Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Leadership Day 2010" (What would I want my administrator to know about technology?)

So, I am trying to participate in this thing I heard about on Twitter called Leadership Day 2010.  

From what I can gather, Leadership Day was started as a way to tell/ask/state what you'd like your administrators to know about technology to actively lead your school building or district to better teaching and learning.  (If this is a misunderstanding of the day or blog expectations, I hope someone will comment and let me know!)

So, I got to thinking... What would I want my administrators to know about technology?

But wait, I am a special ed. teacher, and I would much rather write an entire blog series entitled "What I NEED My Administrators to Know About Teaching Kids with Special Needs."  And maybe sometime I will do that... But, today I'll just revise my question...

What would I want my administrators to know about technology in regards to special education (or intervention) in our school district?

1. Digital Technology CAN be used to DIFFERENTIATE.  Yes, it's true.  "Differentiate" doesn't need to be just a buzz word and it doesn't need to attract all the eye rolling and negative press.  I can have students attending to the SMART board doing letter work while another student is reading an e-book or interactive book created with BoardMaker (Mayer-Johnson) software.  Come watch in my classroom.  My students can use ALL of the technology allotted to us and more.

2.  I need TIME to learn the new digital technologies that are going to help my students learn.  I do NOT need time to vertically align the K-12 Ohio Math standards that are about to be tossed out the window and replaced by the Common Core standards anyway.  I do NOT need time to listen to another text book publishing rep.  I do NOT need time to sit with colleagues to complain about "teaching to the test" and aligning standards to text books.  I NEED TIME to learn new digital technologies that can be applied to lessons that are needed in the classroom that might extend the learning and thinking of ALL students.

3.  When it comes to assistive technology, we could use MORE TRAINING.  I know that we can call the county specialist.  I know that I can do all the reading and research on my own time, and I do.  But I could use more training in this area and I believe my colleagues could too.  Every AAC (Augmentative Assistive Communication) device that a student has is different and I learn how to program it on my own time.  I learn how to use it on my own time.  I teach myself how to teach my student how to use his device.

4.  Twitter, Facebook, Nings, and other Social Networks are vital to my professional development as an educator. So, why do you keep blocking things that I need access to in our school setting?  Why can't teachers have access?

5.  Do you have any idea how CRUCIAL the BoardMaker software is for a special ed. teacher?  Do you know how it works?  Do you know the cost?  The accessories?  The benefits?  This is, by far, the most important piece of technology in teaching my students and helping them learn.  The possibilities here are endless.

6. Why aren't you holding more teachers accountable for teaching 21st Century Skills to our "Digital Natives?"  It seems to me that SOME teachers are getting away with using overhead projectors with transparencies that have problems filled in with Sharpie!  They are making copies of worksheets from 20 years ago instead of finding new ways to teach antonyms and synonyms.  They are relying on the SMART board to be a glorified TV screen.  They barely check their email and could not imagine what they would do in the computer lab with more time. 

7. I graduated from college in May 2003 and we were making webpages then.  It is now July 2010 and there are STILL administrators, teachers, and other staff who do not have websites or blogs.  WHY?  Why don't YOU have an administrative blog or Facebook page?  Why aren't you on Twitter?  Are you hiding something?  Don't you need a PLN?  Don't we ALL need a PLN?

8.  Do you have an iPhone?  An iPad?  An iTouch?  How could that device make life easier for someone with special needs?  Someone who doesn't speak?  Someone who needs life defined with visual icons or photos?  How could your iPhone or iPad change a life?

9.  Please make a plan.  Please make a plan on how we can move forward with technology in our building in a concrete and realistic way.  Please encourage every teacher to have a plan.  (For example, from a list of 5 digital technologies, every teacher in the building must choose one, learn to use it, and show how to integrate it into his/her teaching by the end of first semester.  Each teacher could share his/her use of the technology thus building a repertoire of technology uses in the building.) Make some sort of plan for growth and hold everyone accountable.

10.  Students with special needs are digital natives now too.  They can often use the computer with better accuracy than the digital immigrants.  They can create e-portfolios, click from homepages, use Flip Cams, access SMART boards and SMART Responders, use Google Images and Google Maps, play educational games, access movie clips on You Tube, type spelling words, write stories, create graphic images, etc. etc. etc.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Differentiation" Stop rolling your eyes...

Inspired by the afternoon session of #edchat today, I feel that there's a need for a blog post about Differentiation.

Oh yeah! Another buzz word!

I know. I've seen your eye rolling.  I've seen your finger quotes around the word "differentiation." 

But, keep reading, I might hook ya.

Sure, we all know what differentiation is, right?  Well, we sure know the definition that we can give if asked by an administrator or community member: Differentiation is teaching to the needs of every learner.  It's giving different strategies to different learners to get the same result: a good grade on the standardized test, right?


I'm not looking for the definition, but some practical applications, because I'm just not convinced that it's as difficult as we make it seem.

(But what about the teachers who say that "Differentiation" takes up too much time??? Well, as I read tonight on #edchat from @web20classroom and I quote "We take the time for things that are meaningful in our lives. If education and kids aren't meaningful, time to move on." Priceless.)

So, here, some practical applications of "Differentiation:"

1. Upon reading a book in an elementary school classroom at the "carpet area," allow students with attention concerns, sensorimotor problems, or other sensory issues to sit in chairs, bean bags, or in a defined space on the carpet away from other wandering hands.

2.  While reading a story to elementary school students, stop to ask questions to help make connections.  Being aware of students' baseline levels, ask one student to name the characters in the story.  Ask another student to tell which character is his favorite and why.  Ask the nonverbal student with autism to point to a verbally named character.  

3. @suedensmore gave a great example from her music class during #edchat-"Differentiation: some kids can play the lead part, others play more supporting w/less notes. We all play the same song."

4.  In a 3-8 math class where students are expected to know the times tables, place a multiplication table on the desk (or inside a notebook or the front cover of a text book to be more discreet).  Better yet, hand the student a calculator!

5.  If you know that one of your students works at a slower pace than the others and you hand out a worksheet that needs to be completed, why not CUT THE WORKSHEET IN HALF for that student.  OR, do it for half the class (no one will know which students need less work). 

6.  STOP TEACHING WITH WORKSHEETS! But, if you must, alter the worksheets for students.  Remember that students with special needs like autism or Down syndrome are often visual learners, but so are many others.  Take out extraneous detail or distracting content.  Limit text on the page.  Provide visual cues and less answer choices. (If you didn't create the worksheet, but are photocopying it, use White Out or place a Post-It over the section you want to delete while you copy the page.)

7.  In high school, let the student decide what grade to work for.  Give out a rubric for an A.  Give out a rubric for a B.  Give out a rubric for a C.  Tell the students that they can choose to get any grade they want A-C depending on the work they complete.

8.  While lecturing and expecting students to take notes in a high school or middle school class, consider handing out a template ahead of time to students who may need it.  Allow students to record lectures.  Consider recording your own lectures using a Flip Cam and post your lectures online to help students make connections between their notes and your presentation. 

9. In an elementary classroom where students are learning to add and subtract, try using Touch Math.  Teach this method of counting touch points to the whole class, and let students choose to use the strategy or not.  Do the same with touch points for coins.

10.  In a Kindergarten when writing their names, some students can use a #2 pencil, some students may need a fat tipped marker, some students may need to use stamps, while other students may need to use a keyboard to type the letters.

11.  In P.E. class, if a student cannot perform the assigned task, can it be modified?  If the student can't do jumping jacks, how about just the legs?  or just the arms?  How about running in place? 

12.  Writer's Workshop.  One student may be encouraged to write a paragraph and type it on the computer.  Another student may be encouraged to write a complete sentence and check it with a proofreading checklist.  Another student may still be asked to draw a picture.   Another student might make a graphic image or even post his work on glogster.

I believe strongly that, if you don't "differentiate," you truly are not doing your job as an educator. 

And the term "differentiation" is just a buzz word for something that's been around forever, it's called good teaching.  It's called great teaching.

And great teaching never goes out of style.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

LABELS, be gone...

Recently in our community, I've heard there's been some talk about my classroom.

Let me explain.

When I say "my classroom," I always feel that those words encompass many many things. "My classroom" signifies myself, 6 special education aides that come and go throughout the school day, an SLP who also has her own room, an OT and PT who come and go throughout the school week, a Music Therapist who visits once per week, ALL the strategies that the aides and I replicate when all of the therapists leave, along with functional skills to make life easier and academic content standards ranging from grades Pre-K through 3, depending on the student.  Mix all that in with my passion to integrate 21st Century Skills for kids with special needs and you get MY CLASSROOM.

Oh, did I mention that the kids in my classroom have autism, Down syndrome, genetic disorders like Prader-Willi and 2q37 Deletion Syndrome, hearing impairments, speech and language impairments, etc., etc., etc.?


Well, I think it shouldn't...

But I keep hearing words like "Self Contained" and "MH Unit."  Other words being thrown around are "CD Unit" and "MD Kids."  "THAT Special Needs Program" and THE "special" program with finger quotes and all...

When I started teaching special education 7 years ago, I always referred to my classrooms as "classrooms" or "resource rooms."  And three years ago, when I began to teach kids with moderate to intensive needs, I knew there was some talk of a "unit."  I was unimpressed with this language and preferred to say "classroom."

I feel like we came to a compromise as a school building and our classroom is simply referred to now as "Room 5."  The teachers know what "Room 5" means.  And, if you have a student in Room 5, you know what it means.  Otherwise, you don't need to know about it.  If you ask, I can tell you what I do.  I teach kids with special needs and help other kids in the building who need interventions.  I teach in Room 5 down the hall. 

I suppose you could make the argument that one of the resource rooms should be "self contained" to be sure that your building is offering the continuum of services, right?  (The continuum of services in Ohio means the Least Restrictive Environment, or the place the child can succeed with the least supports.)  Well, in Room 5, we do offer the continuum.  I have a student who comes to me for only 50% of language arts and is included for the rest of the school day.  I have a student who comes to me for language arts and math, and is then included.  I have a student who comes to me for all instructional areas and is included for music, P.E., and media center.  WE OFFER THE NECESSARY SUPPORTS, so WHY LABEL IT?

I am so passionate about what I do.  I want so badly to help my students be integrated into their own "regular" classrooms (which we call "Room 11," "Room 22," and "Room 19").  

But, if people are still demanding terms like "self contained unit," are we really moving forward at all?

So, I'd like to encourage anyone reading this blog.  GET RID OF THE LABELS.  Call your classroom what it is, A CLASSROOM!  It's a learning environment like any other room in the building.  It's a resource room.  It's NOT A "UNIT."  It's NOT "SELF CONTAINED."

And put the child FIRST.  Don't say "the autistic girl."  Try "the girl with autism."  Don't say "That Downs boy."  Try "the boy with Down syndrome."  The child should come FIRST, not the disability.

Teach kids (ANY KIDS, ALL kids) to empower themselves with words.  "I am NOT a label.  I am NOT a disability.  I am a person FIRST.  And I learn in a CLASSROOM."

For us, it's Room 5. :)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sharing My Toys...

While I have started this blog to reach out to the professional community and attempt to build a Personal (and/or Professional) Learning Network, I had started a blog about a year ago to improve communication with the parents of the students in my class with moderate to intensive special needs (autism, Down syndrome, cognitive disabilities, genetic disorders like 2q37 Deletion syndrome, hearing impairments, etc.).  My students currently range in age from 5 to 9, grades Kindergarten through Third.  I have been able to share articles, information, reminders, photos, and more with this Classroom Blog.  I'd like to share it here:

Miss Kolis' Room 5 Blog

While I feel that our classroom blog improved parent/grandparent communication, I was also searching out an easier way to communicate websites to my students and special education aides without continuously programming them into each computer's bookmarks, writing them in the lesson plans, posting them on notes near the doorway, etc., etc.  In order to do this, I created a homepage where our students access links (on the left side of the page) and our aides access links (on the right side of the page). I'd like to share that here:

Room 5 Homepage

Lastly, I created a page of links for a series of technology classes that I taught to our district's (Brecksville-Broadview Heights City Schools in Brecksville, OH) teachers this summer.  I'd like to share that as well:

Teaching (and Differentiating) with Technology 2010

Please use these links as you like!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

House Rules by Jodi Picoult from a Teacher's Perspective...

Late last night I finished the book House Rules by Jodi Picoult.  As an Intervention Specialist who works with kids with moderate-intensive special needs (with the most common being autism currently), people have been asking me for weeks if I've read the book yet, if I've started it, if I've heard of it, what my thoughts are...

If I'd known then what I know now, I would've thrown down all the Twilight, Breaking Dawn, Chelsea Bang Bang books and headed right for my hard bound copy of the newest Jodi Picoult that was apparently burning a hole through my book shelf.

I knew two things about this book before reading it.  #1 The book is about a boy with Asperger's.  #2 Autism Speaks is a fan of both the book and the author.

I was skeptical, only because I know that often books or TV shows depicting kids with autism or Asperger's play on the stereotypes and the splinter skills and the kids who are prodigies or savants.  And not all kids with autism and Asperger's are savants.  In fact, of the kids I have ever known with autism or Asperger's, not one is a savant, or a prodigy.  They are all amazing and interesting and intriguing, and yet, none are the same.  None.  There's even a saying we have that says "If you've seen one kid with autism, you've seen ONE kid with autism."

I also wonder sometimes about Autism Speaks.  While I think they are doing AMAZING things and participate in the yearly Walk Now for Autism in Cleveland and donate regularly, I also wonder if they are on the wrong side of the argument, if any.  Do I subscribe to the "Cure Autism" side?  Or do I subscribe to the world where there are people with autism and people who are "neurotypical" and neither is bad or wrong and neither should be changed or fixed?  I straddle the fence on so many of the issues dealing with autism...

So again, I began this book, House Rules, with skepticism.

The book is set in a small town in Vermont, as told from the perspective of 5 different characters, Jacob, an 18 year old boy with Asperger's syndrome; Theo, Jacob's 15 year old brother; Emma, Jacob and Theo's mother; Rich, the Townsend, Vermont detective; and Oliver, a lawyer who is new to the small town.

Of all the fiction AND nonfiction books I've read about Asperger's, this may be the truest to life.  This book may have the best descriptions, show the best emotions, and tell the best "story" of Asperger's that I've ever been able to read.

And as a teacher, I can only know the story and the feelings from one perspective, and I am just so curious, all the time, about the other side, the parents' side.  And this book shed so much light on that side.

...while also telling a great story.  A controversial story.  A story that was, at times, a little hard for me to read.  It was hard to swallow.  It was a struggle to see some of these words on the pages.

One of the hardest parts of this book, for me, was the incessant use of the "R" word that also runs rampant in our society today.  This word, "retard," hurts me to the core.  This word that is so loosely thrown around is used by teenagers and by adults and by people who give no thought to what or whom they are referring.  And it hurts me.  And I always wonder, if a teacher can feel this actual pain, how does a parent feel?  A brother?  A grandmother?

This next part, that I'd like to quote from the book, seems to take a scene and actively describe the way society still feels about people with special needs.  This one simple scene in a book shows me that people like me still have so much work to do.

House Rules page 422- From the perspective of "Rich" the detective:
"The running joke among those of us sequestered for the trial involved the sensory break room.  If the defendant can get some special accommodations, why not the witnesses?  Me, I want a Chinese food take-out room.  I tell this to the DA when she comes to let me know that I'm testifying next...."
"... I'm only half kidding.  I mean, if the court was willing to bend over backward for Jacob Hunt's Asperger's syndrome, how long will it be before this is used as a precedent by some career criminal who insists that going to jail will inflame his claustrophobia?  I'm all for equality, but not when it erodes the system."

Hmph.  I almost can't put words to my feelings after reading that.

And then, later on, a paragraph that means everything to me~

House Rules page 482- Jacob is speaking in court-
"When I first got my diagnosis, my mother was relieved, because she saw it as something that would be helpful.  I mean, teachers don't look at kids who are reading eight grade levels above where they should be and doing complex mathematical proofs in third grade and think they need special help, even if they are being teased all the time.  The diagnosis helped me get an IEP, which was great, but it also changed things in a bad way." Jacob shrugs.  "I guess I expected it to be like this other girl in my grade who has a port-wine stain on half her face.  People go right up to her and ask about it, and she says it's a birthmark and that it doesn't hurt.  End of story.  No one ever asks if they can catch it like a virus, or doesn't want to play with her because of it.  But you tell someone you're autistic, and half the time they talk louder to you, like you might be deaf.  And the few things that I used to get credit for- like being smart, or having a really excellent memory- were all of a sudden just things that made me even more weird."  He was quiet for a moment, and then turns.  "I'm not autistic.  I have autism.  I also have brown hair and flat feet.  So, I don't understand why I'm always 'the kid with Asperger's.'"

It's clear that we've got so much work to do.  But maybe, just maybe, books like House Rules, are a great starting place for the general population who wouldn't ordinarily educate themselves on the intricacies of a syndrome that can change a family, a school, a community...

More resources:
Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks- Official Blog- Talking with Best Selling Author Jodi Picoult About House Rules
Spread the Word to End the Word
Autism Today
Kids Together, Inc.
Skill Building Buddies

Other great books about special needs in story format: 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
Road Map To Holland by Jennifer Graf Groneberg
Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin
Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How Do We Teach Kids With Special Needs to Problem Solve and Think Critically?

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving.

21st Century Skills.

Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Buzz Words.

But when you are working with kids with moderate-intensive special needs, and your starting point is completing ANY task independently, how do you eventually move to critical thinking and problem solving?

I'll use Student A as an example.

Student A came to Kindergarten with autism.  Student A flapped his hands, jumped up and down, was relatively nonverbal with the exceptions of the approximations of the words 'yes' and 'mom' in the school setting.  Student A receptively knew all letters and letter sounds.  Student A did not complete any tasks independently with the exception of using the bathroom.

In first grade, Student A grew by leaps and bounds.  Starting with matching pictures and objects, pulling objects apart, putting objects together, putting together 2 piece puzzles, categorizing by color, pressing one object on the computer screen on a touch screen, pointing to the verbally named picture.  Contrastingly, Student A learned to read.  He receptively could show how he could read a text and choose the correct answer to a comprehension question.  He could use manipulative letters to spell words.  He could receptively choose numbers 1-100.  His expressive language grew by hundreds of words in the school setting.

In second grade, Student A grew even more.  He could read text on a second grade level and answer literal comprehension questions receptively.  He could complete up to 10 previously mastered tasks dealing with matching words and pictures, color and shape words, stringing beads, squeezing clothespins, tracing letters, completing puzzles, categorizing by color or shape, matching time to the hour with analog and digital clocks.  He could complete a 24 piece puzzle with minimal assistance.  He could play simple computer games on a touch screen on the computer.  He could communicate with words, gestures, and picture cues, and began to use an AAC device.

And now, as Student A enters third grade, while there are many skills that we will continue to focus on, I am becoming increasingly interested and focused on how to teach him critical thinking and problem solving skills.  He's proven that he can learn.  He's proven that he has many many skills.  He's proven that he can learn in many settings, that he can generalize skills, that he can communicate with "full communication..."

But how can a student with autism learn to problem solve and think critically?

We're going to start with the basics.  Here are my first ideas.  Please share more!

1. Take the chairs away from the table before working.  When we get to the "one to one teacher table," ask, "What do we need?"  If Student A does not get a chair, physically prompt him to go get a chair and bring to the table.  Continue until only gestural prompts are needed.  Continue until only verbal prompts are needed.  Continue until no prompts are needed.  Use visual schedule for prompting if needed.

2.  When completing work that requires scissors or pencils, move items farther away from Student A.  Repeat prompts from idea #1.

3.  Teach Student A how to turn on the computer.  Once he has mastered the process, begin to leave the computer off.  When it's computer time, say to Student A, "What should we do now?"  Fade prompts.

4.  Student A LOVES to play with cards.  Spread student's favorite cards on the table.  Leave one with a large rip in it.  Leave the tape dispenser next to the cards.  Wait for student to initiate problem solving.  If he does not, show Student A how to repair the card with tape.  Repeat process with faded prompts.

5.  In the Independent Work Station, items are always lined up correctly and appropriately to minimize frustration and increase motivation for success.  Move items around in the station.  Watch for frustration level.  Adjust as needed.

6. Continue work with feelings.  Look at a face.  Ask, "What is this girl feeling?"  "WHY could she be feeling this way?"  Make a list of reasons for a particular feeling OR a list of feelings or a particular "face."


Friday, July 2, 2010

July 4th Preparations for Kids with Special Needs

It's a Holiday Weekend, "Woooooo Hooooo!"  Right?

Maybe, It's a holiday weekend, "OH NO!"

Ever stopped to think what life might be like if you had a child with special needs during a holiday weekend?

What if your child thrived on routine, a sense of structure, a calm atmosphere, and/or a predictable social script for every situation?

Now, throw in a holiday, especially one like July 4th.  July 4th is all fireworks, parades, fire truck sirens, and polka bands, candy, and swimming, and outdoor grilling, new smells from the neighbors' backyards, and cars lining your ever so quiet little road.

Here are a few tips to set your child up for success and enjoy the "holiday:"

1. Social Stories.  Set your child up for success by sharing with him, far in advance, the plan for the holiday.  If possible, share the information in short, understandable sentences or phrases with simple visuals.  Read the social story every day leading up to the holiday.  Your child will be more comfortable with the forewarning.

2. Food Options.  The menu at the picnic is hot dogs and potato salad but your daughter eats only pizza or chicken nuggets.  Bring your own food.  Why stress out over the food menu when you can simply prepare what you know your child will already eat?  If your hosts are offended, they simply do not understand your world.

3.  Bring at least one or two comforting and familiar 'toys' or objects that your child favors.  Optimally, you've already forewarned him that there would be a trampoline, many kids, and lots of taking turns, but, maybe in the moment, it was a little overwhelming.  Comfort him without a scene, then try the trampoline again later.

4.  Don't force it.  Your child is different.  Different IS NOT BAD.  Different is NOT WRONG.  Don't force her to participate in any new activity that she is uncomfortable with today.  Today is already a hard day.

5.  Provide for sensory needs.  If you know that your child hates loud noises, bring ear plugs or head phones.  If you know that the smells of candy will drive her crazy, bring an "If-Then" board (If you watch parade, then you eat candy).

6.  Skip the Live Fireworks.  Did you know that you can watch a lovely fireworks show from Times Square ON TV???  Sometimes adults put way to much emphasis on this tradition when, in reality, it's a dangerous tradition that is scary to both typically developing children and those with special needs.

7.  Use a visual (or object or written) schedule.  Show the plan for the day.  "First car, then grandma's house, then parade, then candy, then chicken nuggets, then trampoline, then home."  Show when each "task" has been completed.

8.  If it's too stressful, treat the day like any other summer day.  You can "celebrate" the 4th in your heart, and skip the picnics, parades, and razzle dazzle.  If you don't miss it, they certainly won't.

Happy 4th of July to you, in whatever way you choose to "celebrate." :)