Rock Hill middle school students produce video on autism

dworthington@heraldonline.comJune 6, 2013 

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    See an excerpt of the students’ video at heraldonline.com

— A quote from Helen Keller took 10 students at Rock Hill’s Rawlinson Road Middle School on a journey this school year where they not only examined themselves, but hoped to change how others see them.

Teacher Stacy Hunter asked her students, who have autism, to study tolerance, challenging them with Keller’s quote: “The highest form of tolerance is education.”

The students in grades six through eight used their iPads to search the Internet for information. They gathered text, graphics, pictures and music. They surveyed their fellow classmates.

With information assembled, they collaborated to produce a nearly nine-minute video.

It is the kind of project that Rock Hill school district officials hope will become commonplace as the district implements its iRock digital learning initiative. Students, guided by their teacher and assisted by an iPad, will be challenged to learn from each other.

There is nothing commonplace about Stacy Hunter’s classroom tucked into a back hallway of the school.

Her 10 students take the usual courses, moving from class to class.

Sometimes their behavior makes them stand out. Fellow students call them “different,” “strange” or “weird” because they are reluctant to make eye contact or speak, or have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel.

Hunter’s students say they are reluctant to respond to the taunts.

Her job is to improve their social skills, helping them learn about themselves and giving them skills that will transfer to other classrooms and in life. Her classroom is a haven for them.

“I never want to limit my students,” Tucker said. “My goal is to build the self-esteem, accept themselves and accept others.

“I want to teach them how to listen and how to be heard in a way that is socially acceptable.”

So when it came to the lesson on tolerance, Hunter started with a “global” topic with the hope that her students would narrow the focus. They did, looking at their own autism and how others perceived them.

Students were given topics to research such as the characteristics of autism, famous people who have autism and strategies to live with autism. Hunter also created teams of students, pairing older students with younger students. The teams were given responsibility for segments of the video.

The collaborative learning environment “was not natural to them,” Hunter said.

So “I rocked it,” Hunter said, making on a word play on the district’s slogan for its digital learning initiative. She wanted to give her students independence and confidence, and the iPads played a crucial role.

“They gave my students a voice,” she said. “It gave them the courage that they have something to say. They felt they belonged.”

Students said their research inspired them.

Learning about Albert Einstein, who may have been autistic, “got me thinking,” said Brandan Casler, an eighth-grader. “If someone like him can make a difference, why can’t we?”

The project has inspired to Casler to think about becoming a writer. Wrenn Pittman, an eighth-grader, and Peyton Cash, a sixth-grader, say they may want a career in technology, maybe becoming game developers.

Tommy Wilson, a sixth-grader, said everyone learned that patience is a two-way street. “You have to be patient with me, and I have to have patience, too.”

Patience was a key quality in making the video. In the final stages, a computer crashed and they lost everything.

“We didn’t grieve about it,” Casler said. “We figured it out.”

“We felt intelligent,” Cash said.

Pittman said the project has “already changed” the perception Rawlinson Road Middle School students have about autism. “We are accepted, that makes me happy.”

Rawlinson Road Middle School Principal Jean Dickson said the autistic students who come to school each year “are one of the bright spots of the building” and accepted by the student body.

The students, though, want to achieve results that extend beyond the school.

“The video is not just to change one person,” Casler said. “It’s to change the whole world,” helping people understand the characteristics and challenges of autism.

Excerpt from student video:

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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