Amplifying student voice the Farrington way: One teacher’s journey to raise the profile of special education students

01-Jul-2020

With the help of a supportive principal and grant funding, Farrington math teacher Sean Witwer used out-of-the-box thinking to help his students earn their place on the honors list — and more are in the pipeline.

By Nanea Kalani

The inclusion of three students' names on Farrington High School's list of honors graduates this summer marked a significant accomplishment, not only for the students, but for teacher Sean Witwer, who spent years trying to tackle a monumental challenge.

Witwer — a 20-year HIDOE educator, with more than half those years spent in special education — set his sights on closing the achievement gap between high-needs students and their non-high-needs peers in a prominent way: Getting special education graduates recognized on the school's honor roll.

The special education math teacher sees the honors distinction as paving the way for graduates to earn scholarships and go on to post-secondary learning and good-paying jobs, referring to high-achieving students who earn a grade point average of 3.0 and higher.

"I wanted to do things differently and wanted my students to start thinking like successful students," he said. "For the first time ever, that I know of, three students who started out in special education graduated on the honor roll this year."

With the help of a supportive principal and grant funding, Witwer used out-of-the-box thinking to help those students earn their place on the honors list — and more students are in the pipeline.

He knew from experience that a student's success in math can have a positive ripple effect on other core courses like science. He also knew the opposite effect happens when students aren't engaged or motivated in math class.

Students see big academic gains

Inspired several years ago by Jim Warford, a renewal specialist, Witwer began infusing technology into his classroom, using a blended learning model and targeting instruction based on students’ ability levels.

He saw impressive results within a short amount of time. Some students were advancing three, four and even five grade levels in a single year. (Most  of his students initially were performing at elementary grade-level math.)

But Witwer started noticing that the intensive online learning was having an unintended downside amid the success.

"We got some amazing results," he said. "But because students were working individually, it separated them from each other and from me as the teacher. The next obstacle was going to be the relationship aspect. I needed to figure out how to bring them together in a meaningful way."

Two years ago, inspiration hit when Witwer got an email from his principal about applying for the Good Idea Grant Program from the Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation.

'We're going to change the world'

"It hit me within a minute, what I wanted to do: YouTube math tutorials with my students," Witwer recalled. "I wanted to make math fun and give the students a mental break to work together on something bigger than themselves.”

"I told them, 'We're going to go out there, win a grant, make videos and change the world.' And they looked at me, like, 'Huh?'"

Witwer's proposal got a $3,000 boost from the foundation, and he got to work. Farrington's principal relocated Witwer to a larger classroom space, with room to create a media lab for his students to film and edit their videos. And the "Govs Math Lab" YouTube channel was born.

His students quickly took to the project, creating and narrating professional-looking tutorial videos on pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and basic arithmetic concepts. Witwer said the goal was for students to demonstrate what they learned by teaching it to someone else, while also introducing students to digital media skills and incorporating some of their hobbies into math lessons.

Govs Math Lab YouTube channel

"It might seem unconventional for a math class," Witwer added. "Some might think these students can just go to a digital media class. But they only have so many classes in a day and oftentimes have to take support classes, so they don't get as many opportunities to take electives."

With limited resources, students were sharing a single computer to edit on and Witwer began exploring ways to expand the effort. He applied for an Innovation Grant last year through HIDOE's Leadership Institute and was selected for a $10,000 grant.

"I had a dream that instead of just one computer for the whole class, every student could have access to one. I wanted to give my students the best opportunity to succeed," he said.

He also wanted to be sure he put every dollar to good use responsibly. "I knew we had to do something big and take it to the next level," he said.

Around the same time, Witwer and his principal agreed to try something new with his math classes.

"He let me take them for all of high school so that all three math credits would be with me instead of them moving on to another teacher. So now I'll have them as freshmen, sophomores and juniors," he said.

With that change, Witwer decided to expand the Quad D projects and the digital media component of his class beyond math. He started out with an assignment for students to produce dream vacation videos that incorporated math and economics. Wanting to take things a step farther, he came up with an idea for students to create websites using Google Sites and design digital portfolios for their entire high school journey.

"We went really big and we made digital portfolios that span all of their classes," he said. "Now when they complete their high school experience they'll be leaving with digital skills and comprehensive digital portfolios."

Farrington values: Trust, empowerment, collaboration

Students have started applying what they're learning in other classes, for example, building Google Sites for science and social studies projects. Even school staff members have asked Witwer’s students to demonstrate how they created websites after seeing what they can do.

"My students are really collaborating in new ways. Almost every student nowadays wants to be a YouTuber, an influencer, and be celebrated," he said. "Watching these students... some of them didn't even want to be in a class picture in the beginning. And now, suddenly, this kid who would keep his head down in class is in the lab editing videos and learning new things and having fun with his friends. They’re more engaged. It's been a really great ride."

Witwer credits Farrington Principal Al Carganilla for allowing teachers to try new things and to truly be innovative.

"Farrington's core values are trust, empowerment and collaboration. What I love about Principal Carganilla is that he supports you and allows you to be creative and chase your dreams and go big. He creates an environment where we don't have to be afraid to fail," Witwer said. "I really try to bring that mindset into my classroom."

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