Old Teachers and New Technology

I graduated in Art at Central St Martin’s in London and gained my teaching qualification at Brunel University in 1999. I have taught at primary and secondary level and have always gravitated towards teaching children with special needs. I became a qualified SENCo in 2013. Most recently I have specialised in working with children who have complex behavioural needs and who have been excluded from mainstream education. I have also been an Assessment and Intervention Adviser to schools in the local authority where the aim has been to help re-integrating students back into school or onward to more specialist provision.

 

Twenty years in the classroom have flown by, and with it I have seen a lot of evolving technology, changing methodology and pedantic pedagogy. Now, with my grey hair (which I feel I have well and truly earned) and my varifocal glasses pushed up to the top of my nose, I write and blog so that you can @askthesenco for my support. I work for Scanning Pens as their Head of Education and am privileged position to be able to research, advise, create resources, and share ideas. I have time to think, talk and write about how assistive technology is changing the landscape of teaching and in particular, the experience of pupils with special educational needs.  

 

Slow technology and lack of access to appropriate technology remains a frustration for teachers in most schools. The new budget looms and the money is already allocated or spent and our wish list goes back into the drawer. Access to computers and speed of processing is significantly better than when I started teaching. I had a Research Machine computer in my classroom for the first six years and no printer. It took half an hour to load up and I saved all my planning to 3 ½ inch floppy disks that had 1.44mb of space and YouTube didn’t exist. The library was my base of operations and the photocopier was my best friend, unless we were waiting for the Xerox man to come and fix it.  

My mum was a primary school teacher and her best friend was the Banda. In the 1970’s this messy machine would reproduce worksheets which were often smudgy and resulted in inky fingers, and oh, the smell.

 

Grappling with new technology takes time - something which is always in short supply when most of it is taken up doing our actual job. But we know that when we have invested our precious hours in mastering new technology, students flourish, and we have the satisfaction of doing our job well.

I’m delighted when students show me more efficient approaches, put these tools to good use and develop greater independence. Teachers, and in particular those of us who have been around long enough to know that everything comes around again, only in a different package, have a duty to try to keep up. For better or for worse, the tech journey is linear, not circular and this is the world that our students are going to inhabit. The shift to gamification of learning won’t change any time soon. Our technologically enabled students find the apps and shortcuts, create wireless hotspots when the school internet goes down and use their phones to do everything from magnifying insects to plotting constellations. These are the future techno flyers; they are hard wired to adapting to the pace of change even though they may have not mastered playing reciprocal board games or speaking in full sentences.

 

I remain deeply concerned about the students who can’t access learning because their literacy skills are impaired through dyslexia or decoding problems, or because they have not been engaged in conversational skills at a formative stage so have not built the vocabulary. Often, the support needed does not happen at the right time, for a variety of reasons, and as the learning journey continues, self-esteem erodes and the desire to learn is flooded by a feeling of failure.

 

Many young people with reading difficulties turn to their electronic babysitters and drift out of the desire to learn or make progress, and don’t become inspired by or feel passionate about something they have experienced in school. The students we should have identified and supported go under the radar until poor behaviour becomes the refuge for students who are unable to communicate their lack of confidence and weak self-esteem. For me, the heart of the matter is in ensuring that basic literacy is mastered. We need to present opportunities to read wonderful books so that they can unlock the doors to the cultural capital that reading brings. We must identify our weaker readers and support them at an early stage, and this means supporting families and communities too. Technology may have been the cause of some of this problem, but it also provides us with some tools.  

 

Assistive technology is now so important that there is an All-Party Parliamentary Group that regularly meets to discuss the potential benefits of technology in classrooms. If you are looking for a window into the new technologies available, I would direct you to have a look at the BESA.org website where technology is reviewed by teachers. For our dyslexic learners there is at last, a whole raft of supporting tools that work well. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text, image capture, and accelerated phonics programs with virtual rewards for playing. There is so much more choice than ever before and the door is open and hopefully, with smarter technology, we may be able to reduce the human cost of dyslexia with better interventions. 

 

Feed the Reading Beast

Summer break, we are so excited in the first week. We make plans and are full of good intentions, we think, “yes, this is the time to invest, I shall practice marvellous parenting. I will be engaged, positive, imaginative. I’ll encourage crafts, sports, and activities like reading”. And we do, right up to the point where we run out of steam.

After the first bloom of enthusiasm, the holiday seems likely to descend into sibling teasing, boredom, and hours and hours of screen time in darkened rooms. Once this pattern is established guilt and self recrimination will set in. The guilt, that I imagine many of us will soon be marinating in, will have resulted from the lack of boundaries around gaming and screen time. Outbursts of frustration and fury as the young people in the house sink deeper into the bedroom pit are ahead. The fetid fug of rooms where half eaten sandwiches and apple cores lurk become smell of summer. The devil makes work for idle hands. In many houses the devils name is Gaming, once we have welcomed him in, it is very hard to kick him out.

So how on earth do we achieve our aspiration of encouraging summer creativity, and in particular, encourage reading for fun? I know the answer that works for us; feed the beast. The best way to change behaviours is to find the thing that they love and if possible find a way to enjoy it and work with it together. A radical thought, but it does contribute to everyone’s mental wellbeing.

In the world of gaming, there are many marketing spin offs and merchandise options. Minecraft has an abundance of magazines and manuals on subjects ranging from combat to redstone contraptions. If you choose to embrace this challenge you are in for an interesting time. Last summer I found myself sliding into a surreal conversation about how to best construct a Nordic hall. We progressed to the best structural approach to make a suspension bridge. Fortunately, the U. K’s Ironbridge museums are not too far away my home, so I was able to feed the beast with a trip to Enginuity to look at ideas for materials and structures. I even found myself engaging intently on the value of building a T Flip-Flop and the merits of piston doors, knowledge I’d never expect to acquire.

My trips and activities plan continued to evolve. From manuals we moved to menus. If he can craft a pig from furnace to pantry, he should be able to negotiate a real world looking and cooking experience. I planned a day with time spent with a real pig, sheep, and chickens. We visited a farm shop and asked the butcher about primal meat cuts. We collected our pork mince and planned our dinner of homemade hamburgers on the way home. In Minecraft, making cake is a technically challenging procedure. It requires many components including eggs, wheat, sugar, and milk. They are combined and crafted with the added benefit of not putting on any weight IRL, which I am reliably informed means “in real life”. This may be so, but cakes in the real world are wonderful. So many recipe choices, decorating options, packaging possibilities, and then the trips out to deliver cakes to friends and family. A whole afternoon of fun inspired from reading a recipe book, followed by real cake eaten virtuously. 

My how-to advice for this summer is this. Think about the hook, feed the passion, and engage with the subject. The most important thing is spending time talking, sharing, and listening. Reading can be sandwiched into activities inspired by current interests. You may have to move out of your comfort zone and into theirs, but the result will be that you all will have much more fun. I hope you all have a wonderful summer holiday.

Transitions with Technology in your Pocket

Transition is a part of the educational process, it happens between years, between schools, between classrooms, and between teachers. It continues through every stage of the educational process and getting it right can make or break learning progression; it can support or undo emotional and wellbeing strategies.

Some students will have a lot of supporting information that travels with them. For these learners, additional needs may be well documented. The pack might contain an IEP(1), IBP(2), EHCP(3), or a ROS(4). If families regularly take part in wider discussions about health, care, or social needs with a wider team of professionals, the transition support package is usually very thorough. Transition can take place over many months and professionals may meet frequently to ensure learning needs can be met.

For the majority of learners, transition happens without an individual support package and without a learning or behaviour passport. This is because; in a busy school environment it is tricky to ensure that the strategies you have been using flow to the next teacher or school. Teaching is not a time rich profession and as such, with the best will in the world, some information does not get shared. Some of the work will be replicated, and often professionals spend a lot of time re-testing and re-presenting strategies that may have already been tried with students who are not typical learners.  

So what gets lost?  For the individual, it is the relationships with the class teacher that gets lost in transition. There are the strategies and nuances that cannot be quantified in a data-base, gems that flow from great teaching take time to crystallise. Think of a teacher who knows their students really well. They know that in order to establish an individual’s self esteem and willingness to learn, a fist bump and a smile is essential at the start of the day. They may have put in place simple wellbeing support, established basic routines and have soft strategies that enable a reluctant learner to take part. Tools like C3B4Me which encourages self directed learning or break out time with a Sensory Box may not get shared and if it does, it may not translate to the next learning experience.

So how can we manage successful transition and what is the most essential information to share when so many things are important? There is a huge list we could choose from that includes ensuring that friendships can be maintained, sharing emotional health concerns, or providing evidence of success or areas of gifts and talents.  All of these are important but, I would strongly suggest that the most important factor is ensuring that the strategies used for literacy are shared.

Literacy is at the heart of educational progress and when learning gaps emerge it is because the support that was previously in place and the routines and adaptations made to support literacy are not sustained after transition. Because of this many students with additional needs go through transitions with no flags raised.

This is my transition top tip to record the normal way of working in class that has been experienced. At the end of the day, ask your students to take out their learning tools and arrange them on the table top. You may find colour overlays, reading pens, writing slopes, pencil grips, traffic lights, volcano cards, or a card requesting use of speech to text software. Pop the learners name tag on each desk and take photographs of each work station. If you produce learning passports then attach the photo to the document. Other ways to share this information is to send the picture home to parents, and give a copy to the student themselves.

The best way to support successful transition is to support independent learning and awareness of the tools that are essential to that learner. When you have worked so hard to support students with great ideas and strategies through the year, make sure that they can still benefit from your insight. When your door closes and the next door opens you will know they have a literacy strategy picture that they can talk about.  

 

1. (Individual Education Plan)

2. (Individual Behaviour Plan)

3. (Education, Health and Care Plan)

4. (Record of Support)

Four Essential Assistive Technologies For Your Curriculum

Building assistive technology into a future strategy for your students is an integral part of designing your curriculum for the year. Schools have committed to planning a structure for homework and frameworks aiming to deliver spiritual, moral, social, and cultural knowledge, all essential to the healthy development of a child. If however, EdTech planning is not in place, then your school is heading in the direction of a strategic learning gap. Assistive Technology in education, or “EdTech”, can give every student an advantage. Hopefully tools like visualisers, voting boxes ‘classroom clickers’, and tablets are already part of the wider strategy being employed in classrooms across your school. EdTech is no longer just for students with additional needs. It is a tool to raise achievement for all. There is a wealth of technology to embrace that can ensure that all students benefit. As you plan your strategy, it is important to ensure nobody’s needs are left unsupported, particularly SEND students who can gain the most from well deployed EdTech. Without strategic planning we could end up without the tools we need the most. We all know that value for money is an essential factor in our planning, so too is finding ways to maximise the benefits of our spending decisions. With this in mind, here is a list of four assistive techs that are SEND specific, but could be used as a school-wide learning strategy.

1- AI teaching platforms

In more recent years, AI teaching has become more prevalent in schools. This kind of technology will be an integral part of all education at some point in the future, but right now it’s a fantastic tool for SEND students. With the help of this advanced AI, we can identify and address the weaker areas in their knowledge.

Platforms like CENTURY allow for a real-time analysation of student performance by creating sophisticated algorithms based on student response. Teachers can access at this information at any point in the students’ learning. Not only would this make it easy to track the success of SEND students, it can be used for ALL students. This whole school approach allows for a quick overview of usage and progress made. At the present time AI is at the spearhead of EdTech but there are other less expensive options that also have a huge impact with similar routes of access from home and school.

2- Online learning portals

Similar to AI teaching, online learning portals are a great way to keep track of your students’ progress while constantly updating their curriculum and extracurricular needs. These portals can be used from home and are the perfect tool for students that may have extended periods out of school for medical (or other) reasons. Not only will they not miss out on their learning opportunities, they can even collaborate with peers from home. This is obviously enormously beneficial for every student in school, not just those with extenuating circumstances.

One fantastic use of online portals is the manual control teachers can have over each student’s learning strategy. Everything you need; from homework, essays, and even revision, can be uploaded and tracked on these portals.

In programs such as Moodle and Show My Homework, deadlines and important dates can be assigned and highlighted in an online calendar, a useful feature the importance of which is highlighted in the next section.

3- Time schedulers

A skill that we often find underdeveloped in many students at all key stages is their time management. Knowing when a test is coming and how much time they should spend studying is essential support that makes a huge difference.

Abilia, an online scheduler, is just one of example of a great piece of assistive tech that could inspire a whole-school approach. This support was originally made for students with ASD and ADHD. By scheduling their day-to-day activities, students are able to become independent where they otherwise may have struggled.

Previously, ASD students might have had a serious anxiety attack if their pattern were to change without warning. With the help of a detailed online scheduler, they can now be informed in real time of these changes to their day. A change in a regular teacher, form of transportation, study time, and any other daily activity can be updated well in advance to leave these students well prepared for their day. It doesn’t just allow teachers and family to update their schedule, students can also manage themselves while informing others.

This approach to independence and self-empowerment can be introduced school-wide with easily downloadable planning apps to tablets and mobile phones.

4- Assistive Readers

Very few assistive technologies are accepted in examinations. Often, they require lengthy paperwork to be completed and need to be arranged and validated long in advance of the exam. There is an exception that can give many students a boost without the need for any additional accommodations to be made, not even a Form 8. Where students have weak literacy skills, the text-to-speech scanners like the ExamReader from Scanning Pens are the exception. Provided the pen has been used in advance of the examination, and has become a normal way of working, it can be used in any JCQ exam to support reading fluency.

The ExamReader also gives struggling readers the confidence to approach their exams independently. It reads aloud, or via headphones, any text scanned, in a clear and natural voice. Students in the U.K can sit any of their exams with their peers, and without any extra accommodations or a human reading assistant. This inclusion tool gives independence and provides a boost to student mental-wellbeing during exam periods.

For students with reading difficulties like dyslexia, this EdTech allows them to comprehend questions that they may otherwise have answered incorrectly. We also know that students reject human support because they do not want to repeatedly ask for help through embarrassment.

Fortunately this tool is not limited to supporting those with dyslexia, anyone is welcome to use them. That means undiagnosed or borderline dyslexics can use the ExamReader. So can those with weak literacy or slower speeds of processing.

Assistive technology is the revolution ahead. While you count your coins and choose your strategies, consider the maximum impact for all. Think universal and think smart!

Discover more about the ExamReader here: www.examreader.com

Realise your reading potential with the ExamReader

Nurturing reading independence has been a vision of Scanning Pens since its founding. With the co-founder of the company, Jack Churchill, having dyslexia, support for reading difficulties has been a personal passion of his and Scanning Pens. Over one and half decades of aiding students and everyday people, we’ve learned just how important literacy skills can be to someone’s confidence and quality of life.

Children are found to often either act out or seclude themselves when they are having issues with their school work, and this is even more true during the exam period. It can be incredibly frustrating for students that can’t understand exam questions; even if their subject comprehension is high, they aren’t able to give clear answers if they can’t follow the text. That’s where early intervention for struggling readers can make a huge difference.

With the support of the ExamReader, students with reading problems are able to build their confidence, and develop a strategy to take their exams independently. The ExamReader scans text and reads it aloud or via earphones. It helps students unlock their literary potential by improving their comprehension of text, and in turn, improving their attainment

See what a student that has used the ExamReader had to say below:

I used the ExamReader during my summer tests. I was in a separate centre and would normally have a reading assistant, with the pen, I didn’t need the help of the reader I could complete the tests using my pen. I could see myself using the pen in the main centre next year which would be great.

- Student feedback Leaving Cert exams, Fingal Community School

It’s not just the students that benefit, schools can save thousands with the ExamReader! The SEC (State Examinations Commission) recognises and encourages the ExamReader as a way for students to independently access examinations as an alternative accommodation for a reading assistant. Below, find the SEC guidelines where they mention allowing access to the ExamReader:

https://www.examinations.ie/schools/BI-1013-1972533.pdf

The ExamReader isn’t about giving students an advantage, it’s about levelling the playing field so that they can keep up with their peers.

You can apply for your FREE 30 day trials here: www.examreader.com/request-trial