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Navigating the digital world

Michele McKeone: Autistic Support Educator, South Philadelphia High School
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    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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As a result of the big changes underway in the School District, teachers will soon be given more freedom to be creative. As part of our April print edition, the Notebook and NewsWorks took a multimedia look inside the classrooms of five exemplary Philadelphia teachers to get an on-the-ground perspectives of the great teaching and learning that is possible.

South Philadelphia senior Marcus Johnson stands at the front of his classroom eager to give his presentation on mammals. But there are no poster board cutouts here, no sketches across a blackboard, no pages borrowed from an animal encyclopedia. Johnson, with his back to a class that has iMacs and iPads, works the keys on his laptop computer with the focus of an engineer in a computer lab. After a few clicks, he turns to face his peers, and the website he designed – which gives vivid images and rich content about the animals he loves so much – fills the interactive projector at the front of the room.

Video: Kimberly Paynter for WHYY/NewsWorks

Johnson’s face lights up as he begins his talk about tigers, whales, and other creatures, and the habitats in which they live. Johnson, who said he wants to go to college or do job training after high school, is especially excited about this presentation because it matches the senior project he will soon do at the Philadelphia Zoo.

“I have that passionate on mammals,” said Johnson. “And what I’m going to do there, I’m going to research on mammals, I will have some photos about it, and write about each type of mammal, what I know.”

Johnson is one of nine students in an autistic support class at Southern led by special education teacher Michele McKeone. McKeone, who has been teaching for four and a half years, has incorporated digital media into her class as a way to help students develop essential life skills that will help them transition to independence, while also learning math, English, science, and other basic subjects.

“District wide, the life skills curriculum is focused on early intervention,” said McKeone, who graduated from the University of the Arts with a digital media degree. “Once students go through the early intervention and come to me, [I have ask myself] what do they need to really pursue their independence and transition from high school to the next step, whether it be vocational training or a university setting.

McKeone said she does a lot of research on job-ready skills, ““That’s why I focus on technology,” she said. “For example, my students, even if they’re going to go through a vocational rehabilitation center, they need to know email, how to send a resume, how to upload that resume to an email, change that resume to different file formats, or create a brand or social networking profile for themselves. They have to understand all the social rules and hidden intricacies that are involved in navigating the digital world.”

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One of McKeone’s best lessons is one in which she uses an application called Comic Life. With this lesson students identify a favorite project they completed during the year. For some students it’s their websites about sports teams or hip hop music. Johnson chose mammals – of course. Then, using Comic Life, students compose a comic strip that allows them to have a conversation with a classmate about their project. Students can add videos, photos, or music to the comics, and then demonstrate them on an iPad.

Support for McKeone’s ideas has come from the District and beyond. The District’s Office of Specialized Instructional Services provided her with five iPads and three new iMacs. And the Corzo Center for the Creative Economy recently awarded her a $10,000 grant to translate what she has been doing in her class to an online learning platform called Autism Expressed. McKeone, 30, is currently working with two curriculum advisors to ready the platform for teacher use.

McKeone has been given a lot of autonomy, which she credits to her good ideas and “positive outcomes.” But she said more partnerships with the District’s vocational training program and university pre-college programs are needed “to help our students as they prepare to get to their next step.” She said right now many vocational programs are pigeonholing autistic students into low-level service jobs like janitorial, when these students are capable of so much more.

“I want to level the playing field for students with learning and behavior variations,” she said. “But the one lesson that I really want my students to walk out of my classroom with is an overall sense of empowerment; the idea that they are responsible to advocate for themselves in any situation.”

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Wendy Harris

@WendyHarrisUSA
Wendy is the managing editor at the Notebook. She has worked at Black Enterprise magazine as a staff editor and contributing writer, and is the author of two books.