Aug
08

Stop Teaching "Low Functioning" Students

Stop teaching the low students Magic Ball indicating High. A witch's hat with speech bubble reading,
I half-joke that I’m working my way out of education purgatory, trying to make up for my sins in years past. One particular mistake I made: I let myself believe I could help “low functioning students.” The year I refused to teach “low” kids (and “high functioning” students too!) I started to realize what my purpose was.

I worked in a school that had two self-contained special education classrooms. On paper, it was just Ms. A’s class and Ms. Z’s class, but everyone referred to it as the “high functioning room” and the “low functioning room.” Sometimes the students had instruction together or joined their peers in general education but, in general, the students of the low functioning group stayed in their room and the high functioning students had more chances to be included. The high functioning students sat with assistants and learned letters and numbers and the low functioning students watched the other students work. Maybe we’d stick a switch toy on their wheelchair tray. Yipee.

Why? Because it was The Way We Had Always Done It. You’ll be happy to hear it’s changed.

On the flip side, I had students who were “high functioning.” Teachers were very pleased to have high functioning students except when they didn’t do what the other kids were able to do, or in the same way. Every year, like an unspoken agreement, accommodations were slowly chipped away. “He’s high functioning,” we’d all say. “He doesn’t need a sensory break, or note taking support, or Augmentative Communication. He should be able to do that on his own by now, or else he’d be low functioning.”

“The difference between high-functioning autism and low-functioning is that high-functioning means your deficits are ignored, and low-functioning means your assets are ignored.” - Laura Tisoncik

Once I was asked to observe “Cory.” Cory was a youngster who enjoyed trampolines, letters, and car commercials. He needed constant supervision, plenty of breaks, and explicit directions and support for academics, leisure, and daily living skills. He frequently hit the person nearest him, although staff could not pinpoint as to why (no FBA completed). He had no way to independently communicate. It wasn’t that they hadn’t tried but what they had tried wasn’t working, so they stopped. He did have two little symbols taped to his workstation: “more” and “stop” that were used to direct his behavior.

His teacher met me at the door and gestured to where he was “working” (10+ minutes of redirection to sit in a chair with some math problems attempted in between). I asked what would be helpful to her as a result of our consultation.

“As you can see, we’ve tried everything,” she exclaimed, gesturing to her lone visual taped to the desk. “He’s just too low.”

It took me a while to pick apart why this particular visit weighed on my soul. I had been that person and I knew the ugly truth: as soon as we start saying students are “low” we’ve haven’t described the child, we’ve described our own limitations in believing in kids.

The terms “low functioning” and “high functioning” are not professional terms. They have no place in an educational report, school policy, or conversation. They are born from poor understanding, frustration, and/or a misplaced desire to categorize students by how high our expectations should be. Who gets to be high functioning? Who gets to be low? Did you mistakenly think (as I did) that researchers set an agreed-upon standard or that there was a test or some type of metric to determine what bin of functioning we all belong in? Perhaps there was a Harry Potter-esque Sorting Hat of Functioning?

"...‘high functioning autism’ is an inaccurate clinical descriptor when based solely on intelligence quotient demarcations and this term should be abandoned in research and clinical practice." (Alvares et al, 2019)

In absence of a Magic 8 Ball of Functioning, I challenge you to stop teaching “low functioning students,” erase the phrase from your vocabulary, and start wondering “what do we need to be successful?” Describe the supports your student needs, the skills they are working on, the behaviors and interests you’ve observed. What do you need to do differently? Tell me about your student, not the expectations people have formed. At PATINS we have not met, in our entire combined careers, students who were too anything to learn. There is always a way, and we can help.

What ever happened to Cory? I haven’t heard back from his team since then. It still makes me sad, because I know that as long as one of the most meaningful adults in his life thinks of him as “too low,” not much will change.

You will not regret ditching those words. Your students will remember you for it. You have nothing to lose but functioning labels.

They weren’t helping anyone, anyway.
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Jun
13

I "Sparked Joy" In My Office and It Worked

I "Sparked Joy" In My Office and It Worked I
I don’t pretend to be any better than the kids who love to watch hours of people unboxing toys they’ll never play with: I love watching people buy homes I’ll never live in, make food I’ll never eat, or declutter spaces I’ll never visit.

To that end, I really adore Marie Kondo, the enthusiastic and sensitive soul who encourages you to either “spark joy” with items or don’t keep them, among other steps in her decluttering process. My husband is terrified when I turn on one of the episodes on Netflix, because he knows I'll be inspired to tackle another room. 😁

I admit to being a packrat and wishful crafter, especially in my job. When I see corrugated plastic yard signs or empty takeout I bring up the “Pinterest of my mind” and imagine what I could turn it into. Having a shoestring budget to cover 3-7 different rooms every year meant I had to be creative and I thought if I could just find more there would be… more! What if I needed it later?

A few years ago, unaware of Ms. Kondo’s methods, I inherited a workspace that resembled what an avalanche in a tiny library might look like. Materials were slowly suffocating me, and I realized The Purge must happen. I created a little test in my head: was this going to positively impact a student this month? Yes, keep and organize, if not, pitch. That's it, the only rule!

What was donated?
  • 60% of the games and books
  • Outdated testing materials
  • Old triplicate IEP forms from 1997
  • 99% of my college books and projects
  • 90% of the worksheets
  • Treasure box toys (and any references to treasure box/incentives)Neatly organized office supplies and a cup of coffee
  • Assistive Technology that has really truly bit the dust or past its useful life (check with your schools on how to dispose of it properly)
What stayed?
  • Solidly constructed organization tools like shelves and file drawers
  • Perennial office supplies, although not so many
  • A set of what I still consider my “speech therapy on a deserted island” emergency kit: mirror, dry erase board, post its, pens, crayons, tongue depressors
I can report I’ve never missed anything that was donated, not once.

It was better than a facelift: I felt like I had energy! The room wasn’t so busy, I could put things away quickly and my students could get things out. We were moving and grooving to a new rhythm.

At this stage in my career, the 5-7 speech rooms have condensed into the trunk of my car. It’s still a battle of making sure what’s in there really sparks joy and moves the needle. I’m moving offices again, wish me luck in making sure what stays in my new workspace provides me purpose and energy for another year!



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Mar
07

Feeling the Burnout

Feeling the Burnout Burnt toast with the words
How is it that Fall Semester has 90 school days but Spring Semester has somewhere around 1,200? It feels like it doesn't it? While some of us are anticipating a much-deserved break, you or your colleagues might be struggling with that-which-we-do-not-really-talk-about: burnout.

I cried every day of the first two weeks in my first post-graduation job. No hyperbole: I went through my entire tissue box in my car and I knew exactly what spot to park in so the cafeteria staff couldn’t see my tears. I'm grateful to report that it got better. My first experience with burnout wasn't my last, but each time has taught me to be more patient and gentle with myself and others.


Still, it sucked.

My first job out of graduate school, I was excited but pragmatic. I wasn’t planning on changing the world, I just wanted to be a good speech-language pathologist. I wanted to help my students meet their goals, I wanted to turn in all my paperwork on time, to feel good about the work I did with kids, and have a real life outside of work.

When I woke up I felt I had enough energy and resources to pick two of those things and let the other two slide. I was miserable. I privately wondered if I was burnt out already, only a few months in.

I wasn’t burnt all the way, but the edges were pretty rough, a little toasty if you will, and it was obvious in the day-to-day. I was physically sick more than I’d ever been. I was short with people that didn’t deserve it. Every little ask or additional work felt like I was being personally singled out. Didn’t anyone care?!

The truth is, in education, we care and we are surrounded by people who care. We care so much, all day long, without ceasing, and the unpaid emotional work comes at a cost. In many cases, especially for those of us who work with students who have experienced trauma, it can come on acutely with compassion fatigue or slowly with burnout.

The Life Stress Test is one tool to help gauge how susceptible you are to stress-related illness. Notice that happy things, like marriages and vacations, contribute to stress just like deaths and job changes. Just before I started my (tear soaked) first two weeks:

Got married (50 points)
Had a change in financial status (38 points)
A student loan over $30,000 (31 points)
Change to a different line of work (36 points)
Finished School (26 points)

The month before I started school racked up enough "stress points" to put me firmly into a category of moderate concern, let alone everything else weighing on me up to that point. With all the “happiest time of your life” cards I’d gotten, it seemed wrong to be feeling stressed and upset. Looking back, I wish someone had said that I could be really happy to be married and employed and really unhealthily stressed at the same time, just to relieve some of the guilt.

It's interesting to note that most of these "stress tests" are very adult-oriented. What would it look like for many of our students? I imagine:

Walked into school late (15 points)
Unexpected substitute teacher (22 points)
High-stakes test (40 points)
Surprise convocation (13 points)
Something bad happened at home but the adults won't explain it to me (20-60 points)

Life has since changed for the better because I made changes. I surrounded myself with wonderful, positive people who listened and taught me how to manage my work. I said “no” to some things so I can say “yes” to self-care. I created new schedules. I learned new paperwork management techniques. I applied UDL principles in my work for my students and for myself. I had fun! PATINS had a wonderful twitter chat about mindfulness on Tuesday, many shared tools and ideas I want to try. Take a look at this calendar from Montgomery Co Public Schools around self-care (thanks for sharing @PossBeth). Try a few in the upcoming week, see how you feel!

While most of the things on this list helped me overcome my temporary bout with high-stress and burnout, sometimes we need more assistance and help to find that help. The correlation between burnout and depression is strong and, for many, these techniques aren't enough. Before I stepped foot in a classroom I was given training on the ways my students could access more mental health services and support but it took years before I learned about help for me and my fellow educators, such as:

Seek a professional. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs or other opportunities to take advantage of free or nearly free counseling services.

Suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255, with accessible services for people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and in Spanish.

Consider getting trained in responding to someone who is in crisis. Many districts offer training in Question, Persuade, Respond program or other crisis response techniques to empower all people to intervene and prevent suicide.

My hope is that you know you're not alone. My deepest wish is that when you reach out for help PATINS can help you feel less "toasty-to-burned out" as you manage new expectations and challenges, you'll find an enthusiastic colleague and listening ear.

We're rooting for you!
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Jessica Conrad
That's a great resource!
Thursday, 14 March 2019 21:46
Jessica Conrad
Ah, thanks for clarifying, I'll clarify in there too. Great ideas and so simple to implement in a busy classroom!
Thursday, 14 March 2019 21:47
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Nov
29

This Blog Post is Full of Curse Words

This Blog Post is Full Of Curse Words Icon for various forms of AAC with the large black font reading
About once a month I have to answer a really important question:

“Why is that word on his talker?”

“That word,” is our euphemism for any number of words: body parts (slang and clinical), fart sounds, curse words, words that are culturally irrelevant, childish, or inappropriate for a child [of his age/place where he is/supposed cognitive level]. And someone, somewhere, decided to program it on this child’s Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device as if encouraging the child to use inappropriate language.

I get it. When I imagined the magical moment of helping a student find her voice with the fancy new Sound Generating Device, I wasn’t expecting her first two-word phrase on her device to be “poop butt” repeated over and over again for the next three days, either.

I get it, I really do! We’re professionals trying to create engaging and enriching environments for our learners and the literacy activity has been derailed because we taught him how to make plurals on his talker and now he loves pluralizing the word “as.”

We admit we’re impressed, but we can’t let that slide.

In moments of “enriched language” that flusters me I take a deep breath and remember:

I am not the language police.

A larger-than-anticipated part of my job has been talking about cuss words. And promoting cuss words. And explaining the functional importance of having access to cuss words. And listening to and programming cuss words into communication devices. And explaining why adults can't delete cuss words and "adult vocabulary" from a kid's voice. And listing all culturally relevant cuss words. And finding good visuals for cuss words.

If my professors could see me now.

So what happens if she talks out of turn, pressing the buttons on her communication app? The same thing that happens to all the other students talking out, of course.

What happens when she won’t stop saying “poop butt”? The same thing you would do for any other child who says it. We don’t duct tape kids mouths, and we don’t take talkers away.

What happens when she uses swear words in class? The same thing that you do for any other student who cusses in class. We can’t forcibly remove words from a speaking child’s vocabulary. We teach, we consider the variables, and we provide natural consequences. We don’t delete words from the communication device.

It is work worth doing, with clear expectations, communication between school and family (and sometimes with the office door closed and the volume down really low as you check to make sure “#$!@” is pronounced correctly). The communication device is a voice, not a school textbook or a representation of just the words you hope or anticipate they’ll use today. It’s their access to their human right to communicate, and sometimes communication is colorful, shocking, or uncomfortable.

Do you agree or disagree with me? Let me know in the comments below, with any language you like.*

*natural consequences apply

The icon AAC in my title image is from ARASAAC, a no-cost Creative Commons license resource for symbols and icons to represent all words (even “those words”).
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Jessica Conrad
Thank you Alyssa! I agree it can be so hard to change minds. We need to have patience, compassion, humor, and allies in all corner... Read More
Thursday, 29 November 2018 21:47
Jessica Conrad
haha, I think we could compile a small autobiography/dictionary at this point!
Monday, 03 December 2018 11:26
Jessica Conrad
I'm glad! I hope he enjoys the expanded and functional vocabulary!
Monday, 03 December 2018 11:27
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Aug
23

Labels, Learning Styles and Stars

"Labels, Learning Styles and Stars" on a starry background
How would you label yourself as a learner? Take a moment to think about some words you’d use.

Did you use your astrology sign? No?

When I was in high school my career counselor helped me pick a major. I took some tests which yielded lists of potential careers. Every week I studied them and shrugged.

During our last session, he sighed and said, “let’s check your horoscope.”

We pulled up a list of suggested careers for Geminis and laid my career assessment list next to it. One career showed up on both lists: speech-language pathologist. I never knew that was a thing, but I said I’d try it and I haven’t changed my mind since.

However, I do not recommend the Jessica Conrad Horoscope Method for choosing careers or to better understand your student’s possibilities. There is zero science or rationale behind it. I could have just as easily been an antique dealer. I hate The Antique Roadshow.

Also worth noting: it turns out I’m not a Gemini. This whole time, I’ve been a Taurus.

When the news broke at NASA that the astrological charts were out of whack for various reasons, I was shocked. Go ahead and look at the new suggested dates. If your sign changed, do you feel a pang of denial or disbelief, even if you use it for entertainment? I did. It’s hard to let go of that label.

Humans like labels. We are programmed to like knowing who are “our people” and who isn’t, what we are and what we aren’t. It helps us feel safe, helps us feel like we understand things, whether it’s true or not.

Go back to my first question, how you would label yourself as a learner. Did you use any of these terms:

Visual learner
Auditory learner
Kinesthetic learner

Or something like that? Several years after I picked my career from an astrology website, I was sitting in a class where the lecturer announced in passing “there’s no such thing as a learning style.”

I felt my foundation of identity rock a little when I heard that. Learning styles aren’t real? “Say’s who?” I wondered because I knew that I was a visual learner. I took a little learning quiz once and my teachers reaffirmed it and I felt it deep in my bones. Give me a book over a lecture any day. I was great at understanding graphs. Didn’t that mean anything?

A little digging revealed decades of research reaffirming the truth: our brains are amazing and complex and cannot be categorized with the decades-old hypothesis that I am wired to learn one way and others another. We still have a lot to discover about brains and learning, but the learning styles myth doesn’t hold any water or make any difference in instruction. You can read this analysis for post-college learning, and this meta-analysis summary from Indiana Wesleyan University and the research article published this year from Indiana University. You can also listen to Tesia Marshik’s Ted Talk on learning styles and the importance of critical self-reflection.

It’s hard to adopt that new information in the face of what we feel is correct. Our brains are wired to identify it as a threat, seeing information that opposes our strongly held belief no different than a lion trying to eat us. It’s hard but important! Why bother writing this and debunking the myth? Besides promoting evidence-based practice, bad information hurts kids.

For example, a young me who saw the list of careers like “engineer” and “concert vocalist” under different learning styles and thought they were out of reach. My high school student refusing to give geometry another try because “I’m just not a visual learner.” The guidance counselor who advised my friend to not pursue nursing because there was so much reading and not enough kinesthetic learning for her.

There’s a lot of other labels and titles we throw around:

Stubborn. Sensitive. Flighty. Rude. High-functioning. Low-functioning. Special. Gifted. Delayed. Aggressive. Picky. Not Diploma Track Ready.

All labels we’ve seen passed around a conference table helping us make very big decisions about what that student’s future of learning might be.

I challenge you to pause and wonder, what if the label isn't true?

So all of this begs the question: if not learning styles, then what? How do we ensure we are reaching all students? PATINS Project highly recommends Universal Design for Learning and the research behind it. We’ve got great resources and specialists who can assist you in designing for all learners in mind.
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May
18

Nerd

"nerd" in large font with a picture of Darth Vader riding a My Little Pony with "Happy Birthday Jessica" written in International Phonetic Alphabet and Jessica standing in front of a sign that says "Gen Con"
My father once lightheartedly referred to me as a “geek” when I was eleven. I burst out crying in shame. Through my tears, I was able to defend myself:

“I’m not a geek. I’m an imaginative nerd!”

And I am.

The Merriam-Webster still defines nerds as "an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits."

Ouch. I'd challenge anyone to see the positive and powerful side of that definition.


I’ve watched every episode of Star Trek that’s ever aired. Even the cartoon series. I attempted for a week to live and cook as if in the 1880’s (not any other decade, I researched). I love computer games, paper crafts, tabletop gaming, and the construction and design of roller coasters. I tried to code my own breed of digital dog to live on my computer before my parents relented and got us a real dog. My dad will list this as one of his proudest moments as a parent, although my digital frankendog only had a body and a strange floppy nose. There was not a single person in most of my childhood that liked anything that I liked, so I learned the life lesson of needing to a) expand my interests if I wanted to keep friends or b) be an ambassador of my favorite things. Thanks to my nerdiness, I have made a career out of it: have you and I talked about how AAC can change a child's life? Many of you have nerded with me about language and access!


I haven’t always wanted to be a nerd. Teenage years were rough, and there were some awkward moments, even as a self-assured adult, when colleagues would voice grievances such as:

“He’s fourteen years old, he needs to gain interests in age-appropriate things. No one’s going to want to talk about Disney princesses when he’s an adult!”

I was silent and embarrassed, because, well…

collage of Jessica with Sleeping Beauty, Jessica and Adam dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Jessica in Minnie Mouse costume with the Beast, Cinderella's Castle with fireworks, Jessica and Adam with Tinkerbelle





If this student lived at my house, that’s all we would talk about! My husband and I make annual pilgrimages to the Cinderella’s castle. We make costumes. We watch Disney movies at least once a week. We’ve rated our favorite princesses and villains and dare you to try to beat us at Disney Scene-It.


Why? Because we’re nerds! We love it; it’s fun. It’s also powerful.

Whenever I felt a little burnt out in my job, I just infused a little of my nerdiness into it and I felt renewed. Dressing like Batman or decorating with Star Wars or making a Pokemon literacy activity: they were talismans in my work and the source of my power to get through a tough day. If I could find the source of my student’s superpower, it was like striking oil. I still have tubs of Thomas the Tank Engine and Indianapolis Colts and country music star, Travis Tritt (that one was hard), materials. They were my magic wands of engagement.

In my old school internship journal, I have about 50 pages of me angsting over one student, “Mike.” To sum up those 50 pages: Mike hates coming to speech therapy and ignores me, head on the table. He doesn’t make any progress. I think he hates me.

One day his teacher mentioned he was making imaginary phone calls to someone named Gary, and the puzzle pieces clicked in my mind. I had found his talisman, the kryptonite to my engagement problem: SpongeBob.

Therapy took a detour to the pineapple under the sea and we were in business. Armed with his nerd power and friends, SpongeBob and Gary the Snail, we were conquering phrases with multiple words! Adjectives! Appropriate turn taking! The entire day (and my opinion about staying in the schools after graduation) had turned around.

Our superpowers come from places unseen: the love of our family, our memories of exceptional experiences or talents, a cartoon that makes us feel happy. In these last few days of school, I hope you don’t lose sight of where your superpower comes from and how you’ve used them for good for so many around you. Wave that nerd flag high.

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Feb
09

Hands Off That Kid!

adult hand holding child's hand with text reading
“Sally can solve addition equations with 100% accuracy when the teacher tells her what the answer is.”

If you read that on your child’s progress report, you might do a spit take, right? For one, Sally didn’t “solve” squat. Why is telling her the answer a measure of Sally’s progress? It’s nonsense! Unacceptable! The lowest of lows in pedagogy!

However, plenty of progress reports have gone out this year with some variation of the following:

“Aiden can request preferred activities from a choice of three objects with maximum physical (hand over hand) assistance.”

How in the world did Aiden request something if staff were the ones grabbing Aiden’s hand and pointing? I ask teams working with students why they are using hand over hand instead of any other number of solutions, and they tend to answer with a combination of the following:

“He has such involved motor issues, he can’t touch it unless we do hand over hand.”

“She won’t pay attention unless we do.”

“He won’t do it otherwise.”

You know what is interesting about those objections? They are about us, the adult, and not about our students. Our students with complex bodies need alternative ways of pointing, not hand over hand. Our students with poor attention need engaging and motivating environments, not hand over hand. If your students won’t do without hand over hand, you doing it for them is not a data point. Our students need to learn, and we simply cannot hand over hand their brains.white text on black background

When we decide not to grab student’s hands, we are making a statement of trust and respect to our students. We model. We wait. We think about our materials, change them so they are accessible. We do any number of things because we are saying:

I will wait. I will not force you to perform at my speed.

I will watch. I will adjust and adapt to be a good teacher and communication partner for you.

I will discover with you. Everyone is engaged by something, and we can never know what you know unless you are engaged, first. We will find those things that work for you.

I will reflect. The data we take will be meaningful and help drive decision making, so you can communicate whatever you want to say, or show what you know.

What are you saying to your students today?

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Rachel Herron
I just love this blog and wish I had been of this mind set when I was working directly with students with significant communicatio... Read More
Monday, 12 February 2018 07:18
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Nov
01

The Voice in the Drawer

Red brick background with
Raise your hand if this has happened you.

Actually, don't, because you're probably reading this silently and you'll look silly if you do.

You walk into a classroom or community visit and find your student who uses an Alternative or Augmentative Communication (AAC) system or device doesn’t have it with them. It’s in a cubbie or backpack or drawer. Waiting. Uncharged. In pristine condition. The cellophane might still be on it.

I think if that piece AAC could talk, it would take you by the hand, give you great big puppy eyes and say mornfully, “I was designed to give your student a voice but I’m treated like an expensive paperweight.”

Did anyone care?

My greatest joy of working in education is that we work with people with hearts seven times bigger than the average person. We all care about students, well past our obligated 180 days of contractual caring. We care about their feelings, wants, and needs. We care about them being able to talk.

The issue in this particular situation isn’t usually lack of caring or empathy, it’s a perceived lack of resources. AKA, “It’s just one more thing to remember.” We can empathize with feeling overwhelmed, but not accept that voices are left in drawers.

Here are 5 of my favorite tried-and-true ways to ensure the voice is out of the drawer and in the hands of the students who need it:

1. Do a task analysis of the student’s schedule. Take a look at each period or station of the day and find examples of when teachers and students would use communication. Communication should happen in the bathroom, at math, and in the pool, just like for non-AAC users. Find ways to make those opportunities to communicate accessible through modeling, rich and thoughtful intervention, and access to evidence-based language representation. In other words: there’s no reason why words aren’t available and modeled all day, every day!

2. Provide some supports. Outline in painters tape where the device is supposed to go on a desk to remind staff if that square is empty. Set placemats and inexpensive device holders in key places around the room. Get the student strap or hands-free harness. Get a portable battery pack. Human-made problems (voice in a drawer) have human-made solutions, you just need to find it (or find someone to help you find it).

3. Low Tech with High Utility. Light tech is an easy and cheap way to make sure everyone has access to language. Tape light tech core word boards to key areas like centers, play area, vocational stations, and the bathroom. Give staff miniature core boards on their lanyards or communication supports on their key rings. Wear aprons or core word shirts. Temporary tattoos. Bonus: Hardcore permanent tattoos. Don’t believe your mom, an AAC tattoo is timeless and will look fantastic in your 80s!

4. Come to an understanding: sometimes we need to pause as a staff and deepen our knowledge about AAC best practices. We offer some great services and professional development. Perhaps you didn’t even know what PATINS offers for AAC. Send us an email, we’d love to chat about you’re wanting to do at your school.

5. Last but not least: Does your staff understand WHY we want to design 500+ opportunities to communicate a day? This is my favorite video that captures my why: that our students need words, many words, and words all the time. What is your why? Does your staff know their why?

AAC isn’t another thing to do. It’s the thing we do. We are all responsible for developing communication skills in our students, it’s the bedrock of learning, connection and being human. It is the best work we will ever do, and it does not belong in a drawer.

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Jul
19

Death By Paperwork

"Death By Paperwork" in a creepy font and a blood splatter
First: I made it out alive. You will too.

This year I messed something up in my back, and by April it was hard to sit for more than twenty minutes at a time. Every drive, conference or meeting I was engaged for a bit and then the rest of the day was spent imitating your favorite wiggly child, trying to ease the pain. I felt terrible.

Sometimes it got better, and then it got worse. I complained. I ignored it. I tried what I knew to fix it, I asked friends for ideas. Nothing really worked.

I had enough and went to a specialist, definitely not something I was looking forward to. I hate going to the doctor. But within a few sessions, my life had changed.

It was like getting glasses in the correct prescription or wearing good shoes after years of wearing Old Navy flip flops. I didn’t know how bad it was until I experienced how my spine was meant to be.

About three years into my career I had another issue that was a major pain: paperwork.

Paperwork is like back pain. Everyone gets some, some people get more than they can handle. It comes when it’s least convenient and it will not go away if you ignore it. By the end of my third-year the IEPs, evaluations, and caseload documents piled up to my ears. It was affecting my ability to do my job and my family life. I felt terrible. If death by paperwork was a thing, it felt imminent.

I complained. I ignored it. I tried what I knew to fix it, I asked friends for ideas. Nothing really worked.

An administrator gently suggested I see some “specialists.” I did not want to admit that I was struggling to anyone, but after meeting with others who were amazing at keeping on top of it all, they gave me some ideas. They pointed out some of my mistakes, the weight that was causing the paperwork pain, and they helped me develop my paperwork treatment plan.

In less than two months, I started to feel better. My files were in order and I felt in control. By the next year, I was rocking a weekly paperwork schedule and found tools to help me streamline and automate. I was spending even more time working with kids than I was before! It was career changing. I didn’t know how good it could be.

You, dear reader, might be dealing with some pain in your career. Maybe it’s paperwork or a student on your mind who you don’t know how to reach. Maybe it’s a new tool or expectation that’s pain in your neck, and doing your job effectively seems out of reach. Maybe you complained or ignored it. You tried what you knew to fix it, you asked friends for ideas. Nothing may have worked.

If it’s related to supporting student’s access to education, we’ve got a team of specialists here to help.

It might just change your life.


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Apr
06

A Mighty (Laminated) Sword

A Mighty (Laminated) Sword
A preschool teacher consulted with me about a student who was struggling with behavior; one of most intense issues she’d ever seen. The little girl would bite and punch and roll on the floor, and it was a full-time job just to keep her in the classroom. She also had a severe communication impairment. She talked and you could understand the words, but there wasn’t any meaning behind them. She couldn’t tell you about her favorite movie or answer beyond a simple question. For four years, every adult and child had to guess what she wanted to say.

“We’ve got a lot of things started, a lot of plans,” she explained, rattling off all our favorite behavior acronyms: FBA, BIP, FERB, etc. The one thing she didn’t say: AAC - Alternative and Augmentative Communication. The student had a severe communication impairment; couldn’t that be a big part of why she’s having behavior issues? Did they consider AAC and giving her a voice?

“But she can talk,” the teacher said. “The issue isn’t talking, she just wants control.”

Before I could jump on my soap box, another preschooler yelled with perfect dramatic timing:

I don't wanna tootie!” edged with the desperation of a preschool boy who would probably explode if he had to eat an animal cracker cookie.

“This is what we have,” said the assistant, pointing to the snack menu visual. He screwed up his face. “Do you want anything?”

“My teez.”

“You have cheese in your lunchbox?” He nodded. “Go and get it.”

And life went on. Crisis diverted! Communication saved the day! And wouldn’t you know, he was awfully and age-appropriately controlling. It’s communication that gets us what we want: acceptance, love, and cheese. Adults are known to throw fits when they can’t communicate their order in a drive-thru. Imagine four years of being stuck in the Taco Bell drive-thru and never getting to talk to someone. You’d want to hit someone too.

In another preschool, I got to observe a program where AAC was wrapped around the entire classroom. Brightly colored AAC boards were taped to the walls and hung from the cabinets. Every kid, whether they needed to use it or not, had a core word communication board at their elbow and so did all the adults. I sat down next to one student, and the teacher smirked.

“I don’t know if you want to sit next to him.”

Oh no, I thought, panicking, Did he have pink eye? Was I going to get pink eye?!

“He’s our typical peer.”

This little guy, brand new to preschool and a little wary of everything around him, was talking with the communication board like he’d used it for a month. He didn’t have a communication impairment, and he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a typical AAC user. But we’ve all seen the new preschoolers cry and shut down at their first-ever activities, and he was using an alternative way of communicating and interacting with his brand new environment and classmates. Maybe he only needed it that day, maybe he’ll never want to use AAC again, but he’ll remember feeling safe and included in preschool from the beginning. Communication, in any form, saved the day.

According to their speech-language pathologist, Jenni, including robust and thoughtful AAC has been amazing:

“They know that they give them a voice… We've had so many days that we've just looked at each other and shouted, "Did you see that?", "Did that really just happen?" It's been so fun to watch these kiddos learn... I can't believe how quickly she is learning. She carries her board around with her like it's a mighty sword.”

So teachers, therapists, administrators everywhere, (I can’t believe I’m saying this): all students must have swords*, whatever sword(s) fit them best. Make sure they have their swords everywhere. Make time for sword practice. Seek sword specialists, talk to other sword users. Don't favor one type of sword over another, because it was never about the sword, but the person wielding it.

Expect swords to be mighty and all students have strength to wield them, and they will conquer dragons.

*the sword is communication, all types of communication, for those who still aren't into my ridiculous analogies


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Dec
15

Redhead & Lizard Seek Magic Bus

Redhead & Lizard Seek Magic Bus

It’s one of most universal pieces of employment advice:
don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want.


So, of course, I occasionally dress up as superheros. I own several superhero costumes: Superman, Batman, Pajama Day Girl (I made her up, she’s awesome on weekends). I have a super hero costume in the trunk of my car, nestled alongside my first aid kit, in case of emergencies. Maybe you won’t be surprised to know I’ve used my Batman mask more than those bandaids.Jessica dressed and posing as superman with a red tutu

Sometimes I dress up as my favorite superhero in broad daylight, at case conferences and staff meetings: the field-trip taking, magic bus driving teacher who introduced generations to physics, anthropology, ecology, and more. That redheaded wonder woman took eight students and the class chameleon to places near and far in search of knowledge. She also has the best motto:

“Take chances! Make mistakes! Get MESSY!”

What is not to love about Ms. Frizzle? I adored the books and TV show. She was amazing, I wanted to be in her class AND be her.
Jessica holding her cellphone taking a selfie in a mirror wearing a blue dress with cartoon rocketships
It begs the question: why not aspire to be Ms. Frizzle? We have the career in education, we have the vision for fantastic learning. I have several science themed dresses for any occasion, and the lizard, at least the only lizard I could be expected to keep alive. What are we missing?

The magical bus.

The magical bus of my dreams would fly around the state and help teachers in their classrooms. Any teacher, therapist, or administrator could board-- for free-- and try tools so all their students have access to an education. They pose questions like “do you have something that lets my student access her iPad if she can’t touch it?” or “can I turn my paper worksheet into text and then have that text read aloud?” and we would say “Yes we do, and we will show you how to use it too!”

Our magical bus would always be accessible. Not just physically, but digitally. We could instantly connect to administrators and therapists and teachers for training and exploration wherever they are. Or in their PJs, maybe on Tuesday nights at 8:30 EST.

We design to remove the barriers for all our students so they can take authentic chances and learn from their mistakes and get messy. We share tricks and tips from educators who have been there. We would celebrate them, cheer their successes and research and problem solve the roadblocks.

We would bring our volcano drawings to life and explore and explode brains. We would help teams create opportunities for communication where none may have existed. We would go where no educators had gone before. Students who never thought they were "smart" would find tools that would change their minds. We would change lives.

I would submit my request for a magical bus, but I know what the answer will be:

Jessica, thank you (again) for your request for a magical bus. We wanted to remind you that not only do we not have any magical buses, everything that you are asking to do with said bus, we already do at PATINS. Please stop asking.

So while we are not Ms. Frizzle (although we can try!), we do have quite a bit of friendly magic at our fingertips whenever we need it.


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Sep
08

Good Educators are Experts, Great Ones are Rookies

Good Educators are Experts, Great Ones are Rookies
Do you remember your first year in education? I think on it often lately because I just started with PATINS, my rookie year*. Looking back, my letter to myself on that first day after college would be something like this:

Dear Jessica,
You can still cry every day during the first two weeks of school and it won’t be a reflection of your skill, value, or how much you will love your job. Be gentle on yourself, everyone starts here.
p.s. Stop buying everything in the Target dollar section.

My first year I introduced iPads to my students. One little girl wanted to know how to share her beautiful “I Love Mommy” themed cookie she made on an app and send it to mom. I told her I didn’t know, so she told me I wasn’t good at my job and her mother enrolled her in another school. I never touched another iPad again.

Haha, just kidding! Kids don’t care if we are rookies (being rookies themselves) and I learned to embrace my rookie-ness. We played on the app a little and decided to snap a picture of it on my phone and email it. Later I learned I could have done a screenshot, but I didn’t know that yet, this was all brand new to me. Multiply that moment by hundreds or thousands and you’ll see a typical educator’s year. Not a semester will go by that we aren’t handed something new: new policy, new responsibilities, new kids, and new chances to be true rookies in something we have never tried. Which new challenges makes us decide to suit up? Which ones do we avoid and sit on the bench, and how will that impact our students?

Andi Stevenson talks about how important it is we embrace being terrible at something new, from her own experience as executive director and rookie ballroom dancer. Rookies, she explains, turn off internal criticism and don’t fall prey to perfectionism. They are supremely empathetic towards others on their own learning curves. Being a rookie stretches mental muscles, making us approach the new and the difficult in different ways.

Sounds like an awesome educator or administrator, doesn’t it? We call those people expert learners, and these are the skills that make successful students.

Andi also speaks to something that has probably haunted all of us at one point: burn out. Being a rookie gives you the opportunity to discover what makes you happy, and that the happiness can’t come from just one source. Staff who pigeonhole themselves into one area, personally or professionally, are staff who don’t stay long in the field. I struggled with major burnout my third year, so I started some rookie tasks in my personal life. I had a milestone birthday this summer, and leading up to that day I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish, a bucket list of sorts. There were about 25 things, including:

Bake bread from scratch
Vacation somewhere new in each cardinal direction
Learn how to repair my car
Go back to school
Host Thanksgiving dinner

Some of these things I still do, some not, and some activities I eventually purchased technology to assist me.

You can watch me complete the very last thing on my list, the day before my birthday: basic carpentry. This is the beginning of my budding role as a carpenter. I'm not bad carpenter, or just a woman just playing around with some power tools, but a real carpenter. Just like our students are readers, writers, artists, and citizens. We're all just rookies right now, and given the right tools and instructions, we'll blossom.



My favorite part about education (and PATINS in particular) is that we are big fans of rookies. We have to be rookies every school year in something. Welcome to the team!  PATINS and ICAM have the coaches, the training, and the equipment to help you and ALL your students be rookies of the year. You might say we’re your number one fans.

What rookie adventure are you starting this year? How will you model your rookie mentality to your staff or students?

*warning: overuse of sports cliches
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