Students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), a magnet school in Alexandria, Va., are working to improve how they can communicate with non-verbal elementary school students.

Every Wednesday afternoon, the TJ Assistive Technology (AT) Club connects over Zoom with students with intellectual disabilities at Freedom Hill Elementary in nearby Vienna, Va. During the Zoom call, elementary students are helped by aides to use their Voice Output Communication Device to tap icons on the device to form a sentence.

According to a press release from TJ, the club’s goal is to “foster communication in a fun interactive way through games, activities, and reading.” TJ officials said that for the Freedom Hill students, “it’s an opportunity to practice on their devices in a relaxed setting. For the TJ students, it’s a chance to create games and learn coding tools such as HTML and JavaScript. For both sides, it’s the special connections made that leave the most lasting impact.”

“I really like helping kids,” said Vivian Denny, a junior at TJ. “I also like coding and the technology is really interesting. But it’s so nice to see the kids growing and getting better. When they write personal messages to us that are not part of the activity, it’s really nice because it shows they’re actually learning and they want to use the device on their own.”

TJ explained in a press release that learning core words is the main objective for non-verbal students. They practice using basic nouns, pronouns, and verbs to create short, simple sentences on their device. Club members are focused on helping the elementary students accomplish that goal. Club members meet on Sundays to brainstorm and come up with their games, then spend a couple hours coding to bring their vision to life.

“I love technology, so coming here and talking to the younger kids and building all these games for them is the perfect combination of activities,” said Amith Polineni, a sophomore at TJ. “They know a lot, so all we have to do is be there encouraging them and guiding them along the way and be patient while they’re typing.”

Many of the TJ students have been a part of the club for two or three years, and have watched the younger students grow and improve over time.

“It’s very motivational for the students because they’re talking to the high school kids. They’re talking to the cool kids,” said Mary Beth Fleming, an Assistive Technology Resource Teacher at Fairfax County Public Schools. “It’s more like a peer exchange instead of the normal communication skills they’re practicing with the adults.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs