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Special School District of St. Louis County

More Than Words on a Page

One of the magical things about a good book is how the story can come alive to the reader. A well-written book often captures its readers with a fascinating plot. Or a character may seem so real, it feels like you know him or her personally. In some cases, the book’s setting may seem so authentic, you find yourself lost in a whole new world. But for students that are non-readers, it can be a challenge to get them to experience such joys that come with books.

However, for Diane Witte’s students at SSD’s Northview High School, reading is more than just the words on the page. Many of her students are non-readers, and many can’t physically turn the pages of a book. But there is at least one book her students know from cover to cover, thanks to the interactive version Witte produced for her students.

The book is “Marshall the Miracle Dog.” It is a true story about a dog that was abused, rescued and eventually found a forever home with the book’s author, Cyndi Willenbrock. After Willenbrock shared the book and brought Marshall to visit with students at Northview, principal Stephanie Valleroy suggested to Witte the idea of making it an interactive book.

With Willenbrock’s permission, Witte turned “Marshall the Miracle Dog” into an interactive version that all students could use and enjoy through the use of symbols, special pictures, sounds and other features that aren’t found in standard books.

“The pictures represent concepts,” said speech-language pathologist Laura Kersting. “To help those that can’t read or have deficits, this is a way to read the book without reading the words.”

“The results were so amazing,” Witte said. “Students could activate the book via the Smart Board. They could answer comprehension questions, state facts, understand the emotions that were happening in the book, demonstrate knowledge of bullying and write a book report. These are huge accomplishments for our students.”

Witte used Boardmaker Plus, a software program that helps develop picture boards and adds other sounds and animation.

When asked about the book, students who benefited from the interactive version are quick to tell you what lessons they learned from it:

  • "Never give up, even when things are hard.” –Ariana
  • “Marshall was brave. And don’t be mean.” –Josh
  • “Marshall got a new house and family. And that made him happy. Also, treat new dogs nice.” –Wayne
  • “I liked the book—the words, the pictures—I like it all.” –Christian
  • “The bully dogs tried to bite Marshall.” –Steven
  • “(Marshall) got attacked. He was worried and nervous and sad and scared.” –Shakeal

Witte reported that the independence students have with the interactive version is highly important. With it, the students can empathize and experience the feelings and emotions that Marshall goes through in the book. Without the added features of the interactive version, the students would not be able to fully relate.

“As a sign-language interpreter for students who are deaf, I know they require visual aids and visual cues,” said interpreter Laura Shields. “They are visual learners. What Ms. Witte has done with this book is how students need to be taught. It makes my job sensible. We can make sense of the language this way.”

Willenbrock, who has visited more than 250 schools with Marshall, said she was overwhelmed by the positive response of the students to the interactive version of her book.

“My heart swelled with gratitude and appreciation for Diane’s hard work,” Willenbrock said. “Students were connecting and retaining the messages. Thanks to Diane and her gift and talent, Marshall finally can make his connection and touch every heart.”

Marshall and student

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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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