How Building Wings Helped Special Ed Students to Soar

from Educators' eZine


Students enrolled in the Schaumburg District 54 Extended School Year Program were special education students with IEPs who required summer intervention to ensure that their academic skills were maintained. Because the focus was to strengthen literacy skills, social work services were available to assist the students in understanding their own unique learning styles and to help them develop self advocacy skills. The program, running for 20 half-day sessions during a 6 week period, utilized a multi-modality learning model with online audio book support.

The Program:

Don Johnston's interactive online novel, Building Wings is available both as a paperback and online as an audio book. It offers a unique way to help students explore learning differences and advocate for materials and technologies that best fit their learning styles. This program would be easily adaptable to whole class discussions teaching tolerance of differences. It is appropriate for target groups in grades 4th grade and up. We also used the book with 2nd and 3rd graders.

The Process:

As students read each chapter, either in paperback or as an audio book, they explore and discover similarities to which they can relate and make connections about their own behaviors and individual learning styles.

At the beginning of the program, students read the novel as a whole-class activity and participated in a variety of follow-up activities dependent upon their grade level and reading/writing skill levels. Some of the teachers went online to hear the audio version, narrated by Don Johnston himself. The kids thoroughly enjoyed hearing the authentic author read his own work!

We developed worksheets to complement Don's book, which he posted as "Building Wings Reader's Theater Toolkit" on his website to share with other educators.

The materials include:

Readers Theater: Students acted out a short play of the novel (written by Caron Gibbert). This gave students an opportunity to discuss how the characters were feeling during various scenes.

Illustrators: Students designed illustrations of a shortened version of the novel (written by Margaret Lee). This allowed students with very low reading/writing skills an avenue to express what the characters may have been thinking through creative artwork.

Compare/Contrast: Students examined the writer's strength areas, weak areas, and strategies and compared them to their own (worksheets by Margaret Lee). This gave students an opportunity to examine the author's use of both avoidant, disruptive and successful strategies and discuss their own positive and negative actions with regard to their own learning.

Student Advocacy - Benefits:

This reading "audio book" program helped students learn to recognize that we all have areas of strength as well as areas of weakness on which we need to work. Students developed an understanding of specific strategies they can use to communicate and advocate for themselves with their teachers, parents and peers.

By developing a greater understanding of their needs and self-advocating, students can become more successful in the educational setting. This year, we have used the Building Wings program with small groups of students and guided reading teams.

Two of our students come to mind when reflecting on this program. One child played the character of Don in a few chapters of the book. Until he was able to act it out, he couldn't connect Don's problem behaviors with his own. When he acted out the scenes in the book, it really came together for him. He began to understand how he used some of his behaviors to avoid specific school activities that were hard for him. A second student was able to relate to the scenes of peer pressure and bullying that Don experienced. He was able to acknowledge his own poor behavior choices and agreed to work on strategies to improve his learning style. The discussions surrounding the book and the Reader's Theater program helped all students to communicate more effectively about their difficulties.


Using the Building Wings tools provided opportunities for discussions of students' strengths and weaknesses and to promote self-advocacy strategies. Teachers claim that students who participated in the summer program are now better able to identify when they need help, and to understand that even though they have a difficulty, it does not define them for the rest of their lives.

This audio book program created a unique sense of "family" for the teachers, instructional assistants, social worker, and speech therapist who came together to work on appropriate activities that would target students' literacy and social/emotional needs.

We now see these kids supporting each other, remembering their experience, acting in new ways and self-advocating for their learning styles. Our vision would be that more students could benefit from this program and our efforts.

We want to encourage educators everywhere to use our materials and this compelling free audio book to create their own successful extended learning program for their struggling students.

Our school administrators and parents were very pleased with the results of this program. We were proud to accept the District 54 Ambassador for Excellence Award at the end of January, 2008, for "creating curriculum that was used by students last summer during the extended school year and for sharing it with the Don Johnston Company as a way of reaching out to share "what works" in education."

Email:Caron Gibbert