Education
3:57 am
Wed June 11, 2014

iPads Allow Kids With Challenges To Play In High School's Band

Originally published on Thu June 12, 2014 7:40 am

There's a steady stream of hype surrounding the pluses and pitfalls of classroom tablet computers. But for a growing number of special education students tablets and their apps are proving transformative. The tablets aren't merely novel and fun. With guidance from creative teachers, they are helping to deepen engagement, communication, and creativity.

In a typical red brick public school building in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens, New York, one creative and passionate music instructor is using tablet computers to help reach students with disabilities. In the process, he's opening doors for some kids with severe mental and physical challenges.

On the surface, the PS 177 Technology Band looks like a typical high school orchestra. But there are two big differences. First, while they use traditional instruments, they also play iPads. And all of the band members have disabilities. Some have autism spectrum disorders.

"I'm Tobi Lakes, I'm 15 years old. I'm in ninth grade. I'm four grades away from college."

Morning sunlight pushes through large, old windows into the school's well-worn and empty-seated auditorium. On the stage, iPads on small stands sit in a semicircle. It's rehearsal time. The students mingle and chat before practice starts. Tobi Lakes, a tall, wire-thin teen with thick glasses sits at an electric piano. He taught himself to play.

"I'm very good. I like the piano. I like the keyboard. Keyboard is the best. Number one!" Tobi says with a wide smile. On his school-issued tablet computer, using a music app called Thumb Jam, Tobi also loves his iPad "guitar."

As rehearsal heats up Tobi takes the lead on rock guitarist Jeff Beck's version of Puccini's "Nesun Dorma." Tobi Lakes, iPad guitar shredder, is learning disabled. He's autistic. And he's also blind in one eye. Adam Goldberg, the creator of the PS 177 band, gets the music started.

"The first note of the second line please," he tells them. "In blue. There ya go. That's the pizzicato."

The 53 year old teacher is a classically trained pianist with a degree from the Manhattan School of Music. About 20 years ago he began substitute-teaching here while playing freelance jazz and rock gigs. He was soon offered a job at PS 177, and he's been at the school ever since.

'Sing, Sing, Sing!'

Seventeen-year-old Jason Houghton walks in a little late for rehearsal. One of his teachers says Jason is "classically severely autistic." His speech is often marked by echolalia, a communication disorder where he repeats back what you say to him. Before the band, Jason rarely spoke at all. But music helped change that. "Some people were very surprised when they could see that he could sing because some people thought that he was non-verbal," Goldberg says. "At first I kept saying 'sing, sing, sing.' And he wouldn't sing until I said 'Jason like this 'dah dah dah dah.' Then he would go 'dah dah dah dah.' And I would say 'no, do something of your own.' "

Goldberg says several of the students were previously non-verbal or only occasionally verbal. He eventually got Jason to hum his own notes and soon built an original song "Being Me" around that phrase. These days Jason takes 'lead' vocals on that tune. And he doesn't just echo back lyrics. He even improvises – or scat sings – in his own way.

"It was mostly persistence, you know, and the confidence that it was there inside of him. It goes back to that summer when we had some extra time. And I just kept pushing him.

I admit sometimes I push them," Goldberg says. "Not in a mean way. But I know inside there's something and I have the confidence in them that they can find a way to bring it out."

The teacher calls himself a hesitant technophile. "I'm an acoustic guy," he says. He sits at the piano and starts playing jazz, his first musical love. "I was always reluctant to get involved with technology but that was mostly because there was so much work involved to get the technology to work properly."

But Goldberg says the iPad and its apps have allowed the band to produce complex orchestral-style arrangements. With the tablets, he says, kids can play all kinds of different virtual instruments by just tapping buttons on the touch screen, instead of getting bogged down in learning technique.

"All the technical stuff that, you know, is admittedly very worthwhile," he says. "I'm coming from classical background. But for people who can't, and don't have the resources, if you give them something like this as a musical instrument you can really kind of break through barriers and teach so much of the art of the whole process of music-making. Which these guys do beautifully with that."

A New Look

Just what is it about a tablet, or the iPad in particular, that works so well with some students with disabilities and children on the autism spectrum?

Educators believe there's something about the combination of the big, bright, clear visual cues of some of the music apps, and the touchscreen that's easy to use without creating a sensory or visual overload. Beyond that, many teachers and parents aren't really sure. It's still a bit of a mystery.

"We have some really, really low-functioning students who I could never really involve in the music activities," Goldberg says.

"But the iPad has pretty much taken care of that. I can't say I have 100 percent involvement. But it's pretty close."

And educators say there's another way the tablets are proving to be game changers for special ed. They've begun to make obsolete those large and costly learning devices, allowing a student with disabilities to look like every other student.

"It has changed the way people look at people with disabilities," says Karen Gorman, the director of Assistive Technology for New York City's Public schools. For years, she said, many kids with severe autism, cerebral palsy or other serious challenges needed these large, clunky and expensive assistive-speaking devices. Some looked like small accordions, worn around students' necks. Gorman says they looked a little odd, and screamed "disabled kid."

Now the iPad and other tablets, she says, have helped level the playing field socially.

"Parents thought for the first time my child with disabilities is using something that looks very cool, and modern and current. And other kids will come over to them now and interact with them."

Once, Gorman says, other students tended to see only the disability: "Kid in a wheelchair, kid in a wheelchair," she explains. "Kid in a wheelchair with an iPad? How interesting."

Game-Changer

Tobi Lakes stands and sways rhythmically back and forth on stage, the iPad braced in a stand as he summons his inner Jeff Beck. His thumbs furiously tap the music app's buttons as the song "Nesun Dorma" begins to crescendo. "Really awesome. We're ninety-nine percent there," Goldberg tells the band with a grin. "Very good. I love doing this!"

Apple, Samsung and other tech giants certainly didn't intend for their tablets to become essential tools for students with disabilities.

"I have a feeling they had no idea" says Leslie Schect, the Director of Technology for New York City's Department of Education. "The iPad is a game-changer because it's affordable and accessible. It really opens doors. At times we don't often know what's really inside because they're not speaking. This helps give them the voice."

Shecht says there's more to these students than many people realize.

"Music is a natural way in. It just makes sense that it's something they'd gravitate to."

Still Schect and other educators are quick to point out that the tablets are just tools, not some cure-all. Students still need a creative, engaged teacher – like Adam Goldberg - to make the devices transformative.

Goldberg says a key is getting students to open up and express themselves freely, "instead of being afraid 'oh, that isn't going to sound good.' "

Schect says her department and the city have no financial relationship or get any incentive from Apple for using their products. "I wish," she says. The company is simply one of the city's vendors and suppliers, she says.

'I Love Music'

"My name is William Hernandez; I play the iPad and the piano. I love Mr. Goldberg so much."

The band works to get the sound right on the South African anti-apartheid song "When You Come Back," which they perform as a tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.

Teenagers Rachel Rodriquez and Ulysses Rivers are on backing vocals. Nineteen year old Ryan Rodriquez takes the lead.

Perhaps even more important than the music, Goldberg says, is that the band has given students a sense of belonging, friendship and joint accomplishment.

"They all support each other. It doesn't matter who is taking the solo. They're essential to making the whole thing work. That translates to a wider idea of socialization out in the general world. And I see a huge leap in their socialization and social abilities and the fact they say hello to each other. A couple of years ago that wasn't happening."

Now, band members dream of performing for a wider audience. 17-year-old Jaquan Bostick says he wants to try to make music his profession.

"You know when we graduate we should do all start a tour, like a world tour" he tells the band. "That's what I've been thinking about a lot. I've been thinking about that a lot. Like since yesterday."

His band mates and friends nod in agreement. "Me too." "Me three." Goldberg knows from experience how tough the professional musician road is and says he's straight with the students about it. Yet, he says he'd never strip them of their vision.

"Some of these kids, you know, don't have a chance to dream," he says. "Again, it comes from confidence. It may be a very difficult dream to achieve. But it's attached to reality. They really do play music. They're not dreaming of being Superman or Spiderman."

He says the students are dreaming of something they can do where they can say to themselves, " 'I have this.' "

For Tobi Lakes – and many others here – playing in the iPad band has helped him socially and creatively. "I feel excited. I feel happy. I love music," he says with a broad smile. "It feels like I'm going crazy and all the audience was clapping!"

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to spend a little time now with a public school band in Queens, New York, that rocks, swings and breaks new musical ground. This is not your typical high school orchestra for a couple of reasons. First, while they do play some traditional instruments, they also play iPads, and all the student musicians have serious learning disabilities. The tablets aren't merely novel and fun, although they're that. With the help of a creative teacher, the iPads are opening doors for some children with mental and physical challenges. From the NPR Ed team, Eric Westervelt has our story.

TOBI LAKES: My name is Tobi Lakes. I'm 15 years old. I'm in ninth grade. I'm four grades away from college.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's morning, and sunlight pushes through large, old windows into a well-worn auditorium at Public School 177 in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens. On stage, iPads on small stands sit in a semi-circle. It's rehearsal time for the PS 177 technology band. The students mingle and chat before practice starts. A tall, wire-thin teen with thick glasses named Tobi Lakes loves to play piano. He taught himself to play.

LAKES: I like the piano. I like the keyboard. The keyboard is the best - number one.

WESTERVELT: Toby also loves his iPad guitar. He plays on his school-issued tablet computer using a music app called Thumb Jam. As rehearsal heats up, Tobi takes the lead on rock guitarist Jeff Beck's version of Puccini's "Nesun Dorma."

(SOUNDBITE OF PS 117 TECHNOLOGY BAND)

WESTERVELT: Tobi Lakes, iPad guitar shredder, has a learning disability. He's autistic, and he's blind in one eye. PS 177 is a school for students with serious learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders.

ADAM GOLDBERG: The first note of the second line, please.

WESTERVELT: The band is the brainchild of music teacher Adam Goldberg.

GOLDBERG: I think it's in blue, this second line. There you go, perfect. That's that pizzicato we were talking about, with the cello supporting, right?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: OK.

GOLDBERG: OK. And one - (singing).

WESTERVELT: The 53-year-old is a classically trained pianist who, 20 years ago, began substitute teaching here while playing jazz and rock gigs nights and weekends - work the music dream, then go to work. He was soon offered a job at PS 177. He's been here ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF PS 117 TECHNOLOGY BAND)

WESTERVELT: All of the band members happen to have severe learning disabilities. Many of them are autistic to some extent. Some of the students were previously nonverbal or only occasionally verbal. Many don't just play iPads, they play traditional instruments. Several love to sing. There are a about a dozen band members including William Hernandez on piano and iPad. Jaquan Bostick and Jeremiah Estic (ph) sing, play the iPad and drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF PS 117 TECHNOLOGY BAND)

GOLDBERG: Remember, keep going back. And - pick up where you know we are. Use your ear.

WESTERVELT: Goldberg was a hesitant technophile. I'm an acoustic guy, he says, and sits down at the piano and starts playing jazz, his first musical love.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ PIANO)

GOLDBERG: I was always kind of reluctant to get involved with technology, but that was mostly because there was just so much work involved to get the technology to work properly.

WESTERVELT: But Goldberg says the iPad and its array of apps have allowed the band to produce complex orchestral-style arrangements, for kids to play all kinds of different virtual instruments by just tapping buttons on the touch-screen, instead of getting bogged down in learning technique.

GOLDBERG: All the technical stuff that, you know, admittedly is very, very worthwhile. I mean, I'm coming from a classical background, so I appreciate all that. But for people who can't, if you give them something like this as a musical instrument, you can really kind of break through all those barriers and teach so much of the art of the whole process of music making, which, these guys do beautifully with that, I think. Right, guys?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yes.

GOLDBERG: Right?

STUDENTS: Yup.

GOLDBERG: Let's go through this again. Thank you.

WESTERVELT: But just what is it about a tablet computer that makes it work so well with some students with disabilities? There's something about the combination the big, bright, clear visual cues of some of the music apps and the tactile easy-to-use touchscreen. But beyond that, the fact is educators aren't really sure. It's still a bit of a mystery.

GOLDBERG: We have some really, really low-functioning students who I could never really involve in the music activities, but the iPad has pretty much taken care of that. I can't say I have a hundred percent involvement, but it's pretty close.

WESTERVELT: And here's another way tablets are proven to be game-changers. They've made mostly obsolete those large and costly special-ed learning devices.

KAREN GORMAN: It has changed the way people look at people with disabilities.

WESTERVELT: Karen Gorman is the head of Assistive Technology for New York City's public schools. Before, some kids with severe autism, cerebral palsy or other serious challenges needed these giant, clunky and expensive assistive-speaking devices. Some looked a little like small accordions around kids' necks. She says they looked odd and screamed disabled kid. Now the iPad and other tablets, she says, have helped level the playing field, socially.

GORMAN: Parents thought, for the first time, my child with disabilities is using something that looks very cool and modern and current. And other kids will come over to them now and interact with them, whereas before all they saw was the disability. That's all they looked that - oh, kid in a wheelchair - kid in a wheelchair - kid in a wheelchair with an iPad? How interesting. So it really - socially it has had a big impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF PS 117 TECHNOLOGY BAND)

GOLDBERG: Hold it, good. And, T. That's okay.

WESTERVELT: Student Tobi Lakes stands and sways rhythmically back and forth on stage, the iPad braced in a stand, summoning his inner Jeff Beck. His thumbs furiously tap the music app buttons as Nesun Dorma begins to crescendo.

(SOUNDBITE OF PS 117 TECHNOLOGY BAND)

GOLDBERG: Guys - really awesome. We got it 99 percent there.

WESTERVELT: For some of the PS 177 technology band, including Tobi, the group has changed their lives.

LAKES: I feel excited. I feel happy. I love music. It feels like I was going crazy, and all the audience was clapping.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PS 117 TECHNOLOGY BAND)

MONTAGNE: Later today on All Things Considered, the band dreams big.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 1: You know, when we graduate, we should all start a tour, like a world tour.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 2: Yeah.

STUDENT 1: That's what I was even thinking about, a lot. I've been thinking about that since yesterday.

STUDENT 2: Me, too.

MONTAGNE: That's later on All Things Considered. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.