Innovation is “The Eagle Way” at Chief Ivan Blunka School

By Laura Deck, posted on

Special education teacher Ben Griese uses Bookshare, assistive technology, and creativity to engage reluctant readers in rural Alaskan Native community

In remote communities like New Stuyahok in southwest Alaska, population 519, the twin challenges of the COVID pandemic and limited internet access in households put enormous responsibility on the teachers and staff at Chief Ivan Blunka School. Of the 150 students in pre-K through grade 12, 96% are Alaskan Natives of the Southwest Yup’ik. The school district’s motto – “educating our future, guided by our past” – indicates the importance of teaching and preserving the Yup’ik way of life.

Graphic contains a photo of Ben with some students; the cover of

Special education teacher Ben Griese has been teaching at the school for twelve years. He appreciates the professional freedom he has to develop innovative instruction for his students with a range of diverse abilities including nonverbal, cerebral palsy, autism, deaf, hearing impaired, low vision, emotional behavior disorders, and learning disabilities. His students have IEPs and 504 plans, and on any given day he might be running a deaf education lesson, a resource classroom, and an intensive needs life skills course, all in the same room simultaneously.

I recently talked to Ben via Zoom and he shared his thoughts on teaching during a pandemic, the benefits of assistive technology to help reluctant readers, and some student success stories.

Describe the challenges that the school and village are facing during the pandemic.

New Stuyahok is on the Nushagak River which holds the largest sockeye and wild salmon run in the world. The natural resources in the area are abundant, and the fish, game, and wild food are a source of subsistence living as well as income from commercial fishing. One health clinic serves the whole village, and emergency services are only reachable by air or river, so even a small outbreak of COVID-19 would be catastrophic.

In response to the pandemic, schools in Alaska are following the Smart Start Framework that has three levels of risk: red, yellow, and green. As of November 9, New Stuyahok moved into the red, high-risk level which means that all students shifted from in-person to distance learning as a precaution. Due to limited and expensive internet access, distance learning is difficult for many families, so the staff has been preparing homework packets and meals for pickup.

How do you incorporate Bookshare into your reading program?

My students who have dyslexia or specific learning disabilities have the desire to read. They want to experience engaging, grade-level books, but they struggle so much and just give up. In 2016, Mystie Rail, Executive Director of Assistive Technology of Alaska (ATLA), showed us how to read Bookshare books on an iPad with the Voice Dream Reader app (iOS and Android versions). A couple of kids latched on right away, and I immediately saw the benefits of assistive technology.

The common thread for these students is the increased independence and confidence that comes from the joy of reading enabled by assistive technology that supports decoding and reading at a student’s comprehension level.

Once students started having success with reading, they requested tons of Bookshare books and it just took off. The pre-made reading lists are a huge timesaver, and Bookshare also has the textbooks the students need. One of the best aspects of Bookshare is that you can download books while you have internet access, and then read offline at home. This feature has been a huge part of improving instruction during the pandemic.

Can you share some student success stories?

One of my students has dyslexia. His goal in life is to be a chef, but he really struggled reading recipes, so we downloaded cookbooks from Bookshare into his device and he read them with Voice Dream Reader. Then he would cook some of the recipes at home and show me photos. I told him that’s awesome, but I’d prefer that he bring the actual dessert in so I can eat it too.

A secondary student went from reading only graphic novels to reading chapter books from Bookshare that were over 500 pages long. Her reading scores skyrocketed and she ended up being the valedictorian of her graduating class.

The common thread for these students is the increased independence and confidence that comes from the joy of reading enabled by assistive technology that supports decoding and reading at a student’s comprehension level.

Learn how Bookshare can empower students to learn anywhere during the pandemic.