Teaching children with a variety of different learning difficulties presents challenges to both the teachers and those in the class, and finding tools and resources suitable for everyone, and that can be used collaboratively, is just one of the hurdles facing educators. The following post is originally form the Office Blog, and is written by Alexis Parker, a special education teacher from the USA, and looks at how she uses Microsoft technology in her classroom to navigate certain barriers to learning.
by Alexis Parker, special education teacher at a K–5 school in Florida.
I am a special education teacher for kindergarten through 5th-grade students who are highly impacted with autism. While every person with autism has a variety of talents and challenges, many of the students in my classroom face similar challenges—specifically in the areas of behaviour, communication and fine motor skills. Six of my students exhibit behavioural challenges when presented with tasks they don’t want to do. Seven are either non-verbal or have limited verbal skills. A few of my students are beginning to use alternative communication devices. Two of my students are able to reproduce letters of the alphabet, two can copy letters given an example, and three can trace letters.
Behaviour, communication and fine motor deficits make it extremely difficult to evaluate what information a student has gained. In a typical classroom, you can assess a student’s understanding of the lesson by asking the student a question, and the student can verbally respond. Or given a worksheet and pencil, a student with typical fine motor skills can complete the worksheet to show understanding of the material. These approaches do not work with my students. Typically, the best way to evaluate my students’ knowledge is through receptive communication avenues. For example, I can place three pictures of food in front of the student and ask them to point to the apple. Laminated folder activities are another tool we use in the classroom, where the student affixes laminated cards onto laminated manila folders using Velcro to answer questions or demonstrate skills. These have many drawbacks, including the expense of laminating and Velcro, as well as the time spent creating the activities. Also, you need a lot of different folder activities for the different skills that need to be taught. After continued use, some students memorize the answers, so it’s not a true indicator of concept mastery. Another method is to use letter and number stamps to answer on worksheets. Let’s say the student is doing an addition problem. Instead of writing the number, the student could use a number stamp to put the correct answer in. The drawback is the student is more focused on stamping than actually completing the worksheet, and you end up with ink everywhere. However, these are three common strategies used in many classrooms similar to mine.
In October 2014, we received a new online, interactive curriculum called the Unique Learning System. We used the interactive features for some things, but I still needed to print out many worksheets. What I discovered was that my students’ limited fine motor skills were preventing them from independently completing the worksheets. My paraprofessionals and I had to physically assist them, thus preventing them from giving independent responses.
At the end of October, I went to a training on OneNote. It sounded like an amazing tool that I could use in the classroom. Following the training, I made my first OneNote notebook for lesson planning. My previous lesson plans included all sorts of codes for which interactive whiteboard notebooks needed to be opened, followed by navigating to the interactive lessons. This was very confusing to my paraprofessionals.
Old lesson plans—interactive whiteboard and interactive lessons.
With OneNote, I was able to put the links directly into the page, as well as any other file I needed—such as interactive whiteboard files, PDFs, PowerPoint slides and videos. This made lesson planning much easier and user-friendly for my staff. When students completed their work on the interactive whiteboard, they were able to demonstrate knowledge of the subject material.
Lesson plans in OneNote.
In December, I decided to create student portfolios in OneNote. Now all the work my students completed on the interactive whiteboard could be saved in the student portfolio. This solved two problems: it reduced the number of worksheets I was printing and it gave the students the ability to complete the task independently. After the student completes the interactive assignment, we write a grade with the interactive whiteboard’s ink feature, which lets you write in the Internet browser. Next, we screen clip it and send it to a OneNote page pre-named with the assignment name. At the end of the week, I move all the assignments into OneNote folder sections labelled by quarter, then by subject. I share each student notebook with the student, and parents have instructions on how to access their student’s OneNote notebook. Now my students’ parents can see what their students are doing in the classroom.
Example of math assignment from student portfolio in OneNote.
In addition to student work samples, I have a section called “Videos,” where I have short videos of the students doing work in the classroom. There is also a section called “Homework activities.” I create interactive whiteboard notebooks for all my students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals and put it on this page. The interactive whiteboard software we use has an iPad app or an online version, which can be used for free.
In January, I procured three Microsoft Windows tablets for the students. This allowed me to do two things: I could now use the interactive curriculum on the tablet, and students could work on their IEP goals on the Windows tablet using the interactive whiteboard software. I created a new section group in each student notebook called “IEP goals” with each of their individual goals. Twice a week we assess their progress toward the IEP goals and send the information to their OneNote notebook. This is amazing! Now my students’ parents can see the progress the student is making toward their IEP goals as well as the errors the student is making. I created a datasheet to track progress so I can easily see when students are getting closer to reaching their goals. Moreover, students are more engaged in doing work on the tablet and are making more progress toward their IEP goals.
Having the tablets and Bluetooth keyboards allowed me to introduce my students to typing. Because most of my students are non-verbal, typing may be the best form of communication for them. As I began writing new annual IEP goals, I started to include typing skills into their goals. One of the goals I wrote for a non-verbal student I will call Mike was to put interactive word tiles with pictures in order to create a sentence and then type the sentence using correct capitalization, punctuation and spacing. He mastered the goal in one month.
Example of Mike’s IEP goal for typing sentences.
Using the Windows tablets also allowed me to get a better understanding of my students’ knowledge base. I started creating various activities, such as cloze and sorting activities, using the interactive whiteboard software to assess my students’ knowledge of the content. Students are able to independently complete the assignments and demonstrate their knowledge. Furthermore, the tablets make it possible for me to stop printing worksheets, and I no longer have to create tons of folder activities.
Assignment before and after completion.
Microsoft OneNote and Windows tablets have had a huge impact on learning and instruction in my classroom. They have given my students a way to demonstrate their knowledge that was previously unavailable to them. They have provided me a way to plan effectively and efficiently. They have also given me the ability to save students work and share it with their parents, so they can see on a daily basis what their child is doing in the classroom and how they are progressing toward their IEP goals.
Student doing an activity on a Windows tablet.