Beginning the New School Year Inclusively

Beginning the New School Year Inclusively 

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp

As we move into the 2022-23 school year, we have hope that this will be a more traditional year than the past two. We are also cognizant of the issues we still face as we prepare to work with our students. We are going to take a journey that brings in the themes of literacy, access, sensory support, inclusivity, and transparency. At the same time, we will take inspiration from a Paula Abdul song from 1991, “Promise of a New Day”:

So time over time
What will change the world?
No one knows (no one knows)
So the only promise is a day to live, to give
And share with one another

As we move into the new academic year, we are reminded that some of our students are still struggling with literacy and reading skills. Virtual learning took its toll on some students, even with Herculean efforts by their teachers. Learning styles are significant for everyone and our master teachers recognize the needs to have multiple styles of teaching built in for the sake of all learners. This need is heightened for those students who, due to the conditions they face, need structure, consistency, and multiple ways to understand what is being presented. I recently posted a Talkin’ Tech video extolling alternative uses for Alphabet Pebbles. The beauty of these pebbles is the fact that they can be used in classrooms from grades Pre-K through 12, adding a level of physical/tactile interaction to activities. As we look at the other conditions our students face, we see that assistive technology like the Reader Pen or LiveScribe can aid our more developed students while permitting them to display their abilities. Assistive Technology is NEVER a way of creating an unfair advantage and those who argue that point do not subscribe to the ideas of inclusivity. Inclusivity means that students are able to use the tools which allow them to work alongside every one of their peers within that room.

Literacy is so essential in the lives of all our students. As we look at programs like the Science of Reading, as well as other approaches, we see the opportunity to have all of our students understand letters, phonemes, and words in multiple styles. Take some time to reflect on how we can turn lessons involving literacy into something that is tactile in nature. When we look at our students who have moved into lessons focused on reading and notetaking, we must remember that not everyone will cognitively process the information the same way. Incorporating tools that permit text-to-speech principles, along with alternative forms of notetaking (think about taking digital images of your notes on the dry erase board and putting them into a PowerPoint or utilizing the save features within your interactive whiteboard and including those notes into an online PDF), provide all students with alternative access. Research demonstrates that by giving students the opportunity to review notes they may have missed, actually increases the attention they pay within the class itself.

Access also becomes such an essential piece for some individuals. One might not be able to access digital information in the same way as peers. Hence, an alternative mouse, like the Glassouse, might be appropriate, while other individuals may need switches or AAC devices in order to access information and communicate with others. This leads us into thinking about the creation of classrooms with transparent, Assistive Technology. I do not mean that the technology cannot be seen, but transparent, AT is so ingrained within the classroom that no student views it as different or strange.

Examples of this would be to use TalkingBrix 2 as a way of providing students classroom feedback or instructions at a station so that the teacher does not need to be involved. One could use a GoTalk 9+ as a way that students could read a book to themselves. By putting page pictures on the GoTalk 9+ and recording the words from that page on the device, students can then take the book and interact directly with the device to have it read aloud to them. In both of these cases, we are using AAC devices for tasks other than simple communication. In effect, we begin to de-sensitize the neuro-typical students to use AAC devices. Therefore, when a student needs to use the device for communication purposes, other students do not find it unusual because it is a familiar device. Switches can also provide access by taking a switch not being used by someone in particular, like the Jelly Bean or Compact Switches, which can be connected to a light and used like an answer button. By using these devices as something common, it breaks down barriers when students see an individual using one for digital access in other classes.

As we prepare our classrooms, we need to take the sensory needs of all our students into account. Fidgets or kinetic releases are both socially and classroom appropriate. Items like Mad Mattr or Tangle Jrs. are great tools to have available for all students when they feel overwhelmed in the classroom. We must remember that we are in a global environment where anxiety levels are high. Creating sensory breaks and even sensory stations within a classroom will be healthy for everyone. Think about having a corner or location where the students can go to just sit and relax. Adding in an object like the Fiber Optic Lamp introduces light and texture to the area. Breathing activities and yoga can also be used to help students relax.

The most important responsibility to remember for this year is that you need to take care of yourself. Those of you who have worked with me already know that I urge everyone associated with schools to take 5 minutes of “me” or “quiet” time each day. This “me” time is critical for you as it helps to re-center and refresh. The school environment is stressful for all of us who work within it. Ironically, we focus on taking care of our students first and then look to take care of our families afterwards. We tend to leave ourselves out of the “care equation.” We can only give as much as we have, and if we do not have a lot, we cannot give a lot. We need to take time for ourselves daily, as well as engage in other healthy activities, to allow us to be the best we can be! In being the best we can be, we maintain that promise of a new day by being able to share the most we can with our students!


Posted in Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter