onto each with standard software. Additional software can be added to accommodate specific courses or student needs. “We’ve been able to move all of the software out of the labs and into their laps,” Sullivan says.

That paved the way for the new writing program. Dyslexics often experience difficulty applying new skills in different situations. A student may learn to write a paper in English class, but he won’t necessarily think to use that skill for his history paper, explains Mari Jo Renick Clayback, Ph.D., director of research and assessment and an English and reconstructive language teacher at Gow.

With the new notebooks, standard software and a cross-curriculum writing program, teachers can use consistent tools and processes to teach students to write. “Our students need to learn to embed that knowledge as much as they can,” Clayback says.

Campus Makeover

In addition to the curriculum benefits, standardizing on hardware and software has made life easier for the IT department. Lost or damaged computers can be replaced with the school’s 15 spares or re-imaged within 20 minutes, and all work is saved on the school’s network. Sullivan recommends buying one spare notebook for every 10 to 15 that are issued to students.

Since Gow already had fiber running to its 16 classrooms and dorms, the IT department just implemented a wireless network to accommodate notebooks, Sullivan explains.

Gow’s teachers already had notebooks, so IT just focused on software training, explains Sullivan. IT trained students to operate the notebooks, and the different departments taught them to use course-specific software.

Clayback has been collecting writing samples, grades, observations, standardized test scores and other data, and will begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the new programs this summer. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests the programs are off to a good start, she says.

Kristen Whitbread doesn’t need numbers to see the difference in her son. Before arriving at Gow, he was withdrawn. “Oak learned to put himself out there and take risks academically and socially,” she says.

“When you get to this stage,” she adds, “you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and you say, ‘OK, maybe we’ll be OK.’ ”

Understanding Dyslexia

Four years ago, Kathleen McClaskey met with a dyslexic ninth grader who could only read at a fifth-grade level. She asked him what he wanted to be. “He said to me, and this is a quote, ‘Maybe I could be a carpenter’ ” she recalls. “Maybe.”

McClaskey, founder and president of EdTech Associates (www.edtech-associates.com), an Amherst, N.H.-based education and assistive technology consultancy, trained him to use assistive technology programs to read text aloud and help him visually organize his ideas and convert them to text.

This spring, she ran into his mother, who said he graduated last June and is now in the civil engineering program at the University of New Hampshire. “She said to me, ‘I owe it all to you,’ ” McClaskey says. “That’s the carpenter-to-engineer story.

“That student transformed his perception of himself, of who he could be,” adds McClaskey, whose 28-year-old son is dyslexic. “We could do that with millions of students if schools could understand how to use these tools.”

The Gow School, a grade 7-12 boarding school outside of Buffalo, uses an intensive multisensory method called Reconstructive Language to teach adolescents and adults with dyslexia.

“To understand the program is to understand dyslexia,” says Mari Jo Renick Clayback, Gow’s director of research and assessment.

Dyslexia, a neurological disorder, is characterized by a difficulty in phonics and the sequencing of syllables. Students might have trouble rhyming, sounding words out or understanding how sounds work together. For instance, someone with dyslexia might have trouble grasping that the word “cat” without the “c” is “at.”Because reading and writing go hand in hand, these students often struggle with writing, spelling and vocabulary.

Gow’s Reconstructive Language program teaches the structure of the English language in a way that’s intellectually stimulating and focused on basic skills such as the alphabet and phonics. It uses cards to practice letter combinations and sounds and focuses on Greek and Latin word roots, spelling, vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension strategies.

Because technology is so visually based and dyslexics are often strong visual/spatial learners, they’re usually comfortable in front of a computer, McClaskey explains. But students need to be taught to use the right programs to support learning strategies designed for them.

The problem is most public school teachers have no idea what dyslexia is, so students go undiagnosed for years and don’t get intervention until late, McClaskey says. She has been working to change that for more than two decades. She works with schools, teachers and students to introduce software programs that read content aloud, Inspiration concept-mapping software, even Microsoft Word, which contains several assistive features.

“I really saw technology, in 1985, as the great equalizer,” she says. “It can help break down just about every barrier to learning.”

<p>Photo credit: FOREST MCMULLIN</p>