Sonoran Teachers Create Videos To Help Special Education Students During Pandemic
“Simon says, touch your feet.”
Melissa Solano sat with her son, Alan, on her lap watching a video his teacher sent to help him learn the parts of the body.
“Your feet, your feet, your feet,” Solano said.
Alan giggled quietly as she helped him reach down to touch his toes.
Like so many kids, Alan, who has Down syndrome, has struggled since his classes were canceled. In Mexico, nearly all children have been out of the classroom for almost a year now, without any partial or temporary returns to in-person classes.
“It’s been really hard, being stuck at home,” Solano said. “I think the hardest part is the fact that my son can’t see his teacher or his classmates. That he can’t socialize with other kids.”
Almost 3-years-old now, Alan is easily distracted at home, Solano said, and it’s been hard for her to keep him engaged in his lessons. But a series of videos — like the one she and Alan have been using to learn the parts of the body — has been helping.
“I’ve really liked EspecialSon,” she said. “It’s helped me out a lot in figuring out how to do activities, and just feeling motivated to them.”
EspecialSon is a teacher-led effort in Sonora, Mexico, that Alicia Valle calls a “virtual learning community” that emerged from special education teachers’ efforts to make distance learning work for their students.
“We’re a group of special education teachers working together to help our students,” said Valle, a regional special education supervisor in the Sonoran capital Hermosillo.
During the pandemic, teachers are communicating with families through email and phone messaging platforms. But some wanted better ways to share activities and resources. So they started making videos.
“They’re inclusive, they’re designed so that everyone can use them,” Valle said. “But the videos emphasize the needs of students with disabilities.”
Each video is about five to 15 minutes long, depending on the age group. And they’re created to supplement a national curriculum called Aprende en Casa.
Since August, the federal government has been broadcasting school on TV and radio, as a way to reach millions of Mexican students who don’t have internet access.
“When the first stage was developed there was very little provided for kids with disabilities,” said Todd Fletcher, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, who has long studied special education in Mexico.
Aprende en Casa has improved since it started, he said, adding sign language interpretation and resources for parents, among other changes. But it’s not always enough.
“I think the commitment on the part of the state and federal government could be much greater for kids with disabilities and should be much greater,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, education services were limited in Mexico, he said, only capturing a small portion of students who need some kind of additional assistance at school. But distance learning has further marginalized vulnerable populations, particularly students with disabilities and those from indigenous communities.
There is no perfect solution for education as the coronavirus continues to spread, he added. And he praised local efforts like EspecialSon, even if they don’t completely fill the gaps.
“In this crisis, which has been so painful and so emotional and required so much resilience, this is what keeps us going,” said Valle. “It helps us believe that we can still do good things, and help our students and their families.”
"In this crisis, which has been so painful and so emotional and required so much resilience, this is what keeps us going."
— Alicia Valle, Regional special education supervisor
“I think it’s really brought out the best in us teachers,” added Erika Huerta, a special education teacher in an Hermosillo secondary school. “We’ve had to learn new things, and try new things and get creative.”
Huerta is one of more than three dozen special education teachers and specialists from across the state of Sonora who are volunteering to write, film, edit and produce EspecialSon videos on top of their normal responsibilities. they’re taking great care to make the language and visuals are clear and inclusive, she said.
“We write the scripts and then send them to other teachers and supervisors to revise and approve them to make sure they meet the needs of every child,” he said. “We want this content to be accessible to every single child, so that they can do these activities at home.”
She and others acknowledge that it’s not the same as working with students one-on-one, like they do in a classroom setting, where they can create individualized plans based on each students’ needs. But no one knows yet how long it will take for schools to reopen in most of Mexico. The federal government has predicated in-person instruction on reduced levels of coronavirus spread much lower than most states, including Sonora, have experienced since the start of the pandemic.
In the meantime, teachers like Paola Mazon, who focuses on early education, said she plans to continue creating videos to help bolster their students’ learning, and that other teachers can use with their students, too.
“We know a little, or a lot, about what our students need,” she said. “And we’re all super, super dedicated to this project.”
She’s seen first hand that her students — like Alan, who we met learning the parts of the body with his mom — benefit from the videos, she said. And their parents do too.
“This pandemic has been so hard on all of us: students, parents, teachers. I know it's been hard for me. I love my job and I miss my students so much,” she said.
“But I’ve heard so many times during the pandemic that parents feel alone, that they don’t know what to do with their kids at home. And I want to show them that they’re not alone, and that we can work together to make sure their kids are learning,” she said. “Because that’s what has to happen. Schools may be on hold, but learning can’t be. We have to make sure our kids keep learning and growing.”
Solano said it’s been hard, and she knows her son isn’t getting the same experience he would have at school. But the videos have helped.
“I can actually get him to do the activities, and it makes it easy for me to figure out what to do. When they’re written down, sometimes it’s hard to know what the teacher means,” she said. “But the videos make it really clear, and easy for us to follow along, and then we both really enjoy the activities.”
And until Alan can get back in the classroom, she said, at least they are having a good time together, and hopefully learning something along the way.