Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Google Docs/Read & Write for Chrome

Google Docs has been P's favorite assistive technology so far. Remember, his worksheets look like this:


It doesn't really lend itself well to typing out answers. P started writing numbers in each blank, and then numbering his answers correspondingly in a Google Doc. The process would be even easier if the worksheet questions were numbered or - dreaming a little dream here - the teacher would put the worksheet into a Google Doc, share it with P, and then just let him answer that way.

P told me, "Google Docs is easy. It's just like writing. Except, you know, typing." It's familiar and simple. The auto-save feature is a huge bonus, and sharing with his teachers is a snap. All of the teachers and students in his district have Google accounts, so it's easy to share his completed Doc with his teacher for grading.

I also really love the fact that his class has regular access to Chromebooks, and that he can use his school Google account to sign into our Chromebook at home. Everything looks just like his school account, everything is in the same place, and homework will be much more seamless with that system.

I had been encouraging P to use Read & Write for Chrome. Read & Write is a powerful suite of tools that work as an extension on your Chrome browser. It can read text, look up words (with words or pictures as a definition), summarize long articles, and more. However, the most amazing tool is the voice dictation. I had students who use Dragon in the past, and it was a nightmare. I'm sure the new Dragon versions are better, but Read & Write is so simple and the voice detection is so good. You just talk and the words appear on the screen, right in a Google Doc. It couldn't be easier.

However, P was not on board. Using the voice input was just too different than typing, and watching the words appear on the screen distracted him from what he was thinking. I've used Read & Write with some of my students with good results, so I was disappointed that P was so resistant to using it.

Then, last night P had to do a worksheet. He misunderstood the directions, so when he was halfway done he had to erase everything and re-do it. He became less and less willing to do the worksheet, and distraction turned to procrastination turned to anxiety turned to tears. After two hours I sent him to get a drink and come back to try again. But when I tried to focus him on the questions at hand, he just poured out a jumble of ideas and partial answers.

"We're going to use Read & Write," I told him firmly. "Enough is enough. Let's just get this done."

So I turned on the microphone for dictation, turned the Chromebook so the screen was facing away fro him, and told him to talk about the questions. When he realized he couldn't see his words, the pressure eased and he quickly verbally explained all of his ideas. Then once he was done we simply cut-and-pasted each idea into the relevant answer area.

"See?" I asked. "Easy peasy. What do you think?"

He was exhausted and grateful. I think he finally sees the value of the program. Now he just needs to practice it enough to feel comfortable using it by himself.

Monday, July 17, 2017

SnapType

Before P left for summer break his teachers gave everyone in his class a long summer assignment...a book to read and a packet of worksheets to fill in about the story.

The sheets look like this...all writing.


With P's 504 plan being so new, there was no time to figure out how he would complete the assignment with his assistive technology. In fact, we don't even know WHAT the technology will be...because I work for the district I know it will probably be Google Docs with Google Read & Write for Chrome, but on paper it just says, "typing."

However, I heard that if you're willing to purchase the technology yourself, the school will allow your child to bring it and use it (how generous). So we're using this packet assignment as an opportunity to figure out what will work for P, and I'm not confining my search to what the district is willing to provide.

When I searched for apps for dysgraphia I really came up short. There are lots of apps for dyslexia, but dysgraphia doesn't seem to have the same appeal to app makers. However, one app that I found and loved was SnapType. I thought this would be a real game-changer for P, and I was all set to plunk down cash for an Android tablet just so he could use it next year. Luckily, we tried it first, and found out that it wasn't the magic solution we were hoping for. Nothing is, really. It's a tool, and a very good one, but it won't be the solution for all of P's problems.

SnapType is a very clever app. You take a photo of the paper or worksheet you need to write on, and then you just tap to add yellow text boxes to type your answers right on top of the photo. When you're done you can email it as a PDF or JPEG to your teacher. The yellow boxes disappear on the teacher's copy, which results in a very clean-looking worksheet. If you get the Pro version you can store images in the app in different folders, so the kid can always keep a copy.


Pros:

Worksheets like this are tough for kids with dysgraphia, and teachers often forget to scan worksheets in for kids who use assistive technology. This allows teachers or kids to make worksheets accessible on the fly. This is a huge plus. 

The folder feature makes it easy for kids to keep their worksheets organized.

This app gives the power to the student in terms of making worksheets accessible.

Cons:

You have to make your own line breaks by tapping a new box. This was hard for P to do when he was typing, because he was concentrating so hard on what he wanted to express, as well as typing it out.

There's no spell check or grammar check. I really miss this feature. I'd be willing to pay more for SnapType with spell check and grammar check.

One thing that isn't about the app, but is a practical consideration...P prefers to type on a real keyboard. I've looked for tablet cases with attached keyboards, and it's hard to find one that still makes it easy to take photos with the tablet. Most keyboard cases make it more cumbersome to manipulate the tablet to take a photo.

All in all, I think this will be very useful to P, and I hope his school will allow him to take a tablet to school to use. This would be absolutely phenomenal for an older student to install on their phone, either as their primary writing tool or just as a back-up to their usual accommodations.

I feel like I should give this a certain rating, like a certain number of stars. But P is past his astronomy phase and is all about steampunk right now, so I give SnapType 4.5 anachronistic goggles. It's a great app.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Floored

So I guess we're getting new carpet.

A few weeks ago my mom called me up and made me an offer. Well, "offer" might imply that we had a choice...instead she informed me that she and my dad do a lot for my brother and sister. They watch my sister's kids full-time, and my dad helped my brother remodel his old house, and he's currently helping my brother build a mini-barn shed on his new property. Because they do so much for my siblings, she said, they want to do something for me. And that something is new carpet in my living room and hallway, as well as painting the living room. 

At first I fought with her a bit...I don't need anyone's help, and I can paint my own house. Even though I regularly solicit advice and input at work for my students and among my friends and internet acquaintances for my own children, I don't ask for things that help me. I take care of myself. But as my protest bordered on rudeness and anger, I began to think, Yeah, they do help my brother and sister a lot. And it would be pretty sweet to have free carpet, and new paint that wasn't the result of my own effort. So I acquiesced, and my mom told me to start looking at flooring samples.

So yesterday I strode confidently into Home Depot like a Real Adult planning on making educated flooring decisions. Fifteen minutes later I left with three laminate samples, two carpet samples, four paint chips, and no idea what I was doing.

My mom had suggested that I just get samples that I thought were pretty. Unfortunately, I can't shake the feeling that there's a choice that's right...the perfect intersection between durability, ability to enhance our house's resale value, price, and appearance. I'm still looking up flooring options because I don't just want to like my carpet, I also don't want to be wrong.

I went through the same thing when I bought a car back in 2014. I researched that car like it was my second job...I read Consumer Reports, looked up information online, kept a list of available cars at just about every dealership in the city, and finally settled on a Hyundai Santa Fe.

I totaled it within a month. The thought of replacing it was so overwhelming that I put off buying a replacement for years. We had gotten by with one car before that, and we went right back to what we were doing. When my husband found a full-time job it meant buying a second car again, and I bought another Santa Fe because I couldn't bear to re-do all the research. Unfortunately, my first Santa Fe was a first generation Santa Fe, and the one I have now is a second generation Santa Fe. FYI, the first generation Fes were awesome vehicles, as are the current iteration of the Santa Fe (the third generation). The second generation Santa Fes were not that great, which means I made a wrong choice, and I'm still mad about that.

I know someone who needed a car and just sort of went to the car lot and bought one she liked. I'm still a little stunned at her approach, and jealous that she could just get what she wanted without worrying about being correct or making the best decision humanly possible.

I know I have to pick out something...but living with plywood subfloors seems like a pretty reasonable option at this point. The splinters would distract me from the feeling of having made a wrong choice.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Assistive Technology

This summer P has a worksheet packet that he has to complete about a novel he's reading. He is less than thrilled about the novel, and I'm sure you can imagine his excitement level about the worksheets. 

But. BUT. It's a great opportunity to practice with the assistive technology he might use next year. And it's a natural opening to email his English Language Arts teacher and say, "Hey, this is my son and this is how he'll be doing his work. And see that hot mess of a job he did in the drawing portion of his worksheets? This is how you can avoid looking at that all year. Win-win!"

Now, I'm an experienced speech pathologist. Not as experienced as my colleagues, as they like to remind me (of the four SLPs I work with the most I have the least experience, although one of them only has an extra year on me). In my 13 years of practice I've worked with a wide variety of kids, and I've been lucky enough to help establish assistive technology systems for students. I'm not talking about augmentative communication systems here, like talking computers for kids who can't form words, but assistive technology for kids who can't read or write. My point is, I'm not an expert, but I've done this before. I've dealt with reluctant students, reluctant teachers, finicky technology, and assignments in need of adaptation. I know that technology is no magic wand, and that it takes work. And yet, I was still surprised when I offered my son a choice between a couple different pieces of technology, and he just said, "Oh Mom...I'll just write as neatly as I can."

"But honey," I said, "remember how hard writing is for you? You complain about your hand hurting and people not being able to read your writing."

"I'll just do the best I can," he replied, pulling the worksheet toward him.

I suppose I can understand that. Way back in 2010 when I gave birth to my daughter, E, I dislocated my sacroiliac joint. It's a little joint at the back of your pelvis, and when it comes loose it HURTS LIKE A BITCH. I could barely walk, and was stranded on the couch each day with a newborn and a 2 year old because walking just hurt too much. I went through physical therapy and it helped a ton, but the PT warned me that I would have to continue the exercises for the rest of my life to prevent the joint from dislocating again. She also warned me that I should get a rolling cart to carry my work stuff in, because holding all of my heavy bags on one shoulder would aggravate my hip.

I usually don't get around to the exercises...and I never did get that rolling cart.

Fast forward to a couple years ago, and my boss got us rolling carts to carry our stuff in. Did I thank her and start using it immediately, to save my hip from harm? Nope. I still juggle my work bag, my laptop case, my lunch bag, and whatever else I have to carry every day. Did I ever experience hip pain again? Oh sure, and sometimes I even have to put on a thick, nylon belt with stretchy velcro straps support the joint until the pain settles down again. But is the pain bad enough to force me to change what's familiar? Apparently not. Familiarity is comfortable, more comfortable than change.

My son is familiar with pencils and paper, and even though it hasn't been a successful relationship, it's comfortable. Unfortunately for him, he has what I don't...a mother who lives with me and is willing to force some change.

"Nope," I said. "You're doing this with technology. We're going to try it out so you're ready to use it next year." 

Sorry, honey. Change is never as comfortable as the status quo, but I know you'll be better for it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Right Direction

This week P and E have been attending a half-day program run by the school district. It's targeted towards kids in the gifted program but technically open to all, so I enrolled E even though she's too young to be formally identified by the district.

Today when the kids came down from their rooms their instructor came with them. "I just wanted to say," she said quietly, "what a pleasure it's been working with P. He's matured SO MUCH since last summer! He's just been wonderful!"

"Oh, thanks, he's definitely done some growing this year," I said, smiling but still cringing a bit remembering how often his projects ended in tears last summer.

"And her," she said, pointing to E, "she's just great. Nothing bothers her! Well, not nothing, but she just keeps going and going, no matter what. Nothing stops her."

"Oh, that's good to hear," I said with a smile. "She was a little self-conscious because she thought she was the youngest kid in the class."

"Oh, she is," the teacher responded, "but she keeps up! She does all the projects!"

"That's great," I said, beaming. It's good to know that E can hang with the big kids...the big gifted kids.

P's teachers, his OT, and now these instructors...they're all seeing growth. He's still not hitting the target, but at least he's going in the right direction.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Trial Run

Today as my kids were cleaning their rooms I was sifting through the papers they'd brought home in their backpacks a week ago. It's the typical end-of-the-school-year avalanche of worksheets, workbooks, art projects, and summer letters for home. In P's backpack I was shocked to discover a thick packet of worksheets, and a few back-and-forth texts with his friend's mother confirmed what I had suspected, and what P had vaguely insinuated...he had a worksheet packet about a novel due when he arrived back at school in the fall.

"I'm actually he has this assignment because it will give him a chance to test run some of the assistive technology I want him to use in the fall," I texted her. "And it will acquaint the ELA teacher with how he'll be using his technology." We exchanged happy-face emojis at the thought, but later on as I paged through the worksheets again, my heart sank. The pages with multiple blank boxes scattered across, with a question and lines to write an answer in each, were visually stimulating to a typical child but a nightmare to my son who has visual organization issues. Should I make him retype every question onto a Google Doc to answer it? Should I let him use an app like SnapType to photograph the worksheet and type or use voice dictation to answer the questions? And if the pages with the boxes seemed intimidating, the pages with one essay question up top and a field of lines below just seemed ominous.

If I was feeling overwhelmed, what could I expect from my overemotional 9 year old boy? Suddenly his 504 plan, which seemed like such a positive step during the meeting, felt impossibly thin and flimsy. What did it provide him, exactly? What had I even agreed to? I didn't even have a copy of it - I had been promised a copy in the mail, but now, over two weeks later, it still hadn't come.

As daunting as it is, I'm still glad we have a trial run. It won't be enough to fully prepare P for doing work in a new way in the fall, but it will at least give us an idea of what issues could come up.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

From G to 2E

Yesterday morning the third graders at my son's school had an awards ceremony. Unbeknownst to me, P won an award for his hard work and improvement in writing. That afternoon P's teacher, the school OT, the school psychologist, and I sat down and found him eligible for a Section 504 plan for fine motor delay with dysgraphia traits. The meeting was largely to quantify his impairment and formalize the many accommodations his awesome teacher was doing, but still. The contrast between the way the day started and ended stuns me.

P has had sloppy handwriting for awhile. It's what brought us to OT originally (although our wonderful OT soon found a host of other issues to work on). It's what made his second grade teacher give his writing assignments "Basic" grades because she couldn't read them, and therefore felt she couldn't grade them. When I confronted her with the fact that his OT said that his handwriting is sloppy because his muscles are weak, she replied that she "knew" he wasn't trying and that he could write well "if he wanted to." His sloppy handwriting made me gasp when I saw his work portfolio in March during parent-teacher conferences. And when I asked him about it, he started telling me that he was embarrassed of his handwriting and didn't want other people to see it. He said that his teacher corrected his papers since his classmates couldn't read his sentences or spelling tests. The production of his handwriting, which was nearly illegible and couldn't manage to stay on a line or maintain a margin, was finally to the point of becoming a disabling condition.

Fun fact, occupational therapists can't diagnose dysgraphia. Only a neuropsychologist can do that. But now, at this point, three OTs have looked at P and said, "Well, I can't OFFICIALLY diagnose dysgraphia, but this sure seems like it..." So on paper P's official diagnosis is "fine motor delay with dysgraphia traits." But in reality, I truly believe that he has dysgraphia. And to be honest, it freaks me out that his problems don't just involve the fine motor act of writing. It involves organization, visual perception, coherence...it seems more like a learning disability than just not being able to hold a pencil. It scares me because the answer to his problems don't lie simply in giving him a computer and teaching him to type...it involves something more, and I'm not sure what will fix it.

I'm also feeling sad because he can now call himself "twice exceptional"...a child who is both gifted and has a disability. Kids who are 2e are a rare breed, and can often fall through the cracks in a system that can barely deal with gifted kids or kids in special ed...when you need both, they don't know what to do with you.

I'm giving myself the rest of the day today to feel depressed, afraid, and teary. Tomorrow I'm drafting an email to the school's principal advocating for a specific teacher to be his homeroom teacher next year. I've already found an app that I know will help him, and I'm going to start researching tablets that he could take to school to supplement the laptop the school will let him use.

I had said that when I retire, I wanted to be an advocate for exceptional kids...both kids with disabilities, and kids with gifts. I guess I'm getting my practice in with my son, who is both.