Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On-line learning for special needs students

Growing in number are the students taking on-line courses in junior high, high school, and college.  While on-line classes may be the right method for instruction for some students, such a method of learning may not be the right method for other students.  The debate about on-line learning for students with disabilities is gaining much national attention and is something that must be looked at based on the needs of each individual student, both adolescent and adult.

In recent years, more students who could not attend traditional classes on campus due to limitations in note taking and mobility, have turned to online classes to get their degrees. A blind person, for example, may have to hire a note-taker for an on campus course, but with the option of taking the class on-line, the educational process for such a disabled person would be made easier and more flexible.
Students with LD may benefit from online learning because online learning allows them more freedom to work at their own pace. People with dyslexia, for example, may read slowly but comprehend what they are reading well when they are allowed sufficient time to absorb information. Furthermore, online classes allow students to print out material covered in class or call it back up on the computer if they need to review it multiple times.
There are some success stories about students with autism responding well to on-line instruction in schools across the nation.  The information reflects a higher sense of self-esteem, greater progress in academic courses, an increased sense of satisfaction with academic courses, and even a stronger desire to work on academics more regularly.  Autistic persons, sometimes, struggle with the social component of being in a traditional classroom.  On-line learning relieves that pressure yet allows for interaction with others in the class via a bulletin board or other on-line communication method.
Sometimes the anonymity that accompanies on-line learning is a tremendous benefit for students with disabilities.  They are less self conscious and enjoy a more leveled playing field than they would in a classroom where they had to be physically present.  They can focus on the academic part of their experience without being treated differently because of a disability.

The bottom in line is that education must be accessible to all.  On-line learning is a possible way to remove some barriers for students with disabilities.  I, for one, am truly happy to see such movement in serving the needs of all students, not just those who can make it to the physical classroom.

Jansen, T.  "Do On-line College Classes Benefit Students with Disabilities."  2011
Vien, Courtney. "On-line Education Can Provide Students with Disabilities a Comfortable and Accessible Learning Environment."  2010

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Importance of Documentation

Keeping a paper trail on a child with special needs is critical for several reasons.  A file can help produce documents that may show a particular reoccurring pattern or a weakness/strength in a specific academic area.  A file of documentation can also show communication efforts and exchanges between professionals and/or the home and school.  A file can help provide much needed information to support the services that are necessary to serve the child with special needs.  Not the least of the reasons to keep a file is because a single person cannot remember anything and advocating for a child with special needs can be an emotional process; thereby, the less the person advocating has to recall from memory the more effective the advocacy efforts can be.

Standard documents that should be collected and organized are as follows:
  • report cards
  • notes from teachers
  • notes from other specialists/professionals serving the child
  • all IEP or 504 plan forms/documents
  • personal notes taken regarding phone calls or meetings
  • medical records
  • standardized and/or district testing data
  • copies of correspondences personally written to the school
  • any communication from the school
  • reports from activities a child with special needs may have participated in during a summer break or such
While this is, no doubt, an exhaustive list, documents will most likely fall into a category listed above.  The critical thing to remember is that documentation is important and cannot be overlooked or left as the responsibility of someone else.

It is best to organize a file in place where papers can be easily retrieved.  An accordion file often is a preferred choice of parents.  I, personally, keep a binder on my daughter with her most current information.  I keep historical documents in a separate file as there are numerous documents.  Find a system that works well and stick with it.  There is little as frustrating as needing to locate a document quickly and being unable to do so.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Writing the College Scholarship Essay Part 2

The initial planning of the essay seems to present the most stress for students.  Starting is often the most difficult part of the entire writing process.  After you have figured out the theme of the essay or the requirements of the judges, it is time to begin the actual writing process.  This is where you will tell your story.  It is important, to begin with, to simply get your story out on paper.  Obviously you will write multiple drafts before you finalize your essay and submit it to the evaluation committee.Keeping the theme in mind, your goals, and your outline, you will write your first draft.  After you have written this "skeleton" and included the basics from your outline, it is time to review the first draft and fill in details that do more than simply tell your story.  You should go back through the essay and show, through use of example, every place you told the judges something.  If you had to work through high school because you had to help support your family, use details to make a personal connection to the judges.  See the example, taken directly from
My family does not have a lot of money. I worked my way through high school at Walmart.
This is a good piece of information to share. However, the message can be made more vivid by sharing more detail.
My family does not have a lot of money. I worked at the local Walmart most evenings and did my homework on the bus ride home or after work.
Much better. Now the judges know that you were very busy and can feel the squeeze of needing to earn money and still get your schoolwork done. One more time.
My family does not have a lot of money. We work together on a schedule so I can earn money for college and stay on top of my schoolwork. Most weekdays after school, I attend one of my club meetings then catch the late bus home. I usually finish my math homework on the ride. I get home in time to grab supper ahead of time (Mom always has something ready on the stove) then work on other homework until Dad drives in at about 5:35 pm. We pass each other in the driveway, transferring keys and information. ("I aced the math test"; "It needs gas on the way home.") The fifteen-minute drive gets me to Walmart in time to punch in for the 6 pm to closing shift. On nights that the family needs the car, Dad drives me both ways. I'm home again by 9:30 pm, in time to chat with my folks and watch thirty minutes of ESPN before going to bed.
Now this is a cool guy in a great family. Everybody participates, everybody cooperates. You can feel the close timing involved in making this situation work. You can hear the easy interaction of people who like one another. You know that this guy is not a robot because he needs a little human interaction plus a little TV before starting over. We like him. Don't you? We'd like to help out this family; they deserve it. Bingo! Your essay may not look exactly like this, but you get the picture.  You need to help the judges "get the picture."

Notice this example is written using present tense language.  Writing in present tense encourages readers to live your information with you.  Use present tense when possible.  Refresh you writing when you can by using more descriptive nouns and verbs for adjectives.  It can make your writing sharper and be more appealing to the judges.  For example, try substituting "he was a tyrant" for "he was a brutal man" or "he was sprinting" for "he was running quickly."

Your introduction is key in hooking your reader.  This example, taken directly from the website noted above suggests a possible opening for a discussion of a student's work with a literacy program.
I am a literacy volunteer. I did not decide to do this work because studies report that 21 percent of adults (over 40 million) in this country are functionally illiterate or because 43 percent of people with reading deficiencies live in poverty or even because 70 percent of people with reading deficiencies have no job or only a part-time job. My reason for becoming a literacy volunteer was much simpler. My Dad couldn't read.
Okay, I'm hooked. I didn't really know how bad the literacy problem is, but, even more, now I need to know if this person was able to teach her Dad to read, and how this person, with an illiterate parent, made it to the point of applying for a scholarship and heading for college.

Transitions are one of the most difficult parts of the writing process.  The trick is to show your reader where they are going next and why it's a logical next step. Try not to use standard transitional phrases like "Secondly" or "In addition." Try repeating the prior thought and connecting to the next task. For example, "The time I saw my mother reading to my father I knew I had to help him; the trick was figuring out how to help.
Rather than using the conclusion to summarize, reemphasize the main point or circle back to the beginning and tie the loop. Consider the example above with the literacy introduction. The body of the essay should have been about the student, her efforts as a volunteer, her feelings about the difficulties faced by those who can't read, her recognition of the gift that reading is, and her decision to pursue a teaching career as a result of her experience. This story begs for a conclusion that answers the question, "Did her Dad learn to read?"

Dad may never read Dostoyevsky
Dad never did learn to read. But through his struggle, I learned that I want to give the gift of literacy to others, the gift that no one has been able to give to my Dad.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Writing the College Scholarship Essay Part 1

During the college scholarship search process, it becomes evident early on that most scholarships require a written essay or personal statement. as a part of the application process.  This part of the application process often causes applicants the most stress, and it is because of this requirement applicants may eliminate a scholarship from a list of possibilities.  Because of the complexities of the writing process, many people struggle with writing an essay. However, the anxiety experienced which comes from this requirement can be minimized with a few tips.

STARTING  an essay is the most difficult part of the process. This challenge presents itself for even the most experienced writers.   Before any writing is begun, the following should be done:
     1.  Analyze and break the question down into manageable pieces
Describe a situation in your life that presented you with a challenge you were uncertain if you could handle. In what ways did this situation challenge you, and what did you learn about yourself during this process?
This particular question consists of three parts (highlighted with separate colors). By identifying the subquestions,  you now have your sequence in which you should begin answering the question in your essay. Make sure you address each part.
     2.  Analyze the Organization – Find out about the organization sponsoring the scholarship.What is the mission of the organization and whom do they wish to help with these awards?  Information such as this helps the writer personalize the essay and speak directly to the sponsors.
     3.  Develop a Set of Goals-  The essay should include some goals that the writer can weave together to develop a theme.  With the above example, the theme could be classified as a "challenge of personal growth" and could easily blend the goals below into a very workable essay.
 Example (referring to the one above):
(a) I have a blind sister.
(b) I was faced with learning different communication methods.
(c) I was confused about my role in helping with my sibling.
(d) I learned I have a deeper level of compassion and commitment.
(e) I learned that I cannot change some things.
     4.  Create an Outline – An outline helps keep the writer focused and organized.  It helps the writer remember what points need to be made, and it provides a skeleton of the essay.  This skeleton helps the writer see  the overall vision of the essay as it comes together.
I. Introduction 
(a) Introduce theme.
(b) Lead the reader into first body paragraph.
II. Body Paragraph 1
(a) Discuss first point, or answer first part of question.
III. Body Paragraph 2
(a) Discuss second point, or answer second part of question.
IV. Body Paragraph 3
(a) Discuss third point, or answer third part of question.
V. Conclusion
(a) Re-emphasize theme, or tie any lose ends left from intro.

All quality essays have an organizational component.  Once this is complete, the actual writing usually offers no great challenges.  The writing component will be the focus of our next article.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Guided notes support learning of all students

Guided notes are teacher developed handouts that provide a framework for students to take notes during a lecture.  This framework requires students to be actively engaged in the lecture by filling in important information throughout the lecture.  In addition, guided notes enhance lecture content and help students organize information.

Students who take accurate notes and use them as a review prior to a performance assessment consistently receive higher scores than students who simply listen to the lecture and then read the text.  Guided notes help increase student engagement because they require students to listen, watch, think, and write.  As a result, student notes are more complete and accurate.

The most common concern regarding guided notes is that they make it too easy for kids or that educators who use guided notes are "spoon feeding" students.  This concern reflects an uninformed view of the advantages of guided notes and the educational research that supports the use of guided notes as an instructional tool.  Guided notes help students organize material, prioritize content, stay on task, and encourage questions.

There are specific guidelines that should be followed if a teacher wishes to use guided notes to support student learning.  Such guidelines include ample space for students to write, not requiring students to write so much that it slows down the pace of the lecture, using power point or other overhead device to project any content that students must write in their notes, and opportunities for students to practice problems and receive feedback from the instructor during the lecture.

Lecture is a the most common instructional tool in middle and high school.  It makes no sense that with the widespread use of this tool students are left to guess what is important or come up with their own strategy.  Using guided notes provides a structure for students that takes the guesswork out of deciphering the important elements in the lecture.  After all, if the goal of each teacher is to help the students master the content's essential understandings, why would we not tell the students what those understandings are and help them master them?  Why make them guess?

Heward, William.  Guided Notes:  Improving the Effectiveness of Your Lectures.  U.S. Department of Education.  Ohio State University Partnership Grant.  nd.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Different Approach to Discipline

Most often, disciplining our children tends to lean toward a focus on the negative.  If you've ever been inside a classroom, the same approach holds true.  Much time is spent trying to use the threat of negative consequences to change an unwanted behavior.  Interestingly enough, usually the battle that takes place between the teacher and the student becomes one of "who has the stronger will" rather than a focus on changing the misbehavior.  It is at this time the situation becomes a recipe for a bad ending for both parties.  Teachers become impatient, throw in a bit of sarcasm or an attempt at humiliation; kids raise their voices, add a pinch of attitude and the entire situation is out of control.  Can you see it?  Can you hear it?  It has happened to me before in the classroom and it happens to me with my own children at times.

What if a different approach was taken?  That "reverse psychology" may work after all.  To get the outcome you really want, focus your efforts on the positive outcome you want and use language and offer options that will get this result.  I don't know about you, but my kids don't seem to fear consequences of a negative nature.  The older they get, the harder I have to work to find a negative consequences that means something to them so that they stop the behavior I don't want.  It is exhausting.  For parents with kids who have ADHD, this situation is often maddening.  I read an article recently about a parent who tried such a different approach.  I wanted to have a "real-life" example of this to share with readers.  The long and the short of it is that he was having trouble getting his daughter to bed one evening after a very long day for him.  He spent a great deal of time telling her what would happen if she made the right choice about getting ready for bed one evening.  He also spend a fraction of that time reminding her of the normal negative consequence if she chose not to be compliant.  After he presented her with both options and was confident she understood the outcome of either situation, he asked her to make a choice.  She chose the outcome that resulted in a smooth bedtime, good father-daughter time, and no time-out. 

I know you might be saying, "Yeah, make it sound so easy" or "my kids wouldn't fall for that reverse psychology stuff."  The bottom line is that sometimes making the right choice is NOT easy for kids, especially those with ADHD.  Thinking about the consequences and then having the developmental maturity to weigh those choices is not something that comes easy for adolescents.  Try changing the approach.  In the classroom, where an entire group of kids is watching may be the perfect place to change strategy.  The kicker is that it must be given time to work.  Negative consequences have been the typical approach so a shift in thinking won't come over night.  Talk up what good choices do for relationships.  Focus on what great things happen to them when they make good choices.  After all, you can always go back to what you know doesn't work.  Trying something new is a no-lose situation.