Wednesday, December 30, 2009


We had so much fun doing a mini literature unit based on Little House on the Prairie from the October Unique unit that I decided we should do another one. Our librarian recommended Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and I think it's a good choice. Short chapters, lots of action, and age-appropriate (for the most part). And everyone should enjoy having a boy as the protagonist as the last couple of lit studies we've done have starred girls. This is also one of the audio books we purchased last spring that we haven't listened to yet. That will be a nice support piece.

This will be an ongoing post as I develop the unit. Feel free to add ideas and/or join in the adventure.

So for the chapter reading I'm going to do like I did with Little House and provide a 1-2 simple sentence synopsis of the chapter ("Laura was scared of the wolves." "The family was sick.") that we will use for context reading (I identify 1-2 key sight words per sentence and put the sentence onto communication devices; students read the sentence using communication device while following along on the sentence strip). Our sight words and phonics words (ALL curriculum) will be pulled from the chapter with an emphasis on simpler CVC words and high use words. These are matched with picture symbols and/or photos to enhance understanding and build vocabularies. As needed key concepts are also represented through multi-sensory modes (tactile, olfactory, gustatory, auditory). A list of props we used will be added as we develop them.

A few support activities I'm toying with:

Nature Guide: picture and brief description of animals and plants Brian encounters and/or uses for survival

Survival kit: what are the most important things you need to survive? What would be good to have? What are luxuries/not needed? Emphasis on basics as well as how our disabilities change those essentials (someone who uses a g-tube for instance vs. someone who eats by mouth).

Paper airplanes: choice of pattern to follow; give directions via communication device; decorate; have races; make predictions about how far plan will fly

First/then and cause/effect activities

Water play: (based on the episode where Brian learns to fish with his hands) Reach in and pick up objects placed in water; observe how water distorts vision

Exploration bin: various nature items like stones, sticks, leaves, dirt, pine cones, pine needles, etc.

Write-Your-Own Adventure story: I did this with Wizard of Oz using WoOz characters, simple choices, etc. The kids did a great job last year making choices to write their stories so I think we might try it again this year (where were you going? how were you getting there? what happened? where did you end up? what tools did you have? where did you live? what did you eat? etc.)

One class did a project they called a "jackdaw" where they collected/created artifacts from the story as the story progressed and created a final class project at the end. Something like that could be interesting.

We probably won't have time but mini studies on topics like: heart, airplanes/flight, turtles, shelters/houses, radio communication/telecommunication/forms of communication via technology, morse code/smoke signals/etc., Canada

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Anybody else curious?

I've been looking for a structured, standards-based math curriculum to add to my curriculum "collection." AbleNet recently released Equals. Anyone out there have any experience? It looks promising what with a comprehensive program that covers everything from pre-numeracy skills through grade level support including all the manipulatives. Is it worth the $1700 price tag? Would sure love to get my hands on some materials samples or a demonstration kit. AbleNet has an awesome reputation (they are my "go to" source for assistive tech; excellent product quality and excellent service). BUT will the curriculum truly meet the needs of my students with severe and multiple disabilities or is it geared more to the moderate-high severe range like so much of the other curricula out there "geared" to this population? Will it meet the needs of my sensory impaired students (blind, deaf, and/or deaf-blind in addition to severe physical disabilities) or is it primarily visual and/or auditory in nature, making it fairly useless for most of my students? Unfortunately my ability to acquire the curriculum will have to wait until grant season this spring. Hopefully one of my available grants will come through with the funding.

For those curious, the other pieces to my curriculum, all new to us this year, include:
ALL--reading/literacy from Mayer Johnson
Unique Learning System--science and social studies from the folks at News-2-You
News-2-You--current events (not new to us but we haven't actually had time to use this yet this year)
The Life Skills strand to my curriculum is individualized to the student and I don't have a formal curriculum for it. I have considered looking at the Next Transition Skills System also from AbleNet, however.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

50 Best Blogs for Special Education

I'm not big on self-promoting my blog but wanted to share this resource. SMD Teacher is listed along with other wonderful bloggers, many of which can be located in my Blog List, including Kate, Patrick, Michelle, and Lon (and 45 others). It's a great resource for anyone in special education. Take a look. I must say it is exciting to have my efforts recognized even though I didn't start this blog for that purpose.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Christmas Carol Part Deux

Part of this post is a repost from last year. Part of it is new stuff. So enjoy!

Repost: (Background: at this time last year things were CRAZY in my program between absorbing the high school students and all their stuff, rearranging the room, and staff changes plus all the usual Christmas chaos)
Because I knew the adults were going to be pretty well tied up, as far as programming goes, I needed to come up with some activities the kids could do with minimum assistance but that were still meaningful. Then Kate posted this article about Speakaboos including the link to A Christmas Carol. Perfect! Then I remembered that Pete's Stuff had a sensory story about Scrooge (for another fun Christmas activity from Pete try Norbert the Green Nosed Reindeer). And I found an AWESOME unabridged recording of the book on itunes read by the phenomenal Jim Dale (who reads the Harry Potter series, my kids' favorite audio books; mine too). So we're using the sensory story and Speakaboos on the Smart board during morning meeting and then letting the kids listen to the audio book at times when the adults are tied up with the multitude of other things going on right now. If we have time on Friday we'll watch the movie too. Other activities you could quickly put together to do with this book: Make a "humbug" (scroll down to "undirected craft time) Recreate the characters with paper sack puppets Make paper chains for Jacob Marley Make a Christmas wish list for Tiny Tim (we would use Boardmaker PCS and pictures from toy catalogs) Discuss the emotions of the various characters (happy, sad, scared, mad, etc.) Compare Christmas traditions from the Victorian Era with today (presents; family get togethers; Christmas trees; crazy shopping days; dancing; etc.). If I were to do this with my students I would create representations of major traditions using Boardmaker. Then we'd create a chart or Venn diagram on the Smart board and help the kids decide if the activities should go in Christmas past, Christmas present, or both. Vote on your favorite character from the story and make a bar graph using pictures (Scrooge, the ghosts, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchitt, etc.) Make Victorian bonnets or top hats Use some of these ideas for Victorian Christmas crafts Or play some Victorian era Christmas games Gee, all these ideas, that I found and/or came up with in about a 15 minute search, make me wish that we had time to do them! Maybe next year...

...Next, ahem THIS, year....
Kate at Teaching Learners with Multiple Special Needs recently posted her wonderful adaptations of Pete's Christmas Carol sensory story. They, and some support activities, are all available on Adapted Learning. We'll be making our own sensory characters. We'll read the audio book again as well as play one or two of Kate's games. We are having a Christmas get-together with our compatriot elementary class so we'll do the sensory story that day as well as watch one of the many versions of the movie. If we have time we'll add in some more of Kate's fantastic ideas (thanks Kate for saving me a ton of time and work!!!).

Monday, November 2, 2009

Our Class Video of the Day

Kate posted about her class's new Video of the Day blog. We watched today's video during morning meeting in my class today. The kids were excited to vote on like/don't like and to comment back to Kate's class about our thoughts. Then I asked if they wanted to make their own VOD blog and the overwhelming response was YES! So we quickly set up our VOD blog, made a choice, and learned how to embed YouTube videos into our blog. Hopefully we'll be able to do this every morning as part of our morning meeting routine (sometimes YouTube works for us and sometimes it doesn't). So check us out at Alicia's Class Video of the Day.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Works for Me Monday: Balloon Stamping

It's time for another Works for Me Monday. Last week I had a great idea for a post. Of course, I didn't write it down and now I can't remember what it was. So instead I'll post about one of my favorite art techniques, balloon stamping. I learned about balloon stamping from a video produced by the folks who make Biocolor paints. The video contains examples of lots of fun way to use these paints and is worth checking out if you can find a copy.

To balloon stamp, you need a partially inflated balloon, at least three colors of paint, a paint pallette (we use paper plates), and your project. Put a small pool of each color of paint (approximately dime size) on your pallette right next to each other so they are touching and form a triangle. It is preferably if the pools touch. Then dip the end of your balloon into the paint, dab off a bit, and stamp onto your project multiple times by bouncing the balloon. You get a really cool marble or tie-dye effect. We have yet to find a color combination that doesn't work.

I particularly like this technique for several reasons. I work with kids with little to no fine motor control. However, even my most involved student can bounce a balloon with help. They also like the feedback they get from the bouncing. In addition, this technique facilitates multiple opportunities to make choices, an important part of any art project for us. It also lets the kids show their individuality both in the colors they choose and how they stamp (lots of stamping close together or a little stamping far apart and everything in between). It is also a nice "no fail" technique. No matter what the student does, the project will come out looking nice

We use this technique all the time. We have made backgrounds for bulletin boards, t-shirts, greeting cards and stationery, as well as too many art projects to count (check out the constellations we did in this post). Using balloon stamping works for us. What works for you?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Our Unique Adventure--October 09

(Wow! Is it time to plan October already?!?!?!?)

As I'm sure I've stated before, we are using the middle school level of the Unique curriculum this year. I am just finishing up the May unit on Sounds, which took us from mid-August to the end of September. There was so much for us to learn that we won't be able to finish it before needing to move on. Sorry, Alexander Graham Bell, guess we'll have to try learning about you later. And we really don't need to know how to protect our ears and hearing, do we?

So now I'm on to planning for the October unit (notice we skipped September's unit which was mainly about Abraham Lincoln as well as our freedoms as U.S. citizens; this was a team decision as my staff are really excited about the October unit; in addition our state assessment emphasis this year is on science; plus silly me thought we'd get through the sounds unit in August, only to learn that each chapter takes us at least a week). This one, at least for middle school, is about the plants and animals around us and focuses on biomes, specifically the 5 primary biomes of the United States/North America (tundra, deciduous forest, taiga, grasslands, and deserts). This looks like a really fun unit. I haven't made it all the way through the provided curriculum materials yet but have lots of ideas for things we will do. I'll add more to this post as we come up with them. I'm planning on this taking all of October and probably most of November too (6 chapters plus an introductory set of lessons). There is a lot to learn with this unit. I wish the overview section was a little more detailed about what future units will cover so I know how to pick and choose and schedule. In addition to watching my blog, keep an eye on the blogs in my Blog Roll as a number of those folks also use Unique and will be posting their ideas too.

First of all, we will be learning to differentiate between living and non-living things. I just posted an activity on Adapted Learning to that effect (a simple book; search on living vs non-living). We will also do sorting activities using magazine pictures and photo cards which I just happen to have already. I may throw in a quick lesson on things found in nature vs. man-made things too. And we'll do some work on the seasons, especially as we're in the middle of a seasonal change here in Kansas. I love that the easy reader story is about a migrating robin as many of the birds in our area are starting the annual migrations.
Added 10/4/09: We had fun at the nature center checking out living and nonliving things. The museum actually encompasses several different biomes so that was neat too. And we explored a grasshopper we caught and released as well as brought back a few plant and seed samples. They are going into our sensory bin for exploration next week along with a (very dead) locust we found outside the school on our way in.
For seasons we did a fun art project based on the book A Tree for All Seasons. The kids drew four trees (we did the trunks then supported the kids to hold the marker and draw the branches); we left the winter tree bare, lightly balloon stamped light green on the spring tree, balloon stamped darker green on the summer treee, and chose fall leaf colors to balloon stamp on the autumn tree. The kids really liked doing this.
The first chapter has a companion activity about labeling a map with biomes, plants, and animals. We are adapting by using a black-and-white outline map of the US. We will trace on the boundaries for the different biomes. Then the kids will use tactile materials to fill in the boundaries (glitter or cotton for tundra; raffia or shredded paper for grasslands; fall leaf confetti for forests; sand or yellow glitter for desert; mini stamp of pine tree for taiga). We'll also find a way to make our state (Kansas) stand out (maybe outline with dimensional paint?) so the kids can start to recognize that too (we've worked on that before). We'll mount the map on a big piece of construction paper and then have the kids match colors to add the pictures of the biomes, plants, and animals in the right places. We'll use step-by-steps to request materials, switch adapted scissors for cutting, and have lots of tactile fun with the glue and materials.
Added 10/27/09: Support videos for the Seasons topic: Wintermood on YouTube has some beautiful videos based on Vivaldi's Four Seasons (Summer, Spring, Winter, Fall). My kids' favorite is Autumn. Wintermood has a number of lovely videos using a variety of classical and instrumental music. We've been projecting it onto the wall over our swing/sensory area with the music through the surround sound for a fun and relaxing sensory experience. It shows well on an IWB too. For those who can't access YouTube at school, try using Media Converter or Zamzar to convert to .wmv or whatever format works best for you. YouTube also had a number of decent videos related to ecosystems, biomes, forests, etc. available. Many of these were linked from SchoolTube and TeacherTube so try those sites as well.

We will also be taking a few field trips related to biomes. The science center in Wichita has a whole section that is essentially about the Kansas biome/s, including an area where you can explore making rivers (complementing one of the provided supplemental activities). There is also the zoo, the nature center, and the pumpkin patch. If I can find a nearby orchard that has apples on the trees (seems there was a problem with the apple trees around here this spring), we might also go apple picking and do a related cooking project.

One of the companion activities is to make a desert plant terrarium. The website referenced by the curriculum also describes how to make a couple of other types of terrariums. I think we'll take the kids to a nearby plant shop that sells really cool plants cheaply and specializes in terrarium plants and try to make a couple of different biomes. Not sure if we can pull off the tundra, but I'm sure we can do desert, deciduous forest (OK, not the trees but the kids should ge the point), grasslands, and maybe taiga. And we might get adventurous and try some water plants too.

The unit also suggests making dioramas. This is right up our alley since it involves lots and lots of choices and we can make it tactile and multi-dimensional. And 5 students means they can each make a different one (hopefully they each LIKE either all different ones or more than one so we won't have overlap).

If we have time we'll do reports on our favorite animals and/or biomes.

I need to go hunting for various smallish manipulatives related to the plants and animals of the biomes we'll be studying to use as math manipulatives, etc. And hopefully we can score some old nature magazines to cut out pictures in order to do same/different, more/less, and sorting.

We'll be using simple and high use words from the reading material as sight words and phomemic awareness prompts to build our vocabularies and work on reading skills.

And there are all the sensory things you can do related to the biomes: cold (I'm thinking about getting some of that "insta snow" stuff; expensive but really neat), water, grass, rocks, dirt, bark, leaves, sand, cacti (not too spiky), etc. And we can certainly tie in weather concepts (yay as that's on our science assessment this year).

Adding all of that to our second annual Mad Scientist Party (check here and here for what we did last year), a birthday party, some inconvenient days off, IEPs, Thanksgiving, and whatever else crops up and it's going to be a B U S Y fall. Just the way I like it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's Party Time!

Mad Scientist Party Time, that is. Yes, we are once again doing a Mad Science party for Halloween. We had a blast last year and are looking forward to another fun time. The beauty is that all the planning is done (yay me!). I tweaked the Monster Lab sensory story I wrote last year just a bit (comment if you want a copy; my 4Shared account closed because I didn't use it enough). One of my paras is donating some very cool decorations to the cause and everyone is busily preparing their costume ideas.
In preparation for the Big Event we are taking a brief break from our Unique unit on ecosystems/biomes to indulge in some monstrous fun. Today we watched a couple of episodes of the Goolies on YouTube. Tomorrow we will start reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on audio book (courtesy of iTunes). Wednesday we will design our own monsters with both Boardmaker and as an art project. Thursday we are spending the day cooking/preparing the food and decorating the room for Friday (and having a birthday party for one of the kids while we're at it). And then there's FRIDAY!!
This year we are going to do the sensory story, do a couple of experiments (probably cornstarch/water goop and vinegar/baking soda explosions since most of my kids this year can see), dissect a pumpkin, play with the sensory toys I purchased last year, design our own costumes (complete with make up and hair dos), and jam to some appropriate Monster Mash music. If we have time we'll watch one of our Mad Scientist videos (Igor, Young Frankenstein, Little Shop of Horrors, Mad Monster Party, Flubber, The Nutty Professor, The Absent Minded Professor). As an aside, we had to cancel our pumpkin patch trip because of rain/mud so went to the video store to rent some fun, campy "B" "horror" movies. Can you believe the store didn't have anything? No Blob or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (or anything else that wanted to attack in weird and funny ways) to be found. We finally found an old copy of this obscure movie which we all about fell apart laughing at. The kids LOVED it and so did the adults. Made for a very fun rainy afternoon. I'm going to have to go hunt for more by these people (evil laugh--evil laugh--evil laugh--I sleep now --watch the movie, you'll get it).
Menu for this year is:
Sloppy Joe (poor Joe, I hope there's enough of him to go around)
Monster Fingers and Toes (green beans)
Wiggly Pumpkins (one of my paras has a jello mold shaped like a foot so we might use that)
Pumpkin Mouse (minus the tails of course)
(If you can't tell, I love Taste of Home recipes; most of what I cook at home and what we cook at school comes from these wonderful people; there are lots of classroom friendly recipes available so go check it out!)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Works for Me Monday: Old T-shirts

I am working with students who are learning to either eat by mouth or to feed themselves. This can make for messy mealtimes. When they were younger, the kids typically used bibs. However, I feel like bibs are a bit babyish and make the kids stand out even more than they already do. A solution that was actually mentioned by one of our peer buddies was to use old t-shirts to cover up the kids' clothes. Since I'm married to a coach we have tons (I'm not kidding) of t-shirts. I make my husband down-size every fall before school starts. The t-shirts then go into my collection for school. They work perfectly for cover-ups at meal time as well as for smocks when we do messy art or science projects. They pretty much look like what everyone else is wearing so the kids don't stand out, wash easily, and are a renewable commodity (at least for me) so when they get too stained, torn, or ragged we just toss them. They have the added benefit of allowing us to work on some basic dressing and undressing skills several times a day.

Old t-shirts work for me as clothing cover-ups. What works for you?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Unique post update

Updated my post on the October Unique unit. Anybody know how to bring a post back to the top?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Works for Me Monday: Parent Communication

Those of us who work with nonverbal students know just how important good communication between home and school is. One of the earliest lessons I learned as a teacher was the value of writing detailed notes home. As one parent put it, her child can't come home and tell her what happened at school that day. It's all well and good for the teacher/staff to write "good day" on the note, but what does that mean exactly? What did she learn? What made her happy? Did anything make her upset? Did she eat well? Take a nap? See a therapist? Make a new friend? Go out in the community?

Throughout my career I've used a number of different methods to communicate with the parents of my students. I've used SOP (summary of progress) notes on NCR paper (expensive and challenging to store), spiral notebooks, and, my current favorite, photocopied checklists (I adapted mine from one Kate Ahern posted to the Boardmaker yahoo group and later to ). My checklist, with full credit to Kate, is copied front and back. One side is School to Home and the other is Home to School. It contains boxes for information like mood, meal times, personal and medical care, reminders and "need-to-bring" lists, daily activities check list, and notes. Daily notes used to take me at least 30 minutes when I had to write everything out in the spirals. In addition, because of the repetitive nature of our business, I often felt like I was writing the same things over and over. With the checklist I have cut my note writing time in half and it's easy for parents to scan through for the essential information while still knowing what their child did that day at school. In addition, my paras are much more comfortable filling out the notes themselves and even related services providers have been seen to use them. We send our notes back and forth in three ring binders (the same used by the kids' peers in class). If there is a note I need to save for documentation I simply photocopy it.

My second favorite method of communicating with my parents is via text messaging. If I have a quick question they can quickly respond without disrupting their activities or playing phone tag. Often times they will get a reminder via text message that they might not see on the home note, or in those rare (ha ha ha ha) instances where I forget to note that a student needs personal supplies or snacks until after they leave for the day. Parents text me all the time with questions or for information too. And since I can print transcripts of my text messages I have documentation just in case of misunderstandings or difficult situations. Before texting a parent, however, it is a good idea to make sure it is OK as not all parents have text-friendly cell phone plans. It is also a good idea to let them know that it is OK to text you as well.

I know of other teachers who use Twitter (I'm way too wordy for Twitter--grin!), instant messaging, email, and blogs to communicate with their students' parents.

Checklist-style home notes and text messaging work for me when communicating with parents. What works for you?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Creature Discomforts

If you haven't seen it yet, go check out this site. Creature Discomforts is a disability advocacy group out of the UK. They have some awesome animated ads about living with disabilities. The website also has fun activities like games (some of which can be made switch accessible; I especially liked the Audio Only version of the Callum the Chameleon Game) and e-cards. Make sure to check out the behind-the-ads spots too.

Note: I know I've seen the games before on someone's blog but I read so many I can't remember who/where. So my apologies for not crediting you.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Leisure Skills

Michie commented and asked if I would explain more about what I mean by teaching leisure skills to my students. There are lots of schools of thought on that. Do we focus on "age appropriate" or "developmentally appropriate" ? How much time should we spend? Active or passive? Group or individual? I think these are decisions teachers have to make based on the individual needs of their students and their families.

For my families, having their kids develop a variety of interests is important. So is being able to engage in leisure activities independently (in other words, being able to play without adult involvement for short periods of time so mom or dad can fix dinner, take a shower, or just get a short sit-down break). I have kids who come to me with very few, if any, obvious interests; kids who are stuck in interests way below their chronological age (Bareny is for 3 year olds not 13 year olds); or who constantly demand attention and cannot spend even a second "alone." We spend a lot of time introducing our students to new experiences, developing more age typical interests, and encouraging independent play. Some activities are active (games; cause effect activities on the computer; using an adapted remote control, or in our case a voice output device since we can't find a remote to work with our TV, to change TV channels; using an adapted CD player on the computer; interacting with sensory devices and toys) and some are more passive (watching a DVD; listening to music or an audio book with an mp3 player). It is all dependent upon the needs and interests of the student.

We are fortunate to have a large library of audio books on mp3 that are written for a mid to late elementary level all the way to adult. Sometimes students listen to them independently and sometimes we put them on the surround sound system and listen as a whole class. Our mp3 players are probably the most popular piece of technology in classroom.

We are "aging up" some of our students' interests. I still have SpongeBob lovers but have learned that a number of middle schoolers are still avid fans of the show. We also expose the kids to the plethora of preteen and teen oriented shows (Wizards of Waverly Place seems to be a current favorite) as well as game shows, the History Channel, science shows, etc. Now, don't let that lead you to believe that we watch TV all the time, because we don't. It is just one of the options available to the students in between other activities. When it comes to choosing "age appropriate" or "age typical" activities, I usually bow to my peer experts. If they say it's OK, then it is. And you'd be amazed what the average 7th grader gets a kick out of!

Sensory toys and devices are another favorite activity. My 16 year old has an extensive "sensory diet" and requires frequent access to a variety of sensory activities in order to regulate his system. He is now fairly independent in choosing how to meet his own needs and moves between our swing, watching blinking lights, "squishing" in a bean bag chair, listening to music, and "sensory deprivation" in our bathroom with the lights off and a flashlight on (I know, I know, but it's his choice and he makes it VERY clear that's what he needs--he has even problem solved to drag his bean bag chair in there, around equipment, people, etc., and has to come to us to request his flashlight be turned on; we're mean and put dying batteries in it to increase interactions). I have other kids who use a Powerlink and a switch to interact with various light toys. And we use Active Learning with a lot of the kids which gives them choices of toys, positions, and equipment (we have a resonance board, a positioning bench, an ESSEFF board, and a HOPSA dress along with a huge inventory of sensory toys). I credit Active Learning with fostering independent play skills in several of my students who didn't have them before using these techniques.

For group leisure skills we play a lot of games. Uno is a top favorite as it is easily adaptable to the needs of each child and lets us apply our number, color, and matching skills. We also like the Scene It series of games, Sorry, Yahtzee, card games (Texas Hold 'Em is great!), and "noisy" games like Jenga. We go out into the community to participate in bowling and every quarter we meet up with our buddies from another special needs class to do a project or have a party together.

We also do lots of art projects, although I don't think most of my students view these as "leisure" opportunities. They sound more like "work" to them. :-) I have a couple of students who have started collecting key chains. They like to play with toys that make noise and key chains meet that need in addition to being age appropriate, a conversation starter, and available everywhere. They make nice reminders of trips and special events too.

We strive to make all the leisure activities we do as active as possible. Even watching TV or a video can be made more active by programming communication devices (we often use step-by-steps) with crazy comments and questions that promote interaction. Even when staff is too busy to be "hands on" available for every student, we can respond to communication attempts. I know my kids' parents are appreciative of the fact that they can step away from their child for a few minutes or that they are no longer stuck listening to endless replays of Barney or Blues Clues. And they love that there are ways to include their children in activities such as "family game night."

Works for Me Monday: Staffing Assignments and Scheduling

OK, I know I'm not the best at keeping up with my blog post schedule. In my defense it's a super busy time of year between 6 IEPs in 7 weeks (and anyone who works with kids with multiple challenges knows those things can be monsters, especially as the kids hit transition age) and some BIG things happening in my personal life, which I may post about in the future. In any case, this Works for Me Monday is about how I assign duties to my paras, which I thought would be an appropriate post for Labor Day.

Paras are essential to success in my classroom. I am fortunate to have 1:1 staffing (including myself) for my students. This makes it so much easier when someone has to be gone (I have one para on maternity leave at the moment; she will return just in time for a second para to leave for the same reason). We also have a complicated schedule with at least one student out in the community every day. I'm still trying to figure out how to work in out-of-the-room inclusion opportunities as we have a huge burden for state assessments, making it difficult to find the time in the kids' schedules.

I firmly believe in every staff member being able to work with every student. They all know they are expected to not only know and be able to meet the needs of each student but also be able to conduct all of the various programs. This benefits the students, who learn to work with a variety of people. As adults they will seldom if ever be in situations where they have the same staff for long periods of time. They need to learn now that it's OK to work with new people. For the staff, this policy prevents feelings of "ownership" for one student. Instead we are one big, mostly happy, family. And the staff can easily "trade off" when struggling with a difficult or frustrating teaching session.

Last year I ended up with an entirely new staff so I started doing what I called "Rotations." Each staff member was assigned a specific curricular area where they showed special skills or interest: Cognitive Skills, Assistive Technology Use, Physical Therapy/Adaptive PE, Sensory/Nielson's Active Learning, Computer. I set up the lesson plans and after Morning Meeting the kids rotated between staff members every 25-30 minutes, depending upon the day. This seemed to work well for us last year and we were able to accomplish quite a lot. The drawback was that my paras started to become so specialized it was difficult to fill in when someone was absent. In addition, they started to get bored doing the same tasks every single day. I tried switching things up but had one staff member who refused to give up her territory. In addition, it was difficult for me to make sure the kids were working on all their goals and to get around to each staff member to make sure they were correctly following programs.

Over the summer my middle/high school paras were pretty much on their own as I had to spend quite a lot of my time working the elementary students in our summer program. They revamped Rotations a bit and started all working on the same tasks at the same time so they could support each other. They still rotated kids around though. After talking with them we decided to leave that schedule in place this year. This has turned out to be a good decision since the state made significant changes in our requirements for assessments this year. We have added two new pieces to our curriculum: ALL and Unique (I'm still looking for a good early math skills curriculum; ideas anyone?). That means I need to take back the "leader" role in instruction and provide much more direct and hands-on support to the staff since most of these activities are new to them. So now we do math and reading every day (last year we focused on math on Mondays, Reading on Tuesdays, and Writing on Wednesdays; Thursdays were community and Friday was Sensory Fun/Therapy Day) with either science or social studies in the afternoon (depending upon the Unique unit). The students are basically in three groups by ability/interest and two staff members "specialize" in each student, although so far everyone is doing a good job of working with every student. The most challenging student to staff is my 16 year old who is out and about every day as there are some limitations on which staff can go with him. So this year, so far, my schedule looks more like this:

7:40-8:30 Arrival, ADLs, breakfast or peer time, positioning, leisure skills
8:30-9:00 Morning Meeting
9:00-10:30 Academics: Reading, Math, computer time, assistive technology use, ADLs as needed; also several of the kids do positioning programs and/or walking within these activities; 16 year old goes on walk about if schedule requires or does Life Skills/work bin tasks
10:30-11:00 Repositioning and stretches for everyone; ADLs as needed
11:00-12:00 Lunch preparation (3 do this) or meds and tube feedings (2 do this) paired with leisure choices or finishing earlier work
12:00-12:30 Break time for students and adults (kids work on independent leisure skills)
12:30-1:00 ADLs as needed and classroom chores
1:00-2:00 Afternoon group activity (science or social studies); 16 year old goes on walk about if scheduled or participates in group
2:00-2:30 Journals, ADLs, repositioning, get ready to go home
2:30-3:00 Departures
Monday is "Hear new concepts/words/numbers" where I introduce new material, the letter/sound of the week, the number/math concept of the week, etc. This is more focused on listening
Tuesday is "See new concepts/words/numbers" where I introduce visual/tactile vocabulary and we start asking the kids to identify and differentiate new knowledge from previous knowledge
Wednesday is "Use new concepts/words/numbers" where we start asking the kids to apply their knowledge by answering questions, doing simple writing tasks, cooking, art projects, etc.
Thursday is Community day for the whole class
Friday is Sensory/Therapy day with swimming for two kids in the afternoon; I also use Fridays to assess kids on how well they are doing with new and old concepts so I can determine where to start the next week (do we need to stick with what we are learning now or are we ready to move on)
I'm still working out the kinks in all this new-to-us stuff and figuring out where everything fits in. However, the overall consenus from both adults and kids is that we like the new challenges.

So, that's What Works for Me when making staffing assignments and setting my daily schedule. What works for you?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Community Based Experiences

Community experiences are a huge part of my curriculum. We love to go out and about and I have students in and out every day. We go lots of fun places. Our school is in a very small community so we frequently have to plan our trips to nearby communities or even the "big city."
Here is my CBE plan this year:
  • Monday: 16 year old goes to Skill Development Center to work on vocational and home living skills
  • Tuesday: two students go grocery shopping to stock up their food supplies for the week (they both prepare their own breakfasts, lunches, and snacks as part of home living skills)
  • Wednesday: 16 year old goes to public library for vocational skills/volunteering (he dusts shelves and runs the vacuum)
  • Thursday: the whole group goes somewhere, sometimes together and sometimes in smaller groups
  • Friday: 2 kids go swimming at a nearby YMCA
Our Thursday trips are the most fun. Some of the things we will be doing include:
  • Trips to Blockbuster to choose a video to watch and purchase treats (this is great for my two kids who are blind/nonambulatory and don't eat by mouth as they get to put together the "voting list" of videos; this is also where they go on those times they don't accompany the rest of the class to a restaurant outing)
  • Trips to Barnes and Noble bookstore (read books/magazines, listen to music, get a snack at the cafe; can differentiate easily for everyone's needs/interests and it's FREE, except for the snacks)
  • Bowling Alley (we have an awesome one with Cosmic Bowling all day that is completely accessible and very inexpensive)
  • The Mall (or course! We are teens after all)
  • Nature Center (ours has a great hands-on museum with lots of multisensory experiences and is attached to a nature park with accessible hiking paths; and it's FREE too!)
  • Periodic special needs showing of current movies at a local theater with other special needs classes (great fun to meet up with good friends and we go out for breakfast/brunch first)
  • Restaurant trips (we tend to do "sit down" dining rather than fast food; fast food is saved for shorter trips like grocery day; we've also done buffets which is a real adventure)
  • Local "spa"/beauty salon (girls can choose hair, manicures, pedicures; boys can choose to soak hands/feet or go next door to the coffee shop and get a treat and listen to music)
  • Special trips to museums when they offer hands-on exhibits (most of my students have significant vision impairments so can't see most typical museum exhibits)
  • The zoo (we have two to choose from in our area)
  • Target, Super Wal-Mart, etc.
  • When the weather is icky or too cold we will also do an "inside outing," usually a video we haven't seen or playing wii and other video games (a class favorite for everyone including staff; we are AWESOME at wii baseball!)
For more great ideas check out Building a Program That Works. Make sure to read the comments!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What Works For Me Monday: binder rings

I've been busily adapting the May Unique unit on Sound. Between the books, picture symbols, word wall cards, sentence strips, and worksheets there is a lot of stuff to keep track of. The picture symbols are so easily lost, misplaced, or separated from their materials. Word wall cards and sentence strips get mixed up. And where is that worksheet when you need it? So....we needed some sort of organizational strategy. Here is what I'm doing:

Each of the books gets printed on cardstock, laminated, and comb bound. I put both the easy and advanced versions of the book in the same binding since we use both fairly interchangably. My kids can typically handle the content in the higher level material but need the lower level for vocabulary and literacy instruction.

I make a set of PCS symbols for key vocabulary to go with each book. Mine are 3" X 3" to accommodate groups and low vision issues. Each symbol has a hole punched in the upper left corner and are strung onto a binder ring. The ring is then clipped to the comb binding on the book. We use the symbols while we read to reinforce visual vocabulary as well as to talk about the book, answer questions, etc. The symbols are always with the book and I make duplicate symbols as needed for additional books so we don't have to "borrow." I prefer separate symbols to the preprinted communication boards (which are included with the unit) because it's easier to accommodate the needs of my students. I can attach them to a velcro board, hold them up in pairs, display them one at time for assisted scanning, remove incorrect answers for errorless learning, etc. Some of my low vision kids also require us to move the symbols to gain their visual attention. And some of my student prefer to pull off their answer rather than point/touch. Of course, those kids who have AAC devices will have appropriate overlays prepared as needed.

Sentence strips receive the same treatment as the symbols. I used the sentences from the simplified book for our sentence strips. This year we are learning about how words are used and how they make up sentences or messages. We are also working on our sight vocabularies. I used the Symbolate feature on Boardmaker for my sentence strips, reducing the symbols to the key concepts contained in the picture symbol cards.

Word wall cards are key words and sight words from the sentence strips. To some words I add a picture symbol to aid in recall. Other words (Dolch words) I want to teach as just sight words or the picture symbols are far too abstract so we might as well just learn them as words. We will use the word wall cards throughout the year, adding to them as we go. They will be used for vocabulary, sight word reading, alphabetics, phonics instruction, and anything else I can think of. These are put into their own collection on a large ring binder in alphabetical order so we can easily find and pull the ones we want to work on. I'd like to find a way to display them on a true word wall in my room but there are space issues as well as problems with my one ambulatory student constantly pulling them off to use for picture exchange (he gets the idea of exchanging a symbol for something he wants but he doesn't really care what the symbol is, any one will do; so we have to be careful what symbols we leave within reach, which would put the word wall way out of reach of the other students visually and physically).

I make a master copy of the worksheets that go with each activity and place them in page protectors. While we are within our copy budget we can copy them for student use. Eventually we may have to start writing the questions and answers into the kids' data notebooks. The worksheets go into a 3 ring binder. I also print and laminate picture symbols matching the choices on the easy worksheet. These are placed in a zippy bag and slid inside the page protector. I have two sets of questions: easy and advanced. The advanced questions are based on the question prompts at the bottom of the pages of the advanced reading material. These do not have picture cues as my students who use this level either use auditory scanning and/or yes/no responses to answer.

The 3 ring binder also contains the activity guide from Unique, my own notes on activities and adaptations, and any additional activities. For instance, with the sound unit we will be doing an experiment with vibrations, comparing loud/soft/high/low sounds, polling peers about favorite types of music, and traveling to Barnes and Noble to listen to different kinds of music. This binder will also contain assessment notes for the kids, notes on the activities for future use, photos, etc.

At the end of the unit all the materials will go into a 2 gallon (or bigger) zippy bag for storage and future use. We use picture symbols in our library cabinet for self selected reading so the books from the Unique units will be available through this format for selection. The picture symbol list lets us include physical books, audio books (on our ipods or CD), and computer books.

We also use binder rings to create portable communication symbols sets for our students. These might be transition cues, wants/needs, I'm upset and this is why, fringe vocabulary for particular activities, restaurant menu choices, etc. Most of my kids who use picture symbols have at least one set of cards with yes/no/more/stop and other important-to-them messages attached to their backpacks. We have also used them for "what to do when __ happens" cards to cue staff, to create photo dictionaries of sign language/gestures, etc.

So, binder rings work for me when I'm organizing materials. What works for you?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Some of my favorite cause effect computer programs

I received a comment on my Smartboard post asking for recommendations for programs and activities to use on the Smartboard. I'm happy to share some of my favorites (and wish list too). The commentor of mention works with early childhood so most of what I will list here are primarily cause and effect and early learning. Also important to note is the fact that I am freely sharing my opinions with no obligations to the companies mentioned. I have received nothing in return for mentioning these products on my blog.

As I've said before, I've never used the Smart software nor have I had any training in using the Smartboard. The board itself is very straightforward and easy to use as it is essentially a giant touch screen. There are a number of good sources for more ideas on how to use the Smartboard: Talking Smartboards and Much More and Teacher Love Smart Boards are just two of them; check their resource lists for even more.

Some of my favorite programs that my kids love and/or that would work well for early learners include:
Big Bang by Inclusive TLC
The Choose and Tell series from Inclusive TLC (just be aware that the vocabulary is British)
The SwitchIt! series from Inclusive TLC
The cause effect videos and other activities available from Priory Woods School (student favorite and free))
The SimTech single switch collection--especially the Sights and Sounds series
SoftTouch has several titles that are good (Attention Teens, Away We Ride, Teen Tunes, etc.) including these specifically for preschool (which are available as individual titles as the bundle is a bit on the pricey side)
Switch Man from R.J. Cooper
Sensory stories from Pete's Stuff (loads and loads of fun! oh, and free!)
Itunes or Windows Media Player visualizers
And any of the kid-friendly websites out there are great to use as well (Kate at TLWMSN has a great post outlining some switch friendly sites, Power Point collections, and more special needs software )
I also use both Intellitools Classroom Suite and Boardmaker activities extensively
In addition I recently received My Own Bookshelf (SoftTouch) but haven't had a chance to try it (my LCD projector is on the fritz so no Smartboard and haven't had time to install the program yet anyway)
And Power Point books are also great on the Smartboard

As far as access, most of my kids use an AbleNet jellybeamer (or two if they are two switch scanning). I have two who access directly on the board as well.

Kaleidoscope 2
Intro to Cause and Effect
Wheel of Sounds
Cause and Effect Cinema
More of the SwitchIt! series

Saturday, August 8, 2009

And a Big Blogland Welcome Goes To...

Kate pointed out a couple of new-to-me blogs that I spent some time checking out today. They both read my blog (:-) ) so I thought I'd say "hi" and give them a shout out here as well (even though I'm pretty sure most if not all of you read Kate's blog, considering how many hits I get from TLWMSN).
So, welcome to the clan Monica from Building a Program That Works and Exceptional Paradise. I look forward to reading more of what you have to share.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Plan for This Year (2009-10)

Mel commented to ask if I would post about how I plan my year and if possible include a long-range plan/curriculum overview. When you work in a specialized program like mine, long-range planning and curriculum are a huge deal. I don't have a set curriculum to follow, no teacher's guides or text books, no "curriculum map," or any of those other helpful things that tell other teachers what to teach when. My curriculum is highly differentiated based on the individual needs of the students and is focussed around their IEP goals as well as alternate assessment needs. That being said, I do have a framework for our activities. Of course, anyone who knows me at all knows I've never done anything the same way two years in a row :-) but I'll give it my best shot to try to explain my planning process.

Last year our curriculum pretty well centered around the topics in the News 2 You publications as well as holidays and special events (like the election) that came up. And every spring I plan a lengthy thematic unit that we spend several weeks on. Last year I did The Wizard of Oz. The two years prior to that we did Rainforests and Oceans. And then of course, as I posted, things went pthhhthhh and deflated after we finished with Oz and state assessments, although it perked back up when we did our We Shall Remain unit.

I used to try to be really "theme-y" and ranged from a new theme a week (what was I thinking?!!?) to a theme a month. I would research on early childhood websites for ideas, since they are all about themes, and "age up" for my students. I like themes, I mean REALLY like them. But, man, all that planning and work gets old after awhile. And I found out that we don't like to repeat the same themes/activities from year to year. I work with the same kids and (hopefully) staff for multiple years and doing the same things over and over (and over and over) just gets boring. We need more spice than that. So themes worked for me for about half the year, usually getting disrupted in the after-holiday doldrums or madness of state assessment season. Now don't get me wrong, there are some themes, like Halloween/pumpkins/fall, that we do every year (check out the Mad Science party we did last year and will probably do again this year--too fun!). And I've done enough themes that I've collected extensive materials for some of them so we try to find ways to use that too (for instance, we did the Unique summer curriculum on Oceans and used all the stuff from a previous oceans theme during ESY). And I'm one of those middle-of-the-night-brilliant-ideas people too, so sometimes "the plan" gets scrapped for one of those or for a new idea I've come across (for instance the brilliant set of activities Kate did around The Princess Bride).

This year I'm changing things up yet again (surprise! NOT!). I was able to purchase this year's Unique middle school curriculum so that will probably be the central driving force of our curriculum this year paired with the News 2 You topics. So far I like what I've seen, even though I have to do quite a bit of adapting (no news there; it's a good thing I like to do that and at least I don't have to come up with much content). Now, just a note that this is really only a small part of our daily/weekly curriculum as I also have kids going out into the community for shopping, leisure, and vocational experiences. And then there are the therapy activities, peer time, daily living skills training, and all the other things that are part of daily learning with these kids. And if by some chance Pete Wells comes up with a new literature unit like the Wizard of Oz, we'll probably add that in (are you reading Pete? I have requests if you're game!).

So my "general" daily schedule should look something like this:
7:40-8:00 Breakfast/peer time
8:00-8:30 Personal care/hygiene
8:30-9:00 Morning Meeting activities
9:00-10:30 Academic rotations (Unique/News 2 You, computer, IEP goals/state assessment)
10:30-11:00 PT activities, leisure skills
11:00-12:00 Lunch programs (cooking/prep, eating, clean up, personal care/hygiene)
12:00-12:30 Leisure skills (adult lunch breaks)
12:30-1:00 Chores (dishes, laundry, dusting, etc. around classroom)
1:00-2:00 Whole group activity (game, literature, art, cooking, science experiments, etc.)
2:00-2:45 Personal care/hygiene, home notes, leisure choices (as needed), departures

Interspersed into this schedule are community outings (job sites, shopping, swimming, etc.) and therapies. A couple kids go out to inclusion classes and we have peer buddies who come in for activities as well.

So that's it, kind of. My curriculum plan is a dynamic, constantly developing process. My advice for others trying to figure out how to plan their year is to keep it simple. Start with your state assessment requirements and add in IEP goals. Then look at what kinds of activities you can do to meet those needs. And it's often fun to develop yearly class traditions (pumpkin patch trip, Christmas shopping extravaganza, Mother's Day brunch, etc.). A unifying factor like Unique, News 2 You, Weekly Reader, etc. can also be very helpful in guiding content learning. Have fun planning your year!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Works for Me Monday: Data Notebooks

Some of the other blogs I read do weekly posts on various themes like Works for Me, Favorite Photo, Wordless Wednesday, etc. So why not do one of my own?

On my last post about Unique Learning Systems Michie commented to ask about my data notebooks. Oh, data, how I loathe thee. It is so essential to doing what we do, measuring student performance, looking for problems, proving successes, etc. Why can't it be easier to deal with? The customizing, revising, printing, copying, hole punching, filing, storing, interpreting, compiling, shredding, etc. can lead a teacher to drink (only S*nic limeades, however, we are at school after all)! I've spent years messing with different systems and none of them really worked for me. There's the "fill in the circles" type and the "mark the rubric" type and so many others. There are even websites that will let you print out data sheets. I think that's where I always run into trouble. If it's too labor intensive I just don't tend to get to it, and printing and/or copying daily or weekly is labor intensive in my book. Add to that the fact that my daily lesson plans usually make it through about the first 15 minutes of the day (30 if I'm lucky) before they have to be adjusted to meet the students' needs, and taking data had become beyond frustrating for me, until I came up with a solution that works for me:

Sprial notebooks. Yep. That's it folks. Simple spiral notebooks. Each of my students has one. In it we keep all of our documentation from daily lesson plans (which I do during breakfast) to communication logs to cognitive skills data to behavioral charting. They are sort of like a daily diary of each student's activities. I start a new page with the day's lesson plans for that student and indicate where I need data (how many times does he initiate with his computer vs. gesture? what did she score on the sorting task? what level of assistance did he need to complete the laundry task?). The notebooks follow the kids around all day and whichever staff is working with them at the time knows what to do and what to record. There is also an overview sheet that explains the basic type/s of data for that student where I lay out rubrics, when to do tally marks, when to use +/-, etc. If they are asking multiple choice comprehension questions (or giving choices of any sort), they know to write down the question, the presented answer choices, and the student's response. If I need a specific way to take data I can just make an example right next to the lesson plan entry. Staff can easily take anecdotal notes as well, which is very helpful to me when evaluating effectiveness, problems, etc. We can attach photos of projects, actual worksheets, printouts from computer programs like Stages, Switching On, etc., and "sticky note data" (don't we all wish we'd bought stock in that company way back when!). I glance through everything every day to look for glaring concerns and more thoroughly once a week or so to compile data to judge progress. This is relatively simple since I generally use averages, depending upon what I'm looking for. I should probably create a spreadsheet for this but usually just do it by hand on sticky notes which then get used as place markers. That way I can multitask during activities like faculty meetings (I am one of those people who cannot just sit and listen; I have to be doing something with my hands and the other half of my brain at the same time).

Types of data most likely to be taken in my classroom (I know there are others than these):
right or wrong/+/-
tally marks
multiple choice (more than 2 choices)
levels of assistance/rubric:
0 = resists activity/refuses
1 = maximum assistance (according to student prompt system, generally hand over hand)/choices reduced to 1
2 = moderate assistance (according to student prompt system, usually a touch prompt, model, or other "large" prompt)/choices reduced to 2
3 = minimum assistance (according to student prompt system, usually a small visual cue, redirecting attention, etc.)/choices reduced to 3
4 = independent/no assistance/4 or more choices
For each trial the student can earn up to 4 points. I then create an average score based on points earned over points possible. So in a 5 trial activity the student could score 20 points. I can then estimate level of assistance:
90-100% = independent
75-90% = minimum assistance
50-75% = moderate assistance
25-50% = maximum assistance
Below 25% = resisting activity/need to reevaluate procedures
Now this is pretty general and I adjust the rubric depending upon the task. Sometimes we only use 3 levels, sometimes we use 5. I might also look at range (look at me using my fancy dancy math vocabulary) rather than average or otherwise interpret data. Is he always missing certain colors? Does she have a tendency to choose the answer on the right? Etc.

What I really like about this system is its simplicity. Everything is all together in one place for me. It's easy for me to pick up a notebook and write down what I want done as well as to make adjustments and changes as the day goes on. I can leave myself or the staff notes and they can do the same. Questions, needs, and concerns can be jotted down "in the moment" before they get forgotten or lost in the chaos, I mean shuffle. The mountain of loose data sheets is eliminated and the spirals are easy to transport from place to place. Plus spirals are a common tool used by all the students in our building so no one stands out. And because it's all "attached," nothing gets lost.

This is what works for me. What works for you? Leave a comment or link to your own blog.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unique Learning Systems

We used Unique's free summer curriculum this summer just to try it out. I had the opportunity to add the 2009 middle school curriculum to a grant so we'll be using it this coming school year too. Overall I think I like the curriculum but it took a lot of adaptation to meet my students' needs and interests. I don't think it will be a "stand alone" or "solo" curriculum in my room, but paired with News-2-You and some of the other things we do, it should help to flesh things out in the area of academics. My ESY hours were cut in half because of tight budgets so I didn't get to spend as much time working with the curriculum as I would have liked.

What I liked about it:
  • Two levels available, similar to the levels available for News-2-You. This came in handy this summer because I was working with kids age 5 to 16 and used the same curriculum for all of them. The younger kids couldn't sustain attention to the longer readings and needed more work with basic vocabulary. The older kids, who have been doing activities like these longer, did better on the longer readings and answering comprehension questions.
  • The question guide at the bottom of the chapter pages was handy. It meant I could make the assignment and my paras could formulate questions themselves using available vocabulary pictures and/or yes/no responses. They would record the questions they asked and the kids' responses in the kids' data notebooks. It reduced the amount of worksheet creating, printing, cutting, and pasting that needed to be done.
  • The length of the unit made it easier for me to pick and choose what to focus on. There were some areas we spent lots of time on (what is an ocean; ocean animals; beaches) and some we spent no time on (oceanography).
  • The combination of science and social studies was nice and leant itself well to extension activities.
  • PDF format was nice as well as being able to access the curriculum from an online account rather than needing to download it.

What I didn't like as much:

  • Some concepts were far too abstract for my students (Oceanography) and I couldn't make them concrete enough to gain their understanding.
  • More visuals would have been good such as actual photos of oceans, beaches, people engaging in related activities, ocean animals, etc. (I know I can go out and find my own, but having them included in the package would be very helpful)
  • More support for multisensory learning would have been good such as ideas for objects/ object symbols, tactile experiences, sound sources, etc. We needed ways to make the concepts real or concrete for the students. Being in Kansas we couldn't exactly take a field trip to the beach/ocean and few of my students have had those experiences.
  • Vocabulary access--I can't remember if the SymbolStix symbols for the unit were included or not; I tend to use Boardmaker but sometimes the SymbolStix symbol is better.
  • A source for extension activities and sharing (see Kate's post for more information on ideas for this).
  • Access to the illustrations separately would have been good for making discussion cards and flash cards without having to print out the entire page (I only have a pdf reader so can't edit).
  • A range of levels for the extension activities would be good. For instance, my kids couldn't do any of the math activities (all involved money) because they don't have a grasp on those concepts. Sorting, matching, simple counting, more than/less than, comparison, and classification activities would be helpful. I want more than simple participation like activating a switch to give a (prerecorded) correct answer. I want my kids to work on actual skills development. They can do so much more than cause effect responses.

Some of the extension activities we did with the ocean/beaches unit:

  • water and sand play including "clean the beach" where the kids dug through the sand to find "trash" and sorted "trash" and "good beach things" (shells, starfish, rocks, etc.)
  • numerous ocean animal art projects I've collected over the years
  • kids' literature like Rainbow Fish, Swimmy, Herman the Hermit Crab, etc. I also have several nonfiction books about ocean animals
  • Is It a Fish? activity (on Adapted Learning so log in first)
  • a number of computer based activities from Boardmaker/Adapted Learning and Intellitools
  • threw stuffed ocean animals into our ball pool so the kids could go "scuba diving"
  • discovery box filled with various ocean items and toys (shells, fish, plastic aquarium sea weed, aquarium "coral," scuba mask and snorkle, etc.)
  • various cause effect ocean themed toys (our speech path found several at Enabling Devices --this was a favorite-- and I have a mini bubble tube with fish in it among others)
  • listening to ocean sounds and "beach music" in our Somatron "music chair"
  • Moon Sand sand castles
  • Ocean in a Bottle (water bottle; choice of blue, green and/or purple food color; choice of glitter or sand; choice of small ocean themed items to put inside and stickers on the outside)

Overall I'm excited to have access to a true curriculum designed for my students. It's been a long time coming. With the addition of the creativity of others that is available out here in cyberspace, this promises to be an exciting adventure for us. I'm really looking forward to using it with state assessments this spring.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy Blog Birthday

Wow! Has it really been two months since I've posted? Bad SMDTeacher! BAD SMDTeacher! I know I've been busy but not that busy and it's not like I have nothing to blog about. I have all the stuff to share about several of our end-of-year projects. Then I need to do a retrospective on our favorite projects/activities/accomplishments of the year. I should probably go back to my New Year's post and see how close I came to meeting my goals. And then there is everything that has been going on over the summer. And what about goals for the upcoming "regular" school year? Oh, and there are the promised posts about favorite children's literature, favorite music to use with teaching, etc. And what about those Wizard of Oz photos? What about those?

So, for those of you who have been waiting with bated breath for me to get off the stick and start posting again, I pinky swear that I will do my best to get a few things up soon. And, just to help that out a little, in honor of my blog birthday (which apparently is a big deal in blog land), ASK ME SOME QUESTIONS! What do you want to know? Your interest will probably nudge me into sharing more.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Thoughts on Macaroni

Part 2 of my musings on Rob Rummel-Hudson's latest post...

As part of his discussion on the uselessness of state assessments, Rob also talks about what he terms as "macaroni art." I LOVE the term. My kids' parents tend to refer to it as "para art." You know what I'm talking about: the kid who can't hold a pencil and would prefer to eat a crayon rather than color with it comes home with a perfect masterpiece of an art project that in no way reflects the child's artistic abilities, lovingly created by a staff member at school so the child feels "included" and the parents don't feel "left out" or "burdened" by their child's disability and will have something "nice" to hang on the fridge. The parents mostly smile politely and quietly throw those projects away. They are meaningless. I have actually seen paras sit at a table alone and complete a project while the student whose name is on the project is elsewhere in the room doing something unrelated or worse, sits there totally disengaged, tuned out, or even ASLEEP! UGH!

One of the first things I teach my paras is the Principle of Partial Participation. Essentially, the mantra in my classroom is "No one can do everything but everyone can do something." We do NOT do "para art" in my program, although many of my paras do enjoy doing art and will often do their OWN project alongside the kids (thus the phenomenon of the multiplying dream catchers, HA HA). But, the projects my students do are wholy influenced by them. They might not be able to hold the marker or paint brush, but they can certainly pick the color or shape. We do a lot of "glue it on" projects. Those cute "follow-the-directions-cut-along-the-dotted-line" projects you can photocopy from teacher idea sites? Not for us. I choose techniques that are pretty "fool proof" like balloon stamping, finger print painting, daubing, mosaic, and decoupage. And I don't care if we have day-glo orange Totos or Dorothy has purple hair or the Emerald City ends up being more orange and brown than green. Projects of any sort MUST maximize choice making opportunities for the students or I won't even consider them. You won't find "coloring sheets" in my room (OK, except for one student who enjoys smashing the paint daubers onto them when she's working on color identification). Our projects turn out as varied and interesting as the kids themselves and I LOVE it. So do the parents, as evidenced by the numbers of our projects that I've seen hanging on fridges or lovingly displayed in rooms. For more examples of some of the projects we do, look in the side bar under "Curriculum" at posts about our News-2-You related projects. And I promise, Wizard of Oz project pix will be coming eventually.

I should also mention that my staff is forbidden to make choices FOR a student. I have students who don't particularly care to do most art projects and will communicate that by absolutely refusing to choose ANYTHING (we call it "staring through the wall"). Frustrating? You bet. But for me, "not choosing" is the choice and we honor that choice (even when the project is super cute and part of state assessments). There are consequences for not doing your work, just like for any other kid (I have really supportive parents). I can't stand it when people make choices "for" kids. All that teaches them is that their desires are irrelevant. A big serving of "learned helplessness" anyone? Seriously, if you want to see me lose my cool, go ahead and make that (non health and safety related) choice for one of my kiddos, I dare you.

So I say, "DOWN WITH MACARONI ART!" Unless of course, it's a macaroni collage that unquestioningly reflects the student--as in a big blob of glue in the middle of the page because the kid LOVES glue, with one little blue piece of macaroni stuck in it because he HATES making choices for art projects (or threw the other bits on the floor).

Can I Hear an "Amen!"

I look forward to new posts on Rob Rummel-Hudson's blog Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords. He is a good writer who is not afraid to "tell it like it is." His latest post hit so many notes with me on more than one topic that I may well end up doing more than one post referencing it.

The first part of today's post talks about federally mandated state assessments (NCLB). I agree with everything Rob states in his post. I won't repeat it here (go read it for yourself). I most liked his comments about kids with disabilities and how they are affected by these tests. You mean a kid on an IEP "failed" the reading test? Well DUH!!! I cannot come close to explaining the frustration I have as a special educator to be forced to put students into a no win, sure to fail situation. And then to be held accountable as the teacher for the fact that the child has a DISABILITY that INTERFERES with his ability to learn like other kids, take these tests, and in general, "meet proficiency" at "grade level." And I'm one of the fortunate (she says tongue in cheek because this is soooo not fun) few who gets to give the Alternate Assessments, which gives me the flexibility to basically pick and choose what my students do for their assessments (no bubble sheets or computer-based tests for us, just a small forest of trees in paperwork and way too much time away from kids). Every year I spend countless hours devising assessment activities, taking assessment data, compiling assessment data, filling out the forms, and putting together portfolios. THEN we get to score the things in a team of three. And what are we testing? Is it really relevant for a deaf-blind 13 year old with severe CP to be able to label his shapes? I mean, come on! The kid can't effectively communicate his wants and needs, why on earth does he need to know his shapes? Worse, these are a "point in time" assessment and can't be used to compare performance from year to year. Not to mention that we are basing our ratings on 3 pieces of "evidence" of 5 trials each, which is SO not best practice for determining student performance. In the end, the assessments are not an indicator on how well my students are doing with mastery of the state standards. Instead, they are an indicator of how creative I am as a teacher in making the "indicators" (tested items) work for my kids with a minimum of disruption to them (other than the fact that I'm stuck with paperwork for far too many hours instead of actually working with my students). The procedures are actually designed so that I can manipulate the data to make it look really good (good thing I'm an ethical teacher, but I do know other teachers who are "encouraged" strongly to do just that). I could go on and on about the absurdity and uselessness of the state assessments as they currently stand, and not just for special ed. I think they're pretty much a waste of time for everyone, except the bean counters. And if the Powers That Be read this, go ahead, audit me. I'm not worried. I know how to follow the rules. HA HA HA HA HA HA

OK, enough for that soapbox....

Saturday, April 25, 2009

We Shall Remain

Hello all! No I haven't disappeared. Just been very very busy with a lot of things I can't discuss here. Plus, as I mentioned in my previous post, I've run into "teacher's block" (sort of like writer's block) and just haven't had too much to say. And of course, now that I'm in the mood to post, the little guy I'm doing respite for has decided that he MUST be out of bed and MUST have a snack and some playtime. It's waaaaaay past his bedtime. The stinker. :-)......

OK, problems solved with much giggling and even a couple of belly laughs plus a whole lot of cheese crackers on the floor, much to the dogs' delight. I LOVE this kid! Anyway, I mentioned that I was struggling with how to structure the rest of the regular school year for us and talked about doing something with the PBS series "We Shall Remain." That is indeed what I decided to go with. We got started a bit late so had to do two episodes last week (After the Mayflower, which is about the European "invasion" of America, and "Tecumseh's Vision" about Tecumseh's attempts to unite the Native American tribes into one nation separate from the white man). Both episodes were excellent although I will say we were all more fascinated by After the Mayflower (you mean the Pilgrims are actually the bad guys? How different would history be today if Massasoit had just decided to let those foolish Europeans die from their own ignorance). I'm using both the News-2-You and the website to create synopses of the episodes using Boardmaker which we read during Morning Meeting prior to watching the episodes (we watch during gross motor/standing time). One of my students, whose Dad is Puerto Rican, was fascinated by the pictures of Native Americans that I used and kept pointing to himself and then to the Smartboard, making it very clear that he thinks he looks like a Native American. Very cool. He got VERY ANGRY when the white men treated the Native Americans badly during the first episode and got really into it when the Native Americans fought back in the second. It was so neat to see him responding like this because he is usually completely disengaged from anything even remotely "academic."

We didn't do much of a project with After the Mayflower, although there are some nice Pilgrim and Indian crafts at and Kate also posted some great resources on her website. With Tecumseh's Vision we decided to make dream catchers. The project on dltk-kids did not work for us. It was designed by a teacher in the UK and we weren't able to lay hands on all the materials, particularly the mesh bags. We used this project instead. This is one of the most fun projects we've done, or at least one of the most popular. The kids enjoyed choosing colors and materials and the adults had a blast weaving (my group of students don't have the fine motor skills to do the weaving but had loads of fun checking the adults' work and criticizing, I mean commenting, on it). I think we have 20 or so of the things floating around the room at the moment. We made small ones. The challenging part was figuring out what to use for the rings. In the past we've brass embroidery rings but they are fairly expensive and we didn't have any in the supply closet (yes, this was yet another last minute project idea). What worked best was cutting the rim off of disposable plastic cups (the white, nearly transparent ones work the best). We also tried the rim off of plastic containers like cottage cheese and Cool Whip, but they were too flexible and didn't maintain their round shape. The rims off the LIDS however, worked great. However, the cups are cheap and there are lots of them available compared to the containers. For the string we used crochet thread (the kind used to make lace) for the smaller ones and yarn for the larger. We have a whole collection of various sized beads that we could string on as requested by the students. For the bottom the kids chose a feather (or 5) onto which we strung 3 pony beads (on the shaft end). These were then tied onto the bottom of the dream catcher either in a group or singly. They all turned out really neat. I forgot to take a picture of them but will add one later.

Next up we have The Trail of Tears, Geronimo, and Wounded Knee. I'm not exactly sure what projects we will do to enhance these topics as I need to keep things really simple. I do know we will be taking a trip to the Mid America All Indian Center which has recently reopened and is doing a bunch of stuff related to the We Shall Remain series. And there are more than a few good movies featuring Native Americans (and no, I'm not talking the John Wayne-type where the Indians are the bad guys). And maybe we can find someone from the Indian Center who would be willing to volunteer some time to come in and do drumming and storytelling with the kids. I also have a collection of Native American music we are listening to.

For those of you who would like to borrow my We Shall Remain Boardmaker adaptations:
Email me OR leave a comment with your email/contact information and I'll contact you about sharing. Some of what I have created uses copywrited materials owned by News-2-You so I have to be careful how I share. I plan to use this unit again in the fall closer to Thanksgiving with more activities.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Making Dust

A a kid we often went to my grandparents' farm. My brother's favorite thing to do, and later all the boys/cousins, was to put his bike up on blocks in the big shed, peddle as fast as he could and "make dust." That's how I'm feeling right now with school, like I'm just making dust but not getting anywhere.

We finished giving state assessments right before spring break. Because we use an alternate assessment system, this took up quite a lot of our time and structured our daily activities. We also implemented and completed a very involved unit on the Wizard of Oz (check the side bar under Projects). I had a plan with a goal: read the whole book and do related activities; gather all the needed evidence for state assessment portfolios. And now that we're finished with all of that, we seem to be just spinning our wheels. The day-to-day routines have become the "daily grind." Everyone, kids and adults alike, are bored with the same old same old. On top of all that we have had a constant in and out with absences from both students and staff, had one student move away resulting in a slight case of "over staffing" (I know I know, I should be happy and believe me I am NOT giving up a staff person until I have to; plus one of my paras wants to go back to college full time and will be making that move very soon) and not enough to do for everyone all the time. Add in some plans that haven't come to fruition quite as expected and some not-under-our-control interferences that have kept us completely out of routine, and well, I think we've hit the "spring doldrums." You know, that place where everyone is ready to move on but we're stuck with 5 weeks left of school before a brief break and new opportunities. We're not even all that motivated to fo out on community day, how bad is that? UGGHH!!

I need inspiration. This is one of those times that I miss NOT having a preset curriculum (creating my own curriculum is one of the things I love most about my job, but wow is it a lot of work!). How do I fill the last few weeks of school with fun, engaging, and meaningful activities? We're pretty well at a maintenance stage with most of our IEP goals. Where do we go from here? Kate posted some fun looking activities to go with The Princess Bride which look very intriguing, BUT do I really want to jump back into another extended study so soon after the Wizard of Oz extravaganza? News-2-You has an article on Native Americans and the new PBS series called We Shall Remain that I could do a lot of things with. Maybe we'll go with that, especially since the Mid America All Indian Center is reopening here in April and they have worked well with our special needs in the past. But that will take quite a bit of prep work and I have a number of time consuming commitments coming up (summer school planning, observing new-to-me students coming to summer school, grant proposals due, student recertifications due, progress reports, helping with a couple of professional development activities, grading state assessments, ......). Do I have time to do adequate justice to a Native American unit?

Any ideas out there anyone? Throw me a nice life preserver please!