Saturday, November 28, 2009

Discovering Assistive Technology: Module 3, Review

Inspiration is an excellent tool for the visual learners. Geared towards grades 6-12, Inspiration provides tools for creating graphic organizers, concept maps, and outlines.  Users can transfer information from a diagram form to an outline, with very little trouble.  This is a great feature that transitions students from the pre-writing phase to their rough draft.  Users are also able to hyperlink text and utilize a variety of templates as starting point for their projects.  Students will find this digital format of a traditional pre-writing activity extremely motivating and helpful as it organizes their information in several different ways. With licenses available for an entire site ($995.00-$7,200.00), it is possible to implement across the curriculum.  Inspiration is also available as a single license ($39.95).  Users should be warned however, that linking ideas together in the web format can be tricky and may cause problems in the resulting outline if not taught carefully.  Although this is not a reason to forego buying this product, it is something to  consider when teaching this tool to your students.

Kurzweil 3000 is also an impressive tool that will support students in reading, writing, and study skills.  Designed for students across all grade levels, Kurzweil 3000 provides aural and visual support for any reading or writing activity.  Whether scanning print material or accessing web-based text, the software will read and highlight words for the user.  A dictionary feature is also available.  Students will also receive editing tips and spelling corrections when writing.  Kurzweil 3000  comes with a set of study skills tools that are designed help students in all areas of the curriculum.  Of most importance, this software allows students to become more independent, even as they still require assistance in reading.  Priced at $2,695 for a pack of five licenses, the software is expensive but will be an excellent tool for small group of one-on-one support.  Besides the pricing, the downside of this software is the computer generated voice.  The unnatural sound may make it awkward for students and in the context of some sentences, words may be misread.

Discovering Assistive Technology: Module 3, Implementation

The software packages that we looked at today were both excellent examples of assistive technology.  In my district we have access to Inspiration and software that is similar in function to Kurzweil, Read and Write Gold.  Using Inspiration as an example, many assistive software is good for all students and not just a specialized population.  The planning and organization tools in Inspiration provide an excellent backbone for all writing or research projects.  All kids can benefit from the visual nature of this software. That being said, implementation of assistive technology becomes easier when we can integrate it into our curriculum, instead of seeing it as an add-on.  The only struggle in this case is getting to the point in your instructional planning that you not only plan for content but also the mode in which it is delivered.  I think this is crucial.  With students who learn in so many different ways, providing multiple instructional modes engages students in the learning style that suites them. By using these software packages that are geared toward the visual and provide tools for information organization, we reach a whole group of learners who appreciate the visual.  So in short, one way I plan to implement assistive technologies is to use the software that we have more strategically, reaching different types of learners within the scope of a unit.

Secondly (and this is short, I promise), I have texts that are difficult for many students.  Those who especially struggle are English Language Learners and those with a learning disability in reading.  In the past, I have used GarageBand to record myself reading the text, as a podcast.  Students can then listen to the text and follow along in the book for visual reinforcement.  I would like to experiment with the software Read and Write Gold.  This will allow me to scan in texts and worksheets, providing my students with support through oral reading. My only concern here is that the computerized voice seems unnatural and may be a distraction to students.  Just a thought...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Discovering Assistive Technology: Module 2, Websites and Thoughts about Hardware

I appreciate the opportunity to look at products that are available to assist students with learning.  As a teacher in 6th grade, I have never been in the position to even consider purchasing such materials.  In fact, I am not certain how much our librarian even has to do with these purchases.  I would assume many of them come out of special education dollars and occupational therapy money. That being said, I really appreciate EnableMart and how it is designed.  From previous posts, I am sure you have realized that reading is a special interest of mine.  With the organization of EnableMart, I was able to hone in resources that could be used to support students in reading. Instead of just organizing by type of technology, it was categorized by the support it would provide. For the professional who is looking for new tools, this is an important feature.

As evident in the final video we watched in this module, assistive technology is providing opportunities for people to communicate in way that was not possible before.  The keyboards that are available currently can adjust to the particular need of an individual.  I am especially impressed with those that have multiple layers for the keyboard, accommodating many different needs. The touch screens that are available assist those who struggle with poor hand-eye coordination, but also could be an appropriate accommodation for students who are new to communicating with a computer.  I think that this is an important point. Although assistive technology may have certain populations in mind, they are also making communication much easier for many groups of people.

Discovering Assistive Technology: Module 2, Accommodations

One possible accommodation is to utilize a modified keyboard for students who struggle using a standard keyboard.  This could be easily implemented in a special education setting but also could be available to classrooms and computer labs.  Having keyboard overlays, such as the ones available through IntelliKeys, allows for many different students to benefit from one product.

Although I did not discover this through the module today, there are many simple ways to use technology to support students who have difficulty reading.  Having directions, study materials, and even text available in audio format will help students who struggle with reading get the necessary information in their content area courses.  In fact, this is an accommodation that could benefit all learners.  Using GarageBand, a teacher could record summaries of his/her lectures, a five minute review session or even an audio version of a portion of text.  These audio materials could assist all students in their learning.

Within our district, I have also observed teachers use the program Tumble Readables to support reading.  This audio book player, is available through subscription and provides text along with the audio.  I have recently had students just sit at my desk and read, using headphones and my computer.  Because our district had made this service available, it took no advance planning and was an easy way to engage a student in reading who was struggling by himself.

Discovering Assistive Technology: Module 2, EnableMart

I am always looking for ways to assist students with their reading.  The supports that we often give students with a reading disability leave them disinterested in reading (my opinion only) and feeling dependent.  They are necessary measures, but as students get older they become more and more conscious of the different way in which they are approached.  At the middle level, this is not positive.  The following tools would helpful in keeping students engaged in reading but also allowing more independence.

The Readingpen scans text and will either translate it or define it, allow readers to quickly continue reading.   Students with a reading disability are often stopped, dead in their tracks, by words that they don't know.  And many are not sure how to move on when that happens.  Although this tool won't alleviate that problem, it will make it easier for them to continue while teachers model strategies for them to use when that situation occurs.  This will also be extremely helpful for increasing fluency.

The Classmate Reader is a portable audio book player that will also highlight text as it is read.  It also works apart from the computer allowing the student complete independence.  Students will be able to read texts that engage them, hear them being read, and follow along. If they read out loud, this will help increase oral fluency, which is a crucial part of reading.  Having the support of the audio behind them will be encouraging and enable them to read in ways that they could not without the tool.  However, the iPod Touch, which is only $190.00, compared to over $500.00, can perform the same tasks.  And although it may have limited selection in comparison, the iPod Touch can also be used to play podcasts, which could be just as valuable for struggling readers.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Discovering Assistive Technology: Module 1

In making accommodations in the classroom, teachers don't usually get caught up in the argument of whether or not to make them.  We recognize that we have students that will need appropriate modifications in order to meet the high expectations that we have set. I believe that most of us realize the necessity accommodations.  What is difficult, however, is knowing what is appropriate and how the modification can be appropriately implemented.  It is hard to know how to approach each situation and sometimes we get stuck.

 The first site in our discovery exercise, The National Federation of the Blind, is an excellent example of a clearinghouse that provides technique tips, lessons, and encouragement for teachers who are needing to apply different strategies. The instructional videos on teaching math and science were especially helpful.  Seeing how teachers apply tactile methods to engage their learners in the same objective as sighted students was extremely helpful.  Using the same, or similar methods, with other students who are also tactile learners could be encouraging to blind students who may feel that they are being singled out.  It also is an excellent reminder to include those tactile experiences within our curriculum, making them available to all students.

Although I am still not sure how I would approach introducing Braille in my classroom, I see its value for  creating an environment that is safe for all learners.  The NFB has available curriculum, such as Braille is Beautiful, that is suitable for the 4-6 curriculum. As someone who has no experience teaching Braille, or having a blind student, I would need a more structured curriculum to begin with.  However, I also wonder if using a student who already knows Braille, as an expert, would be empowering experience for that student.  Having a student prepare lessons, with my assistance, may help him/her feel that what makes them different is seen as an asset to rest of the class.  Just a thought...

As I said in the opening paragraph, knowing what accommodations to pursue is more than half of the battle.  For teaching students with a learning disability, I was extremely impressed with the resources available through the National Center for Learning Disabilities.  The center's website,, provides quick and helpful overviews of particular disabilities and what impact they have on students.  Most helpful for me are the lists of modifications that are recommended for a variety of students.  These can be used as reactive interventions but also would be extremely effective when pre-planned.  Although some depend on the availability of certain assistive technology, many of the suggestions are easily implemented across the curriculum and would be great for all kids.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Week 9, Thing 23: Summarizing My Thoughts

As I was considering graduate work in library science about two years ago, a mentor of mine at Concordia College brought this program to my attention.  I was very impressed with its focus and the way in which it inspired "playing" instead of just watching.  Even though I started with the best of intentions, I was unable to keep up with it.  However, as the 23 Things became a part of my coursework, I was thrilled to be able to make a second attempt.

Because I already strive to bring the 2.0 world into my class as a way to engage students, this program just inspired me to do more and think even more broadly.  Tools, such as Flickr and Delicious, had been on my radar, but I had never attempted to use them.  I failed to see what role they could have in my classroom.  The whole idea of social tagging seemed ridiculous and I often questioned the point of its existence.  But as I played with both tools, I saw the advantage of teaching students how to classify and use classification online, as well as use the tagging as way for me to more adequately find sources that other people have deemed useful.  The social aspect of social tagging, ensures that someone finds the tag useful.  And if that someone has the same interests as you do, there is a high likelihood that those tags will be useful to you as well.  Both tools are great resources as we continue to teach students how to determine main ideas, classification of knowledge, and being global (and online) citizens.

I am hoping that this program can be used as professional development within my district. I truly believe it would transform the way that we look at teaching. As a member of our 21st Century Skills Committee, I would strongly recommend the use of the 23 Things as a model for professional development.  One thing that hinders us, however, is the that many of these tool are blocked sites for our district.  I am wondering how we could get around that.  The larger question, is how do change the mindset of blocking to a mindset of allowing with caution?  When we block, we avoid.  When we allow, we have the opportunity to teach how to appropriately use these tools.  For our current middle schoolers, they need lessons in how to communicate in this format.  How can we do that if the tools that we need are blocked?

The only mini-frustration I had was that a couple of the links were no longer active.  To me, it is crucial that those links be checked and dropped if they are no longer existent.  They will just be frustrating to those of us trying to explore and might discourage future curiosity.

That said, this exploration and play at its best!  I took much longer than I am sure I needed because I got caught up in the learning.  Isn't that what we hope for our students?  That they get caught up in it?  Thanks for a great journey!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Week 9, Thing 22: Audiobooks and eBooks

Although I think that not having the physical presence of the book somewhat changes the experience, e-books can be a great gateway for our tech-savvy students who are resistant to reading.  I just read an article published by the University of Central Florida that presented an argument for the use of digital book talks in the classroom (  Their main argument was that students may be more inclined to read if there is some familiar technology involved.  I believe that this argument would also support the use of audiobooks in a similar fashion.  Students may be more inclined to read if the material was in a digital format.  I am impressed with what the Gutenberg Project has been able to do with limited support from volunteers.  They have a wide selection of materials that also can be found in audio version.  The service is great, but the interface leaves a lot be desired.  Also, the fact that each chapter has to be individually downloaded may discourage some readers from using the product.  On the flip side, the British Libraries service has an impressive interface and is the complete reading experience.  You can actually turn the pages, as well as listen to a well-read narration. I was impressed!

As for audiobooks, having the audio available for students is a powerful way to reinforce fluency.  As students are able to read along with a spoken text, they will find that they are able to practice more confidently and possible read texts that they would not be able to read otherwise.  Because there is no audio version of text book available, I have used GarageBand to create an audio version of selected chapters.  This is especially appropriate for ELL, students with a reading disability, and others who may need a supported text.  This also allows students who are ready to read the text on their own, a chance to do so.  But, I am also looking for other sources for free young adult audio recordings.  There are some available through iTunes U, but otherwise I am unsure where I can find them.  Any ideas here?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Week 9, Thing 21: Podcasts

Although I am a complete believer in podcasts, I can only follow about two at a time.  I currently am following This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me from National Public Radio.  These two casts I have followed for about four years now and I am able to keep up with.  However, I have tried several times to subscribe to newscasts from the BBC, programs about money management, and book review shows, but I have not been able to sustain the third for very long.  With subscriptions, and now  the increased ability to subscribe to everything, one has to consider what they can realistically manage.

With that said, I love podcasts and podcasting!  I am an iTunes user so I was a bit leery about trying a new podcatcher.  I was a little disappointed with 23 Things when I clicked on the link for Yahoo Podcasts, only to find that Yahoo had discontinued their program about two years ago.  I guess I would expect that link to be updated on the blog.  However, I did venture on over to and found lots of podcasts of interest.  I did subscribe to the weekly podcast for middle level educators put out by NMSA.  Their interview format provides helpful insights for teachers at the middle school level.

As far as podcasting for middle school students, I have found that there is huge appeal.  As a Mac school, we have access to Garage Band, which is a great podcasting tool!  It is so easy for students to get the hang of and then to explore to make more advanced podcasts.  I have done big podcasting projects, e.g. the students create a promotional video for their favorite state park.  The only piece I have yet to figure out is how to have a group of thirty kids record without getting background noise from the other students or signing out the lab for over a week.  I also have found that podcasting is a great way for students to share pictures and information from trips they have been on.  Instead of sending students with a lot of homework during their trip, I will often ask kids to bring back photos of important landforms or sights they have seen to make a podcast and share with the class.  This has been a great way to bring the world back to my classroom and to promote learning even while on vacation.  Just a thought...