The Common Thread

MC Escher Translating a picture into words is a daunting task.  Imagine describing this M.C. Escher in words – where would you begin?

My T-560 friends may recall the challenge of a describing a scene for a blind audience, and marvelling at how different each of our translations were.  Some embodied poetic affect, others attempted to describe specific shapes and features, while a few attempted to pinpoint exact locations in hopes of allowing ecology to dictate description. 

Imagine having a language impairment, and being asked to do this very task.  ‘Daunting’ becomes the understatement of the century as you struggle to organize your understanding of the task, figure out where you begin, and determine your affective approach. 

Determining the goal is tricky, as it may be completely subjective.  What information is vital to communicate the intention of a photograph?  Who’s to say one person’s intention follows another’s?  While many of my classmates felt a peaceful serenity looking at our descriptive target photograph, I felt a yearning for adventure and escape. 

In fact, my interpretation went a little something like this:

Perspective Use






Rather than try to overanalyze what approaches my students may or may not be taking, I decided to let them tell me through our own exercises in descriptive drawing.   I had my students draw pictures that I was not allowed to see, and then tell me how to recreate the drawings using only verbal language.  This exercise was tough at first, as I had to really pry for information regarding location and size.  However, with practice through multiple pictures, they caught on rather quickly.

dog1dog2brother dan1brother dan2




Interestingly, yet not surprisingly,  my students were able to find their greatest security by tapping into their affective systems to power their descriptions.  Rather than describe facial expressions and postures using specific features and placement, students told me their characters’ affective states – and the purpose behind those states (e.g., “this dog is SO happy because it’s spring and flowers are wet”).  I found these affective descriptions to be crucial toward my students’ communicative purpose and goals.  After all, a picture tells a story. 

As a follow up to this exercise, I would love to organize a photo safari with students with impairments in vision, and have a small gallery showing with sighted peers.  Peers could describe what they feel is the mood of the picture, and the photographers could then describe their intent.  I think it would be wonderful and interesting to see if sight interferes or compliments the photographer’s initial communicative goal. 

Eternal Language of the Spotless Mind

Filing Cabinet Mind Ever try to talk yourself out of something?  Or, better yet, try to convince yourself that events happened very differently than you remember by altering minute details when re-telling your story?  If you’re saying no, then I suspect you may have already re-filed some of your experiences in a very convincing fashion…

A recent article in the The Washington Post  titled “Can You Alter Your Memory? examines a growing area of research combating post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and phobias with language-based behavioral techniques. 

Rather than engineering a ‘spotless’ mind by altering snapshots, scientists are viewing memories as less of a collection of individual slates, and more of a filing system.  By re-organizing this filing system through concious linguistic efforts, lingering emotional responses are thought to diminish little by little.  For example, if Dr. Rose were to continuously revisit the story he presented in class regarding his traumatizing airline experience through narrative, the theory is, he would eventually detatch himself from the actual event.   

Honestly, this seems like trickery to me.  Can people truly overcome fabricated and altered realities?  I’ve always found it better to extract the most hurtful element of a painful memory, name it, and then gain greater understanding of the essence of my anxiety.  Then again, I enjoy cognitive analysis, and have not suffered events traumatic enough to warrant this degree of therapy or exercise.

Most importantly, how does this theory play out if a person must re-enter their anxiety ridden enviornments everyday?  What about students with learning disabilities who suffer enormous stress in school, with new memories being created each class period?  As we discussed in T-560, this anxiety is physical, emotional, and neurochemical, which means all recognition, action, and engagement are compromised.  As a budding speech-language therapist, even I’m not sure language is only key…

Low Tech UDL Success Story!

Steven sat at a rear table in the classroom, with his back to the teacher.  His large shoulders hunched over the table, and his head hung low as he concentrated on a single piece of paper.  A 1:1 aide was seated beside him, providing periodic reminders to attend to the work in front of him.    This was strange, as the rest of his class was (mostly) attending to the professor’s verbal and visual presentations at the front of the room.

Steven has severe Autism, and I had been invited to join him during his integrated 9th grade chemistry class so I could see “successful integration in action.”  As I was becoming more and more suspicious of this claim, I decided to sit next to him and peer over his arm to see what he was working on.

He was tracing his name.





In chemistry class.

I was told that Steven was able to show interest in a lot of areas and liked the “social scene” in class, but was unable to understand the material, as it was “far beyond him.”  Apparantly, just being put in the room was the best they could do.  I took a deep breath, gathered some nerve, and then pointed out that the material was not far beyond him – it was directly behind him.  And maybe he’d have better luck accessing material (and the “social scene”) if we turned him around?  And stopped making him trace his name?  Just… maybe?

After class, I made a bet with the teacher.  I bet that Steven couldn’t only access the material, but he could teach a workshop, too.  Thankfully, the teacher was open the possibility that I would fall on my face and have to eat my words, so I got the go-ahead to work with Steven the following class.

I knew Steven from previous observations of his intervention, and knew that he was a multi-sensory learner who enjoyed engaging in activities, and was able to complete tasks step-by-step with visual supports.    His chemistry class had been studying pH levels that day, so I researched an activity that would help illustrate how to determine the pH levels of household objects. 

I recruited Steven’s Occupational Therapist, and the three of us prepared a workshop using the following low-tech paper visual supports, which I made using Boardmaker Software:

pH Indicator 1

 pH Indicator 2


Steven prepared the pH strips (above) during his occupational therapy session, and we practiced his workshop during speech therapy.  During class, I used video modeling strategies to help him set up stations at each table, and tell students what each item was (e.g., strips, droppers, test tubes).  Steve was then able to use the visual display (figure 2) to scaffold language and instruct students how to do the activity.  When he was led to each table, Steven gave his instructions, then even provided instruction and correction!  He asked each student what color their strip was, and told them to match it to his display for confirmation!  He even corrected a student, telling her the strip wasn’t blue, it was “GREEN-BLUE – BASE!!!”

Steven was beaming, and the class was getting it.  So many students commented on how helpful Steven’s display was for them, as it helped them organize their understanding.  Everyone benefitted from this workshop, not just Steven.

Steven got an A, and I got a great lesson in successful integration!  I also got hooked – this is a career I want to spend my entire life doing…

Survey Says? You tell me…

During a recent Sandbox, Dr. David Rose presented an interesting postulance:  In order to successfully implement UDL on a global scale, what needs to come first – belief, or the technology itself?  Additionally, how do variations in cultural education mores contribute to logistical policy changes and decisions?

In the four years of experience in education I have had here in New England, I have found that the belief in students is mostly there – but teachers do not always know how to implement technology or resources to make access possible.  However, I have worked mostly in special education, and therefore my perspective and experiences are fairly one sided.

In order to further examine this question on the homefront, I thought it might be helpful to gain perspective of the current use and comfort with technology in today’s classrooms.  I designed a <20 question survey inquiring about the technological practices of teachers and their students within classrooms of all types.   In these surveys, I ask about the comfort levels, tools, and challenges students and teachers express regarding technology. 

Currently, these surveys are only directed at teachers.  If this venture seems to provide informative promise, I would love to expand the study to incorporate student opinions as well.

Any ideas regarding format, questions, target audience, and data compilation are welcome and encouraged.  Please feel free to share outside our T-560 class to other education majors at HGSE.

I’ll post my results before the end of our semester – if you are interested in following up with me, leave your comments below.  Thanks!

You may find the surveys here:

1: Classroom Technology: Teacher Experience and Knowledge

Click here to take survey

2: Classroom Technology: Student Experience and Knowledge
Click here to take survey

Learning through Imitation

Recent studies and clinical trials have shown that individuals with Autism, particularly those on the more severe ends of the spectrum, are able to skillfully perform tasks when instructed through Video Observational Learning strategies.  As imitation is a cornerstone for learning, this technique is extremely valuable for the generalization of skills necessary for more sophisticated instruction. Portable handheld electronics (e.g., iPod Touch, Droids) allow this technique to be used in the natural enviornment, ensuring greater opportunities for generalization and success.

For anyone who may doubt the success of video observational learning strategies, take a look at this video of the acquired dance skills of an 8 year old Autistic child:

I wonder if Dr. Rose would have benefitted from this strategy in his dance instruction?  :o)


My VoiceThread Project is complete!

What a blast – this is a fantastic tool allows multitudes of learners to share perspectives and appreciate the differences amongst a wide variation of people.  For my project, I posted some of my son’s artwork in hopes that people would enjoy sharing their first impressions.  Child artwork is never quite as it seems, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

(For those who are wondering, YES, the ‘theme song’ is indeed a French cover of the Sex Pistols classic, “Anarchy in the UK.”)

I found that VoiceThread was able to appease each of the UDL Guidelines within one way, shape, or form.  Below is a breakdown of the guidelines, and an example of how VoiceThread meets the regulation:

UDL Guidelines - VT1UDL Guidelines - VT2

Teaching is a Two-Way Street

Children with variations in inhibition, Theory of Mind, and perceptual representations are famously difficult to engage in pedagodical exercise.   That’s what makes them so fun…

Often, trying to engage a child on the Autism spectrum in our fabulous (and incredibly important) curricula  results in a battle of determined avoidance, with neither individual yielding to inhibition of their own goal-directed behaviors.  Each individual has a mission – and the other person is not complying.  The scene plays out just like Dr. Seuss’s North and South-Going Zax… and could potentially last just as long.

While I am not disputing the authority embedded within an instructor’s role to manage the behaviors of their student, I do believe the student’s perspective must be honored in order to establish or teach joint attention.   Once skills, trust, and practice are generalized, greater pedagogical attempts may be made.  For example, I have forged incredible bonds with difficult children by opening and shutting objects, putting my ear next to their’s on a table while they banged away, spinning tops, crashing cars, and, (my personal favorite), pulling on a chewed-up orange rope.  For some reason, these kids became increasingly more open to my agenda of teaching abstract prepositional concepts after hazing me with repetitive fancies.

Joint attention may be considered as a cornerstone to the development of language and instruction. As children on the Autism spectrum grow, their perceptions and representations of the world may not follow along traditional paths.  Due to a lack of Theory of Mind, (the hallmark diagnosis of spectrum disorders), understanding the emotional, pedagogical, or inquisical intents of others is very difficult – particularly within fleeting transient communicative exchange (e.g., facial expression, speech).  In order to engage executive function to monitor and inhibit output, one must first be able to predict potential affected states of others.  Fundamental skills, such as joint attention and intention, are necessary to scaffold perceptions and awareness of another mind. I often wonder if this can learned, at least on some level, through trial and error with partners who are adept at perceiving people on the spectrum – by providing platforms for honest exchange.

This established trust and perspective exchange was beautifully representated on NPR’s Morning Edition within a question and answer session between Joshua Littman, a 12-year old honors student with Aspergers, and his mother, Sarah Littman.  During the interview, Joshua pitches some pretty intense questions, which she answers with the grace and honesty of someone who understands the value of validation. 

Given the theoretical “absence” of Theory of Mind, Joshua is able to ask honest questions without fear of retribution.  Given her love for her son and understanding of HIS perspective, Sarah is able to expose her true, raw, and unabashed feelings.  Together, they illustrate the beauty of truth, love, and mutual respect. 

Listen below to experience the balance of communicative intention, and click here to read more about Joshua and his mother:

Joshua’s Tough Questions for his Mother  (AUDIO)  

How would you answer some of Joshua’s questions?  Here are some of my favorites:

  • What do you think of today’s young people?  Have they deteriorated?
  • How does getting married feel?
  • Do you think the U.S. is becoming a mess of a country?
  • Do you have any mortal enemies?
  • Have you ever felt that life is hopeless?
  • Is there anyone you wish were dead?
  • Do you think life would be different without animals?  On a scale from 1-10?
  • Have I met the expectations you had for me when I was born?

Odd Couplings Make Strong Bonds

Elephant Rub
The following video tells a story of two unlikely best friends’ and their devotion to one another. Their relationship demonstrates the possibility for transcendence of primitive instincts and stigma. It’s astounding how trust alleviates fear in this story, offering hope for kids who may feel threatened in schools. If a trusting relationship may be created between educators and their students, perhaps some of the stress may be alleviated – much like receiving a tummy rub from a giant elephant…

Through implementation of UDL principles within a classroom, students and teachers may learn to trust and respect the strengths of each other’s differences. Rather than viewing myriad learning disabilities as individual ‘weaknesses,’ UDL allows peers and eduators to look beyond these difficulties to find potential within skills that otherwise may be overlooked. Once individual strengths are identified, students and teachers can be trusted to utilize these strengths to aide disability.  Without fear or stigma, the possibilities for advancements in learning and character building may be increased.

I now present to you, Tara and Bella: The Animal Odd Couple

Neuro Review Videos… All for one? One for all?

I thought I’d share some videos I’ve been exploring.  There’s quite a range, therefore, I’m sure you will find one suitable for your learning style…

Behold, Pinky and the Brain:

“The Neuroscience of Nothing”: This fascinating video explores the interaction between the mind, matter, and visual perception…

Preparing and fostering the reading brain… (an excellent review!)

Comprehensive Review: No matter where you fall on the neurological awareness “spectrum,” this incredible artist has a video for you.  Skim through his collection for straightforward review of anatomy, pathways, and function.