Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Voices From Outer Space

We got to do the neatest thing this morning. A little background....
Every morning after breakfast we do Morning Meeting (here is my Morning Meeting routine posted on Adapted Learning). That usually takes 10-15 minutes depending upon what everyone has to say and how cooperative everyone is being. Which leaves us with 10 minutes or so before we start Rotations. During this time I usually put the CNN Student News on the Smartboard for the kids to watch while the grownups organize Rotations, finish bathroom trips and breakfast clean up, etc. Today there was a banner at the top of the Student News page indicating that President Obama was getting ready to speak to the astronauts on the International Space Station. We've just finished a mini unit on the Solar System and Space program so I clicked on the link out of curiosity. Nothing much going on so we went back to the Student News. I left the window open, however, and about 2 minutes later we heard NASA connecting with the Space Station. We switched back and got to watch a very interesting exchange between the President and a group of school children and the members of the Space Station team (listen here if you want). ALL of the kids were enthralled. Very cool. Technology is AMAZING!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sink or Float?

In my last post I talked about the importance of play. I try to incorporate playing into as many activities as possible. This has been most evident recently during the science experiments we've done. The latest was experimenting with and exploring the concepts of "sink" and "float." The Boardmaker activity sheet is available on Adapted Learning (be sure to sign in). As you can tell from the pictures, we had a lot of fun playing with the concepts of sink, float, wet, and dry while sneaking in some real learning!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Importance of Play

Free Technology for Teachers posted about this TED video today. It's a video I've been meaning to watch and FT4T prompted me to go ahead and do it today (I like to give credit when the work of other people leads me down new paths). Now, we all know play is important, especially for young kids, right? How many of us recognize the importance of play throughout the life span? Stuart Brown shares his views and research into the importance of play for everybody at every age. Check out his work at the National Institute for Play. The video got me to thinking, do we let kids play enough? Do we let them play at all? And, most important to me, how do we encourage play behaviors among people with severe disabilities, especially older kids, teens, and adults?

The world of a person with complex disabilities is often consumed by their needs: the need to perform caregiving routines, the need for a variety of medical procedures, the need to participate in various therapies designed to improve the person's function. Then throw in school, which is often very results oriented--the need to produce a project, the need to have measurable results, the need to collect data. You need to do this, you need to do that. Need Need Need. Doesn't leave much in the way of "personal" time, let alone "play" time. But according to Dr. Brown's research, play is as great a "need" in life as anything else. Play develops social skills, problem solving skills, adaptability, creativity. It creates balance and self satisfaction. It relieves stress, eases anxiety, and enhances happiness.

Play activities are highly prevalent in programs for very young children. In fact, these programs are typically built around the concept of "play," goals are written with play outcomes, and play activities are engineered for access and success. But what about older children, teens, and adults? Is play engineered into their daily activities? Do we get too hung up on "age appropriate?" What should "play" look like for older age groups? What could play look like? Think about the Siftables I mentioned in an earlier post. Now THAT is play! So how can we utilize the resources we have available to us to create play opportunities not only for our students but also the adults/staff who work with them?

I think we do a lot of play in my class but do we do enough? Do we encourage the right kinds of play? Often, I think for us, play time is a reward or filler activity, not the central activity itself. Play is what we do in between the "important" stuff. Maybe I need to rethink that approach a bit. I have one student in particular who I'm struggling with on curriculum. He is more than capable of matching to sample, sorting by one attribute, identifying vocabulary items from objects as well as photos, identifying body parts, doing "put in" tasks, and numerous other skills common to classrooms like mine and featured in developmental profiles, curricula, and even state standards. BUT this kid has absolutely NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER in these tasks. NO reward is big enough. He'll do one or two trials and then that's it. Drill and practice is not his thing. How do I know he can do these things though? Because I've seen signs of it when he is playing on his own. So maybe I need to rethink our approach. How do we turn these traditional "skill and drill" tasks into playtime while keeping it "measurable" for data purposes?

According to Dr. Brown's research, there are essentially seven different "types" of play, all of which are important to the development of a balanced person. I got to thinking about these different types or categories of play and how a severe disability can impact a person's ability to engage in them...

Attunement play: this is probably the very earliest type of play people engage in. It begins in infancy: baby smiles, mom smiles. It helps develop that sense of connectedness and security. It is even very early level cause and effect understanding. I would think attunement play would be very difficult for kids who have spent a large part of their early lives in the midst of medical interventions (think preemies in isolettes for long periods of time). How do sensory impairments impact attunement play? And what about people (not just small children) with low awareness levels because of constant seizures, high levels of medication, other physiological issues that prevent them from developing an awareness of anything outside of themselves? Even typically developing kids can develop "attachment disorder" when their efforts at attunement play aren't rewarded. And we hear all the time about parents who have had children in long-term medical care who have difficulty "bonding" with their babies. Do we recognize attunement play when we see it? Do we engage in it? Encourage it?

Body play and movement: aahh! Here's an area many of us know a lot about. We all recognize that kids who can move and explore on their own at an early age typically learn more faster than kids who can't. "Learning about self movement structures an individual’s knowledge of the world - it is a way of knowing, and we actually, through movement and play, think in motion." (http://www.nifplay.org/states_play.html) What profound meaning this has for our kids who have extreme difficulty moving on their own, who are "tied up" with machinery, equipment, and so on. Who are coached and supported through every movement in an effort to "normalize tone" or prompt a desired response or "fix" what is wrong. How often does the "intervention" actually cause more problems in other areas? Do we take the time to step back and just let kids move on their own? I think this what I like most about Lilli Nielson's Active Learning approach. It is all about play and independence and figuring things out for yourself. The method advocates a "hands off" approach from adults and lets kids simply, well, play. We employ these techniques all the time in my classroom, with great success in some instances, and little to no success in others. It just depends on the kid, the moment, the staff, and a thousand other little variables that all add up.

Object play: we also tend to recognize the importance of manipulating objects. Object play develops problem solving skills--what does this do? How do I make this work? What happens when I do this? How do we encourage object play in kids with severe disabilities? What is "meaningful" object play and what is seemingly less productive "stimming" on objects? Is "stimming" really a bad thing or is it another form of play? How do we help kids with poor hand skills (little or no grasp, reach, strength, low tone, high tone, etc.) to engage in object play? I use Active Learning but what else is out there? Does technology like switch use enhance object play or interfere with this type of learning by removing the learner from directly interacting with objects? How can switches be engineered to allow for experimentation and not just "turn it on/turn it off" activities?

Social play: another area we are all familiar with. How often do we target social skills as a goal? Social play develops our sense of belonging and acceptance. It teaches us to interact with and get along with others. Kids with intensive needs are so often "separate" from others. They might engage in "parallel play" but seldom actually play with another person except maybe in highly structured and engineered activities controlled by another person. In our desire to intervene, to help, do we actually keep these kids separate from each other? Do we encourage these interactions/engineer interactions? In my room the answer would be "no" we don't encourage a lot of interaction between the kids. It's not intentional, but the kids usually each do their own things. Encouraging dual play with others needs to become a goal for us--put two kids in the toy tunnel together for instance, two on the swing set doing similar activities, two at the water tub doing tummy time, etc. Even when we play games we don't do enough give and take with the kids.

Another important area of social play is "rough and tumble" play. To a person my kids all love to rough house. "Tummy drum," "shake shake shake," and "wiggle jiggle" are all favorite activities that we don't do enough of. How do we stay safe but still encourage this type of physical play? Typical kids engage in rough and tumble play through sports, on the playground, wrestling with sibs, etc. How do we give our kids with severe disabilities similar experiences?

A third important area of social play is celebratory play. This is engaged in by every age group. We all have celebration rituals, cheer on our favorite team, clap in excitement, etc. How often do our kids with intensive needs not respond appropriately to these types of activities? They don't know what to do, how to respond, and sometimes they don't even recognize what all the fuss is about. How do we help them gain these understandings?

Imaginative and pretend play: is this developmental? Can our kids who are at younger "developmental ages" engage in pretend play? How do we help them? What should pretend play look like for a child who can't really manipulate objects (dolls, trucks)? Or who understands things in a very concrete way (expects food he can eat rather than play food that he "pretends" to eat)? What about older kids who seem "stuck" on baby dolls, Barbies, action figures? Should we discourage this kind of pretend play or encourage it? How do preteens, teens, and adults engage in pretend play activities? This is an area I've always wanted to do more with in my classroom. I had a very rich and engaging imaginative play "life" as a child and those skills have stretched into adulthood by allowing me to be creative and innovative. How do I give that gift to my students?

Storytelling and narrative play: well, books, TV shows, and movies are obvious sources of this type of play, at least receptively. How do we give kids with very complex communication needs the ability to TELL stories, especially when they don't have a good grasp of "language" as we typically view it? I have kids who actually speak a different language, one that is sensory based and doesn't translate well into English/talking. I have been known to crawl inside the toy tunnel beside a student, close my eyes and give her my hands so she could talk to me in her language about what she is experiencing. I need to do more of that "listening in their language" with all my students.

Transformative-Integrative and Creative play: using play as a medium to create new ideas, things, etc. How do we help these kids access this? They usually aren't "creators" so to speak. Music? Art? This is probably the least understood area of play so far. Maybe we already see it in our kids as they figure out how to work around an obstacle, accommodate a sensory or motor deficit, etc.

We hear constantly about "21st Century Skills." I got to thinking, could "play" be considered a "21st Century Skill?" The kinds of innovative thinking, problem solving ability, and creativy companies are looking for today all seem to be couched in the "play" philosophy. Schools are falling behind faster and faster. We should pay attention to the fact that kids come into kindergarten ready, willing, and eager to learn. But by the time they reach 2nd or 3rd grade, school has become more of a chore--kids can't wait to get to recess, PE, etc. Why? Is it because of "skill and drill" practices? Because they are forced to sit at their desk, raise their hands to respond, follow directions to the letter, do only as they are told? I was a good student but what kind of a learner could I have been if allowed to learn through play? What kind of a person would I be now? Would my social skills be better? Would I have better relationships with the people around me (something with which I struggle; I'm not exactly comfortable with nor skilled at forming new relationships; small talk? forget about it! Not my forte at all!)? I mean seriously, if dogs "get it" and polar bears "get it" then why can't people?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The (Hopefully Near) Future

Sam Sennott of All Together We Can posted today about a nifty little thing called Siftables (look here too). Let's talk SMART boards on speed that fit in your pocket! Awesome! I love the section of the TED video (which you should check out because they are always interesting) where the little boy is playing with them and creating his own story. I immediately thought of the possibilities for several of my students.
One student has yet to "find her voice" using voice output and is just barely grasping the concept of requesting wants/needs with symbol cards; she'd pick it up in a snap with these (pun intended). She loves to fiddle with things and often uses fiddling to make her selections (desired selections are held onto and fiddled more intensely; undesired are fiddled briefly then dropped). Imagine what she would do if her choice spoke when she picked it up or fiddled it for a preset period of time.

Another student would be far more motivated to work on academic tasks if he got to play with such cool "toys." And interfacing with a computer screen or the Smart board or whatever would just add to the allure, not to mention provide him with very interesting access. Sorting, matching, vocabulary, sight words, counting,...

What about having a series of "menu" Siftables (eat--bathroom--toys--say something--need help); when one is selected the others immediately switch to related vocabulary (eat would result in food choices, etc.).

What about eye gaze selectors or those using head tracking? Could they be configured to respond to an infrared or other input so they could be mounted to an eye gaze board? Much more adaptable for some kids than a simple computer screen.

How about building sentences by stacking the words? Or putting together a sequence that the Siftables then "perform" in a cartoon, either messing up or stalling if the sequence is incorrect so the student can try again?

Teaching emotions and interactions, especially for kids who tend to be disengaged from typical social cues. What happens when you pinch someone? What should you do when someone says "hello?"
And think about the possibilities in multisensory spaces: build your own mood light (aka "blinky lights" in my room), make your own music, a combination of both, set them to activate various sensory items (fan, scents, CDs, disco ball, etc.), and so on.

Now, I don't know how these would be accessible to switch users or those with vision impairments. But, since they have wireless technology I'm sure the switch access could be worked out. And maybe tactile cues could be added to the cases for those with vision issues. Or maybe vibration or ??? And for those with fine motor issues, I'm betting they could be made larger, although the current size seems pretty manageable to me. I'd bet the Siftables creators could come up with all kinds of solutions.

And these ideas are relatively simple "inside the box" applications thanks to my currently overloaded brain which is fighting creativity. Now I want to know cost and availability and where I can get my hands on some! You know I don't buy all these "toys" for the students, don't you? That's just my excuse! In any case, I look back at what we had available for instructional and assistive technology even just 20 years ago (can you believe I went to college WITHOUT the internet?!!!) and am amazed at how far we've come. Where will we be next year? In five? In 20? Wow!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Monsters in the Closet

Anyone who works with kids using AAC or some sort of assisted communication, or even assistive technology, needs to read this post by Schuyler's Dad. You know, sometimes kids just need to be kids without all the trappings that so often come with disability. They need to be let loose to fly through the gym, roll down the hill, scream their heads off for no other reason than it's just darn fun. They don't need adults hovering over them all the time forcing the tech on them. Don't get me wrong, the tech is great and can allow these kids to do so very much. But the tech also highlights the Monsters. It's good to shove the Monster in the closet now and again and just BE. How awesome is it that Schuyler figured out how to do that so well that, at least from her perception, her friends don't even know the Monster is there. Way to defeat that Monster, Schuyler!
And for anyone looking for a good blog to read that is both well written and insightful, Fighting Monsters With Rubber Swords is one of my top favorites. Rob is an excellent writer who tells it like it is without holding back and I look forward to each new blog post. It is a true gift that Rob has chosen to share the joys, pain, and sorrows of fighting Schuyler's Monster and all the other monsters of parenthood while raising a beautiful little girl in her struggle to be just like everyone else but still fiercely and uniquely herself.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Buzzard Day Resources and Activities

Here are some ideas to use with next week's News-2-You issue "Buzzard Day." If I have time I want to do an adapted book about turkey vultures using Intellitools Classroom Suite (haven't used it in awhile as I've been concentrating on Boardmaker), which I will post to the exchange. And keep an eye out on Adapted Learning as there are sure to be lots of good activities posted there too. The News-2-You support group started by Kate Ahern is growing weekly with more and more people starting to get brave and contribute. Check out Kate's awesome ideas for this week's edition of "Water for Africa."

Arts and Crafts
Did You Know?
A group of vultures is called a "kettle"
Turkey vultures are bald so their heads don't get gunky when they pull the guts and other goodies out of dead animals
Turkey vultures pee on their legs to cool themselves off when they get hot and to clean off their legs after walking through dead animal carcasses

Geography Ideas
  • Study about deserts; compare the desert climate to where you live; this article ties in to last week's "Water for Africa" story
  • Learn about Ohio; try this one too
  • Vulture Vegetable Bites (if you don't have an oven these can also be done in an electric skillet)
  • Since vultures eat mainly meat, why not try taste testing different types of cold cuts from the deli? Interesting choices would be liverwurst, (cooked) bratwurst, hard salami, etc. Be sure to be aware of any religious dietary issues (I have a student who does not eat pork products). You could easily modify my Great Green Foods Taste Test activity to accommodate a meat taste test.
  • From a quick Google search I learned that people also actually cook and eat turkey vultures; lots of tips for keeping the meat from getting stringy (UGH!)
Motor Skills/Games/Sensory
  • Lay prone on a scooter and "fly" across the gym floor
  • Do the same thing while holding a towel or sheet like a sail
  • If available, use an Airwalker swing or swing platform to "fly"
  • Use large plastic tongs to pick up various small items (like a vulture's beak)
  • Go on a "bird walk" now that spring is arriving; how many birds can you count?
  • Use chopsticks to eat a snack like mini marshmallows
  • Alternatively substitute a pincer grip with fingers for tongs or chopsticks
  • Play a game like Operation (my kids can't play by themselves but they love the buzzer and "blinky light" so we pair them up with peer buddies and give them voice output with appropriate comments; loads of fun!)
  • Fill a bin with various textures of feathers
  • Get creative and fill bins with various "body parts" made from food items (spaghetti for intestines, cottage cheese for brains, etc.; look here for more ideas)
  • Listen to the sounds vultures make

A Unique Opportunity

News-2-You's Unique Learning System is offering their summer curriculum for free! I have always been impressed with the News-2-You and have been curious about Unique. A couple of the elementary programs in my cooperative have been piloting the curriculum this year and I'm curious to hear about their opinions of it. Because of the price tag I was a bit hesitant to jump into the deep end so to speak. However, the support materials tagged on to the end of the first News-2-You issue of the month have been intriguing and I think the opportunity to explore an entire unit over the summer at no cost is just what I need to make my decision for next year. I signed up for the middle school level curriculum, which is entitled "It's a Beach Party." The curriculum will focus on water-based ecosystems, especially the ocean. This is perfect for us as a few years ago we did a 3 month long unit on the ocean and I have lots of support materials. And we have several summer birthdays in our group so the beach party culminating activity should be a good way to celebrate both the birthdays and the end of the summer session.

Other grade level offerings include:

Primary (K-2): "Sunny Days" with a focus on Earth and space science

Intermediate (3-5): "A Picnic in the Park" with a focus on insects

High School (8-12): "Summer Vacation" with a focus on popular vacation spots