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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My Quest for Gold

It’s time for another blog entry and after posting my previous one it got me thinking about what I do.  I moved from the PATINS Central Site Coordinator position that I held for 17 years to become the ICAM (Indiana Center for Accessible Materials) Technology Coordinator just less than a year ago.  It has been a year of learning the details of what happens when a student qualifies for digital print materials and how we get it to them.  As a site coordinator I would troubleshoot with the Digital Rights Managers as how to use the technology they needed to open files like NIMAS, ePubs, PDF, etc. for use with their students.  My current position offers me the opportunity to get the digital content from the publishers, the NIMAC (National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center), Learning Ally among other sources.  I also process orders and still offer technical assistance when needed, which is often, but hey that’s the job and I like a good challenge now and then.

If you read my first post, “Mimi, would you read this to me?” you know my confession, but more importantly it was about how crucial it is for children especially young children to be read to.

Sometimes things come full circle and I’ll explain.  We had a family vacation not long ago to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  We have been there 4 times before and last year my wife thought it would be worth trying an audiobook for the drive so she downloaded the first chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I’ll be honest again, but driving through the mountains of Virginia at night and trying to concentrate on the road was much more than I had in mind.  Needless to say it was over before chapter two.  She wanted to try it again this year, but had planned to do a couple of chapters when the stress of driving was minimal.  Together we worked at logging on to our local library, downloading the Overdrive app on her iPhone and selecting an audiobook.  The process was relatively easy.  The audiobook that we chose was The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.  Once on our way and traffic tolerable, we popped the auxiliary jack into her phone and started with the Preface.  I have always enjoyed sports through participation or observing, but never thought of just listening to what was being described.  For the first time in a long time it was enjoyable.  The anticipation of the next chapter was figuratively and literally just around the corner.  We listened to half of book on the way there and the other half on the way back.  I know what you’re thinking, why did you wait a whole week to finish the book?  Again, it was anticipation for me.  It was something to look forward to during the boring part of the drive.

I opened this blog with what my job description is in a nutshell, but this experience was one that the students with a print disability and even those that don’t experience every day.  It was a glimpse for me to walk in their shoes if only through one book and to really feel what I have been a part of over so many years had come to fruition. 

There are many “tools” for supporting access to digital content and selecting one or two might seem like a daunting task, but the PATINS Project and ICAM staff can help with making that easier with the right background information.  It’s not your quest for gold, but it is for your students.

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A Salute to Indiana Educators

This week’s blog edition is dedicated to the Indiana educators.  In reviewing my year, I have logged a whole lot of miles and met with a whole lot of school staff.  It has been GREAT! What an amazing group of folks.  My life is truly richer for these experiences.There has been a number of topics that we have covered.  Much of what we have talked about is how to include all students in the curriculum and I can tell you that is a loaded statement. It sounds simple, but it has a lot of layers when you really look at it.  For some presentations, there is a slide I show of a Venn-type diagram of 6 circles.      Slide03                           I think this describes education today.

1.  I put students in the center.  As educators, we know students really are and have always been the central focus.  
2.  Just above that is a circle of Diversity.  We can all agree there is much diversity found in the classroom ranging from academic abilities to socio-economic, cultural, language, religious, and the list can go on.  As a consultant, I include teachers and staff in the diversity pool and this is something that must be considered for communication and for accessibility as well.  One size does not fit all.  Neither for students nor staff.
3.  So next to children and diversity, we find student achievement.  I list this third, purposely, as we are not dealing with a product here that can be measured in purely economic or statistical terms.  Achievement is very important to be sure.  Educators have always found a way to measure student achievement.  So the fact that we have and need student achievement is a given and absolutely necessary.  The thing is, student achievement is best measured when there is a good match between what the children know, can do and demonstrate with what is expected.  That brings us to the last three circles of the Venn Diagram.  

The Stuff. Instructional Technology (IT including infrastructure), Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Assistive Technology (AT)
4.  In the middle we have the Instructional technology provided for all students/staff, regardless of educational placement.
5.  On one side we have AT which is required for students to benefit from their special education where ever it is i.e. general ed class, special ed class. So those make sense and have been around for awhile.
6.  The other player is UDL, which serves as more than a bridge between the two.  It has been called a framework and I look at it as a warm embrace for education.   Purposeful, planned, front-loaded, collaborative. A future blog can go into this in more detail but suffice it to say that UDL brings education full circle, and honestly, I have seen this kind of work in action all around Indiana.

Schools today operate with technology.  They really always have.  It used to be the slate and soapstone, or the vellum and quill, or the #2 lead and paper. Pick your era. There was always a way to use a tool for education, so really, there is no difference now.  The discussion should not be to use technology or not. The question is, "How do children demonstrate what they have learned?"  The discussion should include brainstorming multi-modal ways to engage students, multi-modal ways to present information and multi-modal ways to have them express and demonstrate understanding, while building in layers of increasing independence.  The challenge is on to find out what students know and to find ways to challenge all students.

It has been an absolute joy to meet teachers and educators across Indiana engaged in dynamic ways of reaching students and who seek out more ways to reach children who learn via atypical means and methods.  Keep up the good work!
 






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How do you find things if you don't know they exist?

fashion shopping girl clipartOne of the questions you get asked when people are curious about you is, “Do you have any hobbies?”  I have a hard time answering that.  I have things that I enjoy doing, but are they hobbies?  You tell me.  I really enjoy shopping.  I don’t care who I am shopping for.  I just want to find the one thing that will make someone smile and understand that, I get them.  I want to buy the perfect wedding gift or birthday gift, and I’m not afraid to hunt for it.  I search both online and stalk the stores.  Sometimes I know exactly what I want.  Sometimes I find it accidentally while shopping around for fun.  The thing is, I do it enough that I don’t have to wonder where to look for things when I need them.   

Recently I worked with a school district that is going through an abrupt change of status with one of their students.  In the blink of an eye that student’s method for learning and expressing their comprehension was drastically altered.  The learning professionals banded together to find a path to learning for this student through a forest of technology that they didn’t even know existed.  They built a team that included administrators, technical support, special educators and regular educators because they knew that it was going to take the knowledge of all concerned parties to facilitate the student’s needs so that he could continue learning at his previous level.  The thing is, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.  Everyone was ready to pitch in, however they needed help finding out if the things they wanted to exist, did.  Moreover, would they work the way they needed them to.  

So, how do you find things if you don’t know they exist?

The need for assistive technology solutions in schools is constant.  It is always an emergency when a student is blocked from learning.   Resolutions need to be found quickly and this is where years of shopping experience comes in handy!  It is time to shop!

When shopping for Assistive Technology solutions I am particular about where I look. The sites must be credible. I need to see expert level analysis or be able to link to it. If they are comparing technologies I want to see the rubric. I appreciate having tech sorted through and rated on a consistent scale, but the scale must be pertinent to the activities to which it will be employed.

Screenshot 2016 03 22 13.17.45
Tech Matrix - "Assistive and educational technology tools and resources to support learning for students with disabilities and their classmates."  This site allows for searching by text, content area, grade level and IDEA disability category.  It then compares up to four products across that search criteria.  It also allows for the searching of up to 302 pertinent research articles.  This site is worth knowing for this function alone.

Since you are reading this blog I bet you know two other great AT searching opportunities...

That's right, the PATINS Library and PATINS Tech Expo.

Both of these resources come with expert level support to empower your search.


Whether we play a big part in the coordinating of a student’s assistive technology or a small part, everyone involved has an important role.  Once you have considered the student, their environment, and the task that is to be performed I will be happy to help you shop your technology options!







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