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All-in on inclusivity in LRSD

December 17, 2019

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Microsoft Learning Tools help students thrive in the Louis Riel School Division 

The Vision of the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) is simple and straightforward: for all members of the community to excel as caring, confident, capable, and resilient lifelong learners who contribute to a democratic and sustainable world. This is not a task LRSD takes lightly, especially when it comes to those students who struggle with cognitive or motor disabilities that make traditional approaches to learning more challenging. Meeting the needs of this population―helping students thrive as learners, so they can in turn help their communities flourish―requires more effort, attention, and innovation. So, LRSD turned to Microsoft Learning Tools.

Thriving Learners ∞ Flourishing Communities. Such is the motto of the division headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The infinity symbol is more than an aesthetic choice; it also represents a commitment across the division's 31 elementary schools,  seven high schools, one dual-track elementary school, a technical and vocational training center, and in its community learning center. Nearly one-third of the schools in the division are French immersion, and 5,234 of the 15,500 students who go to school in the division are enrolled in the second official language program. In addition, there are students that self-identify as Indigenous, and to support a culture of inclusivity, LRSD has an Ojibwe Language Program where learners in kindergarten to Grade 1 spend 60 minutes in every six-day cycle learning Ojibwe words and concepts. There are plans to grow the program to include all children in kindergarten to Grade 3 in the coming years. The LRSD website lists nibi, or water, as one of the Ojibwe words of the week.
 

The value of learning tools

The division has relied on Microsoft solutions for years. As LRSD upgraded its network infrastructure, and students brought their own devices into the classroom, Microsoft tools have helped provide a universal foundation for learning. According to Clarke Hagan, Director of Information Systems at LRSD, "When Office 365 became a free-to-use for all staff and students, that was a huge game changer for us. As part of our culture, students in high schools bring their own devices. When you say, 'Here's Office for everybody,' that was a match made in heaven for us."  

Embedded into Microsoft Office are Learning Tools, a suite of applications that implements features to improve reading and writing for learners regardless of age or ability. LRSD knew it needed tools that would help students of different abilities learn, and Learning Tools were an ideal solution, and at no additional cost.  
According to Robert George, a school psychologist in LRSD, "We were turned on to Learning Tools and started seeing the benefits of having something already in place, accessible to all, and became better informed about what the Learning Tools were, how they could help support the population we work with, and how we could use this technology. We then started working within our network to initiate a pilot project that would target select students with a variety of learning needs."

When you have teachers with a shared vision and a collective and constant desire to find solutions, it's hard to be satisfied with "good enough." Teachers wanted students with learning disabilities to also thrive. Quickly they realized, that for those who struggled to read, tools such as Immersive Reader and Dictate could be game changers.  

From there, George says, "One thing that we thought was really motivating for teachers was that all these students had been identified as having a need that they were struggling to meet in the classroom. By the end of the project, teachers were able to evaluate students with a measurable outcome, uncovering a whole new learner with the use of Learning Tools. They soon discovered the benefits of these tools and began using them class-wide."

With the goal of bringing LRSD's Vision to life, division and school-level leadership saw this opportunity to incorporate Microsoft Learning Tools into the classroom as an innovative way to support learner growth and success.

Lisa Reis-Tymchuk, an LRSD Occupational Therapist, notes that their team quickly "discovered that teachers really do need support with technology. So, going forward, we made sure teachers were familiar with these tools as well as their applicability when supporting students. We quickly realized that teachers needed ongoing support through site visits to be able to continue to support them."

Martha Jez, CEO and Co-Founder of Fair Chance Learning, rehearses the initial Skype-based training LRSD undertook, and does so with pleasant surprise: "We work with the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert community in Canada, and we are trained in the technology, so we knew some of the problems students have when they use the technology, but the learning environment doesn't support their needs. Clarke really understood that when we look at supporting inclusive teaching through ubiquitous and seamless technology, it's necessary for some students, but good for all. In December we did a Skype session for everyone. There were so many educators interested, and we were surprised to see such a broad group in attendance. We shared about reaching every student through inclusive tools and talked about the Learning Tools themselves, and the learning environment mindset. By March, the tools were really taking off."
 

Technology that makes learning more human

These new tools radically reconfigure the way students learn, interact and contribute to their classmates. They enable a more inclusive approach to creative expression that simply might not be possible in the absence of these technologies.

Hagan, for example, describes a situation that would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago.

"We have a teacher who had a student last year who only spoke Mandarin. He has his Surface device, with his microphone, and in front of the class he has Microsoft Translator doing the live translation from Mandarin to English. So, this student, who you would normally have to pair with a Mandarin-speaking student to translate, that didn't have to happen. The technology just translated for him."  

Student presentations happen every day, in every school. But here, instead of language being a barrier, one that required another student serve as an intermediary, this Mandarin-speaking student could engage their classmates directly, building confidence, growing new relationships, and contributing to the larger, flourishing school community. 

A better way to learn

One teacher, Matt Stelmack, got very creative with his use of Learning Tools. He ran the entire class from Microsoft OneNote, incorporating and training students on Learning Tools through simulated "Escape Room" exercises, and he focused on building up the core skills of reading and writing. The simple truth, he notes, is that "if we want kids to be better at writing, we need them to write more."

Stelmack organizes activities that have all of his Grade 7 to 8 students turn to Learning Tools: "We have these little writing clinics where I shut off spell check so nobody has those little red lines so they can't quickly right click and correct the mistakes they made. They have to actually go to the Immersive Reader and listen to what they've just produced, and they'll hear where their errors are. So, we did that as a class just a few days ago, and one student wrote manny instead of many, and you can hear that doesn't sound proper. So, the thought process of writing is taken out of their head to hear and see the work that they've done and put that thought back into the work to make it something they're proud of."

The way these tools integrate with the rest of the Microsoft suite, especially applications such as OneNote, opened up opportunities for Stelmack to rewrite the rules of teaching to be more fundamentally inclusive: "OneNote lets me differentiate their learning. For example, we do current events once a week using resources that teachers have always had, and I could send the student things at their level in a very discreet, non-confrontational way so that, at the end of it, all 26 of my students would be reading at seven or eight different reading levels on their laptops. And then we can bring it all back together and discuss the article in class. And that has really been a game changer."

Not only did practices like this normalize the application of Learning Tools―which meant that there would be little difference between how students learn independent of ability―they also empowered the students who benefited from the tools' inherently inclusive design. As Stelmack explains, "It's about producing work they haven't' been able to do in the past. Students have really taken to it. You see that lightbulb moment, and off they go. I had a student that we were really working with, who was a struggling reader and writer. We showed her Dictate, and she's writing a five-page story within an hour."

A thriving learner

One of these students is Payton. Her mother, Stacy, said the eventual diagnosis of dyslexia didn't surprise either of Payton's parents: "We had been watching her and I noticed things that I remembered experiencing as a child, as I am also dyslexic." But today, that experience looks remarkably different, thanks to Learning Tools. 

"You should take the opportunity to try Learning Tools and if you don't, you would regret it," says Payton. "The computer has really helped me, and it would help you."

"The thing that I notice is that the experience Payton is having with technology is vastly different than the experience I had growing up without these types of supports," says Stacy. "What we're seeing with this technology is that they're working really hard in the school system to not separate her from her class and allow her to keep up with classwork, just doing it in a different way. With dyslexia, it's exhausting to try to decode every paper you're given throughout the day. And if the intent of the work is to learn about the solar system and not learning how to read about the solar system, then these tools help so that she actually is learning.  And then she has the energy when the goal is actually learning to read about the subject. We're seeing those differences and how the approach is helping her immensely."

It's a powerful experience for these students to be able to express themselves and have the mental energy needed throughout the day so that they can thrive as learners.

Stelmack puts it succinctly: "Creative minds are creative minds . . . all we're trying to do with them is really get more work out of them. With Learning Tools, Payton now has the ability to contribute to her class in a way that she never could before and gift her fellow students with stories they otherwise could not have read.  It's a powerful thing for an educator, but a revolutionary thing for the students."

When Payton was asked what she might tell other children about her experiences with using Learning Tools, her response was eager and prescriptive: "You should take the opportunity to try Learning Tools and if you don't, you would regret it. The computer has really helped me, and it would help you."

As originally appears on Microsoft.com Customer Stories, December 13, 2019

 
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