Monday, October 22, 2018


At the beginning of the year I collaborated with a 6th grade English teacher in order for one of my students to attend her class. We were convinced that this student knew more than we thought, but we honestly had no idea how much she was capable of. Due to sensory needs resulting from autism as well as only recently starting to use a high-tech AAC device to communicate, she had a hard time expressing herself until recently (it's still pretty hard). It almost feels like we are peeling away another layer of an onion each day as we discover more about how she learns and what she already knows.  Here are some highlights. 
  • She started writing or defining words we never would have imagined she knew (embrace, entice, reveal, etc.).
  • The class is reading Out of my Mind (a book about a girl who gets her first communication device). She enjoys laughing at her general education peers as they try to imagine how it would feel not to have a voice. 
  • She wrote that she can relate most to a specific character in a book because the character feels lost.  
  • She has started typing (as this will allow her to be more independent).  Although she still pushes down too hard on the keys (each letter is typed multiple times), her sentences are fluid and accurate. 
  • When asked what type of book she was reading, she walked to a chart and pointed to autobiographical. 
  • She got extremely frustrated when she didn't understand similes and other similar terms. She was mad at herself for not knowing, despite having never been taught. After a short tutorial (5-10 minutes), she was able to apply the information she learned. 
  • We have realized she has a photographic memory.  She will glance at a page and then look away and read the text in her mind. This makes it easy to think she is not paying attention. As a result, she can read much faster than I can read. 
  • The other day she was learning what connotations and denotations are .. I honestly don't remember what either of these terms refer to. I may need to attend 6th grade English again. 
  • She answered social studies related questions - like info related to the Grand Canyon. 
  • Our realization of how much she understands, allowed us to ask her questions related to a health issue she was experiencing and pass that information on to her mother.  
It hasn't all been easy. With the realization, for her, that there are higher levels of classes available, she is less willing to do work in my class. Additionally, she has had some major meltdowns in stores when we have gone into the community.  She has gotten extremely frustrated with herself when she doesn't understand a concept and has wanted to give up as a result. She doesn't grasp how to make friends. One girl who wanted to be her friend, started bossing her around (treating her like a small child), so she is no longer interested in that friendship.  It is a learning process. As a teacher, I am definitely being challenged in how to best provide for her education in the best possible way. She has come so far in just a few short months and I look forward to seeing how much she will learn by the end of this school year.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Smarter than Me!

It can be a bit humbling when your student, who is considered to have a severe cognitive disability, proves to be smarter than you. Let me set the stage. In our classroom we have been doing some market math worksheets that encourage the use of the calculator to complete the problems. Students complete problems by referring to a page that has prices from a grocery store. They take these prices and add them together to find out the total cost of combined items from the grocery store using a calculator. 

A couple weeks ago when we were starting these pages, I was working with a student. He requires a hand helping hold his pencil steady when he is writing, but he does the actual movement. We were on the easiest sheet which just required reference the price page and writing down the price for items. He would start writing down the next price without even looking at the page. At which point I would stop him and make him find it physically on the page. However, this caused great frustration. It started to dawn on me that maybe he had memorized the page and was doing it from memory, so I tried to keep up. Later my instructional assistant was finishing up the same page with him and told him "I can't find it as fast as you." So, he started pointing to the menu price with his left hand, while writing with his right hand as if saying "here you go ... I'll help you find it since you're so slow."

Fast forward a few days and we were on to problems that required adding two items together. Most of us would look at the price list and put the prices in the calculator one at a time until we got the total to write down. This student just started writing on the answer blank. Of the 10 or so problems, he got 9 correct. All this without using the calculator and periodically referencing the price page (when he had forgotten a price). However, when we tried to video tape him doing the same thing for his parents, he got every answer wrong. He is one who will not perform for anyone else which can be ridiculously frustrating.

The lessons I am continuing to learn:
1. When a child refuses to look at the paper after a quick glance (price list, reading assignment, etc.) it might be that they have a photographic memory and are reading the list in their heads while looking into space.
2. When a child is frustrated, maybe it is because I am the one holding them back.
3. Forcing a child to use a calculator when they can do the problem in their head is ridiculous.
4. Don't be afraid to admit to a student that they can do the work faster and better than you can and ask for help.
5. When a student doesn't complete work successfully, it might not be because it is too difficult.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Blown Away

This week I have been blow away by several of my students. When I think about where they have come in just a few short weeks of school I am both excited and overwhelmed. I am excited because there is so much potential and some of my students are finally showing a desire to learn and interact with those around them. I am overwhelmed because my task of trying to unlock that potential has increased in difficulty considerably. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the responsibility that has been given me. I have three short years to try to unlock as much potential in these students as possible. I am thankful that this responsibility is not mine alone, but is shared with staff in my classroom, others in my school, student families, and friends.

Yesterday I saw a joy that is beyond the joy I usually see in my classroom. At one point, a student was running around my room, clapping his hands, and smiling in a way that lit up the entire room and had the adults in the room fighting back tears. All this from a text to mom .... here's the backstory.

I have spent the last several weeks completely frustrated by this student. He is so smart, yet chooses to pretend he isn't. For example, on day one of school he indicated he wanted to change from wearing pull-ups to underwear. This is not something we usually do on day one ... but we figured we would honor his wishes. Well, he stayed dry all day! Then in the coming weeks he would go into the bathroom right before lunch (multiple days) and choose to urinate in his pants while standing by the door in the bathroom.

He wanted help with everything and would act like he wasn't capable of doing anything on his own. I knew this was not true, as I had been in his elementary school classroom and spoken to his teacher. He seemed to thrive on the attention he got (negative or positive). When frustrated, instead of pushing through, he tended to just give up. One of the most frustrating things for us was seeing that he likely knew more than he pretended to know (he acted like he didn't know the alphabet or his numbers), but having a difficult time getting him to actually be willing to show us what he knew. 

To compound his challenges, he is non-verbal. Even so, he has an uncanny ability to express what he wants through signs, facial expressions, etc. He has started carrying a classroom communication device with him everywhere he goes (including taking it home in the evenings). He is quickly learning new words, of which his favorite are bike, mom, help, granola bar, hot dog, chocolate milk and bathroom. Each day seems to add at least one word to his expressive vocabulary.

This week has seemed to be a turning point for him.  We figured out that his greatest motivator is his mother. He loves to share things he does with his mom and is willing to work to make her proud. He will point to our cell phones when he is working to indicate that he wants us to send a picture to mom via the Seesaw app that we use in our classroom. His second greatest motivator is the exercise bike. He loves riding it and will work to earn classroom dollars for a chance to ride.

We work on spelling and dictation in small groups in our classroom. Up until yesterday, he had refused to participate. However, yesterday he sat at the desk and as I said letter sounds, he wrote the letter that made the sound. Due to physical challenges, he has to have someone provide some support over his hand when he writes. However, my instructional assistant providing the support was not the one moving his hand. He wrote every letter correctly. We then moved on to spelling words. He wrote each word that I said correctly as well. 

At the end of the day, he took his spelling paper out of his folder and stuffed it in his backpack. I then told him how proud of him I was for his work and proceeded to text his mom. As I was typing the message, I was reading it aloud so he knew what his mom would be receiving.

The message I sent included ".. worked great today. He wanted to bring home a paper we did today. ... As a result, we are realizing he knows how to read and spell." When I got to this part, he clapped his hands, got a HUGE grin on his face and started running around the room out of sheer excitement. I pulled him over and told him that we would continue trying to find out what he knows and making it harder so that he could keep learning. He took off running around the room again. I'm hoping he continues his quest for learning and doesn't go back to wanting the easy way out.

This was just another reminder of the power of positive reinforcement and not underestimating the potential of my students. Some of the hardest (and most rewarding) students I get to teach are those who refuse to do work if it is something they already know. It makes it extremely difficult to figure out where to start and what to work on next. Although I am overwhelmed at times, I am also really excited to see what this school year will bring in our lives.

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.