Taking a Backward Glance Into the Future

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Dear Colleague ** Student ** Letter


 
Dear Shaunteé,

You’ve been on my mind quite a bit lately. I’m writing these words in an attempt to make sense of why that is. It’s been a long time since our paths crossed.

I came to your classroom as a first-year teacher. It was a third grade, full inclusion classroom, with 43 students crammed in the room. You might not remember the first part of the year because you weren’t there very often. It was absolute chaos. I don’t remember much of it myself. The class number adjusted to 35 students by the end of October but there was still plenty of chaos.

As for you, well, you could often be spotted outside the classroom window on your bike, riding furiously up and down the sidewalk. You would ride up close to our classroom window and laugh wildly as if to mock those of us trapped inside the four walls you detested.

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I was told by a few of the more experienced teachers there was “just no getting through to Shaunteé.” They would say to me, “You need to focus on the ones you can help, starting with the ones who actually come to school. Just concentrate on the ones who are teachable.

I knew those words weren’t true. I wanted to be strong enough to fight upstream against that trending mindset. But to be brutally honest, it was usually easier when you didn’t come to school. Even as a new teacher, my observation abilities were pretty astute – our system of school wasn’t working for you.

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You had few connections to anything that happened at school.

Your records branded you as non-communicative, non-verbal and non-performing in most areas. You didn’t use many words but you did communicate your likes and dislikes on more than one occasion. You liked numbers and shapes. You liked figuring things out. You liked riding your bike. You didn’t like being cold. You didn’t like books. You hated sitting at your desk.

I had realized very early on that school was no joy for you, but it didn’t take long before I felt as if I’d exhausted every option for making it better. I fought harder some days than others; sometimes I fought for you; sometimes I just fought not to fight against you.

I know now that so many of the struggles – yours, mine and ours – were struggles that fundamentally shaped my teaching practice. I also know that a portion of those struggles came from me trying to fix you rather than honor you, from focusing more on students blending in rather than belonging, and from valuing an ideal classroom more than an effective learning community.

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The process of looking backward and reflecting on our experience has helped me envision experiences for teachers and students that are more impactful, intentionally designed and thoughtfully executed. As I’ve become immersed in Universal Design Learning (UDL), I’ve figured out why you’ve been on my mind so much. If your school experience had been framed through the UDL framework, you might’ve found more reasons to come into the school instead of riding past it on your bike.

I know UDL wasn’t around when you were in my class so let me explain briefly. UDL is a framework for guiding educational practices that reach all students in the classroom. This framework acknowledges and accommodates the variability of learners; it negates the notion of “one size fits all.” Goals, assessments, materials, and methods are designed with consideration for all learners. The principles of UDL necessitate that students have options and multiple ways to engage, flexibility in the way material is represented and offered to them, and choice when determining how they respond and express themselves.

The UDL framework honors the belief that all students can learn and achieve.

Imagine having options as a kinesthetic learner, allowing you to move and explore the space around you. Imagine having the choice to build, take apart and design things using a variety of textures, objects and mediums. Imagine having access to learning opportunities just like other students. Imagine being supported to express yourself in ways you never thought possible.

Imagine wanting to come to school, and being valued as an important member of the class.

Am I thinking unrealistically or dreaming the impossible?
I don’t think so. And I think you’d agree with me.

Sincerely,
#ThxShaunteé

P.S. PATINS Specialists are here to help you with your big (and small) steps to change the world for your students!
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Daniel G. McNulty
You, Vicki Walker, fully embrace the passion that leads to fundamental changes in the quality of life for the one starfish left on... Read More
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Vicki, this blog touched on ALL of the emotions that a teacher might have with a challenging student! You are so right...the pri... Read More
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Go Forth & Teach Like a "Gamer."

Go Forth & Teach Like a "Gamer."
We just recently wrapped up our first #patinsicam Twitter chat, 6 week cycle on the Basics of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  When the question, “Which UDL principle do you find the most challenging?”...the majority vote was not surprising at all:  ENGAGEMENT.  

This made me reflect as to why engagement poses to be the most difficult in teaching.  After all, we can engage with people easily on a daily basis and also engage ourselves.  We share conversations, we tell jokes, we laugh and smile, we listen to music, we enjoy our hobbies, we may read for pleasure...all for engagement.  

We are engaged because these are things that are relevant and meaningful to us.  We aren’t focused on our weaknesses but using our strengths and interests to enhance fulfillment of our lives, which results in applying these experiences to increase our own intelligence...naturally.  It’s not even something we think about, it just happens.

A coworker and I have often pondered about the intense level of engagement in video games.  We have thought that if as teachers, we could change our mindset like that of a developer of video games, engagement may be a piece of cake.  What IS the secret key they hold that will naturally lead young people to sit for hours in front of a monitor, take breaks and stop when they need to, be driven and take self initiative to be successful in the game?  NEWFLASH!  Video games are universally designed and player centered. Are our classrooms, instructions and materials universally designed?  Are they student centered?

Well folks, I have to say that recently- I happen to be at the right place, at the right time.  After all of these years of pondering the draw to video games...I had a young man eloquently describe his occasional video game dabbling.  This is how it went:

Boy:  “I feel dumb sometimes.”

Me:   “What?  Tell me more about that.”

Boy:  “Well, school doesn’t come easy to me like it seems to for everyone else. I have to study all the time to even get smart and I don’t feel like doing that all of the time. My mind races because I’m so focused on getting the good grade, that I start forgetting what I learned and then make mistakes”

Me:  “So, how do you cope with that?  What do you do?”

Boy:  “Well, I started wearing earbuds and listening to music while I do my math homework.  It keeps me from overthinking the problems and then I just do the problems right without even thinking really.”


Me:  “Oh wow, that is such a great idea!  I need to do that!  I overthink all of the time.”

Boy (laughs):  “Yes, it really helps.  I don’t even think about the grade.  I just enjoy my music and working math becomes easier.”

Me:  “What makes you focus on the grades so much that you actually get stressed out?”

….and then this is when my teacher lightbulb came on and shined brightly with confirmation after the innocent, perfect “rant”...

Boy:  “School seems to be ALL about the grade!  It’s so stressful and so focused on intelligence. When someone doesn’t feel so intelligent, how can you even survive?  There is so much more to us than how smart we are!  If school was like most video games, we’d all do better….”

Me:  “What do you mean “like a video game”...?”

Boy:  “...I feel as if we are just seen with how much intelligence we have.  They are forgetting the other qualities of us that build us as people!  We have strength, agility, luck, perception, charisma, interests and endurance.  In certain video games, you build your own character and the better you perform with ALL of your qualities, the more intelligence you build.  You have to have all of those qualities to become more intelligent in video games.  As we go through school, we are just focused on gaining intelligence and teachers forget about our other qualities.  Some of us may have high intelligence and some of us may feel like we don’t.  This makes us feel completely unbalanced which affects everything else.”

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I heard a keynote speaker once say, “We don't have to teach kids curiosity...they came that way. We have to NOT take it out of them!”  Let’s make our students feel BALANCED inside of our classroom.  Let’s teach with relevance, meaningfulness and then naturally ENGAGE.  Let’s get to know our students and build upon their strengths and lessen the load of heavy feelings of weaknesses.  Have them actively participate in their own goals, no matter how big or small.  Let them self monitor themselves by using tools like https://www.futureme.org/  Let’s bring their interests into our teaching.

Need suggestions on how to make that happen?  Give any of us PATINS Specialists a shout!  

Now...Go forth and teach like a “Gamer.”


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Just skip to the butterflies

Usain Bolt guiding Terezinha Guilhermina, a Brazilian sprinter to train for the paralympics
(Rio 2016 / Alex Ferro)

Have you seen this photo of the fastest man in the world guiding a Paralympian with blindness while training for her own Olympic quest? Usain Bolt showed up for this event not knowing exactly how to guide (he worried he might run too fast--seems legitimate!) But he showed up, nonetheless, to guide Terezinha Guilhermina, a Brazilian sprinter competing in the 200 meter run.

This recent image in the news encapsulates the vision for educational teams working with students who have blindness and low vision in Indiana schools. We want students to achieve to their highest potential whether their race for the year is to complete AP World History, or learn how to cook some great Indian food like their mom. Many who might guide and teach them have similar worries as Usain, wondering,

“will I go too fast?”

“How do I share visual cues with someone who does not have sight?”

“How the heck does a student with blindness use an iPad?”

Because the particular disability of blindness occurs in such low incidence, many teachers may never have a child with this need in their classroom. Those that do, may never repeat the process. In my experience as a teacher for the blind and low vision, I witnessed a predictable emotional timeline for each school year for staff dealing with this particular new need in their classroom:

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Starting with the initial fear phase, and gradually coming to a settling-in phase, and ending with the this-kid-with-blindness-is-just-a-kid-after-all phase. My career quest has become to find ways to pole vault over those first 6 weeks of freaking out--not an easy task, as folks have deep seated fears regarding blindness. So as fearless as Usain Bolt may seem, his hesitance to guide comes naturally.

The guidelines for being an effective running partner from the AFB (American Federation for the Blind) organization United in Stride apply in many ways to the races we are running with our students toward their educational, social, and expanded core curriculum goals.

Highlighting a few from their website:

  1. Let the runner set the pace.

  2. Communicate often.

  3. Be patient.

  4. Accept correction as a way to improve your guiding skills.

If you read these, and let them sink in for a moment, you’ll realize that they can be further boiled down to: let the runner/student maintain most of the control for the process, and listen to them. Like many other challenges we face with fearing those who have differences from us, the remedy to fear is spending some time with, and getting to know the person. Ask them about their blindness, and the challenges they face, but also ask them about what kind of running shoes they prefer, and what movies they saw this summer.

After making a connection, seek the resources available for answering the questions about visual cues, access, and iPads. In addition to your local teacher for the blind and low vision who will be your point person for accommodating your student’s needs, PATINS has added my position as specialist to help teams sort through, and implement the amazing advancements in technology available for students with visual needs. I’m excited to be your coach for pole vaulting over the fear,  sprinting past the fear,  wrestling fear to the ground (insert your favorite sports analogy here).

We’ve got some exhilarating races ahead of us!


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We can do this-Together!

There are so many things to talk about and today PATINS itself, seems to be a good topic. We welcome additional employees, we are in the 21st year of what was originally a 5 year grant and we are restructuring into areas of specialty to better meet the needs of staff and students in Indiana. I start the year with a sense of excitement. Ok, it is true, I start every year with a sense of excitement. There is a quote I used to post on my wall to keep me grounded and here it is.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I like to think this is true not just daily, but for a new school year as well. So, let's move on. Goodness knows the children have! So reflecting on why I get up every morning. When I think of work, it is PATINS. Really, our mouthful of an acronym. Promoting Achievement through Technology and INstruction for all Students.
Promote  
Achievement  
Technology  
INstruction  
Students  
The big words may say it all, but it is the little words: the prepositions, adjectives and conjunctions that really send the message home.
     
    through  
    and  
    for  
    all  
       
    According to state records, (http://compass.doe.in.gov/dashboard/overview.aspx IDOE Compass reports) there are 1,046,527 students in Indiana public schools. Close to 156,910 or 15% are identified as requiring special education services. No matter what scale this is measured with, it could easily be overwhelming if a teacher feels alone in their one room school within a building. Let's start with the belief that children want to learn. We know teachers can feel isolated in classrooms within schools. As we learn to work together to open doors and walls amidst our daily blunders and absurdities, we should remember to Promote Achievement through Technology and Instruction for ALL Students. The task is and has always been to build local capacity and PATINS is here to help. Let us be part of your reason to leap out of bed in the mornings! Or at least grin as you reach for your caffeine of choice.

    Till the next time!
    Julie
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    Going For The Gold!

    The 2016 Olympics are over! New records have been set! History has been made! What an amazing two weeks of individuals and teams working together. Everyone working towards a common goal. Athletes helping, and at times even consoling, other Olympians. Even though there is only one gold medal per event all the athletes who competed worked to finish, to do their best. Every athlete had high expectations, they did not give up. You must admit just being in a race with Michael Phelps had to be intimidating, yet everyone raced with a gold medal in mind.

    We, as educators, hagold medalve been challenged to make sure that students with disabilities also ‘go for the gold’. On November 16, 2015, OSERS (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services) issued a Dear Colleague Letter regarding FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). In the opening paragraph of that document, it states that “children with disabilities are to be held to high expectations and have meaningful access to a State’s academic content standards”. Certainly, it is a challenge to have ALL students working on the statewide standards, but not impossible. The document goes one step further and states that the “individualized education program (IEP) for an eligible child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must be aligned with the State’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled’! The bar has been raised. All students does not just mean only those students serviced in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) settings. All students also includes those students in life skills classrooms. Every student should now be working on standards based on grade level, not functioning level.

    At first, you must admit it seems ridiculous for ALL students to be working on grade level standards. Obviously, some out of touch policy maker in DC is just trying to stir up the pot! But if you think about it the thought of ALL students working on grade level standards makes a lot of sense. When we have high expectations for our students they will perform to those standards. (This brings back memories of college psych classes and the Rosenthal Effect.) So look at the Indiana standards and figure out how they can be broken down. How can technology be infused within the standard to bring student success? We have at our fingertips a variety of tools (and even tools yet to be created). There are tools that allow students to show what they know and not dependent on being able to read. We constantly, as special educators, work at scaffolding the curriculum to eliminate the barriers. We are, without actually realizing it, infusing some elements of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into the curriculum.

    So I urged you to raise the bar for your students. Demand high expectations! Have your students go for the gold! Allow them to become successful individuals! And for those who can’t wait or want to get cheap airfare 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea (2/9-2/25) and 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (7/24-8/9).
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    Food Trucks & Snow Cones & Grasshoppers, Oh My!

    Food Trucks & Snow Cones & Grasshoppers, Oh My!
    I have a slight obsession with food trucks.  I follow the food truck schedule on FB. Then, assume most people around me are just as excited as I am that one is parked in our office lot.  (They’re not.)  Recently, I have honed in on snow cone ice.  I passed a food truck this summer that HAD snow cones!  I felt like I was in heaven. 

    When I get gas at the station, I HAVE to end the dollar amount on a zero (0) or a five (5).  I struggle with beginning a project and having to stop in the middle.  I am allergic to hay and as a young child, got bucked off of a horse and quickly found out what manure tastes like. (It tastes like it smells…blah.)
    Boy holding nose in disgust
    Watching scary movies as a child has left me STILL to this day, always pulling the blankets up past my neck to keep vampires away; and occasionally jumping up on the bed so no Boogieman can grab my feet.  (Yes, I am a grown-up.) As if that isn’t enough, mice will make me find a safe spot on top of furniture; but grasshoppers can nearly make me pass out from fear.

    If you have never met me or maybe even DO know me, you probably would not know those things about me.  I’m terrible about talking about “me.”  It’s out of my comfort zone to share things about myself.  This reflection made me think of students in the time we are at now…BACK TO SCHOOL!
    Back to school!

    As teachers, the first weeks of school are spent getting to know your students, students getting to know you, and students getting to know their peers.  For students who struggle with expression and communication, this can create high levels of anxiety; or students who are nonverbal may be unable to get to know their peers equally.
    With that said, while being focused on the implementation of accessible educational materials (AEM),let’s not lose sight of being socially accessible as well.  Here are a few ways to make that happen:

    telegami logo   Telegami:  Create a quick avatar, typed or spoken text
     
    TeleStory Logo  TeleStory:  Write and tell your story via video

    ChatterPix Logo  ChatterPix:  Take photo, draw line over mouth, and record voice

    Photo Mapo Logo    Photo Mapo:  Great app to share summer adventures or wish list places

    Book Creator Logo  Book Creator:  I feel like this should be a “staple” app; but is great to use for digital About Me books.
     
    Give all students that voice for introductions, regardless of barrier and allow them multiple ways to find their own zone of comfort to open up and share with their peers.  Let the friendships begin!

    Drawing of boy and girl happy
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    Break it… Just Break it.

    collage of Daniel, laptop, guitars, motorcycles, and a truck

    ...Buy it broken. Accept it damaged and worn. Welcome it ripped, ragged, and rough. 


    …Don’t just stand there because it works ok right now. Don’t just stand there and talk about the pieces of it that don’t work ok right now. Dive in, take it apart, try something new with it!  For Daniel’s sake, take a chance on breaking it! Here’s why...

    When I literally steal a moment away from other things I should be doing to sit in the breeze to assuredly think about the things I’m truly good at; the list is definite, short, and the items on the list are unmistakably bound together with 3 common threads…

    The things I feel confident other people would identify as those I’m good at are all things I’ve: 1. Had to learn out of necessity to fix something, 2. Taught myself by seeking out resources and through trial and error, 3. Were born out of deep passion. 

    Not many people likely know this about me, but almost every single thing I know about computers, programming, assistive technology, motorcycles, cars, photography, welding, or music, I’ve taught myself. These things, I taught myself because I either HAD to learn to fix problems I created for myself, couldn’t afford something without pre-existing problems, or simply NEEDED to know NOW…before I could wait for someone to teach me!  

    When I was 16 years old, I broke my leg playing the sport I was best at. A subsequent domino effect from this unfortunate event proved highly negative to the point I lost almost all of my friends; some of whom I’d had since kindergarten. Long story short, I could no longer march in the marching band as a snare drummer, which meant that I couldn’t be in any other bands in my high school. Devastated to have lost two of the things that I most valued, in addition to my friends, I sunk deep. I bought an old Peavey guitar with the last $150 I had from working the previous summer cutting grass. Not being able to walk, drive, or even hang out… I taught myself to play that guitar. It kept me going and the necessity to have something to keep me going required me to learn something I may not have learned otherwise. Now, playing the 6-string is a return-ticket to a place where I’m deeply rooted and can return, re-focused and recharged to some extent. 

    At 17, I was so ready to have my own car. I had loved motorized and mechanical things for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember very limited things, but I most definitely remember disassembling nearly every toy I owned.  ...taking them apart, exchanging pieces with other toys, sanding off the paint and repainting in differing colors, and sometimes never actually getting them back together. I always felt like I’d gained something though and never felt like I’d “lost” a toy. I always gained the knowledge of the inner workings of my things, which meant so much to me. It was a most certain gain that would apply positively to the next thing I took apart! I’m not so confident my mom saw it the same way as she stepped on parts and pieces of toy cars, action figures, bicycles, speakers, radios, and OUCH…legos! So, I bought my first truck for $700 with money I’d earned by tagging successfully hunted deer at the local sporting goods store in my small town. You’d be accurate in thinking it needed a lot of work.  …work I had no real idea how to do and parts I didn’t have and couldn’t afford. Long story short, I got really good at searching salvage yards, applying-sanding-painting bondo, and shifting that manual 4-cylinder in such a way that I could limit it’s back-firing, which would cause me undue attention in that little red truck that could. 

    When I bought my very first computer in 2000 (yes, just 16 years ago), I pushed that poor laptop to do things that nearly made it blow smoke and cry… which in turn caused it to have issues that required me to blow smoke and cry! I spent MANY late nights learning coding and writing script to fix the problems with my Windows 98 installation that I didn’t have a disc to fix and couldn’t afford to buy. I was literally eating macaroni and cheese 4 nights a week out of a Frisbee with the same plastic fork. I had a special education degree to finish and well …that computer simply HAD to live and I was the only surgeon on call!

    The same is true about photography (which I learned DURING the professional transition from film to digital), website building (back when we had to do it all in html code), and both riding and maintaining motorcycles. 

    Almost everything I know on a deep-understanding, passionate, and highly confident level with regard to all of those things...is self-taught for the reason that I HAD to fix things, learn things, try things, rebuild things, redesign things, and seek resources. These were (and still are) problems that I mostly made for myself. But many kiddos are not permitted the opportunity to create situations for themselves which require such trial and error type of learning. We have been taught to set them up for success, which isn’t entirely bad! But…

    While this may sound a bit silly to some, I feel there's no better, deeper, more comprehensive or true way to learn something.  …to fully KNOW something in a way that you feel confident in pushing it to it’s potential, than to experience breaking it …and subsequently repairing it, seeking resources, improving it, redesigning it, and ultimately gaining OWNERSHIP of experiential knowledge. 

    This is one area I think we often may fail our students. We care about our students and we want to protect them and keep the space in which they exist safe and secure.  In doing so, we sometimes limit their space to ‘existence,’ which is not the same as ‘living.’ While I’d never advocate for creating an unsafe environment for a student, I undoubtedly feel that without allowing them the dignity of risk to fail, frustrate, and re-build, we are plainly denying them the opportunity to truly and deeply KNOW a thing at it’s core measure.   

    We CAN offer that opportunity to students in a way that props up curiosity and DEEP understanding of THINGS in a way that is secure and encouraging!  We can! …and in doing this, we encourage independent people! I recently heard a speaker say something that nearly made my eyes too wet… “We don't have to TEACH kids CURIOSITY...they came to us that way. We have to NOT siphon it out of them!” Thanks @goursos. 

    We have to focus more on the result of the 27th re-build, when they finally “get it” and it works, than the 26 times we stepped on Legos, thought about the cost of dis-assembled ‘things,’ or placed our own value of whole-things over the value of BREAKING IT and learning to re-create, improve, re-design, rebuild that’s so essential to our job of building independent little individuals. Independent and proud little faces ONLY ever result from allowing the dignity of risk, which can require a difficult transformation of philosophy about what’s best for learners. 

    I’d go so far as to say that many education professionals have denied themselves or have been denied through a variety of reasons, the same opportunity to explore something, potentially break it, and subsequently truly LEARN it by having to re-construct it. Many who’ve heard me speak probably know my “just jump in the shark tank” philosophy.” If you don’t, just ask me sometime. I like to share. 

    Likely through a combination of policy, fear, and conditioning, many educators may feel discouraged from pushing anything to it’s limit without the confidence of being reinforced, propped up, and encouraged to struggle through repairing it.   

    When we consider the weight and prominence of “HIGH EXPECTATIONS” and “SHARED RESPONSIBILITY” for ALL STUDENTS set forth for us in both ESSA and the November 2015 Dear Colleague Letter, I feel strongly that we often have had safety goggles on when we should have been sporting binoculars, microscopes, and welding helmets! To arrive at achievement levels beyond what we currently are experiencing, we MUST value the dignity of risk in being the reinforcement for teachers to TEACH DIFFERENTLY, and for students to LEARN DIFFERENTLY, which might require rebuilding and redesigning, and we MUST value the opportunity for ALL of our students to feel absolute pride in THEIR confident stride toward independence through temporary downfall and subsequent, necessary, and repeated rebuilding! 

    It is only through this process of experiential acquisition of knowledge with an authentic purpose or audience, that one becomes an “expert learner,” which should be the ultimate goal of what we are trying to achieve through all educational experiences. The task, the tools, and the method can be counted on to evolve. Those things will not be the same in 5-10 years, I promise. The desire, passion, and experiences to be an ever-growing LEARNER is what separates existence from living. 

    So…Twist the throttle until something smokes. Smash the brakes until traction is temporarily lost. Take something apart solely for the purpose of knowing how it works in order to put it back together BETTER. Sit on the floor and just look at something that works OK as it is and IMAGINE what it COULD BE if you took off panel A  and B and moved some things around between the two compartments or found a totally new component to install. Or …Just simply take it apart, look at the pieces, put it back together exactly as it was….and truly KNOW how it works. 

    PATINS has parts and pieces. We have passionate people who want to support your journey.  We have high-fives, encouragement, strategies, data, opportunities to push expectations for yourself and for your students. In fact, THIS is WHY WE are here…we’ve taken ourselves and the things around us apart and we’ve arrived HERE to support you during your experiential road-trip. …just find one of us and say, “watch this….”  We’ll be there. Break it.  


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    Universally Designed Blended Learning

    The term Blended Learning is all abuzz in the world of education — and why shouldn’t it be? Our students were born into a digital age, and using technology comes naturally to them. So it only makes sense to use it in our daily lesson plans to give students opportunities to explore online content, allow new forms of expression and displays of content knowledge, and to connect with other students from all around the world.

    face-to-face plus self-paced plus online equal blended learning
    While we are enthusiastic about engaging our students by implementing technology into our teaching, we must remember Universal Design for Learning. This makes it important to ask yourself — How will I make my blended learning environment, content, and activities accessible to every student in my classroom? Will students who have visual, hearing, motor, and/or cognitive needs have the ability to access my curriculum just like my other students?
     female student using braille reader


    Well, making that content accessible without practice is no easy task, and intentional planning is necessary, but I assure you it can be done!  

    We know that images and videos increase interest in our content and that many students are visual learners. Yet, in order to make these features accessible to all students, videos should be closed-captioned and images should have alternative text (allowing a screen reader to read a short description of the image).

    Fancy fonts can be fun to use, but sticking to a minimum 12-point font size in fonts such as Arial, Helvetica, or Verdana is preferred. These types of fonts, known as sans serif fonts, can be easily magnified for students with low vision. 

    Format your documents with the tools given to you in the program you are using. Avoid using multiple spaces for indenting, creating your own spacing for bullet points, or using text boxes as screen readers will not read these elements correctly. 

    I personally love color-coding for my own use, but relying on using only color to convey meaning makes a document inaccessible for students who are colorblind, have low vision, or are blind. 

    Blinking and flashing content should be limited to no more than 3 seconds — if not completely eliminated – due to risk of headaches or seizures.

    Check out http://webaim.org/intro/ and https://www.ada.gov/websites2.htm for additional guidelines on website accessibility that you can translate into accessibility standards for your content. I expect to find new rules coming down the pipeline over the next few years that will mandate specific accessibility features in state and federal government websites, which includes K-12 public schools and public universities. This could certainly affect how your content is being delivered to your students as well as the content itself. 

    In the meantime, making a conscious effort to ensure all of your students have access to the curriculum, will only make following the future rules that much easier. And, of course, we are always here to help you along the way.


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    It's a crutch!

    Admiral Ackbar Meme It's a Crutch!“It’s a crutch!  If we let students get by with listening instead of reading, how will they ever learn to read?”  This or some similar phrase has been heard or said by many of us.  One word in that quote jumped out at me.  Crutch.  When did that become a negative word?  It’s a noun, not an expletive! What is so bad about a crutch?  Crutches allow people to walk unaided who would otherwise need assistance.  If a student has a broken leg do we want them sitting around doing nothing until it heals?  What if it doesn’t heal?  Is that it?  Are we going to tell them to sit there while we place things across the room for them that they need and then fail them for not getting up to get them?  The organization
    Crutches 4 Kids describes the reason for their work, Crutches help children access school giving them the opportunity to learn and become productive members of their communities..  Their slogan, “A Pair of Crutches Changes Everything” is just as applicable to us as educators.  

    Using assistive technology to read digital material to a student has many titles.  Among a few are: Audio Supported Reading, Auditory Learning, Text to Speech and Reading by Ear.  What this refers to is having the words read out loud with the support of highlighted text.  crutch2.0

    There is a history of Audio Supported Reading use in conjunction with braille to increase the speed and accuracy of reading in students who are blind or have low vision.  New research is beginning to show similar results for students who are struggling readers.  By scaffolding a student’s ability to decode difficult words they become capable of decoding the meaning behind the text faster.  This leads not only to greater comprehension but increased concentration and motivation.  Through the use of
    Don Johnston’s uPAR testing software some of the PATINS AEM Grant Teams were also able to see a change in the comprehension level of their students over time who had access to Audio Supported Reading as a part of their reading support.  This is so exciting!  

    Let’s talk UDL!  What was once a negative is now a positive.   In the past it has been hard on teachers and students when assistance has been given to one student but not all others.  Who hasn’t heard, “Why does he get that and I don’t?  I want that too!” and “I don’t want to look different.”  Audio Assisted Reading has many plusses for all!  For instance:  You want to assign your students research on the process of presidential elections.  The articles on the internet will contain words that not all good readers will understand.  This is the point of learning.  It is supposed to contain some things that are new to you!  By using a text reader for some of the more difficult words, a student can avoid skimming over them and missing the deeper understanding of the topic.  I used it to read the CAST article cited below.  It helps me concentrate and read slower so that I can focus on the content and meaning instead of just finishing the article.  I also used it to read this blog post out loud to me to help proofread.

    Research:
    The following article is a good beginning for understanding the basis in research and Education Law for the use of Audio Supported Reading:

    Another good read on this subject can be found in this 4-part article. http://www.readspeaker.com/does-text-to-speech-technology-help-students-learn/


    Some of my favorite crutches are:  

    There are many more, including some that come standard as a part of the computer or tablet!  

    Some internet sites have it built in.  Look for symbols like these:
    button for text to speech button for text to speech button for text to speech


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    Curly Locks & The 2 Dimples

    Curly Locks & The 2 Dimples
    As a young girl, “Oh my goodness, look at those curls; and those dimples nearly swallow your cheeks!” were words that she would hear often from strangers.  One day, she even slipped and fell face flat into a mud puddle at a public park.  Clearly, the mud was what swallowed her face AND her embarrassed tears; but what she heard was, “Not even a speck of mud in those dimples,” from the lady who came to help her.  All she really wanted to hear was, “Are you ok?”...because she wasn’t.

    Growing up, she quickly realized the smile that would create those dimples, was like a magic cape that would make her invisible...even when she wanted to be seen. Many acquaintances, friends and even teachers knew that behind the facade of a beautiful home, lived the girl who could not possibly be “ok”...but no one ever asked.

    When she entered her high school years, a teacher realized a pattern in missing days at school...and the teacher asked, “Are you ok?”  The young girl froze in surprise of the question, looked at the teacher and smiled…”Yes, of course I’m ok.”  Her “magic cape” allowed her to vanish in plain sight once again with her grades slowly faltering.  Her barrier was the inability of verbal expression under intense stress, fear and/or anxiety.

    While she was a typical student in the mainstream classroom who could speak and read and write text, this story makes me think of all of the students that come to classrooms daily from diverse backgrounds and needs...each one with their own form of a “magic cape.” With that in mind, working to create a universally designed environment (UDL) may seem like a daunting task when working with students with disabilities and/or emotional & behavior disorders. How are those students able to access what they know or how they feel if they are unable to access that communication in the way that they need? I would like to focus on one of the UDL principles- “multiple means of expression.”  


    Behaviors happen for a reason and they can adversely affect a student’s educational performance.  Some students would rather have a physical or emotional outburst or shut down completely when asked to do a task in front of the classroom- before they will EVER let their peers know that they struggle with reading or completing what seems to be a simple math problem to most.  Some students may be repeatedly told in various ways that they are not smart; which in turn causes them to disengage academically and socially.  Not all students can express what they know or how they feel verbally.  What about our students who are nonverbal?  Not all students can express what they know or how they feel in written text.  What about our students with physical disabilities?  

    At times, we get so caught up in what is in front of us, whether it is the disability, the behavior or even the dimples- that we avoid or forget to simply ask, “Are you ok?” A simple gesture that when asked, we must provide various ways for our students to respond in a way that best fits them.  A few examples are verbally, written, text-to-speech, drawing, recorded response, AAC, pictures, etc.  

    Getting to the core of what is creating the behavior and addressing that with your student, can certainly assist in avoiding what I like to refer to as the behavioral domino effect.  Dominoes in lineMeaning, when one falls without being caught, it lands on another that falls, which lands on another, etc.  Before you know it, you have a whole line of new behaviors.  If you have ever lined up dominoes to create the chain reaction of falling in a pattern, then you know that if you want to set them back up...you have to set the very FIRST one back up that fell.

    Let’s help our struggling students KNOW and FEEL that we care and that they CAN achieve great things.  Sometimes that IS the most important thing they need to know and understand.

    For those of you who may want to know what happened to “Curly Locks & The 2 Dimples,” I do not want to close this blog with a story half written.  A teacher did ask her AND her entire class one day a simple question in the form of a writing prompt:  “Tell me something that you think I would never guess about you.”  The young lady wrote and she wrote and she kept writing...  

    If you were to ask her if she is “ok” today...she will offer you a real smile, with no magic cape and now verbally respond,  “Absolutely.”  I can answer for her with complete confidence...

    ...because she, is me.
    Drawing of girl in grass

     
     
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