Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Perfect Holiday Gift for the Special Education Teacher

It's the season of giving and as a parent, I am looking for the perfect Christmas gift for my daughter's teacher.  I am guessing I am not alone on this mission.  The National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA) reported that according to national averages from the 2012-2013 school year, teachers spent $485 out of pocket on their classrooms.  (Access this article to learn more about these figures:
K-12 Teachers Out of Pocket $1.6 Billion on Classroom Tools by David Nagel
Yikes!  For those parents searching for something special for the special education classroom teacher, instead of grabbing a gift card or purchasing a coffee mug, think about supplies that come in handy in the classroom.  Here are suggestions of gifts I would rejoice over:

A Protective Case for iDevices
If your special education teacher is using an iAnything in the classroom, hopefully they already have it covered up with some sort of protected case. But if they don't, buy them a case ASAP.  Don't buy a case for $70.  Those super expensive cases aren't really the best option for special education needs anyway (heavy, hard to hold, no grip, no handles, no stand, hard to clean, etc.)  Instead, spend $40 and get one of the friendliest, safest cases on the market AND get one for yourself while you're at it. sells the perfect case- light weight, super protective, handles built into the case so it's easy for our kids to carry, possible to add a carrying strap if needed and all for a great price.  On top of that, you can take advantage of their BOGO program (buy one give one) by getting one for yourself and sending your bonus case to your school as a gift.  I personally vouch for these cases.  I've purchased several and they've been put to the test by many students. They are still standing strong!  Check out the Gripcase website for more information concerning their BOGO program here: Gripcase BOGO Program

A One Button Mouse
The typical two button mouse used with PC computers can be really difficult for special needs students to use and manipulate.  For $20 you can give a classroom with a small one button mouse, which can provide some students with an easier way to independently navigate some computer programs.  I get a lot of requests for these from special education teachers and from occupational therapists.  There never seem to be enough on hand to go around.  It's a nice little addition that every classroom could benefit from.  The Chester Mouse One-Button Mouse might put a smile on your teacher's face.   Click on the link to learn more about this mouse option:
Chester One-Button Mouse

Mounting Tape
I know, I know.  It doesn't sound very exciting.  I sounds like the equivalent of getting slipper socks from your aunt on Christmas Eve.  But trust me...this offering might be the greatest way to let your classroom teacher know that you are in touch with his/her true needs.  Mounting tape is used in a variety of ways in a special education classroom: creating picture schedules, mounting hallway passes, attaching communication devices to mounts and classroom surfaces.  It's expensive and hard to come by in some schools and when it is available, there is hardly ever enough.  There's a variety of different mounting tapes you can purchase, but if you really want to "wow" a teacher buy something super adhesive and with a lot of grip (check out 3M Dual Lock mounting tape.)  And don't underestimate the power of slipper socks...I ask for a pair every year.

Deluxe Spa Package
Reoccurring appointments, scheduled for Fridays at 4:00pm.  This is never a bad gift for any teacher.

Let's hear it from the teachers!  What are some items you would love to be gifted for your classroom? 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

2013 Edublog Award Nominations

In the fall of 2012, I began a quest to find and follow as many quality blogs as I could in order to grow professionally.  At that point, I was following two or three blogs I had stumbled upon by searching on the web for specific resources and noticed how regularly I checked their archives for past posts that I had missed that might contain information I needed to learn more about.  Over the last year, I have subscribed to several blogs that have enriched my educational practices.  I started a Pinterest page so I could catalog these resources and always have them at my fingertips.  Then I started dipping my toe into the Twitter water.  Wow...I'm like a sponge now, trying to follow all of these amazing educators who are generously posting and sharing their wisdom daily.

The purpose of the Edublog awards is promote and demonstrate the educational values of these social media. Visit here:
In order to express my gratitude to the brave, intelligent and generous people who have shared their thoughts and resources so graciously with me over the last year, I would like to submit my nominations for the 2013 Edublogs Awards.  Here they are!

Best Individual Blog and Best EdTech/ resource sharing blog:
Richard Byrne is a man on a mission: to share free, superb tech resources and provide examples of how they can be used in your classroom.  I've gotten so many "goodies" from this blog that I didn't have to think twice about these categories.  Free Technology for Teachers shares free iPad apps, Android apps, Google Tutorials and much, much more.

Best New Blog:
I heart ed tech too!  What I really love about this blog is I can read it and learn from it in just 5 minutes.  The posts do not take a whole prep period to read through and often offer very helpful short video tutorials.  The author of this blog "gets it"...we don't have a lot of time.  Gets to the point, great ideas, easy to read.

Best Individual Tweeter: @PaulSolarz
I haven't been following this guy for that long.  But in the short amount of time he's been on my radar, I can't help thinking each time I read one of his tweets, "I wish this guy could have been one of my teachers."  The way he is integrating technology into his classroom is inspiring and a wonderful model to teachers who are wondering, "Where do I start?  What should this look like?"

Most Influential Blog Post of the Year: Voiceless But Still Talking (with AAC) Challenge Day 4
I was watching this series of blog entries with great interest.  Here we had a mother who decided to challenge herself for one week by exclusively using her daughter's AAC system (Speak For Yourself app on an iPad mini) to communicate.  She wanted to see the world through her daughter's eyes.  And then she wanted to tell us all about it.  I have tried to take a similar AAC challenge in the past for just one night...I usually last about 10 minutes before I get so frustrated and decide to use my voice to communicate rather than a communication device.  I applaud her for sticking to her word and really seeing this challenge through, as well as sharing with us the emotional roller coaster ride of having to rely on an alternative communication system as your voice.  I wish every Speech Language Pathologist and Special Education Teacher would read this blog entry.

Good luck to all the nominees!  And thank you for the inspiration, community support, and resources you continue to provide.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Dynamic Duo of Apps

I am often asked, "What are your favorite apps?"  I have a love/hate relationship with this question.  There isn't a set list that I refer to as my favorites because each app targets a skill very different from the next.  After giving this explanation I usually get, "Well...what is your favorite autism app?" Again...we need to think about a specific skill/task/area of need before we can make a decision about an app that might be a good fit for a student.  However, I really do love sharing apps that have worked well for teachers and students.  It's through other's suggestions based on their experiences that I have been able to find and fall in love with apps.  So with that being said, I am going to break my own rule and throw out two of my favorite apps of all time for special education classrooms.

There's a method to my madness with choosing these two apps.  Money is tight in any school district; as Assistive Technology Coordinator for a large school district, I need to think wisely about app purchases and how they can be used by all students in our classrooms.  If I could only choose two apps to go on our special education classroom devices, these would be the two I would choose.

Choiceworks, from Bee Visual LLC
There are many visual schedule apps on the market today.  I've purchased several and this app almost always is the student and teacher preferred choice.  I often hear teachers say, "Oh, I meant to make a visual schedule for that. I haven't gotten around to it yet."  I get it- it's a time consuming process to create the visuals, print, laminate, Velcro, and teach the schedule to a student.  Choiceworks, along with other visual schedule apps, takes a lot of that work off your plate.  With a built-in symbol library and the option to take your own photos and import into their library, it is fairly easy for teachers to create a visual schedule on the fly and makes it very personalized and meaningful to the student.  What sets Choiceworks apart is its included supports of "Waiting" boards, social narrative books, and "Feelings" boards.  It also offers the ability to add a timer to each task within a schedule.  It has text-to-speech, so the schedule can be read back to a student by the click of a button.  It's an app that works for all students.  It's an app that is adult-friendly.  And I love how you can save and share schedules you have created with others!  I've created some cheat sheets for the app to help newbies quickly create a schedule and learn the nuances of the app.
You can access those cheat sheets through this link to Google Docs:  Choiceworks App Cheat Sheets
To learn more about Choiceworks, visit their website here:

Book Creator for iPad, from Red Jumper Studio
Last year I set out on a mission to find a "productivity" app that would fit the needs of all students and offer teachers a plethora of options as to how it could be used within instruction.  The answer was Book Creator.  Lots of apps do some of the same things that Book Creator does (and sometimes for a much cheaper price.) However, I haven't found one yet with the combination of features that Book Creator has to offer.
Book Creator is an app that allows you to create your own book.
But by adding text, audio, video, drawings and importing pictures to each page, this mega app can be used for so much more than simply creating a book.  The speech language pathologists of my school district are using it to create social narratives, video modeling supports, and books that target Common Core.  It's a great way to adapt assessments for students who are non-verbal and face fine motor challenges with writing (teachers can create a version of the assessment where a student would read or listen to a question and then respond by activating a visual multiple choice selection layered with audio.)
 We can easily share these books through a shared Google Docs folder.  Whenever a teacher creates something they think others could benefit from, they simply send their "book" from within the app into their Google Drive app, into a shared Google Docs folder. Then all therapists and teachers can open
 it from their Google Drive app into iBooks and access the book as well.  The app also allows you to submit your creations to iBookstore.
Book Creator offers wonderful support with tutorials on how to work the app.  You can view those tutorials here: Book Creator Tutorials
Learn more about the app here:

Choiceworks and Book Creator can be used to support one student or a whole class.  They can be used throughout the entire school day, no matter what the activity.
We all wish we could have access to a million apps to fit every activity/task we are conducting in our classroom. But in a world were budgets only allow for a few choices, these are the two apps I would choose.  I am seeing first hand how students are benefiting from them.  I see how happy they are to interact with their visual schedule; how writing a book is much more pleasurable experience when they can take photos, add text and record their voices all on one place to create that book.  I see teachers who are relieved that making a picture schedule will not take a whole prep period (and can't get destroyed/lost/thrown away later in the week.) I see teachers creating lessons that bring accessibility to all students.
 Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

5 Best Practices for Case Conferences

I've sat through a lot of case conferences.  All kinds.  Case conferences to discuss initial testing, annual case conferences to discuss progress and goals, re-evaluation case conferences, exit conferences, and conferences to develop behavior plans.  Conferences that were quick, conferences that were joyous, conferences where feelings were hurt, people felt betrayed, people felt proud. Or conferences where people left feeling like nothing was accomplished.

And I know there will be many more to come...of all kinds.

I remember my first days in the world of education and how nervous I was to attend these conferences.  If I'm being honest with myself, I think I probably talked a lot at those conferences.  Too much.  I was eager to show parents how well I knew their child.  Eager to show them how competent I was at my job.  Afraid that they would disagree with my recommendations for IEP goals or services.  Afraid that I would get talked into providing services or supporting goals that I didn't believe were appropriate for the child.  Worried that parents wouldn't take my recommendations seriously or follow through with my suggestions at home.

I don't worry anymore about case conferences.  But I do see a lot of teachers still get very nervous before meeting with parents and students, especially when they feel that parents will not agree with their recommendations.  Lately I've been thinking about how I got over these nerves and what "best practices" I follow in order to contribute to a productive and agreeable discussion with students and parents.  I certainly don't have all the answers, but these are the five practices I try to keep in mind that I think have really helped in a "sticky situation" meeting.  They seem so simple.  As educators we talk about them a lot.  But how often are we, as an IEP team, walking the walk and not just talking the talk?  Things that make you go hmmm....

5. Use language that everyone in the room (or anyone out of the room) can understand.
What's a lexile score?  Pragmatics means what exactly?  OT/PT stands for what, and what is their role with the student?  As educators, we throw around a lot of acronyms and terms that are very familiar to us.  And even if a parent has attended a million case conferences in the past, we shouldn't take for granted that they have learned, remembered, or recognize these terms.  Again, this is something I was very guilty of when first attending case conferences.  I thought that if I provided the scientific terms and explanations while discussing language comprehension, parents would see how much I "really knew my stuff."  And most of the time they just had no idea what I was talking about and how it related to their child.  (Even after ten years of working in the school system, I still don't really understand all the lingo that a school psychologist uses at an evaluation conference.)  I don't like to flat out ask a parent, "Do you understand what I'm talking about when I say ____?"  I'm guessing 9 out of 10 times they will say yes, regardless of whether they actually mean it.  Instead, I paraphrase and explain the terms as I go: "Let's look at your son's receptive language scores, or in other words how much he is understanding and comprehending when others are talking and explaining things to him."  This doesn't put the parent on the spot, it exposes the whole IEP team to vocabulary in your area of expertise, and clearly explains what in the world you are talking about.

4. Listen more than you speak.
Shut up, already.  I wish I could go back and tell myself this on my first or second year of the job.  Ha, probably the first five!  This "best practice" (so to speak) is probably applicable across many aspects of life.  You will learn a lot more about someone and the challenges they are facing by asking some questions and getting quiet.  You will also solve problems through listening, as well.  I think in a case conference we sometimes think that we need to talk, talk, talk because the purpose is to "report" back to parents on how their child is progressing.  It's important to provide feedback.  But this is a collaborative process.  If one person is doing all the speaking, you've got a major problem on your hands.  Why even bother inviting different minds to the table?  Which leads to what I think is another great case conference "best practice"...

3. Respect everyone's perspective.
Everyone at the table has their own agenda.  Everyone at the table has their own special area of concern when it comes to the student.  And everyone at that table will have their own story to tell.  All of our stories are not going to match up sometimes.  If you ask my best friend Sarah what I am like to be around, she is going to tell you that I am hilarious, loud, and have a dirty mouth.  She might tell you that at times I am lazy and too opinionated.  She'll tell you I am a terrible dancer.  If you ask my boss what I am like, he would say I'm a hard worker.  He'd say I am professional, a good listener, sometimes too rigid in my thinking...and let's face it- hilarious.  Two people that spend a lot of time with me, two very different explanations of my personality.  Both accurate.  Different perspectives.  When a parent or student is telling us a very different story from what we see at school, don't discount it.

2. Be up front and honest.
Occasionally we get nervous to recommend a change in an IEP (changes to therapy services, changes to programming, changes to goals.)  In these instances, it's easy to sugar coat the reality of a situation or quickly run through the information in hopes that it doesn't ruffle feathers or raise a red flag.  The trouble is that it can really come back to haunt you later.  Once parents leave the room and really have time to digest what was said in such a rush, read over the paper work, the trouble starts.  They feel as if you are trying to trick them and they can lose confidence in your judgement when it comes to their child.  I think it's always best to be specific and honest about the consequences of decisions being made in a conference so parents are not surprised later down the road with their child's academic plan.  If parents are going to disagree with your recommendations, it is much better to have that happen from the start so you can agree upon a compromise now, rather than doing so later with parents who have lost their trust in you.

After all, you've got nothing to hide.  We are all there to do what's best for the student at hand.  And as long as you are doing right by that child, there's nothing to shy away from...right?

1. Let the most important person in the room speak.
Last but not least.  In fact, I'd venture to say it's the most important rule of thumb to follow.  In the case conferences I have participated in, more often than not, the student is present.

More often than not, the student doesn't say a word throughout the entire conference.  They aren't asked to.

They aren't ignored, per se...often the adults in the room are directly addressing them.  Talking at them.  But in a meeting focused on an individual's educational outcomes, goals and services, shouldn't that individual be the person doing the most talking?  In conferences where the student is asked to talk, usually it is to answer negative questions.  Why aren't you studying more?  Why aren't you turning in these homework assignments?  Why didn't you tell me you were having trouble learning this concept?  Instead, I like to ask the main attraction in the room questions like, "What do you think your greatest strengths are at school?  What do you wish you had more help with?  What kind of changes would you like to see happen?" I also like to reinforce that they are fully allowed to disagree with anything said in a case conference.  This isn't a time for compliance with adults.  It's a time to teach a student to advocate for themselves and how to use their voice in an effective way.

If nothing else, I wish this "best practice" was at the forefront of everyone's mind (parents and teachers) when walking into a case conference meeting.

What are some "best practices" you feel are important to keep in mind during case conferences?  I'd love to know.  Time for me to grow by listening to your perspective.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Using Pinterest as a Professional Resource

A little over a year ago, I took a position new to me in a new school district as Assistive Technology Coordinator.  I had used several different varieties of AT with students in the past and was excited to learn about other AT tools that my new school district already had in their inventory.  Now that I was going to be the "go-to" person for all things AT I felt the need to create a system (preferably categorized) which would provide me with a list of tools in my toolbox.  So I created a list of what we currently had on hand.  But wait...what was I going to do with all the tools mentioned on blogs and newsletters that I had read about but didn't have on hand and wanted to remember for a rainy day?  I started bookmarking websites with products that I might need to purchase some day if the need for that tool should arise.  But that didn't solve my problem with having a central location to scan through "AAC resources" or "apps that are switch accessible."  So I created an excel sheet and categorized tools; started adding images to provide myself with a visual...what a mess!  And too time consuming.

I met with my district's Technology Instructional Specialist and asked her how in the world she kept all these tools/ideas accessible to herself and she said, "Pinterest!"

Pinterest? I had a personal Pinterest account. Like most people, I had made some wish-list boards of products that one day I would like to buy for gifts or ideas of how to decorate my house.  But associating it with work?  I hadn't really thought of using it in that way.

I set out to create a Pinterest account for professional purposes.  I created category boards, pinned the websites of the tools that I already had in my tool bag, and started pinning tools that I didn't have access to but might want to purchase in the future.  I started pinning blog posts that contained wonderful information on how to implement tools and instruction into the classroom.  What resulted was an immediate, easy, user-friendly way to keep myself organized.  I also saw another benefit; many of the teachers that request consultation meetings with me for AT needs do a great job of articulating the environment and task that a student is struggling with...they also do a great job of explaining the tools they have already tried.  But many teachers always end with one common statement.  "We know this student could use some assistive technology.  We just have no idea what's out there."  That's when I open up one of my Pinterest boards.  I can provide a visual of some products that we can trial with their student, links to videos that demonstrate how to use the tool, train on the tool, set up the tool, etc.

Instead of flipping through several vendor catalogs or trying to remember a website with a web tool that I read about three months ago, now I just open up my Pinterest account and start browsing my boards.  Regardless of your role in education, Pinterest is a great place to store those great ideas you know you will have to access someday.  But before you get started, there are a few things you need to consider:

Tips to keep in mind when creating a professional Pinterest account:

Always pin from an original source.  I don't re-pin anything onto my professional boards.  When I click on a tool I want to directly link to the website that sells that tool or blog providing information on the tool.

Be careful with images.  Occasionally I will run into a blog or website that I want to add to a board but it doesn't supply an image that I can pin.  In these circumstances, I either directly contact that company or person and ask them for an image I can use with their permission or I search the web for a copyright free image to attach to my pin.

Put thought into pin descriptions.  When I pin a website or tool that I don't' currently have a need for but might in the future, I try to label the pin with a phrase or statement that will adequately remind myself later down the road as to what features this tool has to offer.

Learn from others.  Before I started creating my own boards I checked out other Pinterest users who were also using their accounts as a professional resource.  I collected ideas on how to categorize my boards and arrange them into a layout that would accommodate my needs.  Here are some Pinterest pages that I took a good hard look at before creating my own:
Lauren S. Enders, MA, CCC-SLP
Lesley Karpiuk, Technology Instructional Specialist

Check out my boards for AT tools, apps, AAC resources and more at