Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ummm....Helloooooo out there -ere -ere -ere !!!

Wow! Has it truly been over a year since I posted on this blog? That is CRAZY and a strong indication of just how busy I've been. And tired, oh so tired. I didn't realize, when our kids came, just how dedicated I would be to spending every free moment I have focused on them. School tends to stay at school and when I'm home they get as much of my (mostly) undivided attention as my students do during school time. So that has left no time for blogging here. And then there have been the changes at school, oh so many changes....

So to go back where I left things a year ago with the open ended individual projects:
Some of them went REALLY well. My two "artsy" girls made some phenomenal mask projects, starting off very simple and working up to some very complicated and intricate papier mache and mosaic masks including a three dimensional head that stared us all down during the last month of school and had a tendency to make our night custodian very nervous. :-)

My music maker and scientist's projects ended up fizzling out. Music Man enjoyed banging and experimenting but soon lost true interest and switched to working on other things, like actual READING (exciting!!!!). And my scientist could never decide on an experiment. But even though we never arrived at a "product" for these two, they did learn quite a lot and had many, many interaction opportunities while working on their project interests.

Now onto the changes we've incurred over the past year.
First, we have a completely remodeled learning space. Our building underwent and top to bottom remodel over the summer and that included us getting a second room added to our classroom (and necessitated packing up EVERYTHING we had, and after nearly 16 years that was A LOT of stuff). Yay! We were so crowded in the old space and spent as much time shifting furniture and equipment out of our way as we did learning and teaching. Our newly added room is approximately half the size of our original room but it almost doubles our functional space. And good thing too, as we essentially gained two students for a total of 7 kids this year (my oldest from last year exited), both of whom are extemely active. That also meant adding staff. And with the departure of pretty much all of my staff from last year that meant an entire room of new faces, reorganization and reprioritizing, and training training training. It took us most of first semester to really get settled and into a rhythm but things are working (mostly) smoothly now.

So what are we working on? So very much! A new component to our curriculum this year is Pati King deBaun's Teach Me AAC program, which teaches both AAC and literacy skills. There is a LOT I like about this program (too much to go into here). Comment with questions and an email address and I'd be happy to chat more. We dropped Unique Learning Systems this year as it just was not a good fit for me (a personal thing; I have teaching friends who adore the program; I just need more variety). We still use News-2-You heavily, however. They have added some nice new features if you haven't checked them out recently. And I recently rediscovered the website Praactically Speaking which has awesome resources. We are using their 12 Months of Core Words for language group in conjunction with Teach Me AAC and the kids are doing fantastic! In just three weeks of implementing the core words I have students who are pairing 2 and 3 symbols to form messages for the first time ever. Math is a combination of community-based math (measurement, money, address and phone number, etc.) as well as things pulled from Equals and Teaching Math to Students with Down Syndrome. All of this should help us be better prepared for the transition to the Common Core over the next year. I am very curious to see exactly how the new Dynamic Learning Maps alternate assessment system will actually work. It looks promising. Hoping it's not a giant headache!

So that's what I've been up to in a bit of a nutshell. Eventually I will get back to this post and link the resources I listed above. But right now I'm tired and it's my bed time. :-)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Individual Open Ended Long Term Projects

My class has embarked on a new and exciting adventure. We are doing individual long term open ended projects this semester. We've done extended projects before. It's the open endedness that makes this experience difference, and to some extent, the individualization. In the past we've typically done a whole class project (learning about oceans, learning about the rain forest, a novel study, etc.) with a definite beginning and end. Everyone worked on pretty much the same things, with differentiation for skill level and a bit for interest. After getting caught up in some reading for my own children (specifically related to the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education) I thought, "Why not?" I was really encouraged to give this a go when two of my girls were enamored by the African mask paper sculptures that the 8th grade art classes did and displayed in our halls. They are beautiful and the girls are fascinated by them. When asked if they wanted to make their own, they both gave a resounding YES. So they are researching masks, African culture, learning about color and symmetry, and exploring paper sculpting techniques. One of the girls has discovered quilling and is enjoying working on with that. The other has had a blast checking out some truly awesome paper sculptures. Both are fully engaged and actively learning as well as using previously gained and new skills. I have no idea if they will even make the masks that originally started it all. This journey is about the PROCESS not the PRODUCT.

So why not just do this same project with all six students? Mainly because two of those students have next to no interest in art and would be totally disengaged in the activity and two of them have a complexity of sensory issues that would make it difficult to adapt this project for them in a meaningful and fully participatory way. But also because I wanted to really inspire them to learn about something they individually find fascinating. With that in mind, I talked to one of my boys who loves music and banging on things and asked if he wanted to explore something along those lines. He was excited and we narrowed things down to learning about percussion instruments and maybe guitar music with the initial thought that maybe he could compile an itunes collection of music he likes for his ipod. This was still fairly directionless and we were floundering a bit until today, when I introduced him to Stomp on a video. He was immediately hooked! He asked to repeat the first 7 minutes of the performance four times and was thrilled when I gave him a variety of brushes and a hand broom to experiment with on different surfaces. I watched my No Talk Boy be the most engaged I've ever seen him as he experimented with the brushes and attempted to copy the actions of the performers on the video. At one point he even got upset because he couldn't accomplish exactly what he had in mind. Talk about an opportunity to communicate and problem solve! He now wants to create and perform his own Stomp-eque performance, with maybe a few Blue Man Group overtones.

Boy #2 is interested in what the other kids are doing and at first I thought he would get into the music project as well. No dice. He wanted to do something unique to him. Knowing he has always enjoyed doing science activities I asked if he wanted to do some kind of experiment. That got him excited and he finally narrowed his scientific interest down to biology, specifically something with plants. Currently he is learning about plants (and enjoying every minute) but has not decided what his project will be or even IF he will do a product of some sort or simply learn more about a topic that interests him.

Boy #3 was totally disinterested in doing any type of project and that is OK. He is one of my oldest students and spends a lot of time out of the classroom in the community. He recently started a new volunteer job that is taking a lot of his attention and energy so time in the classroom is frequently spent in sensory regulation activities as well as ADLs. To include him in open ended explorations I have relaxed some of his "must ask before he gets" rules and am allowing for more open ended play and discovery with his favorite interaction items (he's too old to call them "toys") as well as introducing novel items and sensory activities for him to check out as he wishes.

Girl #3 is my most complex and involved student. She is fairly medically fragile and gone a lot. In addition, she is almost finished with school and had a sad lack of appropriate services before coming to me (sersiously, what SLP puts a nonverbal kid with NO effective communication on CONSULT!!!!). Consequently her skills levels and behavior states are nowhere close to what they should/could be. She has come so far in the year and a half that our team has worked with her but still finds too much to be overwhelming. We have always used open ended explorations with her (Lilli Nielson's Active Learning) and she has responded well. We allow her the freedom to participate in what any of the other kids are doing or to do her own thing with sensory experiences. So many of the sensory experiences that are commonplace and routine for my other students are new to her. It's been fun finding new ways for her to experience and control her world. Who knew that an accidental encounter with a large bin of pom poms would bring so much pleasure? Without that happy accident we would never have known that this student likes to stick her hands into containers. Perhaps it was a new discovery for her too.

The real challenge to these projects is the open ended nature. The staff, myself included, are all used to having a definite end goal in mind. If I had let them, the staff would have had those African masks completed in a day or two. And while the girls would have made color and some design choices, in the end they would have been consultants on a para's project, rather than having true ownership. Now don't get me wrong. My paras do NOT do "macaroni" art and they always work hard to involve the kids in projects. We are just working to take it several steps further and learning new ways to look at "full participation." A couple staff members are also learning that it's OK for a student to say "no" or "I need to stop" before an activity is "finished." They are having to accept that mistakes are not only OK but essential to the learning process and are actually enjoying the process of helping the kids problem solve solutions, with often unexpected results. And they are being forced to accept "messes" as part of the learning experience as well. Doing truly open ended projects with kids with complex disabilities including limited communication skills is extremely challenging. They can't just get up and go get a seemingly unrelated object to add to their explorations or make profound comments about what they are doing to give as direction (or at least no that we can understand yet! Another lesson in thinking about things differenly). And while we do have some structure and an initial "end goal" in mind, we try to stay very aware that the direction could change at any time and stay open to and aware of the the kids' interests. All I can say is, "Wow!" when I see the growth and learning that is happening with students and staff alike. It will be very interesting to see how these projects play out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Novel Studies

Every year we do novel studies in my classroom. We have read Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum, and Nim's Island and Fish whose authors I can't recall at the moment. Currently we are working our way  through Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. After reading this post on Maggie World, however, I think I have found our next book. Out of My Mind is the story of an eleven-year-old girls who finally finds a voice everyone can hear. Sounds just about perfect to me.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Unique Perspective

Hello All!
I know I've been very lax in posting on this blog. Life has been extremely busy and finding time to blog has been challenging. Kate (Ahern--Teaching Learners with Multiple Special Needs) posted on her Facebook that she was deleting blogs that hadn't posted in a year from her RSS. Got me to thinking I probably needed to update my blog, huh? HAHA Wouldn't want to be dropped from Kate's wonderful collection.  Then Kate posted about her class's use of Unique Learning Systems this year. I had been planning a similar post since we are also using it, but hers is so much better than my poor over-stressed and sleep deprived brain could devise. So go here and read what Kate wrote.

Now that you've done that, I completely echo Kate's statements. I appreciate how ULS has stepped up their game this year, especially for kids with more severe and complex disabilities. The online supports and activities are fantastic for most of my students and they are much more willing to participate in preassessment activities. I also like that the activities align directly with my kids' state assessments this year (primarily History/Government for my current group). I love that they have added a Level 1 checkpoint/assessment. My paras are excited about using both the online and print materials with the students. They can easily see definite progress and how to extend learning on their own, giving them needed ownership of the instruction. And the transition piece at all levels has fit in well with my cooperative's need to make major improvements in compliance in that area.

In addition to Kate's wishlist, I have a couple of my own:
  • Definitely would like more auditory supports for students with vision impairments (I have two with no functional vision but the profile still kicked them into assessment activities that require vision; neither of these students are able to use Braille so auditory content is very important for them).
  • I would really like to be able to analyze data from the checkpoints and skill assessments more closely. For instance, does the student consistently miss a certain type of question (quantity over 5, -ig family words, etc.)? Does the student have a history of "no response" rather than wrong answers? Does the student perform better at the start of the assessment or at the end? And so forth. The score at the end is nice, but I would really like to see what exactly we are measuring, which skills need more work, and where improvement has occurred.
  • I would also like to see more games and maybe a greater variety of games (card games, matching, physical activity, in addition to board games).
  • Out-of-the-box arts and crafts activities would be good too (in addition to the cooking and science activities Kate requested). It would be really neat to see a sub-study of sorts on a particular artist or art technique that went along with the theme.
  • Suggestions for community connections would be good.
  • I would also note that the majority of folks around my area who are using ULS are using it in categorical self-contained settings, not inclusion settings, so Kate's point about the math activities in particular, is very valid for us.
  • It would also be nice to see activities directly aligned with Bloom's Taxonomy and labeled as such. Even (or especially) "participatory/Level I" students should have opportunities to move past the Knowledge and Comprehension levels to demonstrate learning on all levels of Bloom's. They are very capable of "higher order skills" when given appropriate supports. (Hmmm...makes me think I should write a post soon on how we are using Bloom's in my program....)
All in all I am very pleased with Unique this year and am excited to be using it in my classroom. Hopefully the company will continue this trend of listening to the requests of their consumers and make even more improvements and advancements over time. If you haven't checked it out, or looked at it lately, you should.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Game On!

It's that time of year...almost at the end of the term, finished with all our units and not wanting to start anything new, with a few days left to fill up with fun, engaging, learning activities. Our class has resorted to playing opted to demonstrate our skills with games. We went on an outing to pick some new games since our current stock was getting a bit boring. Uno and Scene It will remain among our favorites but we have really enjoyed playing our new finds.

1. Apples to Apples, Jr.: This a great game for kids who are able to make some level of choice, even if it's random. I love the vocabulary development we can do with this game as well. It would be very easy to adapt the game with visual cues by creating and attaching matching pictures using the icon-making program of your choice to the red apple cards. Green apple cards could be a bit more challenging as they are more abstract concepts. However, this box is pretty well out-of-the-box ready for most players if they have partners.

2. Imaginiff: This is another game we have had a lot of fun with. In this one everyone answers a question like: "Imagine if Alicia were a zoo animal. What kind of zoo animal would she be?" There are choices and you throw out a number card that matches your choice. Those who won the vote get to move forward on the game board. This game incorporates both vocabulary development and math (more/less, numerals, counting) and is a lot of fun besides. And it's another one that is pretty well out-of-the-box ready for most players with partners if needed.

3. Whoonu: I love Cranium games and this one is as high quality as the rest. And it is one that ALL of my students can play, unlike the Cranium games that require sketching or sculpting or acting things out. This game is all about favorite things. One player is "it," also known as the Whoozit. Everyone else is dealt four cards and picks what they think the Whoozit's favorite thing will be from their cards. The Whoozit then reviews the choices and places them in order from least to most favorite. Points are scored with tokens. The best thing about this game, besides total involvement from everyone including my "random guessers" is that the game moves really fast.

4. Sort It Out!: This is another game I really like as teacher for its academic possibilities. Unfortunately my students weren't as thrilled with it the one time we played it, I think because it took too long and was dealing with concepts they know nothing about. In this game you are given a topic such as "Sort these things by length" then choices like "average female sea lion, anaconda, giant salamandar, yardstick, bootlace worm." You then arrange matching colored tiles in order and compare your answers to the answer card. This game holds lots of potential for my gang, but I think I need to 1. go through the cards to find things they understand;  2. modify questions to match up with familiar concepts; and 3. play with only 2-3 students at a time (we played with the whole class and had to wait way too long for everyone to make their choices so the kids kept losing interest).

If you have favorite board or card games, especially for age-neutral or for older students, please share in the comments. I would love to see what others are playing.

Note: Neither nor the publishers of this game endorsed this post. They most likely don't even know I exist. My opinions are simply that, opinions. Take 'em or leave 'em.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Royally Good Time

Today we celebrated the Royal Wedding Day in style. Earlier in the week we read all about the wedding using the Royal Wedding edition of News-2-You. We started by catching up on all the news and watching videos of the celebration on the official royal wedding website. Then we found pictures of the wedding cake online and decorated our own wedding cupcakes to eat as dessert after lunch. Lunch was a variety of simple to make and eat appetizer-type snacks contributed by the staff as well as a baked potato bar. In the afternoon we had fun making bride puppets using wooden spoons and extra art supplies and then creating toilet paper veils for everyone to wear (yes, even the boys got into this :-) ). Fun times!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Thursday is usually our day to go out and about in the community. However, tomorrow, due to a bunch of unpreventable circumstances, we are stuck at school. And that's a real shame because it's supposed to be 80 degrees tomorrow and beautiful.

Because tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day we'll go Green instead. We'll have fun with the Great Green Food Taste Test, which incidentally fits right in with some state assessment items. And I know we'll listen to some good Celtic music on either Pandora or iTunes radio (awesome free resource if you haven't checked it out). Not sure what else we'll get accomplished as my kids are still struggling with adjusting to the time change. Who knows, we might all decide to go out for walk around our (very inaccessible) neighborhood to enjoy the spring weather.