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Tosa's hospital school goes high-tech

iPads engage students while they also fight illness, injury

Dec. 20, 2011

Tracing letters and numbers on an iPad almost looks like child's play for 5-year-old Madison Suchalla.

Not so.

Madison is waiting for a new heart, and earlier this month she was learning valuable language skills on the tablet computer while spending some time in Children's Hospital. The Wauwatosa School District sponsors a school at the hospital, and introduced iPads as a new learning tool for patients this year.

The district committed to the purchase of eight iPads for students to check out and for the teaching staff of four to work on with their students.

Portability and more

"It's a very motivating learning tool," hospital school teacher Teresa Beronja said. "It's light and portable so that smaller students like Madison can handle them, and we can carry them around to various hospital rooms."

Beronja, who works with elementary students like kindergartner Madison, said the computer offers a supplement to lesson plans.

"There are a lot of apps on these devices that coincide with lessons," she said. "For students like Madison, I use a lot of flashcard programs that help keep their interest. We can use them for everything from phonics to drawing programs. There are some that include social studies, in which you get to identify important landmarks and reach a goal.

"Some of the lessons are kind of like introducing subjects in a way that makes it a game. That helps younger students, especially."

Teaching team

The district's hospital teaching team includes three teachers and an aide. They have a recently remodeled combination office/classroom and a small library that especially appeals to the younger set. Older students - some in middle school and high school - want to do their school work in their hospital room.

The staff members, all of whom are certified in special education, deal with students in many situations, some with temporary injuries, others who have illnesses that are chronic and life-threatening. They juggle the demands of coordinating lesson from their students' home schools and fitting academic time within the rigors of health care needs.

Motivating older students

"It's often difficult to get students' attention in a classroom - and then you throw in a health care setting and that adds a twist," said Mike Trocchio, who teaches high school level students. "We need to be able to teach whatever the student needs, whether it's math, reading, social studies and more."

Motivation often is different depending on the illness and sense of urgency. Trocchio said high school students know what they need to graduate, but they often face considerably more than an academic challenge.

He noted one instance in which a terminally ill senior was motivated to finish his studies and graduate earlier than his class, because he knew he would not be around for graduation.

"It was important to him, so it was important to us," Trocchio said.

"It's amazing what situations come up," he said. "Students who were never motivated in a classroom probably aren't motivated in the hospital. However, sometimes they react very positively to individual attention, so you never know."

Madison's story

Madison Suchalla's teacher in Peshtigo said he is extremely happy that she has had the opportunity to learn while hospitalized.

"I was really surprised that there was a program like this," Justin Woulf said. "Madison is a bright student, and very sweet. Students at that age need to have a strong start in school.

"I sent all kinds of lesson plans for the hospital teachers to use. And the use of iPads is a great idea, because we use computers and other technology here and the kids love it."

Madison's mom, Tonya, said the ability for Madison to keep up with her classmates is "a wonderful opportunity that I know has helped her learn and also get away from her health issues."

Those issues include the need for a new heart. Madison's congenital condition has worsened since her birth and surgeries will no longer help in the long run.

"She is on a heart transplant list and needs to go into the hospital every so often," Tonya said. "She likes school, so having the teachers there is a blessing."

Beronja said she will be ready to continue teaching Madison when she finally gets her new heart.

"I worked with a student this past year who had a heart transplant, and we were able to work on some light studies right after the surgery," Beronja said. "It was really great to be able to do that."

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