A Learning Legacy

They use shaving cream, sandpaper and brushes. They use rice, felt and Play-Doh. They are teachers helping children grasp language with a unique approach they learned at Mount Mercy.

Thanks to the generosity of 1972 graduate Mary Ashby, students in the  Mount Mercy Education Division are being trained to help children understand language through multi-sensory learning.

Learning Difference

When it was time for Matthew Rapier to go to preschool, his mother, Melanie, was told that he was far behind the other children, especially in language. After various tests, Matthew was eventually admitted to Shelton School in Dallas, Texas, which specializes in educating students with learning differences. Through the new school’s multi-sensory approach to learning, Matthew blossomed. He was soon caught up and even ahead of his grade level in some subjects.

“My mom came down and saw everything that Shelton was doing, how patient they were and how the kids learn,” said Melanie, who is Mary Ashby’s daughter. “After she saw that, she wanted other teachers tohave the tools and other students to have the teachers.”

Mary Ashby sought out faculty members in Mount Mercy’s Education Department to see how she could help them train their teachers in multisensory learning.

“She wanted to see if there was something we could do to provide training to our teachers who are going into special education, especially to work with students in a multi-sensory way,” says Dr. Ellen O’Keefe, associate professor and chair of the Education Department. “So we came up with a way to infuse into our curriculum, for free through her endowment, training in multi-sensory areas.”

Mary Ashby initiated the Matthew Rapier Creative Learning Endowment with a gift of $50,000 to Mount Mercy in 2004. The endowment provides support for special education programs within the Education Department. Funds generated from this endowment help to implement creative learning approaches for children with special educational needs.

Creative Learning

Thanks to the endowment, each fall since 2005 the department has offered a class the opportunity to learn the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching students with learning differences.

Rather than just having students read pages and answer questions, the Orton-Gillingham approach and other creative learning methods use multi-sensory learning to help children learn language.

“There are all kinds of multisensory ways of getting kids to learn words and how letters come together to make words,” explains O’Keefe. “Rather than having something just visually presented to these folks, it is visually, auditorily and tactually presented to them.”

The teacher may have the student write in a pile of rice or shaving cream smeared onto a table, or spell words out in Play-Doh or from letters made of sandpaper or felt. This multi-faceted approach helps the learning stick.

“Through that process the brain is able to make better connections,” says O’Keefe. “When students see a word or hear a word they are more likely to remember how it sounds, how it’s spelled, how it’s read because they have had the input from three of four senses rather than just one.”

Lori Yanecek, a 2006 graduate of Mount Mercy, is a special education teacher at Linn Grove Elementary School in Marion, Iowa, and was in the first class offered through the endowment.

“I knew I wanted to go into special education and I knew that you needed these different ways of teaching children,” she said. “The traditional ways that are taught in the classroom don’t always work for kids taught in special education.”

For three hours each week, 10 to 20 Mount Mercy students learn the theory and technique behind the multisensory method. Pairs of students then spend an hour per week tutoring local students who have been identified as needing help in the area of reading.

All materials and instruction are paid for through the endowment, and the class is very popular. “We have opened up the class not just to special education, but to reading [education students] as well,” says O’Keefe. “Because there is a push to use this in some of the regular classes, we have opened this up to some of the secondary English folks.”

Well Armed

Few colleges or universities offer this kind of training in the classroom. Typically, teachers become trained in this method by attending an expensive training course once they are employed post-graduation. Mount Mercy teachers leave school already having this training.

“It’s nice to have as much ammunition in your pocket as you possibly can, and having several ways to be able to present reading, spelling and writing concepts to students really does give them a leg up,” said O’Keefe. “When our graduates have Orton training on their resumes, principals tend to take a second look.”

“I think it is important that the training is offered in a college setting just because I think teachers need to know that not all students learn the same way,” said Yanecek. “If you are going into special education, it is one of those trainings that is beneficial to take because you need different resources to pull from. I’m grateful that it is offered and that I was able to take it because I see firsthand that it helps kids become better readers.”

“I think it will be very helpful for me in the future as a special education teacher,” said Jennifer Hungate, a senior education major who took the class last fall. “It will be a great thing for me to have on my resume that I have that training.”

Continued Growth

Matthew Rapier is now 13 and a straight-A student. What he wants to be when he grows up changes regularly, but one thing he knows is that he wants to go to college.

The endowment in his name also continues its good work. The students who enroll in the institution’s Master  of Arts in Education program will begin taking the course this fall, and the Education Department hopes to offer courses in other multi-sensory learning methods in the near future.