Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Voice for the Voiceless

Wow, I just realized I have not posted on my blog for a really long time (almost a year). Oops, I need to get on that more often.  It's been a rough start to the year, as I was sick for the last month. I got the flu and it has taken me three weeks to finally get my strength back. I am thrilled to be back at full strength and looking forward to what the rest of the school year holds! 

If you have been following my blog for a while, you know I have a specific passion for students who are non-verbal. Currently, I have five students who have limited speech. For these students, we introduce the use of a communication device for different aspects of communication (based on individual needs, strengths, and challenges).  

Last fall I attended a conference. During that conference a quote was shared that really touched me.  "If AAC learners only see symbols modeled for communication twice weekly for 20-30 minutes, it will take 84 years to have the same exposure to aided language as an 19 month old has to spoken language."  This really saddened and challenged me as a classroom teacher. I look at my students and don't want them to have to wait until they are 84 years old before they have the communication abilities of a 19 month old. As a result, I have been slowly trying to implement things in my classroom that will allow them to have practice, but also modeling from staff and other students, on a daily basis. 

I have created a Donor's Choose Project that would allow us to focus on communication in a couple different ways. First, it would allow us to really increase the modeling we do as staff in the classroom. Second, and even more important, it would allow students who don't have personal devices (or whose personal devices break) to have an iPad that is dedicated solely to their communication needs throughout the day. 

We have 9 days (until February 28th) to raise the additional $5600 needed. Please consider donating or passing this along to anyone you know who might be in a position to help and has a passion for students being given a voice.  Thank you! 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Surpassing the Teacher

One of my students continues to surpass me in his knowledge of his communication device. Last year, at the beginning of the year, he was limited to 84 words. There is a setting on the device that prevents anyone from making changes without a password. Until recently, we activated this setting because we were afraid of what he would do to break his device (as this has happened in the past).
However, he has also recently learned how to add words to his device. He especially enjoys adding science words from the general education science class he attends each day.  One time when we were adding words, I forgot to lock his device again.

This gave him the opportunity to play around with the settings. He changed the location of a specific button. Recently, I have found him switching between several different "languages" in the device. He likes the jokes from one, the pictures from another, the words he already knows in the one we use mostly in class, the extra number of words available in a more complex interface, and the word prediction in another. He keeps switching back and forth between interfaces as he communicates.

In April, a consultant, from the company who makes the device, is going to come to our class and help us customize his device. Her knowledge of the device far exceeds my knowledge. We are going to try to give him access to the parts he likes and the possibility to add words, without the ability to delete the settings we customize. I am really looking forward to being able to have his device meet his needs even better than it already does. I am trying to get as much of this done this year, as he moves to the high school next year.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Chance to Catch Up

One of my students has autism. Although he has trouble staying focused and is missing some social skills, he doesn't have major communication or sensory issues that impact his learning. This is his second year in my class. I keep finding that my assignments and activities are not challenging enough for him. He finishes work quickly and with ease, as long has he remains focused. 

I use technology a lot to meet the needs of individual students. One website we use for reading, Moby Max, progresses students through grade level material. At the beginning of the year I began all my students at a kindergarten level in Moby Max. I figured it would give students the opportunity to experience initial success in learning. 

A month ago this student maxed out Moby Max Literature. It showed him reading at an 8.8 grade level (although he is only in 7th grade). This level of reading is easily comparable to his peers in the general education setting. 

In speaking with his mother and my administrators, we decided to give him a chance to attend some general education classes. Starting the day after break, he will be attending a general education English, Math and Social Studies class. He is going to have to get used to having some homework. He is also going to have to get used to being challenged and maintaining focus. He will have to read for understanding and produce something related to what he has learned. I look forward to seeing how he does with these new challenges. I am really hoping he succeeds and can continue to be challenged more in the future!  

Monday, January 30, 2017


As a class, we go out into the community to learn once each week. Last week we went to the YMCA to swim. I always enjoy swimming with my students. They love it and have gotten so much braver as they have opportunities to swim in PE class and at the Y.  They learn lots of small lessons every time we go: how to be polite, dressing/undressing, putting things away in lockers, remembering where one's locker is, and general pool rules and manners.

Last time, two of my students were able to take a test to swim in the deep end. They had to swim the length of the deep end. However, this time, the test had changed. Before swimming the length of the deep end, they had to jump in the pool and tread water for 30 seconds. Neither of these students had learned to tread water before. Although I was convinced they could, they were not quite as convinced. One student particularly struggled. I was trying to teach him in the shallow end and he kept putting his feet down, as he is pretty tall. He was on the verge of giving up when the lifeguard gave permission for him to try it at the edge of the deep end with me in the pool next to him. He jumped in, treaded water for 30 seconds (although he looked like he wanted to give up after about 20) and then swam the length of the pool. I was so proud of him for not giving up, even when it became difficult.

Another student, who in the past had clung to the wall the entire time, walked 1/3rd of the way into the center of the pool and even went under water in order to get a diving stick off the bottom of the pool. It is so fun to see each student improve as they become more comfortable in the water.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

AAC Awareness Month

This month is AAC awareness month. For those of you who might not be familiar with AAC, it stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. AAC includes any form of communication that is not oral speech (gestures, facial expressions, use of communication devices, pictures, etc).  In honor of AAC awareness month, I thought I'd share some of my experience with AAC and some things I have learned along the way.

Over the last couple years, I have learned a lot about AAC use from my students and colleagues. Currently, I have four students who are nonverbal. Three of these students use a device, similar to a tablet, to communicate. They are each at different levels of communication. Since so many of my students need AAC devices, we do some activities as an entire class using an app on our classroom iPads. It has been fun to see all my students benefitting from this form of communication.

Contrary to popular belief, the use of an AAC device does not impede learning to speak. Actually, research demonstrates that those using AAC devices, often begin speaking more. I have seen this clearly with one of my students. In the last year, his verbal speech has increased significantly as his use of an AAC device has also increased. Today he even said the word "communicator" to describe his device. Both his speech pathologist and I were surprised. It's fun to actually experience what I have been told research shows. As a result, I have learned that the earlier a person can start on an AAC device, the better, as vocabulary is likely to continue to increase with age.

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend (as well as present) at the second annual Indiana AAC Summit.  I have implemented a lot of high tech AAC in my classroom. However, I really didn't have a lot of low tech options for students. After returning from the conference, I printed off some boards that match the home screen of the devices my students use. I also printed off some symbols and words (matching the buttons on their AAC devices) for specific things that students might need to be able to communicate in the hallways.

We have one student who has struggled with indicating the need to use the restroom. His device has been broken since the beginning of school, so we have been using an iPad for his communication. However, he usually doesn't take it with him when he leaves the classroom.  Up until my printing of the boards and cards, he would wander around the room or get upset when needing to use the restroom.  We would take him to the bathroom every couple hours to prevent an accident. This often caused frustration because he would have to sit in the bathroom even though he didn't need to use it at that time. The day I printed the cards, he walked over to one of my aides during specials, grabbed the bathroom card and tapped it ... the same way he taps the icon on his communicator. We have only had one accident since printing these cards and that was when we forgot to carry our cards with us. He also flipped through the cards at one point and indicated "all done" and walked to the classroom door.

We are going to have some larger boards printed with the home page of their AAC devices on them. We plan to hang these in places around the school where our students often spend time (buss pick-up, cafeteria, gym, hallway). This will help in two ways. One, our students will have ways to communicate even without their devices (although they should always carry them). Two, other students will become aware of what AAC is and how it is used by our students.

Some helpful etiquette for communicating with someone with AAC:
-be patient, it takes longer to communicate this way
-only predict what they are saying if they give you permission to predict
-don't assume someone who uses AAC has cognitive disabilities
-do not touch or take their AAC from them without permission