Thursday, August 15, 2013

Inclusion is Action!

"I don't listen too much to people when
they tell me I can't do something.
There is not a whole lot that is
going to stand in my way."
Inclusion is about finding answers to the
question "How are we going to do this?"
When we take students out of their natural
environment we will not be as intentional about
working with them to find these answers.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Generative Writing for Students with Significant Disabilities

What does writing for students with significant disabilities look like?  How can we engage them in the process of writing?

It is important not to mistake tasks that develop matching, memorizing, copying or fine motor skills with the learning process of writing.  Students with disabilities need to experience the same processes as those without when developing writing.  They need to scribble and explore and progress from being emergent to conventional writers.

Writing also supports the development of reading skills.  Above is a diagram of the "Whole to Part Literacy Framework" which outlines the need to develop skills in word identification, language comprehension and print processing in order to achieve the goal of silent reading with comprehension.  Guided reading, writing and developing communication system skills all fall under the "language comprehension" umbrella.  The writing tasks that we do with the students that I work with cross between developing communication skills, communication system skills and engaging in and learning the writing process. 

Below is an outline of some of the things are now embedded in to writing programs for students, some things that we are developing as part of their writing programs and a couple of things that I am looking to add to writing programs this fall.  Some of these things are done in general education classes drawing on content from those subjects, some fit right in to the literacy structures that exist in classrooms as all students have choice in their writing and some are done in a one-on-one or small group direct instruction setting.  Many have only been added in the past two years after I had attended workshops and courses by Linda Burkhart, Karen Erickson, David Koppenhaver and Caroline Musselwhite.  Before that the "writing" we were doing was the practice on matching, memorizing, copying and fine motor skills I referenced a the beginning of this post.
Alternate Pencils
Many students with complex needs either cannot or have significant difficulty using a pencil.  Alternate pencils offer the opportunity for students to do letter-by-letter generative writing. 
One no-tech Alternate Pencil is an eye gaze board (example to the left).  To use this system, the student first gazes to one of the five clusters of letters.  Once the student has picked the cluster they want, they then do a second gaze to one of the five areas and use the color coding system to say which color of letter they would like to write from the initial cluster.  That process generates one letter that the person working with the student would write down.
For example, a student might gaze to the cluster of letters in the top right hand corner. This means he/she wants to write the letter P, Q, R, S or T.  The student then gazes to the top left hand corner which means that he/she is choosing the yellow letter from the first cluster of letters indicated.  The letter the partner writes down is "Q". 
Another no-tech option is a flip chart.  An example of this is included to the right.  The top of the chart contains clusters of letters.  This process requires that the student that is doing the writing has a definitive yes and no response.  This could be using switches or any body action.  We try to encourage head movement sideways for no and up or down for yes as that is generally universally understood but if that is not possible then we find whatever is going to work.  In the letter-by-letter approach we would ask a continuous string of questions starting with "A?".  If the answer is no, we ask the next letter. If the answer is yes, we write it down.  Once we write a letter down we continue by asking that letter again and keep moving through.  The process can also be done in clusters - asking the student if he/she wants one of the letters on the first page and if he/she says yes then go through the letters one at a time.  This is partner-assisted step scanning process is one that is familiar to our students that we use this method of writing with as we use it for choice making and when communicating with P.O.D.D. books (have written about these before but will be adding a new post about these again soon). 
A couple of less complex alternate pencils that can be used with student who have more functional use of their hands but still struggle with the fine motor aspect of printing include options like letter stamps, magnetic letters, letter cards, letter stickers, keyboards...etc.  There are
several options for keyboards for those with fine motor challenges.  The example on the right is the "Big Keys" keyboard. IntelliKeys is another option that offers a lot of versatility including making tactile representations. 
The point of using alternate pencils is to allow student access to a way to generate letter-by-letter writing right from the "scribbling stage" of writing.  A student does not have to be able to generate what we call "real words" to use an alternate keyboard just as a student doesn't need be able to write whole words before they start using a pencil.  In fact, a child will use a pencil for a long time before they generate conventional words.  Alternate pencils create the same opportunities for exploration or students who cannot hold a pencil.  When we use alternate pencils, we always work with the student to pick something that we are going to write about through some of the approaches outlined below (Weekend Words, Experience Books, Photo or Picture Captions, Remnant Books) or we pick a topic with the student related to something that he/she is reading or studying. Once we have a topic, we start writing and let them generate whatever series of letters they are going to generate.  We do not direct or interfere and when the student is done we "read" what they have written about (make the letter sounds) and then talk about their topic with them. 
Writing is one part of a student's comprehensive literacy program.  At the same time as a student is working on writing, they are also spending time doing word work and self-selected and guided reading.  As they develop skills in these areas, they will move towards more conventional writing in a similar process as a scribbling child moves towards it.  By allowing "scribbling" we are setting a student up for autonomous, generative writing rather than just copying. 
The Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies offers further information and resources on Alternative Pencils.
Using Remnant Books for Writing Topics 
A remnant book is very similar to a scrapbook.  The book contains tactile items, short explanations and/or pictures that represent experiences, activities, places, people, etc. that make up a student's narrative.  Remnants might include things like souvenir that were bought, an item from nature, a receipt from going somewhere, packaging from a toy.  The remnant is placed in the book along with a picture (if possible) and a short explanation on a sticky note.  The short explanation is just so the communication partner would have something to talk about.  It is not meant to be "perfect writing". 

A remnant book is meant to be used to facilitate and encourage social interactions and conversations.  The items in the book give a focus for the conversation and allows for the same type of "what I did last night" or "remember when"
conversations that other students have regularly.

Using remnant books requires commitment from home and school as the idea is to ensure that a student's stories are recorded so that they can be talked about at different times.  Ultimately a remnant book should travel between home and school and be added to anytime there is a story worth sharing.  Although it is nice to have a an actual physical article, it is not necessary every time.

The remnant book can be used either as a way to facilitate conversations or as a resource to pick topics to write about.  When using it for writing, the student would choose a story that he/she wants to write about and then alternate pencils would be used to create a picture of writing related to that object.  The advantage of having the topic is that when the student is done writing we are able to have a conversation about what they wrote the same way as we would have conversations with other emergent writers who came to us with a picture they drew and emergent writing (scribbling) under the picture and wanted to tell us what they "wrote".  In this way, students come to understand the process of writing in the context that makes sense because there is a purpose of writing - to tell a story.

We watch closely for signs of connection during this process.  If we see word approximations or even single letters related to the topic emerge, we talk about these with the student.  At the same time, we do not interfere too much as we do not want to disrupt he process of writing.  We do also at times demonstrate using the alternate pencil for our own writing - so we pick a topic and go through the process as a demonstration so that the student can see what we are doing in generating words. 

Note: We also add to the remnant books ourselves when an activity happens at school that would be something that can be a story to share at another time.  This opens up opportunities for "how was your day at school" conversations at home.
Picture or Photo Captions
Pictures and photographs can be used a topics for writing in the same way as the pages and topics from a student's remnant book can be used.  Photographs have the added motivational factor of being personalized.  Pictures can be tied to any topic or just pictures of things that a student likes or enjoys.  For a student who is included, topics the pictures or photos could be linked to vocabulary of the topic that is being studied in that class.  Again, students are allowed to generate their own writing using their alternate pencil and what they write is added as a caption.  If these are topic books for curriculum areas, we do also put the typed word in and sometimes include a PEC representation, a written definition and/or put the pictures in a talking photo album (like the one pictured at the right) and record the word or the definition of the word.  For personal choice topics that are more related to a student just writing a story of their choosing, we do not add in all of these things and let the final piece of writing stand as the student's writing. 
We can also do this activity online by using Quizlet and making cards with images on and then having the student use an alternative pencil to caption those images.
Weekend Words
This one that we have not yet tried.  I was introduced to it through the Literacy for All Community of Practice that we have been involved in for the past two years.  The idea is for parents to send a list of 5-10 Weekend Words to school each Monday morning.  The words are meant to represent the student's weekend activities, interactions, feelings...etc. When it is time to write, the words are used just like the Remnant Book items or the Photos and Picture Captions outlined above. 
On a side note, there is an excellent opportunity for communication here too as the words could start a conversation using the students communication system and there may perhaps be a need for messages to go back and forth to get more clarity.  We use step-by-step communicators with some of the students I work with for messages to go back and forth between home and school.  We are currently working on ensuring that the messages that go home on these are more student-driven and this might be a good step in to that as in the conversation to figure out the weekend words we might discover together some more questions that we need to ask and then can work to figure out the details of those questions and record it so that the conversation can continue at home. 
Writing Books for Tar Heel Reader
Tar Heel Reader is a "collection of free, easy-to-read, and accessible books on a wide range of topics.  Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces, including touch screens, IntelliKeys with custom overlays and 1 to 3 switches."  Students may also write and publish their own books using picture from the huge collection at Flickr or pictures they upload.  The books can be on any topic and are very easy to write. 
When writing books for Tar Heel Reader we move away from using Alternative Pencils and use the student's communication system instead. This means we are generating either sentences word by word or the student is giving general ideas and we are putting them in to words or sentences. This is because whatever books we finish should go up in the public library although you do have the option to just permanently leave them in draft form. 
Because books are so easy to produce on Tar Heel Reader it is a great place to make accessible reading-level appropriate books for students on any topic of their choice so books can be made related to curriculum content of general education classes.  It is often hard to find the time to do this but if it is being done as a writing activity, the book then is stored publicly for any future students taking that same class to access as they need it.  
news-2-you Make Your Own Class Newspaper
We have been using news-2-you for three years now.  I've posted about it several times on this blog before.  This past year they added a new feature that allows you to interactively create your own symbol supported class newspaper that mirrors the format of the current events paper that you get each week if you subscribe.  It uses a series of interactive screens with questions about what will go in to the news story. The process involves a lot of communicating, choice making, and thinking as to construct the news story you need to be able to come up with the details of the event you are writing about.  Once you are finished answering the questions on the interactive pages, it prints off in newspaper format. 
This is a great process as you can embed listening comprehension in to the process.  We have started with the city newspaper, found a story that is interesting, read the story and then answered the questions, picking out the key details of the story, using the students communication system through the whole process. 
Writing Cards Using P.O.D.D. Books
Could use any communication system or partner assisted scanning process.
Authentic writing tasks are always a hit... particularly if you send something out and something comes back!  This is something we did very extensively three years ago when we were in a fully self-contained setting.  Parents sent in a list of important dates throughout the year and we would spend time every couple of weeks making and writing cards and then mailing them out.  It was embedded in to a personal calendar learning process.  At that point we did not yet have P.O.D.D. communication books.  Our communication approaches were much more restrictive and so we relied on students agreeing or disagreeing with what we believed should be on the cards. 

The P.O.D.D. book offers a lot more extensive vocabulary and allows the student to be a lot more autonomous in generating the message.  Again, because this is a card that will be sent to someone, we do, for the most part fill in the blanks between the words the student picks using his/her P.O.D.D. book.  We also have moved towards buying a pack of multi-purpose cards and using them rather than making the cards so that we are focusing on the writing and communication processes rather than the arts and crafts component.  This becomes one of several options that the student has to choose from when it comes time to work on writing. 
Mad Libs - Using P.O.D.D. Books 
Could use any communication system or partner assisted scanning process.
This one is probably more a communication activity than a writing activity as there are a lot of opportunities to move through the P.O.D.D. book to choose different words that fall in to categories.  I'm not sure how much explaining Mad Libs need but the basic idea is that you start with a page where you generate words that fall in to different categories - noun, name of a person, description word, action, adjective...etc. and then once the list of words is generated, it gets transferred to the Mad Lib story (an example to the left) and then you can read the story with the words that were put in to it. 
In the reading process there are again opportunities to work on both comprehension and communication and the Mad Lib itself could become a remnant for a students Remnant Book if it is particularly funny.  
My Story Maker and Read-Write-Think
My Story Maker is an interactive story making website from Carnegie Library.  Students are able to make many choices.  A note that the visuals for the choices are relatively small and the choices could not be hooked up to a scanning system so choices have to be done through partner assisted scanning if a student cannot access the mouse of a computer.  

The student has any number of choices during the process of writing the story.  Each time a choice is made, both the element in the picture an a line of text explaining what is happening are added to the story.  A student can create a whole story without ever writing anything but they can also go in and edit or add to any of the text that comes up when elements are added. 

When the story is done, it can be read online or it can be printed off and made in to a personal little book.  This is an activity that works well with a whole class as it is pretty naturally scaffolded and works great for student who are not sure what to write about.  Younger kids really liked the way the books came out looking like real stories and every student comes out with a similar looking books that can be shared.  For students working on partner assisted scanning there are countless opportunities for that throughout the creation of the story.  

If using this for story writing, it is worth thinking about adding in a "planning" stage that is not so visually stimulating before writing the story.  There are a lot of great interactive planning tools to do this on the Read-Write-Think Website.  This website has many other ideas for writing and communication.  For example: Bio-cubes, Essay Map, or Trading Card Creator.
First Author Writing Software

This is a new product and I have just started exploring the trial version that I got.  It looks promising particularly as a way to have student doing work on content-specific curriculum with minimal time needed for set up.  Because the video does such a great job of explaining it, I'm just going to include an outline form the website and the video...
From the Don Johnson Website: "First Author is a software tools that supports beginning writes, especially those with special needs, across all phases of the writing process.  as a computer-based writing environment it operates in parallel with exemplary models of writing instruction.  First Author provides the writer with essential accommodations such as picture prompts, word banks, on-screen keyboard, auditory feedback and other tools to ensure a successful writing experience.  It is accessible to all students, including those with severe speech and physical impairments."
Exploring the website I also found a document on First Author Writing Measures that hold a lot of potential as a writing assessment tool for this population of students.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Can Learn Society Take Ten Series for Supporting Student with ADHD and Learning Disabilities

Just wanted to share this series from the Can Learn Society as it include so many proactive empowering approaches to supporting students with ADHD and Learning Disabilities.  The videos and the PDF documents outlining information from each are included.
Making Your Instructions Listener Friendly
Reframing our View of ADHD
Helping Students With Self Advocacy
Helping Student With Self Regulation
Supporting Students With
Working Memory Difficulties

Monday, July 22, 2013

Reflecting on Our Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Course

We started the course by developing a personal definition of UDL as we understand it in that current moment.  My definition was a pretty standard textbook definition: 
"UDL is a framework for student learning that starts with the assumption of diversity and then, through intentional planning, minimizes barriers to learning and maximizes the number of students who are included, engaged and challenged.  UDL requires clarity of the true purpose of curricular goals so the materials and methods can be flexible and a dynamic assessment approach can be employed to increase the probability that individual learners will be learning in the way that is most effective and efficient for them." 
The concept was UDL was not new to me.  It is one that I've studied in some detail over the year and the underlying concepts are ones that I firmly believe in.  What was new was the process of focusing in on UDL exclusively for an extended period of time and trying to connect it to my personal experiences and context. It moved my thinking from UDL as a theory to wondering what it actually looks like in practice.   

One of the highlights of the course for me was a Skype session that the whole class did with Denise DeCoste about the UDL implementation work they have been doing in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.  They have an amazing webpage that outlines their process and has resources related to the work they did with a year-long voluntary PLC process. To start the process, they defined four foundational elements of UDL:
  1. front-loading when planning to benefit a range of students
  2. teachers offering flexible methods and materials
  3. students having choice in tasks and tools
  4. students being engaged in their own learning and connecting with what they do
Defining foundational elements of UDL helps to build understanding of what this would look like in classrooms.  The Implementing Universal Design for Learning in Schools website that they have put together outlines a process that includes reflection and walk-through materials that teachers could use to work together as a PLC team to move towards putting these four foundational elements in to practice.  It was interesting that they decided to focus in on the choice and flexibility before moving on to the technology piece.  UDL is often associated with technology and it seems many initiatives to implement UDL start with the technology rather than the practice involved in UDL. Having the practice of choice and flexibility in place would allow the technology to be used in the flexible ways that it is meant to be used according to UDL philosophy. 

If I had to redefine UDL now, I think perhaps it would tie to the idea of "positive niche construction" that Thomas Armstrong talks about in his book Neurodiversity in the Classroom

Maybe the definition of UDL is as simple as creating that positive niche.  Maybe it's about defining "environment" as being more than the physical and then working towards "creating favorable environments in school within which all students can flourish."  Of course, as the video summarizes, there are many components to making this happen. 

The course has me wanting to get back home to look again at the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman.  In this book, he talks about Experience Producing Drive (EPD) Theory.  And there it was the connecting quote: "According to the EPD theory, natural selection sculpted our genes so that we would be active agents of our environments, constantly seeking out situations that maximize our chances of survival and reproduction. In other words, we evolve to find the best environmental fit for our genomes. In Darwinian terms, that just may be the meaning of life."

Seeking out and building our niche is what we do in our lives.  In some ways, it is what drives our lives... as Kaufman says "it just may be the meaning of life".  It leaves one wondering though what happens when the environment we create in schools is not the environment that is the best environment to fit one's genome.  What long term impact does spending the formative years of one's life in an environment that is not a good fit have?  Is the answer to move them to a different environment or is the answer to continue to find more ways to create environments that students have enough flexibility and choice within so they can begin the process of figuring out how to impact their environment in way that will develop their genius?

Perhaps the part that I liked most about Denise DeCoste's presentation was that in their implementation process they were not trying to "build Rome in a day".  They were simply trying to lay some foundational elements of UDL at the same time as providing the PLC environment for those doing the implementation to explore their beliefs and practices.  They took it one lesson at a time.  What could we change so one more person would have access to learning rather than what can we change so everyone can have access to learning?  It's manageable and it speaks to the fact that a "niche" is not just physical but extends to the interactions within that environment and that the process is about creating a positive niche for all members who must thrive in that environment.

At the end of the course, I would like to say that I have a nice tidy definition of UDL but the bottom line is that my definition was a whole lot more tidy at the beginning then it was at the end... which is not necessarily a bad thing.  

At the end of the course, I am also feeling that I would like to focus a lot of my blog posts this summer on the how part of some of those flexible methods, materials and choices that could be present in tasks and tools.  There are great starting points for me to explore this like the UDL Toolkit Wiki and Mickie Mueller's Free Technology Tools for Teachers Live Binder and Matt Bergman's Learn-Lead-Grow Blog. I'm just looking at this point to use my blog to share tools and technology we already use and explore in to some new areas. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Myth of the Average

"Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone - not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs." (Source:
Perhaps the most profound line in this video is that the average hurts everyone.  This video gets to the heart of what inclusive education is actually about... designing our curriculum, classrooms and schools to the edges rather then to the average.  Recreating what we do in classrooms so that students come to understand themselves as learners.  What are their stengths? What are their challenges? What tools in their personalized toobox will allow them to reach their maximum potential?  Knowing that their profiles are complex and supporting them to figure what tools and strategies work for what tasks.  Fostering an understanding in each student of their unique process of learning so that they have the skills to live in a world that is rapidly changing. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Inclusion Flowchart

Sometimes I think we make "inclusion" far to complicated.  But the flip side of that is that other times I feel we oversimplify it.  Inclusion is about recognizing that all students need flexible structures so that each is able learn.  We can't make blanket statements about student ability and then just "put them" in a specific place.  We need to be continually evaluating and responding to both their learning and ours.  We need to recognize learning as a dynamic social process.  For those who do not fit in the box, we need to be researching and trying other possible ways to enhance their learning.  Concepts of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTII) need to be approriately and flexibly applied.  Sue Buckley does an excellent job of speaking to this in her post "Every School Should be Inclusive". 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Butterfly Circus

In the book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life Thomas Armstrong asks us to reimagine disability as a natural part of the human condition.  His message is not unlike so many others.  The first time I came across the view was probably shortly after I adopted my son and discovered Kathy Snow's book and website Diability is Natural.  Thomas Armstrong takes the idea of disability being a natural way of being a step futher and speaks to the celebration of the diversity of the human person.  He digs in to strengths that are often associated with specific "disability" labels and talks to how we should be capitalizing and focusing on these strenghts rather than focusing on the deficit inherit to a given disability. 
This stuff speaks to my heart.  We all have strengths in this world and I believe it is our job as educators to work with students to discover and nurture these gifts and strengths.  As we come to understand gifts and strengths we can co-create a path to excellence with our students.  When it comes to the students on my caseload, strengths give us a window in to the things we can do to break down barriers to social, academic and routine participation and learning.  If we don't profile a student's strengths, we will be less equipped to support that student's learning.
But it is not our job to do it for our students.  It is our job to help our students discover it in themselves.  And sometimes that means stepping back.  In the end, our job is not unlike the folks that run the butterfly circus in the following video.  I often try to explain the difference between supporting and helping and can't quite find the words.  This video speaks very eloquently to this idea.