Zach's poignant speech brought tears to his classmates' eyes and to audience members', which included the special education administrative team from Caledonia North Supervisory Union.
"I made it into sixth grade," Zach continued. "I am happy to make it this far. I was at a different school for awhile, and when I first came back here, I was happy to see all my friends again. But they laughed at me because I sounded different. I wanted to talk but they didn't understand me."
That led to frustration and then bad behavior. Zach shared in his speech, "I was mean! When I got mad I would pick up things and throw them. Often these things would break. Sometimes I threw things at people. The people would get hurt and then I would be in trouble. I got mad because people picked on me. They picked on me because I'm different. I didn't look the same at that time, and I have trouble saying my thoughts."
"I have overcome some speech issues and people can understand me better now," Zach shared. "My peers don't pick on me anymore. I play football with my friends. I am not mean because people can understand me and if they don't understand me, they can ask me questions."
Teacher Gerry Whitaker explained other students have learned how to communicate with Zach in the way that works best for him and, in that sense, Zach himself has become an instrument of teaching for his peers.
Zach uses his iPad to facilitate communication when he needs to, and has a special program that allows him to touch phrases to explain himself or ask for things. He demonstrated the program at school on Tuesday, showing how he could use it to order pizza or ask for a soda, things he has programmed into the iPad with the help of instructional assistant Pam Carr. Carr said Zach has come a long way this year, and has built trusting relationships at the school and learned to communicate effectively.
"I have overcome my meanness because people are nice to me," Zach told the audience during his speech, for which he received a certificate and special recognition for his use of technology in delivering his speech and overcoming something significant in his life.
"I have learned to talk better, and to tell others how I am feeling," Zach continued. "Technology has helped me. You're listening to me now because it helps me to talk. My iPad helps you to understand me. This year's speech is about someone who has overcome something in their life. What I have had to overcome IS my life. Every day I have to work hard just to speak! Thank you for helping me, and thank you for the chance to overcome."
Whitaker, who teaches language arts and social studies, said the focus has been to help Zach access curriculum and to create and practice his speech. The emphasis has been to get him using assisted technology for access to the curriculum and to communicate, and to increase his sense of belonging and peer acceptance."
"It is very gratifying, as the year progresses, to begin to overhear students guiding the behaviors of their peers toward meeting the behavioral expectations they set as a group. This group clearly has decided that bullying and teasing is no longer part of their repertoire," said Whitaker. "As a result, Zach has been able to take more risks, and has really pushed himself this year." Whitaker said Zach's family was thrilled with their son's ability to present a speech Thursday and very proud of him, as was the entire school community.
"When Zach entered sixth grade, with Mr. Whitaker and the iPads Zach's life changed," shared special educator Patricia Joyce. "He is able to be part of all groups and work on most of the work given in the classroom. He does have modifications and he has some instruction outside of the classroom with me in reading and math. But he is able to use speech programs on his iPad to help put his written word to an intelligible speech."
Carr, the instructional assistant, said not only is Zach no longer mean, as he said of himself, but that "He is one of the kindest students I know, and he is one of the first to help others."