Monday, November 19, 2012

“Sunshine is reading” – A true story!!

I’ve always been a reader.  I was a bookworm kid, a bookworm young adult, and even though I read less often now, it’s mostly because I’m an obsessive reader – once I begin something, I have a complete inability to walk away from it until it’s done, rendering me both oblivious and useless to the outside world for the better part of a couple days. I usually try to stick to either quick easy reads, or not read unless I’m on a long vacation (more than a weekend!) As a teacher, reading aloud to kids has always been one of my favourite parts of the job, and the three years I spent as teacher-librarian before taking on Room 10 were often a blissed-out blur of awesome picture books and rich nonfiction.
Don’t get me wrong – we read in Room 10.  Sunshine is completely obsessed with books and loves nothing better than being read aloud to, and we often read short, patterned books aloud as a group. But Room 10 has also reminded me what I had forgotten about reading on a very fundamental level – it is the key to unlocking the world, and doubly so for my kids, some of whom may never end up using verbal output as a functional mode of communication.

As I got to know my students better,  I was determined to find a method to teach them to read, especially Sunshine and Giggles, who have quite a lot of verbal function. I started here, with a method developed by Patricia Olewein and recommended to me my a beautiful and brilliant SLP that used to work with our school.  If you’re interested in the process I’ve been using, read on... If not, just skip to the end where I tell about the wonderful thing that happened today! J

Boiled down, the concept is fairly simple – cut out the complication of sounds and letters, and teach kids to recognize words as pictures, which plays on the tendency of kids with ASD to have visual memory (matching) as a relative strength.

Names blurred, but you get the idea! Grid 1 with pics, Grid 2 without.
Now, if a kid has strong affinities, that’s always a good place to start – with the names of favourite items or characters – nouns that are concrete and easily identified. For my girls, I decided to start with their classmates’ names.  They could both verbally identify their classmates both in person and in photographs, so it was an easy start – matching name cards with grids that had both pictures and words. (*Note to those attempting this – have MULTIPLE grids for each of these steps, and change them up, so that your kids don’t  simply memorize where the words go!*) Once they can do this accurately, move on to grids without the pictures – matching word to word, and making sure they can identify the words.  Now with my girls, they can identify the words verbally, but if a student is non-verbal, you can still move on to this step by having them match the words, then asking them to add a correct picture to ensure comprehension.

Once they had established the learning style with names, I added small high-frequency words that would be easy to practice in different contexts – I chose “my”, “is”, “the” and “this”.  The procedure was the same, but without pictures.  To be honest, I’m not sure how you would do this step with kids who are completely non-verbal, as it would be hard to move beyond word matching to recognition without a concrete visual to pair this with. For my gals, it consisted of having them match, and then giving a verbal model for them to repeat, until eventually they could match and tell me the word without me prompting it.

One of the little iPad stories...
Throughout this step, I paired the word grids with simple texts that made use of the words in context – Level A & B readers from our bookroom, printable books from online reading sites ( and are two of my faves), and simple books that I made up myself on our classroom computer or iPad (using a great app called Book Creator for iPad).  I would read these with the girls right after doing the grid activity, trying to build context for seeing these words being used to create meaning.

Finally, last week, I created an activity set to move on to the next step – sentence building. This is key for kids who, like Sunshine, are learning to use ACC such as Proloquo2Go, and are eventually going to want to build sentence spontaneously (hopefully!) The activity took the words they were already familiar with, and paired them with unfamiliar but known verbs and nouns, paired with pictures, to create meaningful communication. Too much jargon? Check out the picture – I put their names in a baggie with the words “is”, as well as some action words like “skating”, “reading”, and then used them to take turns building sentences. The other baggies has “this”, “is” “my” and “the”, as well as nouns like “book”, backpack”, “train”, etc.
Sentence building kit!

Fast forward to this afternoon.  Sunshine has been having a challenging day, but seems to be calm in her word period with me and ready to focus, so I grab the new activity and decided to give it a try.  New activities can go either way with Sunshine – either she’s really into them and loves the novelty, or she’s really not into them and it creates inevitable meltdown city. I crossed my fingers and dove in, laying out three little piles of words – names, “is”, and the action words.

“Let’s make some sentences for reading,” I instructed. “My turn”. I took her name from the pile and placed it in the holder, touching it and saying it, which she of course repeated. I then did the same with “is”, and then chose “reading” – her favourite.  After placing each one, I touched each word and repeated “*Sunshine* is reading.”

“Your turn!” Without missing a beat, she picked out a name and placed it in. I prompted her visually to add “is”, and then she quickly scanned the action words and picked “eating”. When she finished, I touched each word in turn, and she read back to me “*Mr. Intense* is eating”.

Insert HUGE reaction from me here – lots of praise and excitement – her fave - and then going back and forth, we quickly made 6 sentences. Then she read all of them back to me. More HUGE reaction.  Then she read all of them back to one of my TA’s to further excitement, and off we went for a celebratory wagon ride, with me doing my happy dance the whole time.  When our principal popped in later in the day to check in, I was telling her about our success when Sunshine came over to say hi, and when I asked her if she wanted to read to Mrs. Principal, she with almost no hesitation read back the two completely different sentences that I had created to show her the activity! Needless to say, it was a very happy day in Room 10 no matter what else happened today!

So that’s our reading magic – it may not work for everyone, but it’s sure working for us! 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

“It’s beautiful!” Yes little one, yes it is...

So after the rose-coloured outlook from my last post back in September (has it been that long?!), the other shoe has, of course, dropped.  After all, the magic of the first two weeks of school can’t last forever, right?
Here’s the thing... There is crap that happens in Room 10.  Frustrating, maddening crap. Every day. Materials get destroyed. Bathroom accidents that aren’t really accidents. Food dumped all over the floor every day. Screaming, flopping and tantrums. Endless hitting and hair pulling. Strategies that suddenly stop working. Crap. Crap that makes me want to quit my job and get a nice, quiet office job with predictable, quiet paperwork, where my only bruises would be from bumping into my own desk and I would never have to end my day wanting to crawl under my desk and cry... (Ok, maybe that last bit happens in desk jobs, too...)

HOWEVER, (and this is a big however) while I’m pretty sure that quiet desk job wouldn’t have nearly as much crap, I’m also 100% sure that it wouldn’t have all the amazing moments, as fleeting as they are, that happen in Room 10 every day. So I could write about the crap, or instead, I could tell you some of the wonderful.  And I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a little wonderful in my day, so here goes...

First of all, this pic. We’ve been getting out a lit this fall, joining other classes for bi-weekly skating at the local arena, walking to the grocery store to get snacks and ingredients for cooking, and going to the local bowling alley for some fun and “heavy work”! It’s been a beautiful fall, and this shot was taken en route to the skating rink.  I know you can’t see their faces, but they’re all grinning, enjoying the day and the sunshine and the ride.  Also, that’s Mr. Intense and Miss Sunshine (my super-prompt dependent gal) together in that little wagon.  They are the most aggressive of my bunch, and the facts that they are cohabitating without injury, let alone enjoyment, is a miracle in itself. 

Several weeks ago, I was the first to venture to our designated washroom in the morning, and arrived to find the drawer units and garbage can all moved around.  Luckily, I was with my newest buddy, who didn’t care, so I just quietly moved things back as she did her business, puzzling.  It dawned on me pretty quickly that they had finally replaced the drywall along one side, which had been pretty grimy and damaged, and that there was now a nice, clean wall along one side – hence the displaced items.  She didn’t seem to notice, and as we headed back to Room 10, I promptly forgot about the wall.  Later that morning, I took Miss Sunshine down... and all went pretty regularly until we had finished washing our hands and got ready to leave.  As we turned to go, she pulled away from me and zoomed over to sniff the new wall, tilting her head to check it out (she’s also a smeller!). She’s pretty rigid, so it didn’t surprise me that she had noticed, and I said out loud “Yes, we got a new wall.” She thought about this for a second, and then turned to me and pronounced “It looks beautiful!” It was awesome – spontaneous, situationally appropriate and a completely new expression from her! In fact, despite the ongoing obsessive issues and dependency, Sunshine has had some really amazing steps this fall – she’s started to greet familiar people by name, is completing her independent workstation beautifully (most days), and is LOVING our bowling trips. Her very best moment came this week, though... I was at my desk filling out report card envelopes, filling and writing the kids’ names on each one while the kiddos had their Choice time (preferred activities) She wandered over to see what I was doing and proceeded to read each child’s name, correctly, as I wrote them! I was so very excited – out of context, without prompts! Officially time to start some sentence-building activities, methinks...

Mid-October, we went with the second grade classes to visit the local pumpkin patch.  Not only did the kids manage really well, but some of them even enjoyed parts of it! Despite it being a very cold, rainy day, the wagon ride was a hit, we had only one major meltdown (my Little Guy was terrified to walk across one of the fields for some reason and had to be carried!), and everyone made it home with a mini-pumpkin as a souvenir.  Each class also got a big pumpkin to take back, so the following week on Halloween, we figured we might as well make it into a class activity, not really sure how it would go, and check it out!  Two of them even helped to scoop it out, which was a huge shock, and everyone seemed to have a good time.  In fact, they’ve been doing really well with group activities this month.  Both my planning time teacher and my student CYW tried clay activities with them, and the HPE teacher had them make Vietnamese spring rolls with the other health class one day last week.  Not only were they delicious, but 4/5 kids actually ate them – HUGE score! I even managed to snap a pic of all five of them sitting, together, without support (at least for the few seconds it took to get the shot!) while making their edible playdoh... a rare and lovely moment captured for all time! (We substituted sunflower butter for the peanut butter and used chocolate chips to decorate.)

You know what else is awesome?  Getting STUFF for my kids.  I know money isn’t everything, but it sure as hell helps, and my poor principal has learned to lock up the school accounts when I appear at her door, because I’m constantly working to get stuff for my kiddos from any angle possible. In all honesty, she’s been very supportive, but it’s a bit of a running joke in the building that the PHE teacher, the Teacher-Librarian and I are the triumvirate of spending and always have a scheme up our sleeves.  So last winter, I got my teacher to sign off on a grant application for the S’Cool Life Fund – a proposal for about $3000 to put a softplay corner in my Movement Room (our gross-motor classroom next door). Steps, a slide and a covered trampoline... which doesn’t sound like a lot, for $3000, but so goes the world of educational supplies... Anyway, I had completely forgotten about it when my principal appeared as my door a few weeks ago, waving a phone message and a smile.  Lo and behold, we had gotten half of what we asked for, and they were going to be coming to our school assembly in November to present us our giant cheque! (I’ve secretly always wanted to hold one of those!) Of course, the grant didn’t cover the full amount of the setup, so we had to forgo the covered trampoline (we’ll just put our regular one over there – for now... ;), but after a promise of some extra $ from parent council and a sweet 25% discount from the fine folks at Flaghouse (they rock!), we should be getting our softplay corner within a few weeks!

Also in “stuff”... In our precious little Quiet Room (multi-sensory room, for those who are new here!), huge final steps!  The spotlight which has given us endless grief (4 burnt-out bulbs since last May, at $25 ea. to replace!) was finally replaced – I emailed Flaghouse to complain when it burn out yet again, and they immediately credited me the whole amount of the item, which I them used to buy a rotator motor for the disco ball and some new oil wheels for the projector (did I mention they’re awesome?!).  Instead, I found a new source for an LED spotlight, and bought that, which arrived in record time (within a week), got installed, and promptly transformed out little room into one mezmerizing, amazing disco party! *Shameless plug* I love the folks at Flaghouse, they’ve been wonderful to me, BUT didn’t have what I wanted in this case. Enter TFH Special Needs Toys... HOLY MOLY are they fantastic!  This was the second item I’ve ordered from them (last time it was the oil effect projector no one else could track down for me), and both times, the items arrived super-fast, in boxes covered in stickers and with a handwritten note inside.  Seriously, if you need anything, check them out (no, I have no affiliation – they’re just awesome!) – they have divisions in CAN, the US, the UK, and five other countries.  Anyway, Mr. Intense was fascinated with the installation process (drills, ladders and such), as sat still on a beanbag and watched while our custodian and the board maintenance guy worked their magic, and as soon as they wrapped up, all five kids and all four adults piled in and sat in blissed-out disco heaven for almost 30 minutes until the bell rang for snacktime.  It’s beyond awesome!

The new disco ball in action!
On top of the disco-mania and also in “stuff”, we had a visit this week from our superintendent.  Last time I saw her was in the midst of all the adult drama from last year, so it was a nice change to have a visit when things are going well!  She was touring the school as a whole, but I made sure to hang about as my principal showed off our Movement Room and bragged a little about the impending grant.  The Super mentioned that there was a ton of federal money being thrown around for sensory rooms, and that she would hook us up with the high school that had just gotten $60 000 to build one... what?!?! To which I replied – nicely, but with a touch of snark – that we had raised the $16 000 for ours all on our own, and weren’t they lucky, and maybe they could lend us a little bit to get the very last piece we’re missing in ours. She, with a smile, took the bait, and asked what was left, and I let her know about the $600 beanbag platform (chosen to replace the $2000 vibro-acoustic one that I figured I should give up on!) Less than 6 hours later, she had had her secretary transfer the funds to our school, with an email that read: “You do such great things for these special children. It takes patience, skill, and support to make wonderful things happen for these precious kids. The least I can do it find the funds for your beanbag chair. I know the kids will love it!” Woot, woot! Chalk that one up to having caught her in a good mood, but whatever it was, it means that our little room will be completely complete within a few weeks.  SO amazing to finally see closure on something that was such a huge project less than two years ago!

Finally, our last piece of wonderful happened yesterday – the school was having the annual Remembrance Day assembly, and we wanted to try and attend, as usual. We always wait until everyone else is there, so that my kiddos aren’t sitting and waiting too long, but by the time we arrived, the gym was packed to the brim with kids, staff and visiting parents of the close to 60 kids that were involved in the presentations. We split up – Two of my TA’s and my student CYW took Sunshine, Mr. Intense and the Little Guy somewhere toward the back near an entrance, while the other TA and I headed across to the far wall with Giggles (my big girl) and Mouse (my new gal who’s quiet as anything), and parked it on the floor with the other kids.  I literally had no idea where the rest were at the back, and miraculously, I didn’t find out until almost 45 minutes later, because all the kids were good as gold through the entire thing and barely made a peep! When it finally ended and the crowd began to thin, I spotted them in amongst the parents on the chairs at the back, the adults grinning madly and giving me thumbs-up for the kids’ stellar success during the assembly (which was beautiful!) In fact, I event had time to reflect in the quiet that maybe next year, I could get Giggles and Sunshine to participate in some aspect of it... I bet they could learn a poppy poem just as well as any of the kids! J

So yes, there is crap, but who needs to think about the crap once it’s over? I read a lot of awesome blogs by a lot of amazing people (check my Facebook page for some links to their fantasticness!), and each one is different.  Crap has its place – it’s useful for learning from your mistakes (or those of others in similar circumstances!), and for many folks in the Autism world, taking about the crap is a way to unload and find support and community and the knowledge that you’re not alone (especially those who are incredible autism mommies and daddies!) But I don’t want Room 10 to be famous for the crap – I know from reading that there are enough examples out there of how school can be a very unhappy, unfriendly place for kids on the spectrum (and others!) I’m gonna go on the assumption that my readers prefer to hear about the amazing, exciting things that can and do happen, and maybe bring some hope and support to people that school can be amazing – and there are tons of teachers and classrooms out there just like mine that are trying hard to make it so. 

So in the words of my Sunshine... “It’s beautiful!”