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

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Success through Movement

Last week I was sitting in a training in which I was required to sit in a student chair for two consecutive days. By the end of the training, I was having trouble focusing and was uncomfortable. Although I learned the material presented, I probably would have learned the material better if I had been less concerned about how uncomfortable I was. I came to realize that my students face that same challenge every day in my classroom.  As a result, I decided to submit a proposal on the Donors Choose website for alternative seating options in my classroom.  
You can see my proposal here.  Also, any donation that takes place by September 5th using the code LIFTOFF during checkout will be matched (up to $50).  Please think about how you can be a part of bringing movement, core strength, and more learning to my classroom!  

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Transformation

School started two weeks ago tomorrow. In some ways, it feels like much longer. Yet in other ways, I am amazed at how far we have already come in two weeks.  The first hour of school this morning I saw something that brought me joy down to the core of who I am. I never thought students working together on a puzzle would bring me such joy.  

Let me give you some context. Two weeks ago the bell rang for our first day of class. I was running somewhat late to my classroom, where 11 sixth grade students waited for me. Thankfully, most of them were running late too as they tried to figure out how to open lockers and get to class. These 11 students and my two sixth grade students make up my Panther Success class. This is a group of students who will come to my classroom every Wednesday from now through the end of their career at Southside Middle School. The plan is for every student to have a teacher who cares about them and their success.  Our school decided to start the first two and a half weeks with panther success every day. For the rest of the school, this provides some routine and a good location to share rules and expectations. 

For me, it was a little more stressful, especially day one. I had one aide and we were trying to figure out how to welcome our 8 students to school, make sure they had breakfast, divide them up into their groups, provide the structure and routine they needed, and still make sure I was able to interact with the students in my panther success group.  Thankfully, my aide figured out how to manage all my students during breakfast and drop them off in their classes on the way to my classroom. She then helps with a few needs in my class before joining another teacher with my students in another classroom.  

The first few days were definitely stressful for everyone involved. Most of the sixth graders were stressed (both groups) as they adjusted to middle school. On day two I had a few minutes with my Panther Success group before my students joined us. I brought up my students for discussion, explained some things, and answered questions. They had some good questions those first few days.  One of my students is nonverbal, but makes a decent amount of noise. Initially, this brought a lot of stares and some frustration from my other students. The first time I fed a student Pediasure using a syringe (without a needle), I thought eyes would pop out of heads.  Every time I did something new, I would explain it to my class. 

What a difference two weeks makes. Today, I planned an activity that everyone could participate in equally. Students were supposed to read, work on puzzles, or do homework. Most ended up choosing puzzles. Before we even got started, one of my Panther Success students suggested that my other student might be hungry and want his Pediasure before we got started with anything else. She then proceeded to check his backpack and help him get what he needed out for the day. 

Later, as they were working on puzzles around the room, I saw the same student talking with my nonverbal student and engaging him about his puzzle. It didn't matter to her that he couldn't respond. He was happily working on his puzzle with a friend. Just a few minutes later I turned around to see three boys on the floor working a puzzle with another of my students. It didn't matter that he could have done the puzzle by himself. They had chosen to get down on his level and talk with him about his puzzle while they completed it together.  

I am still amazed when I think back on the looks of fear and confusion on their faces during the first few days of school compared with the natural interaction I witnessed today. What a transformation! I am so thankful that I got to witness this today and can't wait to see how these friendships will grow over the next year. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Happy Birthday Wishes

One of my students had a birthday today. He is primarily non-verbal and uses a device in order to communicate. In the last year, he has made a lot of progress with his device. Since coming back to school, it has become clear that he has been using his device more at home because he has been using it constantly in class.

To give you a little context for the fun story following, I have three non-verbal students in my class this year. I really wanted to incorporate them better into our calendar time (and later at other times).  In order to do this, my class iPads have an app called LAMP. It is set up in the same way as their devices. This week we have started having the whole class use them during calendar to say the date, the days of the week, and the months of the year. This slows down my verbal students and puts them on the same playing field as my nonverbal students (actually, my nonverbal students are often faster because they are more familiar with the device). It also works some on their reading skills as they have to read the words in order to select the correct word when they first begin.

Today, while we were doing this I heard "happy birthday" in the background. I didn't know who said it using their device, but I encouraged the rest of them to try to wish their friend a happy birthday using the device. Some of my students started trying to use the spelling portion to type the words. I encouraged them that whoever could find the buttons that actually said "happy birthday" without having to spell it would get an extra class dollar, as in the long run this is a faster method of communicating.

One student found it and then started showing everyone else. They then asked how to spell the student's name and added that to the end.  Once they were finished they kept getting up, walking over to the student who was celebrating his birthday and making it say "Happy Birthday ... " The smile on his face was one of the biggest smiles I have seen. I have seen him have this kind of smile at two other times that I can think of. One was when I changed his device from being able to say 84 words to being able to say thousands of words. The second was when he came back from his first general education science class.

Earlier in the day, when I said happy birthday to him, he barely responded (just a small smile). However, when his friends gave the same greeting, using the voice of the device he is used to, he was filled with joy.  This just reminds me of how important it is for us to continue modeling using the device in class and encourage his peers to use the device as well.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Reflections

I have been reflecting a bit on the last few years. I have a hard time believing all the changes that have taken place in three years.

Three years ago, I was living in Kazakhstan as the only expat working for my company and dealing with the grief of a friend and co-worker in the end stages of cancer. I was worn down and struggling to survive, let alone thrive. At work, I was looking at how to best support families of children with disabilities in Taraz. It seemed all I could do was cling to God and trust that He would guide me through this difficult time.

Two years ago, I was saying goodbye to friends in Kazakhstan in order to return to the States. I had no idea what my future held. I didn't know if my future included living in Kazakhstan or the USA. I was looking forward to seeing friends and family, but also dreading leaving behind others. I was uncertain as to the future, but chose to cling to the promise that God would guide me.

One year ago, I was preparing to be a first year teacher for the second time. In the intervening year, I had moved back to Muncie, had my first (and hopefully last) kidney stone, graduated with my Masters in Special Education, and purchased a house. The details fell together in such a way that I have not doubted God's guidance in these decisions.

This summer, I find myself resting after a busy first year teaching at Southside Middle School.  I loved my class, although it was an exhausting and challenging year. I enjoy building into my neighborhood and am slowly getting to know some of my neighbors. I have become more involved in my church, including getting to spend a week in Nicaragua with a group of friends from church. I am working on house projects and spending time with friends as I take advantage of the two months I have off this summer.  I will get to visit family in Montana before settling back into the routine of school.

At church today, I was struck by the reality of where God has brought me during the last three years. Today, as we sang the words "when my heart is torn asunder and my world just falls apart" I found myself fighting back tears. However, they were tears of joy mingled with tears of sadness. I remembered the days, only a few years ago, when I could barely make it through the song due to feeling like my world was falling apart. I hurt for the people around me who are currently living the reality of those words. I thanked God that at the moment those words are a memory for me. Yet, I also cling to the reminder that I have learned to trust God more as a result, and will continue to grow the next time I face circumstances that make these words a reality. For now, I live the words later in the same song stating "there is hope beyond the suffering, joy beyond the tears."