All posts by Michael D. Roush

Technology Integration Specialist,. Proud proponent of Universal Design for Learning, Assistive Technology, and presumed competence. Adjunct Professor of Education at Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio.

Try Eyegaze on Windows!

Have you ever wanted to type on your Windows computer without using your hands or your voice?  A growing number of people are controlling the computer using little more than small head movements.  This technology, commonly referred to as “Eyegaze,” benefits users with motor issues that prevent them from operating a computer in ways that are considered basic to many people.  Such users may include those with ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Cerebral Palsy, or Muscular Dystrophy.

In its early days, eyegaze technology was incredibly expensive.  The only way most people who could most benefit from this technology could acquire it was by participating in medical or therapeutic studies where the cost of the technology was covered.

Now, you can download an eyegaze interface program to your Windows computer for free.  Actually, Camera Mouse is nearing its 10th anniversary as a freely available program, thanks to the people at Boston College.  When paired with on-screen keyboard software, everything that you could do with the keyboard and mouse can be done with your computer’s webcam, just by moving your head.

So, where can you get on-screen keyboard software?  In Windows, you already have it.  The one that comes with Windows is perfectly adequate.  In fact, the on-screen keyboard built-in to Windows 10 includes word prediction capability.  This can make eyegaze typing significantly faster.  Eyegaze typing typically works by registering a “click” after the mouse cursor stays in the same space for a set period of time (“dwell time”).

Simpler on-screen keyboard software is also available.  Two programs that are designed to work well with Camera Mouse and incorporate a text-to-speech option are Midas Touch and Staggered Speech.

I am typing this sentence using eyegaze and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard.

Yes, it’s slow.  That sentence took me over one minute to type.  But for a person who cannot use a standard keyboard or speech-to-text technology, typing a sentence in 60 seconds is a gateway to a fundamental communication option that opens up meaningful participation in the world.  Once a user gets more practice with eyegaze technology, they generally will want the “dwell time” reduced from one or two seconds to a half-second or less.  If I were to practice, and tweak the software settings, I could soon get to a point where I can reproduce that sentence in under a minute.

And, thanks to the technology, if I store a commonly-used sentence in a memory bank, I can reproduce the sentence in far less time than it would take me to type it conventionally, with my 55wpm fingers.

So, why would you want to use Camera Mouse and the Windows on-screen keyboard?  Here are three great reasons!

  1. The Lure of the Gadget – Some people avoid unfamiliar technology because of a fear of it not doing what is expected.  Some people, on the other hand, just can’t resist trying a technology just to see what it does.  If you’re the type who has a natural curiosity for technological wizardry, eyegaze is a super-cool interface to try out!  Camera Mouse doesn’t disable your built-in keyboard and mouse, so any time you need to bail out and shut off the eyegaze tracker, you can do so easily.
  2. Contribute to advancement – Eyegaze technology – and other assistive technologies – continue to get better because of the feedback developers get from users who try their software and give them feedback.  Most advancements in software design and capability started with a user who said, “Y’know, it would be great if this could….”
  3. Build Empathy – If you ever encounter a person who relies on such technology, you will have first-hand experience with what they deal with – both the struggle and the possibilities.  Also, should you happen to work with an individual who has difficulty using typical computer interface controls (e.g., keyboard and mouse), you can more effectively introduce and support the use of eyegaze technology for that individual.  Supplementary or alternative interfaces such as eyegaze give people with significant motor impairments a way to use computers to do many things that typical people take for granted.

For the college course I am teaching, I plan to have each of my students take a turn at using Camera Mouse and an on-screen keyboard to type a sentence.  I will not be grading them on how fast they type the sentence.  I will not be grading them on how few mistakes there are.  I don’t even care (much) if they remember the name of the program we will use or if they practice and get better at it.  My goal is for them to build empathy for the kids they will one day work with who either rely on eyegaze technology to effectively communicate, or who could significantly benefit from such technology.  When the rest of the group is in a typing class, there is no good reason why a student who does not have the physical capacity to type on a standard keyboard should be given some alternate activity that has nothing to do with typing.

But, making that a reality in our schools will require the efforts of educators who demand equity and excellence for every student, regardless of any disability label they’ve been given.


Supreme Court Renders Decision in Special Education Case

The current eight-member Supreme Court has handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Endrew F. v Douglas County (Colorado) School District.  The decision vacated the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling.  The Tenth Circuit had decided in favor of the school district,  ruling that “the child received some educational benefit while in the District’s care and that is enough to satisfy the District’s obligation to provide a free appropriate public education.”

As the case was argued before the Supreme Court, that standard of “some educational benefit” was a central issue.  Had the district in fact done enough to provide Endrew the legally-mandated free and appropriate public education (FAPE)?  If not, the parents would be able to recoup the cost of tuition for the private school Endrew began attending.

The Supreme Court’s opinion establishes that merely providing “some educational benefit” for a student does not meet the district’s obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

My thoughts…

  • How on earth did every lower court rule in favor of the school district?  This fact shows me that we still face a great number of people, in and out of the education world, who believe “every kid deserves a good education… well, but not THOSE kids.  They can’t handle it.”
  • Even in ruling for the student in this case, the Court left plenty of indication that it’s perfectly acceptable to settle for a lesser level of achievement for students who have a disability solely on that basis.  This is flat wrong.  If the student’s label were one of race, religion, or socio-economic status, there would be outrage about low expectations for the student.  Presence of a disability should be no different.
  • In its opinion, the Court holds that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  That last phrase will be taken as permission to greatly reduce expectations for students with disabilities, but doing so violates the first part of the statement.  Defining “appropriate” progress is the core of any IEP meeting for any student with a disability.  But, wholly discarding the state’s regular academic standards is not required for developing an IEP.  In fact, the IEP should outline the steps that will be taken to permit the student to reach those standards, not what the student will do instead of them.
  • Even the NEA filed an amicus brief in support of the student, against the district.  Bravo, NEA.  In a case where many typically-vocal proponents of high-quality public education have remained strangely silent, the NEA stood for the student over the system.  I appreciate the political volatility of speaking up in this case (either speaking against a public school district, or speaking in favor of low academic expectations), but silence cannot improve this struggle.
  • The Supreme Court’s opinion in Rowley was that students with disabilities must be offered educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities,” and that standard has not been changed.

The conclusion of the opinion of the Court states, “At that point, a reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.”  And because the Court didn’t (and shouldn’t) define appropriate progress, it is imperative that every parent and every educator strongly advocate for appropriate progress towards the same standard every student is expected to achieve, and not a barely-more-than-minimum substitute.

The Power of Stories to Share Hope

On March 1, 2017, I saw a whole lot of awesome.

My daughter, Amelia, was invited to attend a private “Launch Party” for a brand new booklet, published by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s (CCHMC) Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (DDBP).  The booklet is titled “Sharing Hope: The Stories of our Patients and Families”, and it will be distributed free of charge to families of individuals who are referred to DDBP for various reasons.  The booklet contains brief articles written by individuals who have previously been referred to DDBP, and their family members.

[Download the booklet, PDF (6MB)]

Amelia’s page in “Sharing Hope”.  By the way, that stone wall behind her is Chateau LaRoche, the Loveland Castle!

Amelia’s story is one of 26 articles featured in the booklet.  The article is a summation of the contents of my “Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know” Ignite-style presentation.

I had an opportunity to meet some of the other honored guests there, and I feel very privileged to have met such wonderful people!  Reading some of their stories after meeting them just makes it even more powerful to me.  Families of people like Lily, Vineet, Patrick, Andrew, and so many more, have willingly told their stories with the intent of conveying encouragement and hope to others who are just learning what a diagnosis of “autism” or “down syndrome” or “spina bifida” will mean for their lives.

The impact of a powerful network of caring professionals is what keeps CCHMC near the very top of U.S. News & World Report’s list of best children’s hospitals.  But, there is something extra to be gained from hearing the experiences of others at a time when most families find themselves starting a journey nobody they know has gone through.

Alongside the best medical treatment available, there is something soothing about a voice that can tell you honestly, “I know how you feel.”  That’s something no medicine can provide.  And, it has a lot to do with why these families chose to own their story and tell it, rather than try to hide the diagnosis that, quite honestly, changed their lives forever.

Amelia’s diagnosis is a challenge, but it is not a shame.  She rises to meet that challenge every day.  That message of love, belief, and hope is conveyed throughout the pages of this booklet, and I am proud to be dad to such an inspiring young lady.


2017 Ohio Educational Technology Conference (OETC)

The 2017 Ohio Educational Technology Conference was held February 14-16, 2017, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.  Thousands of educators from Ohio and beyond gather each year to learn more about technology and the role it plays in supporting educational opportunities for all students.

The Greater Columbus Convention Center is undergoing some renovation, so there were a lot of extra walls in the hallways, and some of the traditionally-available spaces were closed off.  This made finding my way around a little more difficult this year than in years past, and it seemed to have other effects on the overall conference experience as well.

Still, the Ohio Educational Technology Conference plays to its strength of being a showcase, not just of shiny tech tools, but of innovative practices that engage learners and make it possible for them to do things they never could before.  That is when implementing educational technology has its most, and best, impact.  Here are my favorite take-aways from OETC17!

  • Learning about coding an Arduino without actually having an Arduino! – – An “Arduino” is a small, programmable, open-source computer.  Through a simple programming language, anyone can learn about coding and electronics, and the associated skills of logical thinking and troubleshooting (a.k.a. “learning from failure”).
  • Tech-infused project-based learning should not be an “extension” activity made available only to those students who are already exhibiting sufficient achievement in the existing curriculum.  Many students who blossom in such environments would never get the chance to participate if they had to “qualify” by testing high enough in a traditional classroom setting first.  And such opportunities and materials are available and affordable enough now that they do not have to be restricted to just a few students based on phony readiness criteria.  Fredi Lajvardi’s story (chronicled in the documentaries “Spare Parts” and “Underwater Dreams“) is one of high expectations and extraordinary accomplishment.  The untold rest of the story is equally heartbreaking.
  • Open Educational Resources are there for anyone who wants them.  Only our own mindset regarding traditional approaches to curriculum acquisition and management is stopping us from tapping into a vast repository of materials.  Check out OER Commons to get started finding quality materials that you can use, reuse, and remix however you like!
  • There were a lot of people I missed seeing and talking with.  Not having an official OETCx “unconference” was a bit disappointing, but it actually put the responsibility back on me to create and foster those experiences for myself.  I also learned about a couple of upcoming edCamps in my area.
  • Instructional Strategy trumps Tech Infusion every time.  A well-crafted and well-delivered lesson that uses little technology is better than an ill-crafted and poorly-delivered lesson that is soaked in technology.  My goal as an Instructional Technology Specialist is to foster quality instruction first, and then tap into ways to use available technology to improve and reinforce that instruction.  The great confluence of these two concepts happens when we identify ways we would like to teach, but have never been able to before without the use of emerging technologies.
  • Praising effort vs. praising intelligence:

    Of course, you want to know some new (or “new-to-me”) tools that I saw at this year’s OETC, so here they are!

  • – a completely online programming environment with a virtual Arduino!  Get comfortable with the Arduino programming language before you get your hands on an actual board.
  • – Go beyond simple polls in your presentation slides.  Mentimeter allows you to dynamically generate word clouds and ask more evaluative questions of your audience, such as 2×2 grids and slider scales.
  • – When applied properly, Response to Intervention is a powerful framework for raising achievement for all students (not just those identified for special education).  Intervention Central contains a host of resources, strategies, and guides that any classroom teacher can use to make their classroom instruction as effective as possible, closing achievement gaps while maintaining high expectations for all.
  • I also need to say a strong word of thanks to the great people at IPEVO.  For my “Free Google Tools to Support Access to the General Curriculum for All Learners” session, my employers at Forward Edge graciously provided a couple of IPEVO cameras as giveaways to some lucky attendees.  I use them to scan paper documents into Google Drive to execute OCR (optical character recognition).  The representative at the IPEVO booth gave me even more cameras to use as giveaways in my session, which made a few more of my attendees even happier!  If you’re looking for a good quality camera at a reasonable price to use as a document camera, or for taking advantage of the OCR capabilities in Google Drive, look into what IPEVO has to offer!

The Ohio Educational Technology Conference is not afraid to put forward ideas and approaches that challenge the way things have always been done (Case in point: Cable Green, Director of Open Education for Creative Commons touting the virtues of Open Educational Resources and how much it would reduce the cost of buying books, a couple hundred yards away from a vendor hall where publishers have paid for space to sell their textbooks).  I look forward to that energy continuing to inform the direction of OETC, and continuing to influence the choice of keynotes, breakout sessions, and incorporated events.

US Supreme Court hears special education case

On Wednesday, January 10, 2017, the US Supreme Court took up the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County (Colorado) School District. At issue in the case is, “What level of service satisfies IDEA, other education law, and legal precedent?”

A text transcript of the arguments put before the court is available from the website of the US Supreme Court.

Endrew F. has autism.  During his fourth grade year in the Douglas County School District, his academic achievement was slipping, and his behaviors became more and more detrimental to his educational progress.  The family and the district went through many of the typical hoops that families and districts are familiar with in writing (and re-writing) an IEP for Endrew.  Endrew’s family were not satisfied that he was receiving appropriate services under IDEA, and eventually took the step of withdrawing him from Douglas County and enrolling him, at their own expense, in a private school.  The family then sued the district for the cost of the private program, stating that the school failed to provide an adequate system of academic and behavioral support for Endrew.  The district countered that they met all the legal requirements and that Endrew was making enough progress to show that the district was in fact providing an adequate education.

In the last step before the US Supreme Court, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of the school district, stating that if there was any educational benefit at all in what the school provided, they had met their legal obligation.

Here are my thoughts after reading through the transcript and doing some background research:

  1. Words are unfathomably important.  Words like “appropriate”, “significant”, “meaningful”, and “some” come up a lot in these arguments, and in the previous case law.  Each of them is designed to give the due process system its place in examining what is reasonable in a particular circumstance.  This fuzziness may be frustrating in some instances, but it is the very thing that allows individuals the freedom to pursue what is best for a particular child and not be shackled to a particular strategy by a statute.
  2. In reading some parts of the transcript, some of the statements made by the attorneys and the justices seemed to indicate that they have a belief that some kids cannot be expected to achieve grade-level content because they have a disability.  At times, it felt like there was a presumption that “performing at grade level” is the equivalent of “performing at the same level as everyone else”.  This is untrue on its face, and I believe any classroom educator could tell you so.  However, these were not classroom educators in the courtroom (except for one Stanford University law professor).  If this case revolved around a student who was being denied a level of service due to their gender or race, I have little doubt that the arguments put forth by the attorney for the school district would be labeled as horrifically bigoted.  But, because this was a child with autism, it felt at times that there was an inherent acceptance that this child could not possibly be expected to achieve at an academic level expected of every other fourth grader.  Sad.
  3. I’m sure I have a deeper interest in this subject than some, due to the fact that I currently have a kindergartner who has been diagnosed with Autism.  This case could significantly influence the educational environment she finds herself in for the rest of her school life.  To that end, I want better for her than to have to learn in a school district that stands on “we did what we had to do by law, and that’s enough”.

I’m no scholar on the US Supreme Court, but the tone and direction of the questions and discussion as delivered in the transcript gives me good reason to think that the US Supreme Court will rule that there is a responsibility on the part of public schools to provide more than just a “little better than nothing” (or, as the Court puts it, “barely more than de minimis“) education.

The latest reauthorization of  ESEA is titled the “Every Student Succeeds Act”.  The US Supreme Court is about to rule whether we really mean “every student.”




Ten Best Math Instruction Tools

In his excellent TEDx talk, “Math Class Needs a Makeover”, Dan Meyer affirms some basic truths about math class: 1) anyone can learn to be successful in math, 2) traditional approaches to math instruction have poorly served a large number of our students, and 3) making math instruction practical is the key to making it “stick”.  He never uses the term “UDL” in his talk, but the changes he proposes are all about changing how we represent material, how we express our conclusions, and how we engage with the curriculum – the three principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Here are my ten eleven twelve favorite sites to use to support math instruction.  None of them are procedural guides or electronic worksheets.  They all involve building an environment that the student can manipulate and get immediate feedback on their efforts.  Some of them can be done quickly.  Some take longer.  But, they all make effective use of the “problem-based learning” model.

  1. NLVM
    A vast array of math manipulatives, indexed by grade band and by sub-topic (Number & Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, and Data Analysis & Probability). This is a long-time favorite of mine.  Most of the applications are built on the Java platform, which unfortunately means they will not work on a Chromebook.  If you have a teacher station with a browser that still runs Java, some of the manipulatives work extremely well with an interactive whiteboard.
  2. iSolveIt
    CAST provides two iOS apps that keep the goal of developing logic and reasoning skill at the focus, beyond simply providing a right answer.
  3. Interactivate
    Interactivate includes the standard fare of manipulative activities and stock lessons, but goes the extra step of providing ideas and material for Class Discussions.  Also has an associated iOS app.
  4. Illuminations
    The National Council on Teaching Mathematics provides this set of manipulatives, titled “Illuminations”.  Searchable by grade band and sub-topic.  Includes Common Core and NCTM standards.
  5. PhET Interactive Simulations
    Colorado University provides this set of modern HTML5-based manipulatives.  Math is the basis for some, and is a strong undercurrent for many of the science activities.  Because of the modern platform, these work well on just about any device or screen size.
  6. NRich
    Includes printable support materials for class and teachers.  And, it gives you a chance to explain to the class why the word “maths” shows up all over the place!  Don’t get thrown off by the UK terminology, the activities are indexed for US grade levels as well.
  7. SolveMe Math Mobiles
    Without using the words “equation” or “algebra”, this interactive puzzle game provides a great introduction to those concepts, while reinforcing number sense and application of basic operations.
  8. Cargo Bridge from Limex Games –
    The guy has to push the box home.  But, there’s a chasm in the way!  Build a bridge to support the guy and the box, with the limited supplies you have available.  You’ll never hear the question, “When am I ever gonna need to know about triangles in real life?”
  9. “Full Steam Ahead” game
    Math abounds in a set of physics and engineering problems based on the real-life advances designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  As you progress through the early tasks, more types of challenges are unlocked.  Build, Test, Tweak, Repeat.
  10. Math Playground
    Somewhat limited set of resources, but the ones that are available are very useful.  Geared more for upper elementary.  Should work well with modern browsers.
  11. Desmos Graphing Calculator
    A graphing calculator for your browser!  Powerful save, overlay, and editing tools.
  12. Geogebra
    Online graphing calculator, and a host of additional tools for math instruction, including geometry, algebra, calculus, statistics, and more.  Downloadable materials as well as online activities.

UDL and the “Hidden Curriculum”

In the 1992 film “A Few Good Men,” prosecutor Capt. Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) questions Cpl. Barnes (Noah Wyle) about the term “Code Red”.  The term cannot be found in the “Marine Outline for Recruit Training” or the Standard Operating Procedure Manual for Rifle Security Company, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Captain Ross suggests that if the term is not specifically named and described in either of these two books, then it either doesn’t exist or is unimportant. The defense attorney, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), points out that the mess hall isn’t named or located in either of those manuals either, but Cpl. Barnes has never missed a meal. How did Cpl. Barnes know what to do and where to go if the mess hall wasn’t explicitly taught to him by his books or his sergeant? His response is as brilliant as it is simple, “Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.”

School has its own set of unwritten codes and rules. Many students do a great job of deciphering and adhering to these norms by observing them in action. However, some students do not learn these rules so easily in this manner. They are part of what Jean Anyon and others have called “The Hidden Curriculum,” and the phenomenon contributes to achievement / opportunity / support gaps for many students, especially those in historically disadvantaged subgroups.  “The Hidden Curriculum” may include expectations of behavior, content familiarity, and social interaction that are never explicitly taught.  When a student meets these expectations naturally, we deem them “school-ready”.  When a student does not, we somehow conclude that the student is deficient and not the expectation.

In no academic subject area do we expect the students already to have mastered the content before they are admitted to the classroom.  Why should we expect students to have mastered “The Hidden Curriculum” as a prerequisite to being allowed in the classroom, especially when it has not been explicitly taught?

Educators and educational systems can go a long way toward addressing achievement / opportunity / support gaps in their learning environments by looking for “The Hidden Curriculum” and taking actions designed to explicitly teach requisite skills to students who need it.  Or, perhaps even better, redesign those systems to reduce or eliminate inequitable expectations within the “Hidden Curriculum” that perpetuate lack of success for students in historically disadvantaged subgroups.

In other words, when it’s chow time, don’t assume a hungry kid will already know to follow the crowd to the mess hall.

ECET2 is Still Amazing

This year was my 3rd straight year attending the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative regional convening of Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2).  I have been honored to be invited to present breakout sessions at each of the events.

This year’s convening was once again held at the beautiful Salt Fork State Park Lodge, near Cambridge, Ohio.

ECET2 is special for several reasons.  The premise for the event is, as the title suggests, celebratory.  The ECET2 format prides itself on opportunities for teachers to learn from colleagues, and that is the “secret sauce” for ECET2.

What did I take away from the 2016 Ohio Appalachian Collaborative ECET2?

  1. “because i said i would” – Our opening keynote was from Amanda Messer, CTO of because i said i would, an “international social movement and nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept”.  Amanda did two important things: 1) She reminded us that we are, first and foremost, humans who are designed for relationships and interdependencies; and 2) She modeled vulnerability (and the opportunities for growth it brings) when those relationships and interdependencies spit in our collective face.  Teaching is, after all, about relationships – with our students, with our colleagues, and with our communities.  At the heart of every meaningful relationship is a factor of trust, and personal responsibility for one’s own word is at the atomic level for building that.  Many years ago, I read Steven Covey’s “Speed of Trust” as part of a work-based book study.  I enjoyed the book, but I kept finding myself getting knocked off-balance by what felt like relegating trustworthiness to “means” status, rather than “end” status.  In other words, if “being trustworthy” is your strategy for increasing market share, or profits, or stakeholder dividends, you’ve already lost sight of the real reason for being trustworthy, and you’ll abandon it when it doesn’t feel like (or when the data suggest it no longer to be) the most productive option.  “because i said so” restores that simplicity and genuineness to the power of a kept promise.  Watch Alex Sheen’s TEDx Talk.
  2. Colleague Circles – As I tweeted to one of the participants this year, Colleague Circles are “the most dangerous, and the most valuable” part of ECET2.  At other types of conferences, learning from colleagues happens in the margins.  Some participants have learned to seek those interactions out and harness them.  But at ECET2, significant formal time is set aside for participants to gather in small groups to discuss pertinent questions and reflect on what they have learned so far.  Building these relationships, and sustaining them through the use of communications technologies like a shared CMS, social media like Twitter, or even just good old-fashioned e-mail, keeps the fire burning to put into practice what has been learned.
  3. Problem-based Learning – For my second presentation of the event, I wanted to breakoutedu-collaborating-on-cluesmodel an innovative strategy that teachers could take and use in their classrooms.  Back in May, I was introduced to BreakoutEDU by my new boss, Katie Siemer.  BreakoutEDU replicates the “Escape Room” experience without actually locking anyone in a room.  Our workshop participants had thirty minutes to decipher the clues and unlock the box.  They did so with about 5 minutes remaining!  BreakoutEDU is a great example of “The Ill-Defined Problem,” in which participants are actually given as little information and direction as possible, and are then allowed to interact and collaborate on their own to come up with possible courses of action and try them to find out what works and what doesn’t.  This type of learning often feels messy, disorderly, slow, and risky.  Learning that really sticks is usually all of those things.
  4. Animals, Artifacts, and Archery! – A regional convening of ECET2 has the advantage of incorporating local interests for the participants.  Two years ago, Ohio State Parks Naturalist John Hickenbottom was at the inaugural ECET2 at Burr Oak State Park, and he brought along a rat snake that I got to hold!  On Monday morning at this year’s ECET2, John was at Salt Fork along with a large display of animal artifacts, some live animals, and some nature-based educational resources.  It was great reconnecting with John and talking with  He loves his work, and he’s very good at it – much like the teachers attending the conference with me.  In the same space where John was talking about the animal artifacts, there was an indoor archery setup, called SAFE Archery.  I haven’t shot a bow in ages, and I really wasn’t sure I’d know how.  But, I was fairly convinced I wouldn’t do much damage from the seven-foot range we were shooting plastic balls hovering on a column of air.  So, I stepped up.  Bam!  Four for four!  If I ever have to hunt plastic balls with foam-headed arrows for food, I won’t starve!
  5. The world is really a pretty small place sometimes.  One of the organizers for OAC ECET2 in 2014 is a rockstar teacher named Sara Beardsley.  I have known Sara since we were kids, but neither of us figured that out until after I showed up at Burr Oak to register for that inaugural event.  The next school year, Ms. Beardsley wanted to conduct a book study with her class using the book “A Path Appears”, but she didn’t have access to enough copies for her entire class.  So, she did what any 21st Century teacher might do… she crowdsourced it!  As one of the contributors, I received a collection of original (not photocopied) thank-you notes from the students, many of them hand-written.  I have carried those thank-yous in my backpack with me ever since, and anytime I am having a pretty rough day, I pull them out and read through them.  It doesn’t take long for me to remember more important things than whatever temporary ill has befallen.  One of Ms. Beardsley’s colleagues, Mr. French, was one of the organizers this year, and I was more than happy to show him the collection of thank-you notes.  He knew each of those students personally as well, and we had a great time looking through them over breakfast.  The book and the project hopefully made a lasting difference in those students’ lives.  Their kindness to me has made quite a difference in mine.

I have posted blog articles with my reflections on the 2014 and 2015 convenings previously.  [2014 ECET2] [2015 ECET2]  If you would like to bring an experience like this to teachers in your region, check out the National ECET2 site for more information.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Musician Marty Stuart tells this story about a famous fellow Mississippian:

Marty Stuart.“Now there was a young man from DeSoto County, Mississippi, who found himself a mentor in one Dr. Robert Khayat, who at the time was a professor of law at the University of Mississippi.  One of Dr. Khayat’s greatest gifts is recognizing and unlocking the greatness in people.  In this particular student, he saw a gifted writer.  And it all started with a law exam.  The student was given four hypothetical situations.  The assignment to the young lawyer-to-be was to analyze the situations, identify the legal issues, and then elaborate.  Out of the four questions, the young man wrote three great answers.  But on the fourth question, he wrote his best answer, but it had nothing to do with the original question.  Doctor Khayat graded the paper, and in red he wrote, ‘You missed all the issues, but you write great fiction,’ and gave it a B-plus.  Here’s the verdict: the good Dr. Khayat went on to become the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and the student who made the B-plus on the examination paper, well, he framed it and hung it on the wall in the room where he continues to write book after book to this day.  His name is John Grisham, the author of over twenty books. Every one of them is a multi-million seller, now printed in over 30 languages.  And it all started  with the right words of encouragement from a great mentor.”

Every day, we have oodles of opportunities to shine a light on people’s strengths, even in the shadow of their shortcomings.  The kind word invested today can pay off in great rewards later.  Be the bright spot in someone’s day today.

Ready to SOAR

Anyone who works with people who have been diagnosed with Autism knows that they are all unique individuals.  However, there are some general characteristics that are recognizable in many such individuals.

My daughter, Amelia, does best in situations where there is a familiar routine, and transitions are anticipated and done calmly and smoothly.

soar-groupIf you have ever flown on a commercial airplane, you know that the process of getting checked in, getting through security, and actually boarding the plane can be filled with frustration, waiting, sudden changes, more waiting, occasional loud noises, and more waiting.  Some typical people, even frequent flyers, have difficulty dealing with this situation using socially-appropriate behaviors.  Imagine how much more difficult this can be for people with Autism.

Many families have imagined that scenario, and decided that the prospect of flying in an airplane is something they don’t even want to attempt.

Enter the SOAR program.

SOAR stands for “Starting Our Adventure Right”.  The SOAR program at Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is a collaboration of The Kelly O’Leary Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, The Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, Delta Airlines, and CVG.  The SOAR program permits individuals with Autism and their families to get a supported experience of every part of an airline trip – except actually taking off and landing.

For this program, I had to attend a two-hour orientation session at the airport.  This was a very valuable experience!  I met other parents who were there for the same program, and got a lot of information about what we would experience.  They also gave us some excellent visual support materials for what would happen on the actual day of the SOAR event.  These materials included visual schedules for each part of the process, a “First… Then…” board, and some “Wait” cards.  This allowed us some opportunities to familiarize Amelia with the schedules and the process long before the day of the actual trip to the airport.

My biggest takeaways from the event:

  • The cooperation of all the individuals from all the different organizations involved in this event was top-notch.  The TSA agents knew we were coming, and that made a huge difference when we got to the x-ray scanners and metal detectors.  If you are taking an actual flight, it is worth the time and effort to review TSA’s guidelines for flyers with disabilities and medical conditions before you even plan your trip.  Once you know you will be flying, print and fill out the TSA Disability Notification Card to take with you to the airport.  Also, call the number listed on the card three days before your travel dates (ALL departures AND returns) to request the assistance of a Passenger Support Specialist, who will assist you through every part of the security screening where you need it.  These preparations can help avoid lots of frustrations at the screening location.
  • No liquids may be taken through screening.  But, you can take an empty bottle, sippy cup, or other favorite drinking vessel.  Once you’re through security, there will be lots of bodega-style storefronts where you can get (for a price) a drink to put in that cup.
  • All blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, and electronic devices will be expected to go through the x-ray machine.  If someone is very attached to one of those items, prepare them for the time they will be separated from it as it goes through the x-ray machine.  If this includes a communication device, note that as part of the information on the blue TSA card mentioned above, indicating that the individual’s ability to communicate is low to none while the AAC device is going through the x-ray machine.
  • If a stroller or other apparatus can help with keeping the person calm, helping them move from place to place, or assisting with waiting, it is probably worth the extra hassle of taking it and checking it planeside.
  • My daughter, Amelia, had no hesitancy at all with getting on the plane.  Her older brother, though, did.  He complained at home that morning about his stomach hurting (nerves), and that he didn’t want to go.  We used the checklist and other materials that had been sent home with us for Amelia to let Quenton know exactly what he could expect to happen on this adventure.  He read all the rules, and we made sure he understood them.  He went through each step of the processes, and looked closely at the pictures to see if there was anything in them that made him nervous.  In the end, he felt well-prepared not only to go through the process, but to help his little sister make it through this brand new experience, too.  That part of the experience was gold.
Amelia and the pilot for her SOAR adventure.
My daughter, Amelia, and her new friend, “Captain Bob”.

If your preferred airport does not have a SOAR program, or something like it, to acclimate potential passengers with Autism Spectrum Disorder to the rules and routines of commercial flight, ask them about starting one.  The program at CVG would serve as a great model for anyone wanting to bring the program elsewhere.

If you live in the Greater Cincinnati area (I live almost 2 hours away, and it was well worth it), you have a family member who has a diagnosis of Autism, and you even just want to find out whether flying is something that will need more support and practice, I highly recommend the SOAR program.  It is free for families to participate, and the experience is absolutely phenomenal.