Monday, August 30, 2010

Autism Spectrum Toolbox

You have your new class list in your hands. A new year and a brand new set of students is an exciting and sometimes stressful time of each year for educators. What kind of learning styles will you see? Are you going to have new behavior issues that will throw you for a loop? What will really work to engage your students this year? Although most classes include a range of skill levels and learning types, this range can be increased for those mainstream teachers with students identified on the autism spectrum. How can we best serve these children so the school year can be productive and meaningful for all the students and the teacher?

As the name implies, the autism spectrum includes students with characteristics that vary across a wide continuum. I spoke with a couple of teachers who work with students from all different levels of the autism spectrum and a mother of a wonderful young man with autism. I compiled their advice with some online tools to help teachers with autistic students succeed this year. These experienced teachers stressed that we need to be prepared to teach students on the autism spectrum with our own large toolbox of resources and strategies. Keep a list of ideas and strategies, and if something doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to move down the list and try something new.

Most people on the autism spectrum are visual learners, so it can be very helpful for teachers to include plenty of visual supports in as many areas as possible, from math manipulations to a visual daily schedule. You can also use visual aides to help students tell you things when they are upset, especially when it is to the point that it’s difficult for them to talk. You can add visual supports to daily lessons and include them on classroom signs, bulletin boards, and directions. There are many different icon programs available for teachers to use with autistic students. Unfortunately, most companies charge a decent amount of money for their software. You can try out one of the teachers’ favorite programs for 30 days to see how it would work for your students. Try out the Boardmaker Software from Mayer-Johnson to see how it would work for you.

Another way to incorporate more visual supports into your lessons is to use an interactive whiteboard (if you’re lucky enough to have one!). One source of these programs is Promethean Planet. Check out Triptico E-learning Design and Training for some other great tools for your interactive whiteboard. Thanks to one of our Facebook fans, Ryan Devlin, for pointing out this excellent resource.

You can also go online to find other free tools to help you include more visual aids in your classroom. Many teachers have used comic strips to communicate ideas to their autistic students. Students and teachers can create their own comics to convey messages to one another and to demonstrate learning. Some good sites are ToonDoo and Make Beliefs Comix. Another fun visual tool for all different kinds of learners is Fotobabble, which allows students to make their favorite photos talk.

A big thing to consider when planning your lessons is the sensory triggers your students might have. There are all different kinds of triggers that can be going on in your classroom that you might not notice if you didn’t have a student on the autism spectrum in your class. The computer can often be a source of over-stimulation for autistic children as well. Try this web browser, recommended by Autism Speaks: ZAC (Zone for Autistic Children) Browser. This free browser was created specifically for autistic children. The teachers I spoke with also recommended having a plan for what to do if the students go into sensory overload. Don’t be afraid to ask the special education teachers in your school for advice about what to do in these kinds of situations.

The last piece of advice they gave me was to find out what motivates the student, and use this as a way to motivate them to get work done, or as a behavior plan if needed. As you may have noticed with many of your other students, providing structure to an autistic student and being consistent are of utmost importance. Last, but not least, modify your student’s work as needed. Something as simple as giving a whole sheet of math problems may be overstimulating and cause a melt-down. In a situation like this, fold the paper so that only 1 or 2 rows are showing at a time. Following simple tips like this should help to make this year successful for you and your students with all different ability levels. For more reading on the subject of including children on the autism spectrum in the mainstream classroom, please read this article.

Working with a student on the autism spectrum may seem like a daunting task at first, especially if you don’t have any experience with it. Using simple modifications and lots of visual supports should be very helpful. You might find that it is helpful to all the other students in the classroom as well! I hope you find these resources to be useful to you and your students.

~Peggy's Corner - 8/28/2010~

If You Suffer from Autism, Then You’re Doing It Wrong

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
-- Frank Zappa

Autism is a developmental disorder that is generally characterized by impaired communication and social interaction. Children with autism also demonstrate unusual responses to sensory stimuli. It’s usually diagnosed in early childhood, and is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S. According to the CDC, about 1 in every 110 kids have autism, and boys are four times more likely to be autistic than girls. Chances are, if you haven’t yet had a student with autism in your classroom, you will. Preparing for students who behave and learn differently than “mainstream” kids can be a daunting challenge, and no two students with autism are alike. Students with autism respond best to information presented in a clear fashion that emphasizes the most salient points. Such students may have difficulty in focusing their attention on relevant information, so strategies to help them focus on the things they need to learn is highly beneficial.

As with most students, there is no “one size fits all” strategy to teaching autistic students. Teachers need to carefully review the student’s cognitive abilities, their ability to communicate and their preferred method of communication, learning style, and their level of independence in daily living skills. Certain accommodations will likely be necessary, such as routinely preparing the student for daily transitions, repetition and rephrasing of directions and educational content, possible reward systems, breaking down assignments into manageable chunks, and so forth. Materials to help manage and document these accommodations help to smooth the process of integrating a student with autism into the classroom, as well as chart their progress socially, cognitively, and otherwise.

My picks this week are all from, a site devoted to those who teach children with autism. offers a wealth of information and materials for teachers and parents of students with autism. There is also an online discussion list for parents, educators, and other professionals who teach kids with autism and other pervasive developmental disorders. creator Jason M. Wallin is a researcher and faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Central Washington University, and has been working for young children with special needs for more than a decade.

Planning Matrix A: Individual Objectives
Use this planning matrix to record objectives -- communication, self-help, social, motor, and cognitive skills -- for an individual child in a simple, single-page format.

Behavior Observation Forms
Use these forms to quickly document observations of behaviors. Such observations can be a good first step in a functional behavior assessment or analysis. This document consists of reproducible data sheets -- two versions of an observation form, and a behavioral intensity rating scale -- as well as instructions for using those sheets.

Chaining Data Sheet
Chaining is the linking together of simple component behaviors into a more complex, composite behavior. Use this form to detail and track a child's performance through the steps of such a composite behavior. Up to fifteen steps can be detailed and tracked on this sheet (sheets can be combined if more steps are necessary).

~Joann's Picks - 8/28/2010~

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Impossible Field Trip

In light of the Perseid meteor showers this month, Joann featured a variety of resources about meteors and meteor showers in her post this week. My goal each week is to help you, the educator, successfully bring these resources into your classroom. As I thought about how to creatively teach about this topic, I was stumped for a little while. When I was in third grade, we were able to take a night field trip to an observatory to see a meteor shower. It was such a wonderful and memorable experience, and I know that many teachers would love to do this today. How can we do something like this when time and budget constraints will hardly allow it?

This is a dilemma that we come across more often these days as educators. Since we can’t afford the kinds of field trips we once could, we need to use our imaginations and bring fun and exciting “virtual field trips” into the classroom. If you make a big deal about the field trip ahead of time and make sure you have plenty of different kinds of activities for the students, it can be a successful in-class field trip experience. This can work for all different types of topics, and I put together a list of different ideas for meteors and meteor showers. Feel free to adapt any of these ideas to create the field trip of your choice, without ever leaving the classroom!

Since your class probably meets during the day, it might be hard to take the students outside to see a meteor shower. The internet has many different ways to expose your students to subjects they might not get to experience first hand. Check out sites like the NASA Images site to find wonderful close up pictures of asteroids. If you search for meteor shower images and videos in Google, you’ll find a lot of neat images and videos you can use as well. Depending on the age of your students, you might want to create an Animoto show with music or have your students create one. As an educator, you can get a free account. You just need to sign up here ahead of time so it can be activated before you use it. The shows are easy to create, and fun to watch with music your students select. You can also use podcasts in your virtual field trip. There are some good ones about the Perseids meteor shower on

It’s neat to see the meteors streaking through the skies, but for me, it was absolutely awe-inspiring to see a crater created in the earth by a meteor strike. You could take your class on a trip to Arizona to see the Barringer Meteor Crater, but if you don’t have the time or money to do that, you can explore it virtually, too. First, you can let your students take a virtual tour of the meteor crater visitor center to discover the history of the crater. NASA has a 360 degree tour of the crater and you can even zoom in so you can feel like you are right there exploring it. Do you want to see what it looked like when the meteor hit the earth, creating the crater? Let your students watch this video from the Meteor Crater visitor center. There is also a really neat interactive map of an impact crater, which will allow your students to explore the terrain of an impact crater.

Students always seem to enjoy hands-on activities and learn a lot, too, so I try to include them as often as possible. This impact crater lab allows students to create their own miniature impact craters so they can better understand how these craters are formed and how their features change with different speeds and angles of impact. Here is another example of a lab from NASA that includes more advanced calculations.

There are many different kinds of tools we can use to bring world events like this into the classroom. A neat way to do this might be to blend some of these ideas into different centers in your classroom on a day you deem the “field trip” day. Let’s not let a small budget get us down. With a little imagination, we can make a fun field trip for our students without ever leaving our schools. If you really hype it up and get the kids excited about what they are doing, it can be an exciting and memorable learning experience for everyone.

~Peggy's Corner - 8/19/2010~

Starry Starry Night

You’ve seen the pictures. Maybe you’ve even been lucky enough to see it for yourself. The gloriously colored, amazing annual light show that is the Perseid meteor shower is going on right now, showing at a location near you until August 24.

Divine in appearance, meteor showers happen when planets – like Earth – move through streams of debris left by a comet. The Perseids are the debris field from the Swift-Tuttle comet, which is one of the oldest known comets, with sightings dating back 2,000 years. The Swift-Tuttle comet is also the largest object known to make repeated passes near Earth.

Comets, meteors, and asteroids have long fascinated kids and adults alike. The Chicxulub asteroid is credited by many scientists as being THE asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs; its impact crater is located beneath the Yucat√°n Peninsula in Mexico. A new asteroid was just detected in a region of the planet Neptune’s orbit, in a gravitational “dead zone” where no objects were previously thought to exist. Halley’s Comet, arguably the most well-known comet, is most famous for appearing right before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s only visible about every 75 years or so, and it won’t appear again until mid-2061. If you miss the Perseids this year, the Leonid meteor showers will be visible in November this year, with peak viewing dates of November 17-18.

Most students, regardless of age, like studying space science and astronomy. My picks this week all focus on meteors, comets, and asteroids – those small pieces of rock or ice that make a big impact on our imaginations. The three resources below are all from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a NASA-funded institute in Houston, Texas that is devoted to studying the solar system and sharing the wonder of space exploration with the public. The educational division develops education and public outreach programs, as well as producing materials such as newsletters, lesson plans, image atlases, and other educational resources. All lessons are aligned to national science standards. As always, please be sure to check our Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the week, where we will post links to more resources on asteroids, meteors, and comets for a variety of ages.

A Tale of Trails
Subjects: Astronomy, Earth science
Grade: 4-9
In this activity, students create an “Earth” box containing some of Earth’s biomes, such as desert, forest, tundra, ocean, or mountains, along with Earth’s atmosphere. They then simulate Earth’s encounter with a comet trail and the resulting meteor shower. Students discover that most meteoroids burn up in Earth’s atmosphere and that only a small percentage land on Earth as meteorites. And even though meteorites are evenly distributed across Earth’s surface, some are more easily found than others.

Dry Ice Comet
Subjects: Astronomy
Grade: 3-8
In this activity, students use dry ice and other materials to construct a demonstration model of a comet. Students learn about the structure of comets, such as the nucleus, coma, and tails. They also learn about the interactions between comets and the Sun. While the activity is primarily aimed at kids aged 10-13, it can also be used for younger students aged 8-9.

Space Rocks! A Meteorite Board Game
Subjects: Astronomy
Grade: 4-9
Students play a meteorite board game that reinforces their understanding of the origins of meteors, meteoroids, and meteorites. They also learn about the characteristics and importance of these space rocks, while tackling some common misconceptions.

~Joann's Picks - 8/19/2010~

Monday, August 16, 2010


According to "Curious George" Margolin, “an ‘inventor’ is almost any child under the age of about 9. He…lives partly in the ‘real’ world and ‘much’ in a world of possibilities and make-believe.” This is great news if you are teaching kids 9 and under, but how do we keep this curiosity alive in our older students? The following sites and resources can help maintain this intrinsic sense of curiosity that blossoms during the younger years. Please browse through these resources and search for more that will suit your needs on The Gateway. Good luck, and may you and your students be inspired and innovative this year!

Thinking about young inventors brings back memories of my fourth grade invention convention. I spent many evenings pondering problems in the world around me and how I could fix them. My classmates did the same thing, and on the day of our convention, I was amazed by the variety of ideas in the projects. The inventions ranged from an aluminum can crusher, a pet-hair removing glove, an alarm to alert you when your mail comes in, and even a burglar alarm that turned on lights and flushed the toilet. Although most of the ideas might not have been particularly practical, the invention process taught a group of fourth graders to solve real-world problems around them.

Inventor Ed’s Kids Inventor Resources has some good information for young inventors that can help you bring inventing into the classroom. MIT also has a wonderful collection of resources and links related to inventing and teaching innovation and engineering in the classroom. Don’t forget to check out the PBS Design Squad Trash to Treasure competition for a really neat contest for kids ages 5-19. That contest ends September 5th, though, so you’d have to act fast! Speaking of competitions, check out The Idea Locker from By Kids For Kids, which has links to all kinds of different competitions for young inventors, innovators, and scientists.

We spend our days teaching our students the things they need to learn to move on to the next grade, and eventually, succeed in the world. Teachers also have the important job of keeping the inquisitiveness and wonder of the world alive, and rekindling it when paradigms start to set in. Read this inspiring article by Mr. Margolin about inventing, and think about how you can help change the world by encouraging your students to become young inventors.

In celebration of National Inventor’s Month, I urge you to look at how you challenge your students’ curiosity, problem-solving, and creativity in your classroom. As school begins around the country, it’s the perfect time to step back and look at the big picture of what you are planning to teach your students this year. Can you teach your students to be more inventive and creative while still covering all the standards you are required to teach for your subject and grade? Remember that you can use the standards suggestion tool on The Gateway to discover how the activities you choose will fit in to your curriculum.

Whew! That should give you plenty of starting material to create lots of little inventors in your classroom. I hope you all find at least some small way to encourage this problem solving and creativity in your classrooms some time this year.

~Peggy's Corner - 8/14/2010~


When I was in second grade, our teacher assigned us a project on inventors. It was to be our first research project, where we had to use the school and public libraries to collect information about our chosen inventors.

“I already have my book,” I told Mrs. Flanagan on the day the project was assigned.

Mrs. Flanagan was duly impressed by my efficiency, until she found out that my book was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and that my chosen inventor was Willy Wonka.

“He’s not a real person, dear,” she said. “Your report has to be on an actual inventor.”

I don’t remember which inventor I eventually settled on, but I do remember feeling fairly crushed that I couldn’t write a report on Willy Wonka. To me, he represented the gold standard of inventors – eccentric, solitary, creative. Most importantly, he made candy, which pretty much made him the embodiment of awesomeness. And isn’t that ultimately what inventors do – enhance our lives and make them better?

August is National Inventors Month, which was established in 1998 by the United Inventors Association of the USA, the Academy of Applied Science, and Inventors’ Digest magazine. It’s a month-long event that honors the pioneering spirit and creative vision of inventors worldwide – those men and women who have helped to shape the modern world as we currently know it, and in the future to come. Despite setbacks and numerous failures, they have persevered in the face of adversity and defied the odds to create inventions – some heralded, some unnoticed by the general public but used in everyday life – to make our existence just that much better.

My picks this week feature fun hands-on lessons where students get to be inventors and create their own machines. As always, please be sure to check our Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the week, where we will post links to more resources on inventions, inventors, and hands-on activities for a variety of ages.

Design Squad: Invent It, Build It
Subjects: Engineering, Physical sciences
Grade: 4-8
This unit presents five hands-on challenges designed to inspire kids to think like inventors and engineers. Additionally, the activities highlight how invention improves people’s lives. The unit is available in both English and Spanish, and is aligned to national and Massachusetts state standards. If you need to translate these standards to your state standards, no problem – use our ASN standards suggestion tool that appears at the bottom of The Gateway page for each resource. This resource was developed by PBS’s Peabody Award-winning reality competition series Design Squad, where teenage contestants tackle engineering challenges for actual clients.

Go-Go Gadget: Invent a Machine
Subjects: Engineering, Physical sciences
Grade: 3-5
In this unit, students study the concepts of force, motion, and work as they analyze simple machines (and simple machines found in complex machines). There’s also a design challenge where students become inventors, identify work they want to perform, and they invent labor-saving machines to do the jobs. There’s a strong focus on the design steps in the process of invention - the planning, drafting, construction, troubleshooting, and reliability testing. The unit is also aligned to national standards. This unit was created by Intel Education, which works with schools and communities worldwide to help advance education. They offer free professional development, tools, and resources to help K-12 teachers effectively use technology to educate students.

Designing a Rube Goldberg Machine
Subjects: Engineering, Physical sciences
Grade: 9-12
In this lesson, students apply their knowledge of complex and simple machines to designing a Rube Goldberg Machine. Students calculate the mechanical advantage of 3 of the simple machines in their design and also relate Newton's 3 Laws of Motion to their machine. This lesson was produced by ALEX (Alabama Learning Exchange), an award-winning education portal that provides lesson plans, education-related podcasts, best practices, and Alabama professional development activities. The lesson is aligned to Alabama Content Standards.

~Joann's Picks - 8/14/10~

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Privacy Please

Do you know anyone who divulges just about every detail of their lives to 350 of their closest “friends” on Facebook or a Twitter user who lets the world know where they are and what they are doing 24 hours a day? They post pictures, report their run times, list the restaurants they frequent, and announce their plans. If these people aren’t careful with their privacy settings, they might be letting the world know more than they intended. As parents and teachers, we need to set a good example of how to safely use these sites and we need to teach our students how to maintain their privacy while they stay socially connected online.

What place do these types of sites have in schools? Many teachers are finding sites like Twitter and Facebook to be useful for conversation and collaboration in the classroom. Unfortunately, these sites are often blocked in schools for student safety. Educators and administrators who support allowing access to these sites in schools argue that we have the responsibility of teaching students how to safely use the sites instead of avoiding the problem altogether. For educators in this camp, there are plenty of resources out there to assist you with teaching your students important safety and privacy concerns involved with posting information on the internet. Joann’s featured Gateway lessons from CyberSmart this week include creative ways to help you teach students about internet privacy and safety. Another resource I recommend looking into as you explore this topic is a comprehensive compilation of resources put together by fellow Twitter user Jerry Blumengarten (@cybraryman1), Cybrary Man's Educational Web Sites. He has many links to information, games, and activities related to cybersafety.

How can we help our students discover the long term impact of the things they post online? It is important for students to understand that some employers and colleges check out prospective students’ online profiles as part of the admission or hiring process. When talking to junior high and high school students, it’s a good idea to remind them of this and to teach them how to manage their “digital footprint.” One suggested activity is to allow students with social networking accounts to create a word cloud of status updates or tweets on a site like Wordle. Students and teachers need to know that just about anything they post online can be found later, and a word cloud of things they are posting can give them a good idea of what kind of online image they are creating of themselves. A good piece of advice I heard once is “Don’t post anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want your Grandma to read.” For activities and a better explanation of this topic, please check out Mr. Blumengarten’s digital footprint links. He also has a collection of cybersafety games to add a little fun.

For more information on privacy and safety in social networking, read this article from cnet news about privacy and security on Facebook and Twitter. Facebook also has a page dedicated to safety and a page for ideas about how to use Facebook in Education. You can find some good ideas and tips on these pages to safely and effectively integrate social networking into your curriculum. As always, remember to search The Gateway for more activities about student privacy. There are resources for many different age levels and subjects, and you can use the Standards Suggestion Tool to discover how these lessons can be aligned to your state standards.

~Peggy's Corner - 8/6/2010~

Peekaboo, I C U !

You already have zero privacy. Get over it.
- Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems (1999)

On a recent morning, I spent some time cooling my heels in purgatory – or, in more secular terms – the doctor’s waiting room. Tired of leafing through multiple issues of The American Journal of Orthopedics, I unabashedly eavesdropped on a pair of women sitting beside me. One of the women was complaining about her teenage daughter, who had apparently been grumbling to her parents about the “major” lack of privacy in their house. “So what?” mused the woman’s companion. “That’s entirely normal at her age.” “Yes,” retorted the first woman, “but we found out she’d been posting pictures of herself in her underwear on Facebook!”

While most of us roll our eyes at the ill-considered behavior demonstrated by the teen, the paradoxical attitude she displayed about privacy is one that is increasingly mirrored by society at large. On the one hand, the media is rife with citizen complaints about personal information stored in databases, residential images on Google Earth and Maps, cell phone tracking, and so on. Meanwhile, millions of people divulge their most personal details on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. So, just what is the role of privacy in contemporary society, and how should we educate our students about it?

Privacy is a fundamental human right, and one that is vital to personal independence. Students often don’t realize how compromising their privacy now may come back to haunt them in the future. States, too, often fail to protect student privacy. A recent study found that states frequently collect more student data than is required, and often retain that data long after it should have been purged. In addition to test scores and grades, many systems retain student information such as Social Security numbers, health information, financial data, and disciplinary infractions for years after the student has graduated.

The safeguarding of one’s personal information by both individuals and larger entities is more important than ever, and with much higher risks at stake. Students need to understand that their personal privacy, both in-person and online, needs to be carefully guarded to protect both their safety and dignity.

My picks this week focus on individual privacy, and the difference between personal and private information. The resources below are all derived from CyberSmart!, which is now a part of Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that provides educators and parents with information and tools related to media and technology. I’ve relied on their film and video game reviews for years. CyberSmart! has long been a leader in promoting students’ personal safety and well-being in a digital world; this is a great pairing of two organizations whose mission is to protect kids in a wired world.

What’s Private?
Subjects: Safety, Writing
Grade: 2-3
In this lesson, students learn about how the Internet can foster collaboration among students worldwide. While co-writing a story online, students learn an important safety rule: Before sharing private information in cyberspace, they must get permission from a parent or teacher.

Private and Personal Information
Subjects: Safety, Technology
Grade: 6-8
Students learn they can converse and share ideas and opinions with others in cyberspace. They adopt a critical thinking process that empowers them to protect themselves and their families as they visit sites requesting private identity information.

Online Identity Theft
Subjects: Safety, Technology
Grade: 9-12
Students learn about the methods criminals use to steal identities online. They develop an identity theft prevention tip list and propose ways to communicate their tips to their families.

~Joann's Picks - 8/6/2010~