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The Dangerous World of Autism

23 Jul

When I first ran across this story earlier in the week, it sent a chill through me.  Even almost a week later, it still elicits a strong sense of frustration.  I’m prone to living a rather solitary life any way, not wanting to get out and visit, travel or socialize overly much.  And stories like this tend to reinforce a general view that there’s no place like home.   This is my nightmare on so many levels.   I imagine almost every parent of an autistic child or adult is horrified at just this sort of scenario.  As a person who takes autistic teens out into the community, this is especially troubling.

Charles Kinsey did everything right.  He did everything in his power to protect the person he was charged with caretaking as well as protecting himself, thinking that if he kept his cool, kept his hands up he would not be shot.  But he thought wrong.   And as more facts became known, the excuse the police department gave was that Kinsey was accidentally shot and the real target was the 26 year-old autistic young man, Arnoldo Rios-Soto.  This is not at all reassuring.  The family is justifiably traumitized.  Rios-Soto refuses to take off his shirt, still stained with the blood of his injured caretaker.

This is the sort of story that traumatizes *everyone* in the autism community.  We generally don’t have a bias against law enforcement and would prefer to think of them as natural allies in helping to protect people who can’t protect themselves.  But this is an instance where the the pleadings of the caretaker seemed to be completely and utterly ignored.  He identified himself and told where he worked and what he was doing.  He complied with everything the officers asked.  But of course the autistic individual did not, but continued to play with his toy truck, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around him.  Until his caretaker was shot and BOTH of them were handcuffed.  This policy of handcuffing everyone is troublesome and I’ve had personal run-ins with this before with law enforcement personnel and students with disabilities.  Knowing that almost any encounter with the police will result in getting handcuffed might adds to the frustration.

It has been a rough couple of summers for people in law enforcement and I’ve generally been sympathetic to their cause.  They have a tough job and it isn’t made any easier when deranged and violent people are trying to hunt them down and kill them just because they wear a badge. Here in the Atlanta area, things have been especially tense with protesters on the streets, making it inadvisable to go down town because of the risk of becoming entangled in knots of anger and outrage.

But when did some prudence and common sense go so far out the window?   Couldn’t someone look through a rifle scope and see that it the toy truck wasn’t a gun?  Once Kinsey identified himself and started talking, couldn’t someone interrogate him from a safe distance in order to get more information and verify his story?  Call for back-up?  Fortunately Kinsey will recover, but the only reason no one is dead is because the officer missed.

Generally the officers in my town seem to be supportive,working with and within the community as whole in various charity and community projects.  But it is still hard to shake the images and emotions that a story like this evokes.  Am I going to have to devote an extra space on our AAC devices for “Hands up, don’t shoot”??  And as a parent, I might have to have a particular and peculiar conversation with my oldest not unlike what many other parents in the country have to do.






My Moodle Site

9 Oct

Someone asked me about it and so I thought I would share.  I have no idea how long it will remain up, since I’m not under contract there any more.  But it IS a resource that can still be used by those in the distract or anyone else.  But I have to warn you that this is not a very flashy or polished site.  It was designed to be a work-in-progress and it STILL is!

I’ve been involved in the internet and bulletin boards and usenet for over 2 decades.  I was SO happy when it looked like our district has something where teachers could build and collaborate together.  That tool was Sharepoint.  Each school had its own site and each department eventually had its own site within the school’s site.  I was excited about the ability to have discussions and share things with colleagues within the school, as well as possibly with teachers from other schools in the discussion forums.  But as it turns out, the discussion forums were the least-used areas of all.  No one posted anything except me.  To my knowledge, Sharepoint is still not a place where teachers share thoughts and idea, as they seem to still prefer and rely upon email.

So I began using it to store documents and anytime someone needed a form I gave them the url for sharepoint.  It was the perfect place to store forms or anything else that needed to be shared with everyone, but again, email is still the primary vehicle that is used for this.  Today, the school is beginning to use it as a repository for lesson plans, thanks to a technologically savvy assistant principal who makes the teachers put their plans there.

After about 5 years of being “the Sharepoint guy”, the one who was always trying to get teachers to use this tool provided by the district, I finally managed to make it the tool of choice for our special education department.  The killer app was not the discussion forums or even the file sharing.  It was the calendar.  Anyone could go in and edit that calendar, so that is how we began collaborating on an IEP schedule.  Each teacher could input their name, time and place and then another teacher who needed a meeting for that day could look at the calendar and schedule around what was already there.  As cancellations happened, it became easy to change and adapt the schedule.  Withing the department, it became a very important tool and I feel pretty good about helping them take advantage of it.

There are many better and more advanced Moodle sites than mine.  Anyone with any degree of creativity could make one more appealing, but mine was designed to do several tasks in one place, which is what makes this such a powerful tool.  In our district it is called eLearn, but you can clearly see the Moodle icon when you open up a tab to visit my site.  I also have other courses, but this is my main page and one that I still occasionally work and fiddle with.

I originally was going to make this a real course that new SID/PID teachers could take to orient themselves with the field.  Most of the course elements remain from when I took a staff development class on making the site.  I quickly realized that this was a much more robust platform than Sharepoint was for sharing and collaborating.  However the learning curve here was much steeper, so I still tried to get others into Sharepoint while I worked on my owm eLearn.

In the center is all the course materals.  Sorry if sone of the Teachertube links are broken but they are all still on my channel.  And the server does house a few videos not shown anywhere else.

On the right side, there is a calendar that is linked to my Google calendar.   The main use of this was to share with my paras, and anyone else who needed to know, my schedule for the coming week as well as the scedule for any outings that we had coming up. Again, the calendar is what drove most people to my site as it also had the school holidays and other events built into it.

Below that is just a few links that I would use most frequently as well as my mug shot.  HTML blocks are extremely versatile for customizing content even if you don’t know html natively…which would be me.  I also have a box for behavior terms which shows a random word out of a list of maybe 10.  But some teachers have “Video of the day” or “Word of the day” included on theirs.  On the left side I have an html block with resources that I, or other teachers, frequently use.  I just updated this last week as the paras wanted a way to get to resources for their brand new active board.  Since my site is open to anyone, they could go their regardless of whoever logged into the computer it was connected to.  Thus is was a way to preserve bookmarks.

Moodle is an amazing tool for teachers, students and parents.  My wife and I have often consulted the sites of our children’s teachers in order to see if there was homework, or if they forgot the worksheet atschool we could print it from the site.  But alas, most teachers still do not have their own site or do not update and use it.  At some point, it would be nice if they could all collaborate and pool their mental energy to create a grade and subject specific site.  But alas, despite a lot of lip service to the concept of “learning communities”, true collaboration becomes an afterthought if it appears on the radar screen at all.


12 Aug

Here’s an inspiring message from a TED talk that I watched today– Aimee Mullins talks about disabilities and adversity:

[ doesn’t want to embed..oh well, follow the link for a good 20 minute investment of time]

I thought she did a good job of illustrating the power of language and words.  But there was something there for everyone, because as she points out, adversity is part of everyones life, and a necessary one at that. I also watched her 1998 video, where she talked about her experience in the 1996 Para Olympic games in Atlanta, which is another wonderful story.


10 Aug

I think I’ll talk about students with wheelchairs for a bit because that is foremost on my mind at the moment.

First off, I had a student get a brand new one today.  The Wheelchair Man, the physical therapist and his mother all came to our noisy, crowded classroom in order to be a part of this event.  This is his second new chair with me, as each student can get a new chair, paid for by Medicaid, once every 3 years.  Once the student leaves the school system, it goes down to about once every 7 years.  It makes some sense, since school aged kids are growing and will grow out of their chairs.

Most of my students have custom-made chairs.  This is one reason why it takes several months between the time an intitial request is made and the time it finally arrives.  First Medicaid has to approve the funding which can take a couple of months.  Then measurements are taken and then the thing can finally be ordered.  Basically if you start the process in May, you might see the chair by Christmas.  Welcome to public healthcare.

Customizations include having a seat and back that best supports each unique student.  It also may include custom tilt, brakes and even a custom drive train.  I know of some students who have chairs that can be driven and steered with only one hand!  And then there are the electic wheelchairs which are an entirely different category and issue.

So what is the deal with students in wheelchairs?  Well, for one thing there is the issue of physical space.  They take up a lot of it and they need a lot to move and turn.  There’s also the accessibility issue of getting around on ramps and elevators.  At one time when we had enough adults, we would often ride the Atlanta rapid transit system, and it was a major deal trying to find elevators and places to sit/park the chairs and then tried to negotiate the CNN Center.  But that was when I had only 2 chairs.

Now I have many more.  And when only one student can drive his chair independently, that means an adult has to push.  And in the event of a fire drill, we simply do not have enough adults to move all of our students where they need to be.  Just going to the cafeteria becomes a major ordeal!  Our community time is pretty much a thing of the past because we need enough people to cover and lift and move students during any emergency.  I’m tempted to stop by a nursing home just to get a feel for the logistics!

Over the years, I’ve learned how to make basic repairs and adjustments to most of the chairs.  Wheelchair Man comes to our county about once per month, and that is not enough time to service all of the chairs in the county.  And if the brakes are loose or a belt comes undone, I have allen wrenches and other tools available to make repairs.  Chair mechanic is just one more hat I wear.

Sitting in the same spot, even if it is a custom chair, can get really uncomfortable after a couple of hours.  As a result, we try to move everyone out and about every couple of hours.  Usually around 10:00 we’re full into diaper changing and then positioning students in standers, wedges, mats and tumble form devices.  It takes about 45 minutes to get everyone changed and positioned and it is VERY physically demanding.  I’m usually ready for a break after everyone is in place!  Once students are positioned, we can work with them on the mat or wherever they are to massage and stretch and just help them relax.  After 30-45 minutes, we’re getting back in the chairs and read for lunch.

Transporting a wheelchair is not an easy thing.  Many of the parents have a van with a lift but several do not.  The lift van requires a lot of fuss and bother getting the chair strapped and positioned securely.  Those without a lift usually have to break down the chair by removing the seat and back rest and then fold it.  This is not an easy task and is also hard on the chair.  Plus the student has to be transferred in and out of the chair.  As a result, parents of my students don’t come to many open houses or curriculum nights or other events the school hosts.  It is simply too enormous of an undertaking.  They shop and buy groceries and take care of other business while the student is at school, hence the major custodial role the school plays.  Teachers and school personnel really hate it that schools are mostly in the position of being tax funded daycares, but that is a huge part of what keeps the doors open.We provide safe and engaging places for the kids while parent work or do other activities vital to life.

The special ed. buses are all equipped with a wheelchair lift.  While they may be a bit shorter than other route buses, they are still quite large.  I drove these for community outings for about 7 years, and often the lift would malfunction resulting in either manually getting a kid off or us not being able to go.  One time we had to back a bus up so that a deployed lift fit into the emergency door of a second bus, so a kid could get down and off!  It was a real pain when the lift was stuck on the open position and we were out in the community.

I’m getting yet one more student in a wheelchair.  I don’t see how I’m going to have room for everyone to lay down, stretch out or move around very much.  I arranged my room to create more spaces than every for this purpose, but we’re still going to be short!

Thank you for enduring my rambling on about this topic.  I’m so tired, I’m lucky to be half coherent at all!

ActivInspire Training pt. 2

12 Jun

For my second day of Activinspire/Activboard training, I was involved in trying to complete a project. Of course this was supposed to be aligned to the state standards, and this is where I had some problems. I’m concentrating on math because those standards are SO far away from anything my students can do. They simply are no where near doing anything with coordinate geometry or algebra. So I downloaded a few flipcharts from Promethean’s extensive library and began to modify an activity with shapes.

My kids need a whole lot more that just some objects/pictures to move around, so the first thing I did was associate some sounds with it so they could do some sound matching along with the shapes. It’s a lot of work and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to use very much of it in whatever setting I happen to be in this fall. One thing that I wanted to mention about the software is that it is platform independent, as there is Linux support for the Activinspire software. Kudos to the Promethean team for making that extraordinary effort toward making this available to a wider audience. It’s exceedingly rare for commercial educational software vendors to support Linux.

And thanks to Mark and Beth for clearing up the over-priced pen controversy in comments to my last post. I did make corrections to reflect the updaterd information. While it does make the price of the hardware upkeep a bit less onerous there’s still a large gulf, and the serious monetary outlay causes some unintended consequences that I’ll outline in a minute.

The best part of the day was probably the end when we got to see what other teachers were doing and ideas they had. I’m a total believer in getting teachers to share and collaborate more,but that might just be me, since I often feel so isolated in my own little space. Seeing what others were doing gave me ideas as to what I might try down the road. It looked to me like every teacher universally liked the Activboard and ActivInspire software. But that may change through no fault of Promethean or our own technology department.

I was talking with an elementary teacher from another county yesterday who has been teaching kindergarten for the last 4 years and taught other elementary grades in previous years. She’s a great and dedicated teacher whose student test scores are consistently higher than many of her peers, as she amazingly seems to get most of her students reading within the 1 year she has them without doing any test prep. She simply teaches her kids, the kids learn and the byproduct is that they pass the test. She is also one of the most technophobic teachers I’ve ever met.

Her school bought Activboards and is requiring every single one of the teachers to integrate the Activboard into every single lesson plan and to put the actual plan on a flipchart. Egad. I can not think of a surer to way kill enthusiasm and motivation than to require teachers (or anyone else) to do something. The Activboard is one tool among many, and is not always the best tool for every job, all the time, for every student. Technology offers a way to customize an educational experience toward individual learner needs, but school systems seem determined to force uniformity, conformity and homogenization upon every person in the building!

In order for technology to be leveraged correctly, it needs to be so transparent, in that it can go unnoticed in favor of the learning that is actually taking place. Chalkboards were the major marvel and innovation of 1801, and the model of one board, one teacher and a roomful of students looking on has been mostly unchanged since then. The technology is less important than actual student engagement. And engagement alone isn’t going to allow for substantial learning as much as an environment that is rich in feedback and reinforcement. This is why kids are so easily hooked by technology (especially video games) because the feedback is immediate and individualized. It allows for learning to take place much faster and more efficiently than raising your hand and waiting for the teacher to come around and look at your work.

This is why I advocate schools using lower cost solutions, because when they invest so heavily in hardware they have to justify the huge expense. By making its use mandatory and universal, they suck the fun out of it, and begin killing innovation and creativity which are exactly what active boards are supposed to inspire!

We also did get a chance to see and try a student response system, ActiVote. Many of our schools are getting a set of these. While they do offer a degree of participation and interactivity, it functions alot like the Buzztime (formerly NTN) system I first saw in various Atlanta pubs around 1990 where you could play trivia synchronously with other players around the country. Basically a multiple choice question is posted and kids vote on on it using their little egg-shaped clicker. Collective results are then shown on the screen. The next step, is the ActivExpression hardware, which allows short answer responses and thus more open-ended questions. This represents a significant improvement, but I’m wondering at what cost.

I like the increased focus on interactivity brought by the Promethean technology, but dislike the large cost to schools and the way schools often decide to implement it. I admit I have a large bias towards open-source software and low cost “off-the-shelf” hardware solutions. But Promethean makes the technology more accessible to technologically-challenged teachers through extensive support and making the hardware fairly easy to use. There is a bit of trade-off between the cost of the material and the amount of training required to use a tool. In my opinion, schools should invest more in the training of teachers than the technology hardware that they will use. In other words, teaching teachers to use lower cost tools often costs more than teaching them to use more expensive tools. But since schools always spend more on recruitment than retention, ease-of-use becomes the more expedient bet.

ActivInspire Class: Is the Promethean Whiteboard Worth it?

8 Jun

This is my staff development of the summer, which is a two day class covering a piece of software by Promethean called ActivInspire. ActivIsnpire is the latest software that is utilized with the Promethean Activboard. I’ll write a bit more about the whiteboard itself in a minute, but the class itself was mostly about using the ActiveInspire software.

The software is a really nifty package, filled with a lot of tools and features that a teacher can use to present content from the front of the class. There are some good drawing tools as well as some good interactive lessons. It is graphically and visually rich which may or may not work with my students. My SID/PID students, that is. Let’s face it: my kids are the ultimate in testing for relevance and flexibility and accessibility. I explored around and there are a variety of activities appropriate for k-12. But it might be difficult to bridge the huge gap between where my kids are (never more than 36 months) to where NCLB is requiring (no less than 14 years) so it might be difficult to actually use it. The good news is that it looks like this would work with my Wimote setup.

But this is also the depressing thing. Our school district is ordering tons of the active whiteboards at no less that $2000 each. I can do the exact same thing for less than $100. So can you, and you can do it easily and painlessly by checking out the folks at Penteractive. The Promethean pens, which don’t even contain a battery, cost over $100! (See Mark’s comment below) My IR pen was about $8.

The Wii setup might be somewhat inferior to the Promethean whiteboard. But how inferior is it? Is it 20 times worse? And I’m not convinced that the Wiimote solution is inferior at all. Consider that the Promethean board can not be used as a dry erase board or anything else whereas the Wiimote can work on any flat surface. So why aren’t more schools using this inexpensive and versatile technology? The only thing I can guess is because it looks too geeky. But it’s really not even as difficult as the Promethean board. In fact, it is actually tons easier because there isn’t anything that needs to be bolted or installed on the wall. Penteractive is actually offering support for their kits and at much less than the other commercial products.

If you are looking for an interactive whiteboard, I highly recommend investing in the Wiimote setup. At the very least, it costs so little that it is worth it just to try it out. What you may discover is that you don’t have a lot of use for a whiteboard or that you need more training or that you need more or better software to take full advantage of it. If the technology changes (and it will) the schools are not out $thousands$ per classroom but only hundreds tops. With the availability of the hardware and software, it just looks irresponsible sinking money into technology that will be obsolete in a short amount of time.

Supposing the whiteboard technology is replaced by 1:1 netbooks or smartphones, or it gets abandoned for some reason. The bluetooth and the wiimote can still be used for other things. What happens to an obsolete or broken Promethean board? Could they be used for something else? How easy will it be to dispose of or recycle them?

We are often so anxious to move the new technology into classrooms we give no thought to what happens when it is time to upgrade, replace and move the stuff out. At the least, the Wiimote offers multitouch for less than a single pen from Promethean $100 and offers more versatility.

Having said all of that, the ActivInspire software is pretty good and worth a look. Promethean offers a lot of good support for it and there is lots of premade materials being generated by other teachers all the time. My advice is to invest in the software, but not the boards which are large, bulky and expensive. For what they are charging you could get a lot more interactivity and interest from the full Wiifit game, laptop plus projector and still have money leftover.

PLN for SID/PID Teachers?

22 Feb

PLN = Personal Learning Network and it is the latest buzz word buzzing around. Or at least it’s the latest thing I’m running into when reading about teachers who are into technology and all the latest, greatest stuff.

I’m still trying to figure out what it is, exactly. It’s not exactly cut and dried. Funnily enough, the concept is older than most of the technology that is spawning a lot of the conversation. But there is some good sites helping to guide teachers on how to make one. And David Warlick seems to have the authoritative site on the subject.

So do you have one? Do you need one? Patrick Woessner does a good job of describing the current state of affairs in education. Few people know what it is, let alone have one. In a way, I do have one in the form of the folks in my blogroll and RSS feed. But I feel like it’s not very tightly knit. I’m beginning to see where Twitter might be helpful. But again, there’s that info overload, because of my various interests.

I joined the Classroom 2.0 and there’s some promise there. I invite you all to look around and let me know what you think.

View my page on Classroom 2.0

What really got me thinking about this was a recent wave of comments from colleagues who have referenced the isolation involved in teaching students with severe disabilities. Like our students, we are often in need of the greatest support but are segregated off from the greater teacher community. We can join in extra curricular concerns (if we have time) but we rarely get to connect with others who also do what we do. It’s rare that there is more than one SID/PID teacher in the building and some districts may only have 3 in the whole system! So providing support and ways to get support becomes a real challenge but the technology is there if we want to use it.

Oh well, back to work on finishing up the GAA!