Staff at Archbishop Damiano School in New Jersey have used Skype to bring the community to students with special needs. Kristin Krumm reports

Social media avenues such as Skype, Twitter, Facebook and others are continually on the rise in popularity with new ones seemingly in development almost daily. These are ways to be connected with another individual or group of individuals for socialisation and communication. Students with special needs are no different in having access to these platforms, albeit with the assistance of some additional assistive technology.

In fact, through the use of Skype, Archbishop Damiano School in New Jersey, USA, has established and begun several connections with community individuals. What began as one connection with a famous children’s author has grown to include many other professionals as we bring the community to our students.

Technology in action for Skype chats. An iPad is programmed with greetings and questions using a communication program along with  mini speaker for sound amplification

Technology in action for Skype chats. An iPad is programmed with greetings and questions using a communication program along with mini speaker for sound amplification

Socialisation and communication is an important part of everyone’s daily lives. It is what helps to build our confidence, self-worth, and makes us happy. Socialisation opportunities lead to the creation of memories. Actively using our brains allows us to create and foster personal connections. Through the use of assistive technology, students at Archbishop Damiano School used items such as BIGmack switches, TapSpeak on the iPad and simple eye-gaze picture icons to form questions. These devices were then utilised during live interactive Skype sessions. Each student individually accessed his/her device with pride and enthusiasm.

Why Skype?
Why Skype you ask? It allows for learning experiences that may not usually take place to happen in a classroom setting such as virtual field trips to a museum, another country, visiting an author or rocking out with a musician. For students with special needs, some medically fragile, this is a particularly advantageous benefit. We are able through the use of a computer connected to a SMART Board to have the sights and sounds of a live Skype session appear right before our eyes.

A webcam allows us to zoom in closer on each student as well as scan the room for a panoramic view. The SMART Board provides a large visual display for the students and staff; often there is not a bad view anywhere in the classroom. Preparing for a Skype session is a collaborative effort. Archbishop Damiano School special education teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists and assistants each play a role in developing materials.

Someone in the team is the initiator of contact for a Skype session, usually the teacher or occupational therapist at our school. Once contact has been established, a mutually agreed upon time and day is set. When setting up Skype sessions you must remember time zones, both yours and the one you are Skyping. This can be confusing, especially for a school setting with a limited time frame. I have found most professionals are willing to work with you when provided with various options.

Speech therapists, teachers and occupational therapists collaborate on the types of assistive devices to use and program the questions decided upon with the students’ input. On the day of the Skype session, physical therapists assist with positioning and assistants support the use of technology with the students. A joint effort leads to a successful and satisfying Skype conference.

Our experience
Our experiences at Archbishop Damiano School have been nothing less than stellar. We have developed a friendship with children’s author, Laura Numeroff. She is the well-known author of If You Give a Mouse A Cookie and many other books. An email following a lesson-filled week of Numeroffs’ books led to an initial Skype session in February 2013. We are still Skyping regularly and even had a visit from Ms Numeroff to our school in April 2014.

How honoured we were to have the chance to meet her and show her our campus! She took the time to read to classes, sign books and pose for photos. Our Skype chats are filled with joy in keeping up with each other’s lives and she so graciously takes the time to remember students’ names with care and respect.

Author Laura Numeroff video chats through Skype with students. It is wonderful to promote literacy through live interaction with authors

Author Laura Numeroff video chats through Skype with students. It is wonderful to promote literacy through live interaction with authors

Motivation finds its way into our students’ hearts through music. Music – ‘vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion’. The students and staff of three classrooms were able to experience this first hand via a live interactive Skype session with famous violinist, Christian Hebel in June 2014.

Christian is a professional violinist who tours the world playing with various musicians, records some of the biggest film scores, and is concertmaster for the Broadway musical Wicked, among many other interesting projects. He generously gave of his time for questions regarding his career, hobbies, and interests. Perhaps the most exciting was the impromptu violin performance Christian delivered. As he entertained us with his violin, we were all mesmerised by the soothing sound.

Violinist Christian Hebel treated students to a musical gift during a Skype session. He performed an original piece to sounds of excitement from all involved

Violinist Christian Hebel treated students to a musical gift during a Skype session. He performed an original piece to sounds of excitement from all involved

Mr Hebel demonstrated humour, compassion, and patience throughout our Skype. Music evokes many different feelings and the therapeutic benefits for students with special needs are boundless. We hope this Skype relationship continues. Other professionals from the community offer opportunities to interview and discuss careers.

We had the chance to interview Carl Azuz, CNN Student News Reporter, in July 2014. Students view the daily reports from CNN Student News during morning routines on the SMART Board. A Skype chat with Mr Azuz showed his witty humour and interesting knack for developing the show’s puns. The atmosphere was lighthearted, casual and informative. Our interactivity during the session continued with question-and answer banter. Mr Azuz acknowledged each student with respect. We could not have anticipated a more lively video discussion.

Skype in the classroom
School settings can provide a wide variety of possibilities to interact through social media such as Skype. The connections sought are limited only by your imagination and occasionally financial resources. For educational professionals, Skype in the classroom is an excellent free website to join. It enables its users to collaborate with other classrooms, find guest speakers or enjoy a mystery Skype.

The site contains a searchable index of available lessons. Some include music, holiday themes, multicultural, science, and language arts. Students can interact with each other and discover virtual pen pals across the globe. Teachers and staff can assist in linking curriculum topics with a Skype conversation.

At Archbishop Damiano School staff seek out opportunities to connect with the community through websites such as this and others. When examining specific topics such as music, it is beneficial to explore reaching out to various musicians. Nothing ventured, nothing gained…remember to send thoughtful, succinct emails to those musicians or individuals through their websites.

You may be surprised with the positive results. However, always be able to accept rejection or being ignored. Some may charge fees per Skype session and if this is not built into your school’s budget, the many other avenues can be pursued. Skyping is a social media platform of our future and it only makes sense to involve our students now. By bringing community individuals to our students with special needs, we are not only building socialisation and communication, we are developing mutual respect in relationships.


About Contributors

Kristin M Krumm has been an occupational therapist in pediatrics at Archbishop Damiano School in New Jersey, USA, for over 15 years. She is involved in iPad grant writing and assists families with training and iPad setup. She has presented at ASAH and at Holy Family University, Pennsylvania.

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