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How technology - and innovative teaching - saved my son's education

Monica Fong from David Livingstone Elementary works on a SMART board in class in Vancouver, BC. The touch-sensitive display connects computer, digital projector and students to show computer image and work.

lyle stafford/The Globe and Mail

I'd like to say that technology saved my child from educational failure, but that would deny a far greater alchemy at work.

When a child is diagnosed with a learning disability, a parent's instinct is to find the fix – and quick. But the challenges my son Jay has are not going away any time soon. So the trick has been to find long-term strategies that help him navigate his way through school in the most positive way possible.

For the first few years that challenge appeared insurmountable. We had a child who talked about how stupid he was, how he would never be any good at anything. And, most heartbreaking of all: how he wished he were dead.

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Jay was 7 when he was diagnosed. He was not unintelligent, we were told, but his brain was wired differently.

Put simply: He was capable of absorbing information, he just couldn't regroup it into a written sentence or any other pen and paper format. These extreme "output issues" meant he would be unlikely to be awarded any grade or mark as he progressed through the system.

His Grade 3 teacher also told us the school was not going to be able to teach him to read.

We decided to pull Jay out of school during the hours devoted to literacy and engage a tutor. It took a year and thousands of dollars – but it was worth every penny. Today, Jay not only reads well, he's a total bookworm.

School life continued to be miserable, however. And in Grade 4 Jay was transferred to a district program designed, we were told, for kids like him. In reality, the class (where he was expected to spend four years) took a "one method suits all" approach. Except it didn't suit Jay at all.

He was learning nothing. The day was filled with endless handwritten worksheets to fill out. We were in despair.

Then, in 2008, I did a story for The Globe on an East Vancouver school that had installed smart boards in every classroom.

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The principal of David Livingstone Elementary School, David Brook, and members of his staff demonstrated the interactive whiteboards. The possibilities of the technology, they said, had caused a seismic shift in their approach to teaching.

As I watched a nine-year-old boy with significant special needs stand up in front of the class and present his own animated version of the fable The Hare and the Tortoise, my interest was no longer purely professional. This was the answer for Jay, I was certain.

It wasn't the smart boards that convinced me – it was how the teaching staff had embraced this technology and used it to push the boundaries of pedagogy. Here were teaching professionals determined to instill a love of learning, by any means at their disposal, to their largely low-income and ESL student population.

After a house move across the city and into David Livingstone's catchment area, Jay entered the Grade 6 class – led by teacher Laurie Cassie – and hasn't looked back. He took his tests using a voice recorder, made notes on his laptop and created digital art. The technology allowed him to be a full participant as the class studied major topics such as slavery, world religions and the Second World War.

His final report card included an A and lots of Bs. He also won the school technology prize. He's since moved on to high school.

Jay's success was aided by technology, but the catalyst was the open-minded progressive teaching practised at David Livingstone. In 2008, six years after the first smart board arrived at the school – now designated a District Technology Inquiry School – the Livingstone Inquiry Group was formed.

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The group met monthly, bringing together staff from David Livingstone and other schools, researchers from the University of British Columbia and a representative from the research arm of the teachers' union, the BCTF. Together, they launched a book called Living and Learning in a Smartboard World in September.

Gaalen Erickson, professor emeritus at UBC's faculty of education, is part of the group and says that it's rare to see this degree of collaboration in the school system. The smart board program has allowed staff with no prior technology training to become leaders in the field: Ms. Cassie and others travel across the province to train teaching staff and have presented papers to international conferences; the school hosts training days for Vancouver teachers to learn the possibilities of a digital classroom.

This is grassroots professionalism at its best. The technology offers the potential for a new, dynamic pedagogy, but it's the teachers, not the machines, who will drive it.

Laurie Cassie and David Livingstone resources teacher Rebecca Robins received the 2011 Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence.

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