Tag Archives: assistive technology

How I Successfully Learned to Teach With Technology

by Cathy Herrick

As a middle school teacher learning assistive technology, the walls were closing in. I was like Princess Leia trapped in the garbage shoot. Better find a way out before the garbage monster sucked me down or the compactor walls left me flat. When I was handed my first Ipad its was sink or swim time. I swam, hopped out of the compactor and championed the cause. Here’s my cautionary tale.

SMART Board Class

SMART Board Class (Photo credit: CSD’s Learning Division)

It wasn’t like I didn’t have a clue. I’ve been using computers from the time of Apple to PC, back to Apple, PC, Apple. I am trained in  assistive technologies, but I felt that they weren’t making it happen for students with special needs to break down barriers to participate in school. I felt the pressure of those compactor walls and wanted the New Hope.

I went to my first Smartboard presentation ready to learn and know everything there was to know, to return as the technology expert my general education colleagues needed me to be. In my fantasy, I created pathways for overworked kids and  teachers to achieve more, to fully include special education students alongside their peers in general education classrooms., at the board. Hmmm. Did I get the room number right? Two hours later, all I knew was that there were multi-colored pens with no ink to write on the board, and a bank of teacher-created materials to make your lessons better, but not much else. At least I had furthered my knowledge of technology. I had hoped the next training would bring more clarity. It did not.

Smartboard technology does come with cool tools, such as grid paper, that kids could write on, and that would seemingly invite participation. You could save a lesson for absent kids, print it, hand it to them when they returned and voila, you’re the greatest thing since the walkman. Let’s dial the story back just a few clicks. My request for a Smartboard was turned down years ago. A few years after that, I managed to acquire a projector, no Smartboard. Finally, I got myself to the Smartboard training and realized, once I had sat through it, that I could support specialized instruction in the general education classrooms by sharing hands-on lessons I’d developed through the years, and focus my energies there. Content teachers had their Smartboards installed in their classrooms, and maybe they were already outdated.

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s when it hit me, schools will buy anything this particular piece of technology might have been exciting before touch screens became common place, and now it’s not. Tablets and phones with touchscreens were in more kids’ pockets. The Ipad incorporated many assistive technologies better than we’d seen to date. Need a video phone for sign-language? Got it.  Voice recognition software that worked? Check. Icons for visual learners? It’s in there. Ipads are becoming more visible technology. Yet, every single experienced teacher it seems in North America (and the world maybe) has a Smartboard or wants one mounted in their classroom, with great investment from schools. A teacher standing next to a Smartboard is the epitome of modern day teaching and learning…right? Haven’t we seen glimpses of impoverished third world countries with grateful children and teachers learning with the use of Smartboard technology? Doesn’t everyone need this to stay current in the modern era of technology or perish with the chalkboard? I’ll keep my projector, thank-you.

When I want to get kids’ attentions, I like to do it with the whole wall in all its 200 inch glory, rather than with the small rectangle in the front of the room. The same effect can be produced with ye ol’ overhead projector as well. It may not however connect to your computer, at your desk, where you sit, zzzzz. Wake up teachers! The purpose of technology isn’t to improve upon the stand and deliver model of instruction.  Even if they come to the front of the room to poke the Smartboard, they are doing it orderly, when called upon. I like it when kids work together, move about the room, learn and question and get that “they just can’t help themselves but learn” look which every last one of them gets when you’ve hooked ’em. I’ve really not heard anyone rage on about the Smartboard the way they do about Apple products, apps for learning. What’s missing in our classroom and why have we allowed this overpriced whiteboard to fill the void?

The kids are missing, that’s what we forgot. All day long, these kids are connecting with each other through technology. They think in flashing pictures and 140 characters or less. We say we want them to connect with each other and yet we don’t often facilitate connections. Very few classrooms embrace technology for connecting ideas. The kids are publishing their writing and pictures on their own, without our help (or guidance – it’s time for that) Publication would be a noble goal in our hallowed halls. They’re finding the answers on their own when they have a question, that’s also good. So why aren’t we harnessing this advent of powerful, connected technology? One reason…privacy and traditional boundaries in the teacher-student relationship. In the right set-up, privacy and boundaries can be maintained while connecting to students digitally. I enjoy talking to kids and harnessing the power of technology, via books clubs, for example. At long last, here’s I do it, and how I would like to do it better.

If you’re lucky as a teacher, the building you work in provides time and training to get your classroom webpage up and running. I was lucky enough to work in a building which gave me one whole day of in-service training and access to our technology teacher in order to build my webpage. I spent every second of the subsequent weekend building and tweaking and went live on Monday with my students who were thrilled. I had kids checking in to see what they could do for work in-between classes and completing it before we met as a group. I would pose questions online and the quietest kid in the room gave the most poignant, thoughtful responses. They demonstrated a mature sensitivity to each other’s needs in conversation around literature discussion questions. Kids who were out of school for various reasons (rehabilitation, court and jail appearances, Disney World) continued with their assignments, and connection to school, via my online classroom. No late work, no disrespect, no nonsense. It was magic. In my next school building, it took one entire year to get a secretary to link my name on the school website to my Google site. That administrator didn’t ask that everyone create a webpage and so technical support did not exist to get the sites up and running, although it was a service the district had paid for. After years of limited one-hour meetings in which parents were told their child was diagnosed with such-and-such disorder, and provided very little follow-up time to understand what to expect or do, I created a parent support page and provided resources around the various disorders. When they asked questions and our time was limited, I could point them to additional resources on my page. The compactor walls were closing in. There was less time to support more needs. Technology helped me to help families. It was great, but without an administrative push, I languished in the ethernet for a while. When this becomes our culture, we will have a better connection with students, who are digital natives.

During this time meantime, thanks to an overflow of stimulus money, I was handed an Ipad. I’m a pretty good typist, I’ve managed to stay current with technology, but modern day pressures of teaching don’t leave a lot of room to learn a completely new way of doing things, and that Smartboard business didn’t really pan out. I was showing signs of teacher fatigue. Teachers can’t afford to waste time. The needs are great and we’ve got to keep things running smoothly. There are lots of initiatives to get on board with, too. So, I broke a rule and let my then 5-year-old play with the shiny new Ipad and watched over his shoulder with wonder and awe as he demonstrated a child could type, add, read, research, disect frogs…you know, usual high school stuff. I was hooked.

The Ipad became the differentiated lesson and the reward, I officially said no-thank-you to acquiring a Smartboard. I just projected what we wanted to view from the Ipad (rudimentally you can use a document camera, or purchase a VGA cord to connect to your projector, or wireless…true death to the Smartboard). Some schools provide Ipads to all kids and that just makes total sense to me, regardless of whatever obstacles exist to purchase or manage. With this type of technology, assistive is no longer different, and that’s good for all kids. I’d heard of entire states years ago providing laptops to every single student in the 7th grade, an innovative idea, which could now be moving to Ipads. Too expensive? Here’s my proposal, and it’s risque so cover your eyes if you’re quite traditional. Use the kids’ own technology, supply extra technology in the room if a kid doesn’t have one. It’s not a great plan, but at least it acknowledges where the kids are at and meets them there.

Frog dissection in G4 #366/338 #uwctech #edapp

Frog dissection in G4 #366/338 #uwctech #edapp (Photo credit: klbeasley)

Why? Money is an issue and kids are already carrying around enough technology to run a successful business, read a paper in Europe, and look at a satellite image of China. They like to play Minecraft with this fabulous technology, and they need guidance to step it up. Whether we use theirs or ours, it’s not being fully used. Let’s look at technology through the simple lense of frog dissection. The frog dissection app looks real, teaches the concept of dissection with unparalleled precision as preview or reinforcement, and can be used assistively for special needs and enrichment, as well. That’s everything any teacher could ever hope for in a lesson, period. But wait, there’s more. Using technology, teachers can share photos and data with students to capture their interest and get them thinking about the plight of the modern frog, assign research topics, ask them to discuss frog current events with class members for homework, have them build photo journals and video projects of their field work utilizing their cameras, insert maps and links in presentations, respond to questions, work in differentiated groups, grab a calculator, and never miss taking a note without a pen. You don’t need Apple technology to get all of this done, you just need to use technology, and really use it to its full potential. Apple does some things in a class by itself, however.

What’s the hold-up to all this teacher-kid connection? Too much work and fear. Forward thinkers in some buildings post homework assignments on their pages to assist kids and parents to know what is due. Attempts have been made to streamline this effort, but we’re not completely there, bridging old systems and new ones. For example, most grading programs allow a portal for parents to view their child’s gradebook. Not quite Facebook, but we’re attempting to communicate. A webpage or portal program are great places to start, if used. However, teachers are busy. Getting in quality teaching is a challenge, staying current on technology nearly impossible, and talking to kids online is instant death. Once I jumped in, I discovered I found time. Using technology may be time-consuming but it has boundless returns in time and progress. The whole world is talking to each through technology, some wasting time, some finding it, but that is the state of our world. How will we ever prepare young people for a technological world if we don’t engage with it ourselves?

Projector and Smart Board in Classroom

Projector and Smart Board in Classroom (Photo credit: Duplicom)

Here’s the state of affairs in technology education today. We think using a 77 inch Smartboard screen will fascinate kid, when they now have the same size screen at home in their bedroom, and a personal screen in their pockets. We imagine grabbing their attention with digital ink for scribbling on math problems, but technology can be used to vastly expand their horizons into research, inquiry and practice with immediate feedback. Here is what we have correct: kids like screens and color. They do enjoy a good scribble. Be ready to expand and try something new, and you’re teaching will be inspired, much like mine was.

Necessity is the mother of invention. I needed more hands and time, so I invented it. Kids were coming to me, a special educator in the 7th grade, with 2nd grade reading levels. We did not have time to immerse them in every lesson that should have been learned in 4 years. We had advanced math and science reading to keep up with, and the dreaded outside reading book. I needed to teach them the basics and keep them current on-grade-level. Sometimes I needed to teach reading and math at the same time, talk to parents and complete paperwork. I was losing my hair and my youthful vigor. They handed me the Ipad and I handed it to the kids, then another, and another until I was floating them throughout general and special education students.

student_ipad_school - 031

student_ipad_school – 031 (Photo credit: flickingerbrad)

While I worked on Greek roots with one group, another enjoyed rapid-fire games identifying which spelling word looked correct. Another kid in the room was allowed to listen to an audio book (on an Ipad shuffle, I have developed a bank of those as well) because there was just no way he was going to get all of his homework done, including the free-reading book, and have time to do a lesson with me. Amazingly, a transformation took place. Kids enjoyed reading along with the printed page while they listened to the audio and their reading levels jumped two grades at a time. Kids who were behavior problems were being good for a chance to use the Ipad and work on their spelling. I had time to talk to them, to connect, communicate. Technology is an amazing thing, if you use it without fear and trust the kids want to learn more than they want to get into trouble for googling off-topic. If class is interesting, maybe you won’t have to tell them to get off their phone, maybe you’ll want them on it so they can keep up. This is a paradigm shift in our approach to teaching, one that needs to ahppen to meet the kids where they are and meet the needs of a world with increasing educational needs and demands.



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Multiple Intelligences In the Classroom: Don’t judge a Book (Kid) By The Cover (IQ)

English: Multiple Intelligences

English: Multiple Intelligences (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among my favorite experiences as a teacher, and there have been many, is highlighting a student’s shining ability. Regardless of documented IQ , each student is assuredly gifted in at least one area. Everyone has a gift, without exception. Students with Intellectual Disability, who struggle with academics and functional life skills, are identified for services in part with a lower “IQ” score. Read the psychologist’s report from the evaluation and match it up with your own experience with the child and you will see a gift in at least one area. Perhaps it is Verbal Ability (excellent communicator),  strength in spelling, or they are exceptionally bodily-kinesthetic (physically coordinated). Whatever it is, it is their special skill. Highlighting and celebrating it visibly in the classroom will improve that student’s peer relationships, sense of personal worth and future outcomes. Parents and teachers can advocate for and find those strengths.

English: Stephen Wiltshire receives his MBE aw...

English: Stephen Wiltshire receives his MBE award at Buckingham Palace (Copyright: The Stephen Wiltshire Gallery http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I knew a boy who could draw without looking at the paper, while listening to classroom directions. His accuracy was amazing, much like that of  Stephen Wiltshire, an artist with autism, who could recall whole cities in his mind’s eye and recreate them in vast drawings. I knew another boy who knew the name of every single person in school and would address others with genuine interest, bringing joy to all he encountered. There is a meaningful place in the world for theses skills, even though language or basic skills may be challenged.

Learners with dyslexia in classrooms without differentiation struggling to read out loud or write on demand without technology may appear unintelligent to their peers. However, they can be masters of debate, comprehension, visual thinking and group work. If allowed to delve into deeper learning, dyslexia is a gift. The settings in which they excel more closely resemble today’s employment settings. I’ve also encountered young people who would barely speak out in a teacher-led class become leaders of their peers in outdoor challenges. The point is clear, everyone has an area in which they are gifted and if we are to teach for the “real world” we need to deliver and prepare for it in the classroom with varied opportunities. Parents can help too by valuing and encouraging their child’s unique talents and confidence. Teaching to Multiple Intelligences builds that confidence and allows each student to shine, with improved peer relationships and respect for each other. Students learn to lean on each other and build on their future work skills, seeking out experts when needed and having time managers and leaders, just to name a few roles that are valued in the work world.

English: Temple Grandin’s talk at TED 2010.

English: Temple Grandin’s talk at TED 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cookie cutter approach will yield the usual results, some on top, some on the bottom, most in the middle. However, that won’t teach a community of learners that they have something special to offer, or give hope for future opportunities. The well-known autism speaker  Temple Grandin tells the world her accomplishments derive from teachers who brought them out in the right settings.

Ms. Grandin was fascinated by livestock corrals and that fascination led to solving problems in the livestock industry of production and humane treatment. In the wrong setting, Ms. Grandin’s special talents could have been laid to waste, illustrating the importance of recognizing and valuing different types of thinkers. Watch her Ted Talk for a fascinating and useful insider’s perspective on thinking in pictures: http://tinyurl.com/GrandinTedTalk. In her talk, she frequently references the importance of her art education and the science teacher teacher who encouraged her special skills.

General education teachers have opportunities to support students who think differently, such as students with autism who may think in pictures, by allowing for choice in the classroom. Special educators ensure students have the specific supports needed to progress alongside their peers. Ms. Grandin’s teaching tips highlight the need for differentiation and specialized supports, including visual tools for grasping mathematical concepts and the use of assistive technology to support writing.

In the differentiated classroom, all students may be asked the same inquiry question, but allowed to answer through a choice of mediums such as art, music or performance. All students have a better chance of achieving higher-order thinking  and showing off their reasoning when given this opportunity, rather than being held back, for example, by a specific learning disability in writing.  Writing of course needs to be worked on, but there can and should be times when it is not the only avenue of expression, and when assistive technology supports allow for the flow of ideas onto paper.

Parents may contribute a great deal to the success of the student by promoting their student’s confidence in themselves and their abilities, which may be neurotypically different. That’s something to remember when hearing the report on your child stating they have a disability and need for services. Listen for the areas of strength and high performance and build on them for the future. You never know, your child’s love for social interaction or telling long, incredible, stories may make them the next big thing.

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First Things First: Coming To Grips with a Disability Diagnosis


You suspect your child has a disability, or perhaps you’ve just received the diagnosis. Maybe he or she is a little more active than other kids, isn’t hitting the benchmarks the same time as the other kids, or you have discovered in utero you are facing a major difference with your unborn child. You are stressed and worried he or she will be different, will be picked on, will need you until the day you die. The first thing I would say to any parent is…take a breath. It’s going to be fine.

The so-called “normal” child will have strengths and challenges, will put parents through their paces just as much as any child with a “difference.” All children have value, all have a special contribution to make. So many times I have thought, “If only this parent would accept their child has…autism…adhd…..behavior disorder…then we could really get to work.” In those moments, I attempt to share the idea that if we push them through everything they will be up until midnight doing their homework and missing opportunities for socialization. If we tell them they need to keep working on their long-division even when other kids are using calculators, we are setting them up for misery and failure.

You accept it, but you want the school to make sure they’re succeeding, right? You want your child to look normal, just like every other kid. You want them on the honor roll. You want all their homework done. Here’s the thing: all kids miss their homework sometimes. All kids give their parents attitude sometimes. All kids want to learn, they can’t help it. Let it happen. Every kid an area in which they are incredibly talented. Let them be “normal,” be a kid, be a star.

I’ve known students with learning impairment who were so proficient in one area, it would knock your socks off. Listen when your child is evaluated. Read the report. Your child has strengths, let them pursue those interests and strengths, fight for that. The honor roll will come, if that’s what matters to you. In my career, I regret each missed opportunity to work on a student-centered skill for the drive to achieve “normalcy.” I have had countless conversations with parents about what works for their child, and their special talents. Most listen, and it’s an enjoyable part of the work, to know you’ve provided an opportunity for a child to grow and flourish, to relieve the pressure and learn at their pace. For the parents who want their child to be “normal,” to achieve the honor roll, to look just like everyone else, this message is for you. Your child is not like everyone else. Your child is different, and that’s ok.

You have every right to demand the best, to expect all the support and help and educational opportunity entitled to each child. Special educators and service providers will go the extra mile to support your hopes and wishes for your child. We will teach them their basic skills and help them keep up with their same-age peers. We will make sure they have their lunch money and know the new schedule. We will get their special reading book and talk to them about their fears. Not of that is required, and we do it happily. However, this is where I would like to draw the line. The purpose of special education is not to ensure your child makes the honor roll. It is to provide for your child’s unique needs. Children and special educators are successful when parents do one thing: accept the disability, really accept it and your child for who he or she is. That does not mean have a lower standard. Really, the same message could be sent to every parent. Accept your child, support their dreams and fulfill their needs, not yours.

There’s nothing wrong with having ADHD. It’s inconvenient in a school system which demands quiet rigor applied to sitting, completing worksheets and listening to a one-way dialogue. Lots of amazing, famous people have ADHD. Look it up. Autism is challenging, but it’s becoming more prevalent, with more knowledge and services available. You will get help, you will love your child for his or her personality.

We who have known scores of students with differences can tell you we love and value them all. The disability does not matter. Perhaps we came to this conclusion long before we chose to work with special needs, perhaps we’ve learned it over time. Hurrah to the parent who learns it and chooses to accept it. There are plenty more examples of a changing world which requires a changing attitude. Dyslexia, for example, was a serious problem in a world which judged you based your worth on your ability to write polished products unassisted. That world is gone. Education is not keeping up, and you’ll know that when you see kids doing anything you remember doing in school. You were preparing for a world in which each person did not have their phone, contacts, camera, music, books and GPS in their pockets. You could not reach in your pocket and read a review of a car you wanted to buy. A person with dyslexia will be the modern genius in the new visual world, with their visual-spatial abilities and conceptual strengths. Assistive technology, which was cumbersome and inaccessible to the mainstream, is now commonplace thanks to advances in technology. If you are reading this on a computer or smartphone, you have the ability to video conference and use voice recognition software. It’s a new world, allow your child to find his or her unique place in it.

The future is here. It won’t matter if your child is able to sit quietly in his bedroom and answer 7 questions on lined-paper using complete sentences. It will matter if he is able to work in a group, picture a solution and use technology. If your child enjoys drawing and isn’t a great speller, that’s ok. The world is looking for artists, it has a spell-checker and it’s not afraid to use it.

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