Think Different-Disruptors of the Status Quo

As a Learning Strategies Teacher, my thoughts surround my students, all of whom are identified with a Learning Disability. They are the focus of my participation in our OECTA CLC Project: “How might technology be leveraged to increase independence among exceptional learners?” The team for our project is Leslie Cardarelli, Charlene Davidson, Sarah Faloon and I. Anthony Carabache (OECTA Provincial), Mara Torcasa (OECTA Ottawa), Lynne Coletti (Principal, Student Services), Tania Gonsalves (Principal, Holy Family School) and Krista Sarginson (Itinerant Teacher of Assistive Technology) participated in our Day 2 activities.  Here are my reflections after Day 2 of the project. For more information go to

In case you are wondering, the title of my post is grammatically correct. Think Different was an advertising campaign created by Steve Jobs and Apple Computer Inc. in 1997. In it, different is used as a noun, as in think victory, pink or big. A homage to those in history who courageously moved beyond the status quo.

Each generation has revolutionaries who move the thinking forward. In a world in which most of us are told, think this or that, Jobs challenged Apple and the rest of us to not follow blindly. To question the why, before the what and how. To have the courage to be different, in a world of same. To push the human race forward.


Come to my classroom. Black and white Think Different posters adorn the walls of my classroom. On them are the faces of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr.,  John Lennon, Mohandas Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Jim Henson, Pablo Picasso, and others. They are the crazy ones who could not be ignored.Yes, they were different. Yes, their ideas were often ridiculed and rejected. But, they endured, refusing to accept defeat. They are powerful reminders to my students, visitors to the classroom, and me about the power of innovation, resilience and overcoming adversity. I think Thomas Edison best captured this phenomena when he said: “I have not failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

My students are currently involved in a unit titled Think Different. They are learning about creatively  changing the cultural, political and moral fabric of our world. The culminating task for each student is to identify the essential skills for having a positive impact on the world. I hope that by studying Think Different leaders, each student will look beyond his or her own challenges to create a personal vision of how to be successful as a learner. Further, they will learn how technology can help them move beyond the limitations of their own learning disabilities.

Last week, the OECTA CLC team observed me teaching a lesson. Its focus was Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, her teacher. Sullivan is an example of a crazy one. Her innovative teaching practices were key to Keller overcoming adversity and a model for me and other teachers.

My students and I used Hapara Workspace and Google Read and Write, both proven to benefit students with learning disabilities. I used the Workspace function of Hapara to create the Think Different unit, share it with my students, differentiate lessons for them, and track their progress and provide them feedback. It afforded students independence, enabling them to work at their own pace.


The observers watching me teach, saw that after I explained the lesson, students spread out through the classroom and began working. They saw each student follow the flow of work, depicted by lime green hearts, for the lesson. That the flow included the day’s Learning Goal, Resources (a video and article), Evidence (questions shared in Docs) and Success Criteria. All steps in the workflow are numbered and easily accessed.

Moreover, throughout the lesson, the observers saw some students using Google Read and Write Screenshot Reader to help them read the directions that were provided in the Workspace. They saw students use Simplify the Page to reduce and manage the complexity level of the article. Play was used by students who are dysfluent readers. Word Predictor and Voice-To-Text assisted students in composing responses. Some students used Voice Note to organize their thinking before writing. One lesson, created and shared by me with students who accessed it in various ways and used specific tools they needed to complete work successfully.

The bottom line of the observation, students were actively engaged. They accessed technology to enable their learning. Students, with various reading and writing levels, accessing similar material, but entering at multiple entry points. Each was an independent learner. Each student leveraged what was needed to bring the lesson to life.

During the debrief after the observation, we discussed what teachers would experience if they observed this lesson. Anthony Carabache suggested they likely would respond in one of three ways after visiting my room. Some would enthusiastically say, “I can’t wait to try that!’ Others would ask, “How can I do that?” And there would be those who say, “I can’t do that!” Next, Anthony encouraged our team, as part of our CLC process, to share both the struggle and the journey.

Later, I reflect about how the message of Think Different relates to the CLC project and the changes I want to make in my teaching, and the overall system. That part of my calling is to show that it is possible to overcome the barriers I face as an educator, and enable all my students to be successful and independent in the classroom and beyond. The importance of me telling my story, challenges included.

As I reflect, I think about how being a crazy one who seeks to change the way things are done, so more students learn better, is often met with resistance. The way risk-takers, such as myself, approach necessary changes with eagerness.  While change, for others, often breeds contempt, fear and feelings of inadequacy. I see how, in the same way the shame of a learning disability can hinder my students, shame can disempower educators who feel overwhelmed by change. I remind myself to realize that each of us is at a different stages of the journey. To not compare my beginning to someone else’s ending. None of us should.

If you come into my classroom now, you cannot look into my own rearview mirror. If you could, you would see that my journey of leveraging technology began two years ago in my  Grade 6 classroom. There, I used the tools I use here with all students. An experience that set the stage for this year by giving me the confidence to move forward and dive in deeper.

When you walk into my room today, you won’t see my whole journey. The tears I shed from sheer exhaustion at the beginning of the school year are not visible. You will not see the fatigue I experienced from combatting the fixed mindsets, learned helplessness, and negative self-talk of my students. Nor will you see the varying reading levels and the mixed abilities of my students. Their initial anxiety and frustration, since quelled by extensive work with the Zones of  Regulation. The pressure I felt to create an impact, knowing that my students’ admission into this program was just one year. The frustration of network issues, software problems, broken head-sets and glitchy microphones are not apparent. There were times I questioned my methods. I wondered if I should bring out the worksheets, avoid the challenging inquiry process. I questioned whether I was pushing my students too hard and if my expectations were too high.

No, what you will see in my room is the result of me holding my ground. The pride that comes from seeing students succeed. So what will you see?

You will see students navigating through challenging tasks. Who, by accessing the tech tools, see themselves as readers and writers. Who work quietly and regulate their learning without my intervention. They manage their frustration by taking breaks then returning to task. They trust their own abilities. And, because the stress associated by pencil and paper tasks was reduced, many students have gained several levels in their reading ability.Two students, more than doubled their Benchmark levels since September. In sum, you will see students who are learning enabled, not disabled.

But, as you stand there looking into the doorway to my classroom, please be mindful. Every day is an uphill climb. Some days, two steps forward equals three steps forward, one step back. But, we keep on climbing.

Leaps and progress of the sort you see in my classroom come from breaking free of the status quo,  disrupting things, and never ever uttering the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way.” It necessitates leveraging technology for the learning of all students.  As you see in my classroom, leveraging technology has a significant impact on students with exceptional needs.

Educational change will not occur from the top down. It must occur with us, in our classrooms, with our students. We teachers are the gatekeepers to student learning. It is up to us to deliver a program in which ALL learners can be successful.To not stand in the doorway to accessibility. To overcome our own fears, shame and misconceptions.

The events of this year, in my classroom, remind me that out of chaos comes opportunity. That the most powerful disruptors are the students themselves. Who, using alternate forms of technology become self-advocates, and learners who seek and can find success. Their success ultimately gives greater agency to all students.

As I wrap up this post, the song Renegades by X-Ambassadors runs through my head. It echos the theme of Job’s Think Different campaign. “All hail the underdogs. All hail the new kids. All hail the outlaws – Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s.” Being the innovator, the rebel, that person who moves things forward will never be easy. It will not be an easy task to implement change in a system with long-established norms and mores. It will not be easy to redefine success for students, or to have all educators accept alternate forms of assessment of reading and writing.

There will be resistance, opposition and those who doubt. Move anyways. As Jobs said, “the only ones who ever change the world are the ones who are crazy enough to do so.” Each movement, has begun with only one voice. A voice determined and courageous enough to speak up. Be that voice -wherever you are.

The struggle is real. It is real for our students, and for us, as educators. In this messy, imperfect world, it is the only way forward. Embrace it. Let’s take that giant step forward together. Let’s Think Different so that ALL students can be successful in our system. Come stand with Sarah, Charlene, Leslie and I. Be a disruptor.

It’s our time to make a move

It’s our time to make amends

It’s our time to break the rules

Let’s begin



Note: During our next CLC, we will be joined by Lynne Coletti (Principal of Student Services), Nancy Kawaja (Itinerant Teacher of Assistive Technology) and Kimberly Giles (Principal of St. Marguerite d’Youville School). We will continue exploring our guiding question by (a) discussing barriers to independence and leveraging technology  (b) proposing solutions to these barriers, (c) reflecting on strengths and needs of students with Mild Intellectual Disabilities and (d) visiting Charlene Davidson’s Junior Special Needs class.