Teacher gets creative with technology grant

Sandy » High-tech pens will read to disabled students, allowing them to use regular textbooks.
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Jennifer Heaney isn't above trying magic if it can help severely disabled students read better.

Heaney, a special-education team leader at Sandy's Eastmont Middle School, has received a $1,674 grant from the Qwest Foundation to order five optical scanners that translate the written word into spoken sentences.

The devices, known as Readingpens, are manufactured by WizCom Technologies in Westford Mass. Heaney says they should help disabled students with reading impairments understand science and social study textbooks.

"We were having a lot of issues with students who have problems with severe disabilities such as dyslexia. They couldn't read the textbooks in our mainstream classes," said Heaney, 32.

At first, the solution seemed straightforward. The school could purchase textbooks on CDs and CD players. But as Heaney thought about it, she had doubts.

"It makes the (disabled) kids stand out significantly from their peers. And then they also have to move to areas of the classroom that have all of these things, and they are not willing to do that."

A light flashed in her head. Heaney had been leafing through a catalogue of special-education products last fall. She remembered looking at the Readingpen, a hand-held device about the size of a small TV remote control.

It seemed like a better idea. The user scans the tip of the pen over words and sentences. The pen then reads the text to the user through a pair of earbuds.

"That way, you don't have to have a specific CD for a specific book for each class. You can use it however and whenever you want. And it's small enough that it doesn't attract a lot of attention. You can use it fairly unnoticed," Heaney said.

The pens are remarkable. They work with any printed text. Able to recognize 500,000 words and equipped with a dictionary and thesaurus, they help students improve vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation and comprehension. There is even an English-to-Spanish translation mode.

But they are expensive. The Qwest grant is enough to buy just five pens. Instead of assigning one pen to one student, Heaney is putting one pen in each science and social studies classroom.

"Honestly, for $300, they better (work), is the way I see it. That's as much as a small laptop that I can get," Heaney said. "It may not be perfect, but it's got to be better.

"It's all about accessing the curriculum. The pen allows them access to half-a-million words, so that gives them access to middle-school curriculum."

The Qwest Foundation's Teacher and Technology Grant Program was launched three years ago, said Jerry Fenn, Qwest Communication's Utah president. Its goal is to help teachers use technology in innovative ways.

He said the program has helped enhance the foundation's mission of awarding grants aimed at generating high-impact and measurable results through community-based programs.

In each of the past three years, the foundation has awarded $50,000 in Teacher and Technology grants throughout Utah ranging from $400 to $2,500.

"We try to make sure we're getting a good cross section of the state," Fenn said. "There are a lot of who have come up with some very creative ways to use technology to help their students."