Friday, July 9, 2010

Summer Reading : Ways to motivate

It is summer in NJ if you could not tell it by the calendar you can surely tell it by the heat and humidity. Many of us enjoy a nice lazy summer lounging at the pool or beach with a good book. On the other hand, our children often are required to read an hour a day or do a book report for their summer reading. I am not sure who the schools are punishing the children or the parents that have to fight with the children to read a book when all they want to do is have fun in the sun. To decrease the fighting in my home here are a few strategies that I have used:


The one page read: I scan the book onto a standard piece of paper and place it in a top loader. It becomes their placemat for breakfast. I have even been known to staple it to the back of the cereal box. (Since two pages fit on one standard page – I get 2 for 1).


Shared silly reading: When we are doing this, we have cards we made up and the person picks how they will read. There are times it is a silly voice, standing on one leg, ringing of bells when we get to a specific word.


Audio books: Yes, I know Audio books are not considered reading. However, you can work a deal you read one chapter you can listen to one chapter. Often what will happen is the student will follow along in the book.


Reward reading material of choice: If my niece or nephew finishes their assigned reading for the week typically, 1-2 chapters they are given a reward of more material to read. This can range from a comic book, graphic novel, magazines or a game.


Roll the dice: A game of chance depending on how you roll the dice you may end up with as little as 2 pages or 2 minutes or up to 12 pages or 12 minutes of reading. The way we play is you have a choice before you roll the dice are you going for pages or minutes. If we do this method we, play at least 3 times a day.


Give a purpose to reading: When my niece and nephew have a book for summer reading, I read the book before they do. I set a purpose for each chapter. I might have them look for idioms, comparisons, something that reminds them of somewhere they have gone, or a hunt for a hidden message that I created using little dots over words that spell out a special treat.


If all else fails bribery always works. I give a penny for every page read. Since most of the books my niece and nephew are reading are between 300-400 pages, they make $3-$4 dollars. If they complete the task earlier then their established deadline, they can double their money. If they complete the writing assignment that typically goes with their summer reading, they can triple their money.


If you have a creative way to help your children or students get through their unwanted summer reading, please share. I am always looking for new ways to motivate more reading in my family.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Merit pay Possibility - WRONG to base it on Standardized Test

I am a strong advocate for change needed in our schools. There are many reasons that our schools. In addition, not for one second would I put the failure of the schools on the backs of the teachers that stand each day in front of the class trying to make a difference in the life of the students before them. At one time, teachers were only responsible for teaching academics now teachers are responsible for raising the child. Yes, I said it. Teacher not only teach reading, writing and but we teach safe sex, drug and alcohol abuse education, character education, foreign language, nutrition and computer and Internet education. The law makers have increased mandates that the public schools have to do regardless of the money to do it. Every year there is new unrealistic burden placed on the teachers to do their job.

In many states, we are talking about merit pay based on student performance. Honestly, I am a student with a learning disability; I struggled with reading and writing. It is not right to judge my teachers abilities to teach on a standardized test. When I am in her room she is able to support me the way I need, I have tools that I am able to use to support my reading and writing. On standardized test, I must go it on my own. You have taken the supports that are deemed needed by the people that know me best and say I cannot have them. Why should you base my teacher(s) ability to teach me on the test if you remove the supports I need to learn?

There is a story that I had a pleasure of reading. It was written by Jamie Robert Vollmer called the “Blueberry story” . If you haven’t had a chance to read it I highly recommend it for everyone that thinks they have the answer for education. There are no easy fixes, solution or decisions to be made. For every decision that is made there is consequence. Merit pay makes sense on paper and in the business world however it does not translate to the classroom. In the business world, if you do not like the way a team member is performing you can release them from their responsibilities. If you don’t like the way a student is performing you as the teacher have to find a way for that student to perform to their ability.

Standardized test is a snap shot of students’ ability. If that student is not feeling well he/she will not perform well. If the student is reading 2 years below grade level, he/she must take a test at their grade level with no reading supports. They cannot ask question for clarification, no one can help them to sound out a word and they cannot use their talking dictionary to find out what the word means. If you want merit pay to be fair, than school systems need to find other ways to evaluate merit. Using standardized test is not the answer. Standardized test do not tell you how an individual functions in everyday life.

I am a student with a learning disability. I am an adult with a learning disability. I earned my undergrad and Masters after your standardized test said I should not be able to achieve that. I was a teacher to students with emotional disabilities, multiple disabilities and learning disabilities. Your standardized test told me I was not able to do perform math and reading as well as my peers. I am a consultant that trains teachers, parents and administrators about tools to support their students to perform better in reading, writing and math yet your standardized test proved what? Is your standardized test worth the paper they are written on? I have accomplished what your standardized test said I should not. I accomplished what I have because of the teachers that day in and day out worked with me, gave me the tools I needed to learn, they gave me the strategies that help me function to my ability. My teachers are the ones that told me to shoot for the stars because there is one with my name on it.

Maybe lawmakers should start acting with common sense and stop listening to the lobbyist about what our students need. Start listening to the teachers, the students and the people that are in the trenches every day. Stop making decision based test results. Start making decisions on experience.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Disney Books Go Digital

Disney has made over 600 books available in digital format. It cost approximately $80.00 year. The site offers three levels of books Shared Reading and Beginning readers (picture books and early readers), Reading on my Own (storybooks and readers) and Level 3 Reading Chapter Books.

You read the books online, you can highlight a word you are not sure of and it will pronounce the word to you. If you want further information, it also has a dictionary. The dictionary does not read the definition which is interesting since they went as far as having a dictionary. If you cannot read a word, often you cannot read the definition.

For individuals that use switches, the site is not accessible. The stories are read with highlighting and start automatically. It also turns the pages for you automatically. You can pause the story but you cannot change the rate of speed in which it is reading to you.

After the story is over you get a special treat, I SPY. You are given eight pictures that you have to go through the story again to find. I was disappointed with this feature because I thought you would get to click on the pictures in the book and something would happen. Nope.

The site has a few different gems that you have to search for. I like the Cloze Activities for writing your own story. You can create your own bookshelf with your favorite books. There is even a bookshelf for the books that are in progress. It even has a reading log of all the books you have completed and it can be printed out.

It has a 7-day free trial. See what you think. Find some things that I did not find.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Visual Supports - They are important

I have observed children with disabilities in many different environments across New Jersey. I have had the pleasure of observing many classes that used visual supports with great success. Some of did a great job of making visual supports that were meaningful and helped the students become more independent and successful in the environments. Other classrooms had visual supports that had no meaning to the students. The visual supports were just decorations around the room that become visual noise or distractions. It always amazes me when I go for an observation of students with language disabilities and there are no visual supports for the students. Regardless of the student’s disabilities, visual supports are what help make sense of our environment. As a typical individual, I use visual supports on a daily basis while I am driving (GPS, street signs, directions) or list (whom to call, what I need to purchase, and chores I have) and I have my blackberry to make sure I show up to appointments on time.

Visual supports help an individual focus on priorities and decrease the auditory distractions of words which turn into the Charlie Brown teacher WAWAWA WAHA WAH WAH. Visual supports allow us to feel confident in what is being asked and that the expectation are very clear. Children with disabilities often are asked to negotiate through a maze of expectations throughout the day. As humans we are verbal noise making machines, do this, go there, listen, look, stop, go, sit, stand, quiet this, quiet that and all between and over the conversations the adults are having of how traffic, what they had for breakfast, what they will do later what they did last night. If you ever get a chance to just sit back and listen, you would be shocked at the amount of verbal language being used all around students that struggle with expressive and verbal language. We want to be language models but often we are language samples of projectile vomit. Yes, I know very graphic but now you get the idea.

When I visit a classroom that has “show and tell” visuals or has no visual, I always want to ask the teacher “how does your students survive this environment?” because I have language and I want to shut down. I know that sounds harsh. However, when an individual does not understand language or interpret what you are saying increasing the number of words, saying it louder is not going to make it any better than it was before. The only solution is to help each other understand each other with supports that communicate the content of the message.

Utilizing visual supports for individuals that struggles with language helps the person plan and prepares for what will be happening. It gives the individual a point of reference so they can refer back if they feel unsure or need to double check the steps on a task they are doing. It helps them feel in control in a world that they have so little control. It decreases the anxiety over the anticipation of what comes next and what is expected of ME. Because in their world, everything is unexpected, uncomfortable and confusing without supports to explain it.

Visual supports do not have to be fancy. You do not need brand named software to create the visual supports. Visual supports have meaning because we GIVE them MEANING. As the teachers, therapist and parents we give meaning to the world that our children are part of. We label the world for them. Just like there are 100’s of ways to say Grandmother there are 100’s of ways to use symbols. As I said, we give meaning to the symbol. For example, a picture of hands, can mean quiet hands, hands on lap, hands at sides, hold hands, clean hands and so on.

Please remember that you can use real photos, drawings, images from clip art to make visual material for students. It doesn’t have to be expensive software to make it have meaning.

What to do:

  • Do not label furniture with their names unless you want the students to practice labeling. Label with expectation: Chair: Sit, Table: Work, Sink: Wash
  • Keep visuals at the students’ eye level. Think of visual strategies as marketing as they do in the grocery store. Everything that is yummy and not good for you is at eye level of the children. Go down the cereal aisle.
  • Have multiple copies of the symbols you are using. They will ripped they will get lost.
  • You have to teach the symbol and the meaning before you expect a student to understand to use it.
  • Need to have a change card so the students have some way of knowing that something unexpected is going to take place such as a change in routine, activity or therapist.
  • Laminate the picture with tape, contact paper or real lamination.

Resources for visual pre-made supports:

Software you can use that you already have:

  • Word processing tools: Word, Word Perfect, Works, Google docs
  • Spreadsheets: Excel,
  • PowerPoint
  • Paint

Software to use to make visual supports

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ergonomics in the classroom

Often when I visit a classroom, I look at the environment in which the student needs to function. One of the things that often amaze me is the number of students that are sitting at ill fitted desks and chairs. I know it is difficult in middle and high school to make sure the students have the proper height chair and desk but in the elementary school, there should be no problems since the students spend the majority of their time in the same class all day.

When most think of ergonomics, they think computers. When I think ergonomics, I think of the general environment. Our students are sitting at desks that are either too high or too short. I recently went to visit a classroom of a 3rd grade student. The concerns were that the student’s handwriting was difficult to read, student would fatigue and the student complained of arm pain. This student was on the petit side. When they pointed the student out to me, all I could do was shake my head. The students’ desk was two pegs higher than it needed to be for her. For this student to write she needed to lift her arms up onto the desk raising her shoulder. No wonder this student was complaining of arm pain and getting tired. This meant she had decrease control over the ability to use her pencil. This students chair when she sat back she could not put her feet to the ground so she was moving all over the place and sitting on her legs. The rule of the classroom is 6 feet on the ground. This student even if she wanted to could not accomplish this task. After explaining my observation to the case manger, we walked down to the building principal. I again explained the situation and asked if a maintenance person could visit the classroom. We had the students all line up against the wall, picked three students at a time and asked them to find a chair they liked and to sit in the chair. If it was a proper fit, the chairs were labeled with the student’s name. For the students that were in-between chair sizes we created different footrest (this was done over time). Then we had the student take the chair to their desk. The maintenance person, teacher and I lowered and made desk higher for the students. I returned to the classroom a week later to talk to the teacher about the concerns. The student’s handwriting was still difficult to read but you could read it, she was no longer complaining about pain and being tired. The teacher noticed that the students seemed to be more comfortable and not wiggling in their chairs as much.

Sometimes it is not a tool that is needed but the environment that needs to be adjusted to meet the needs of the individuals working in it. It takes just a few minutes to adjust chairs and desks throughout the year. There are benefits to making sure students have the proper environment to do their work.

How to check for proper height and fit:


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mindful of how we learn regardless of format

Today I sat through a webinar about Google Apps Education. Did the webinar meet my expectation? I must answer a big fat NO. I will not hold the presenters accountable for not meeting my expectations because there are two aspects to every presentation a person attends that impacts their view of meeting expectations. First, is the format in which the presentation takes place. It was a virtual presentation. The presenters were using a well known web conferences software. The presenters were comfortable with the software and able to use the features that were needed. However, this is the first webinar that I have sat through that the participants were not able to interact with the presenters or other participants. If you wanted to ask a question, you had to write it in the question box and hope they got to your question or felt it was important enough. The best analogy that I can think of: you go to the doctor’s office, you sign in and the receptionist tells you that the doctor will be right with you. Two hours later, you are still sitting there waiting while everyone that came in after you gets to see the doctor.

I think the second area is the concern of the participant especially in a webex presentation is understands how your learning style affects your ability to participate in the presentation. If I use the Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence, I am interpersonal. I enjoy interacting with others, I want to participate in sharing information and experiences. This presentation did not allow me to interact so I became disengaged to what the presenters were doing. I am also a kinesthetic learner. For me to feel part of the presentation I often need to physically be involved. For some presentation, this is not possible so I will try to take notes. This allows me to remember the information that is being shared.

This presentation made me sit down and evaluate my learning styles and why I did not feel my expectations were met. There was one big gorilla staring at me. It came down to format, material being covered and my ability for buy in.

Format is a format that I typically crave. I am not a brick and mortar person. I do not like sitting and hearing a lecture. I want to be able to work at my own pace. I want to be able to split my attention between tasks. The webex classes are typically perfect for me. If I zone out, I can always go back and re-listen and watch.

Materials there were no handouts, outlines or references that were sent to the participants. So unless you followed 100% on screen and could follow their flipping and moving between screens and jumping between presenters.

The buy in is always so important. Being a consultant, I do not have much say in the district technology plan or how technology will be used in the district. I would love the opportunity to be part of a district team one day helping integrate technology and AT into just technology for all learners. For right now, it is more a curiosity thing. Like a cat, I was killed.

The concept of the presentation is how this school district had their staff and students using Google Apps Education. It was a wonderful strategy that they started with saying it was just a calendar to their staff. There was a team behind the scene building the resources for the teachers. As the teachers became more proficient at using the calendar tool, the behind the scenes crew was adding information. There was no expectation beyond “it’s a calendar”. I love the concept and may try to implement it with some of my teachers and parents that I support. I think it has wonderful possibilities.

As for now, I have learned a valuable lesson; virtual presentations still need to be mindful of individual learning styles and we need to make sure that our audience feels connected to us regardless.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

This is the way to spell-check and thesaurus

I am by all accounts one of the worst spellers and grammar truly has no meaning. Nevertheless, I sit in front of my computer screen stressing over red, blue and green lines telling me what I am writing there is something wrong. MS Office has an excellent spell check. Over the years, my spelling and grammar skills have gained in strength. Personally, I feel it is because of two factors. The first is because using the computer allowed me to have greater control over the words I used to express myself. I do not have to worry if my vocabulary is inferior or superior to others because the computers can level the playing field. The second is that I learned from visual examples of well-written work. I did not learn to read for understanding until I was in the 10th grade (16 years old). Before that, I could read the words on the page, but they were just words that cluttered the page. Punctuation was just more characters on the page that danced around. I truly did not learn how to use punctuation until I was out starting my masters. If it were not for peer MODELING and COLLABORATION, I would still struggle with grammar.

Spell checks are wonderful tools however; if you do not know how to spell most often, you cannot guess from a list what word is correct unless you have a strong visual memory. This does not mean that I do not believe in spell check. It means that I believe that the student has to use more than just spell check. I believe a student should be made to feel proud of their "safe" vocabulary. It does not mean, I do not believe that they should not develop a more robust vocabulary. It comes down to giving them tools that allow them to enrich their writing while still playing it in their comfort zone.

Some of the activities that I have my students do is the graveyard spelling. Graveyard spelling is that the students read or listen to their document. They highlight words that often used in student writing (like, angry, mad, big, calm, quiet, said). A list of words commonly used in students writing can be found at . I also have the class generate their own list of words. The students then place these words on a headstone. Around the headstone, we place flowers of synonyms that may replace the word.

I love visual thesaurus . The subscription fee is minimal $20 for the year. I waste more than that on bad coffee and crap I find in "that is easy" store. creates a huge list of words on a page. If your students are able to mouse over the words, they get a definition of the word.

Visuwords is very similar to the visual thesaurus. For students with visual impairments it can be difficult to see because of the size of the font. I like how they color code parts of speech and they have a key at the left side of the page to help you understand the linking of the words.

I also have students keep a personal dictionary/thesaurus. High tech solutions are lovely and most of the time they are right there for the use. However, there are times that the student needs to use their low-tech methods. We use address books as a dictionary. For some of my students it is a small one no bigger than an index card for others, we use a 3 ring binder. It all depends on the method the student likes and feels comfortable with. I have some students that create an inspiration page with the word and then they use the bubbles to create thesaurus list but also drag a picture to help them remember.

I do not use the spell check feature just when the students are writing. I will often place a document on the desktop that the students are responsible for correcting the spelling. I turn off the spell check in MS Word – turn on the Review tool and allow the students to correct the document. I will purposely misspell words that they are familiar and unfamiliar with.

A tool I use to help create misspellings is the Dumbtionary . You type the word in correctly, and you will get the word misspelled the way a student may misspell it.

Spell checking tools that I like that are free

MS Word and MS Works both of these products have a decent spell check. MS Word definitely has a stronger one that Works.

Google: if you have internet access and you are having a difficult time spelling a word try typing the word into Google. It can correct most words.
you can correct a single word or a document that is no more than 20,000 characters. you can correct text by cutting and pasting it into this application. This is great for IM and social networking sites.
Spell checks English, French, Spanish, Italian or German. this is one of the programs that I use. Since I struggle with writing, it is often difficult to write something say in FACEBOOK because it does not have spell check. I can pull this program up to correct my spelling. I also use their Grammar anywhere program. If you use Google Chrome it has a BUILT IN spell check.
not only corrects spelling but also supports grammar correction. It does a descent job correcting grammar and spelling.

This is a game that students can play. The student has to identify the misspelled word and correctly spell the word. This game can be created in PowerPoint, Excel and MS WORD if you wanted to do it with your spelling words.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ready for a change

No matter how fancy the tool, it is not going to implement itself into your classroom. Implementation takes time and planning. It takes careful consideration of why you are using the tool for a specific student or classroom. Implementation of technology is where/when the we often fall flat on our faces. The software, hardware is on the computer system but the teacher is not sure what to do with it, how to use it or when to use it. The words "Use it often and at your discretion don't have much meaning". With that said, my blog is going to take a turn. I am going to move away from showing the new big thing and talk about the important thing how do these tools get used in the classroom with all students.

First things first – technology is not about the bells and the whistles. You do not have the newest and greatest to be in the technology forefront.

Second thing – it is not about the STUFF. You can have a classroom of stuff but still have nothing.

Third thing – it is about using what you have and what you are comfortable with. Once you start using, what you are comfortable with you will start to feel eager to try something new.

Fourth thing – admit it and own it. Admit what you do not know. Only way to get help with something is admitting you are not sure about how to use the tool or what features it has. There is no way you can use it with your students if you cannot use it yourself. Yes, there are students that can run circles around us adults. Once you admit where you need help you own the problem but you are also own the SOLUTION.

Fifth thing – Search and FIND. You are not the only one out there that is struggling with implementation or learning how to use a tool. All you have to do is go to your favorite search engine and type name of the tool you are trying to work with and you will be amazed on what you will find.

Favorite sights for tutorials: Tutorial for MS office products. has various tutorials. has various tutorials.
excellent resource for assistive technology tutorials. video tutorials on the smart board. The best thing is the ideas on the website.

Favorite blogs:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hello! From ATIA

Hello! Everyone

I hope everyone is doing well in their neck of the woods. I am sitting in sunny cool Florida enjoying ATIA. I had the pleasure of sitting in a few sessions and going into the exhibit hall. First let me say that I am an ATIA newbie. I cut my AT teeth at Closing the Gap. But I have to admit, ATIA may have won me over. When I walked into the exhibit hall, I had that feeling that I have been missing at Closing the Gap, the child in the toy store feeling. When I entered into the exhibit hall, I entered into my amusement park. Which way to go? What do I want to see? So I did the let's go this way and just random pleasure of seeing what was new and exciting.

Hands down the winners for today are:

Switch access for the KINDLE. Yes, you did read that correctly. It will be sold by Origin Instruments ( They are expecting it to hit the market in about a month. With the switch access you will be able to turn the pages forward and back. It will come with a mount that can be secured to a person's wheelchair or other location (table or desk). The cost is will in the $300-$350 (price subject to change).

Software called Point and Chat ( )for AAC users – it allows AAC users to Instant message and text messaging using their device. The message is typed in using the symbol communication from Saltillo Corp and converts into text. The piece that most will be frustrated with is that the message to the AAC user is in text also not symbol based. Don't be too sad because the software has text to speech. After sitting through Caroline Musslewhite's workshop in literacy, I have to say it not coming in symbols rocked my world. Often text messages and IM's are using high frequency words or easily decodable words. For students and young adults this gives them an additional opportunity to practice literacy without symbol support but they have the text to speech there if needed as support.

ComLink ST3G ( )is a device that I have not seen before. However, I have to say I really like their hardware. The device usesThe Grid 2 Communication software with symbol Stix Symbols from Tobbi Communicator. The device is durable. It comes with a nice rubber bumper on the covers the edges of the device. It is made of durable material without the extra weight. The flexible stand and handle are great. HANDS down the BEST Speech from a device that I have heard yet. I know other devices use the same speech engine as this device but for some reason it was clear even in a loud (very loud) vending hall without additional speakers. They also have an eye gaze system. It uses similar technology as other AAC devices (add on eye tracker).

Awww … another tool that I was excited about ….. The PenFriend. No it is not the software from Crick. This is an actual pen that you use to create "hot spots". It was originally designed for individuals with visual impairments or who are blind so they can read labels once tagged with the special self-adhesive label. Now that doesn't sound very exciting however let's think outside the box of labels. This tool can be used for students in the school building, during reading activities (definitions) or as an AAC tool. There is no limit to the length of each message that the label can hold. The pen records 70 hours of recording. You can do whole books or take a snapshot of a video or their favorite artist and they can listen to an MP3 of their favorite song. It comes with 127 labels in a mix of sizes and shapes. The price tag again is a tad steep but for a tool that can do so much, I am thinking I am going to put one in my tool kit.


More to come in a few – I have to get to the GYM.