Event debrief: BAISLD Transition to High School Forum

I’ve written before about my amazing colleagues in BAISLD, the Bay Area. Independent Schools Learning Differences group. This group consists of the people in schools in our region, mostly at the high school level, who specifically serve the needs of students with diagnosed learning and attentional impairments.

Back in December, we’d planned to have one of our five annual meetings at Mercy High School here in San Francisco, but as it happened, the controlled chaos of school life in December prevailed and we cancelled the meeting at the last minute. I’d already planned to be off campus, as had my colleagues from Lick Wilmerding High School, and we conspired to meet and talk shop on our own. My counterpart at Lick is a woman named Winifred Montgomery, who is as wickedly smart as she is funny. A Lick alumna named Rebekah Randle recently joined Winifred’s office as her assistant, and we agreed it would be great to meet to get Rebekah further acquainted with the work we do and the terrific network of educators we belong to.

As we sipped tea (them) and hot chocolate (me), we wondered: wouldn’t it be great if we could spread the message of BAISLD to a wider audience? Specifically, one of our greatest challenges at the high school level is in managing the expectations of our new ninth grade families. in every arena from disclosing an LD to requesting accommodations to applying to college, there is widespread confusion and anxiety among the families who join us in ninth grade. Wouldn’t it be great, we wondered, to have all of that information in one place? And wouldn’t it be great to have everyone who could help spread that message–like elementary school learning specialists, placement counselors, and heads of school– in the same room?

That afternoon, Winifred, Rebekah and I laid out the blueprint for an event and a publication that we proudly rolled out on Thursday, April 10th. The first BAISLD Transition to High School Forum was a free event that included an amazing dinner (courtesy of the dynamite food service staff at Lick Wilmerding) and a discussion of the greatest challenges that we face in independent middle schools and high schools with the students that we serve. The centerpiece of the event was the BAISLD Resource Guide, a short booklet describing the landscape of services available to what we called “neuro-diverse learners” in our schools in the region. We also included lists of the best questions families can asks during the high school search process, including a series of questions for schools and a series of questions for families to discuss for themselves. We also included a comprehensive guide to the services available on the campuses of all high schools in the region.

The resource guide was a labor of love for the entire BAISLD group. We used our February meeting to outline what we thought belonged in the resource guide, from thorny issues (like the distinction between accommodations and modifications) to more practical matters (including the process of pursuing accommodations on standardized tests). Throughout the guide, our goal was to write with a voice that was at once authoritative and empowering. This guide, we hoped, could be a game-changer in our region. It could allow families to feel more empowered than ever about their search for the right high school for their neuro-diverse sons and daughters.

If Thursday night’s event is any indication, I’m confident that we’ve managed to create something extraordinary. We had middle school and high school faculty members grappling with big questions and sharing best practices in service of some of the most vulnerable students that we serve. It was energizing, it was inspiring, and–most importantly–there was an overwhelming demand for further discussion.

As a result, we now hope to expand BAISLD’s membership to include a more diverse mix of middle school and high school voices. We also plan to update the resource guide at least every two years, if not more often. In addition to the printed copies we released Thursday night, the guide is now hosted permanently on the Lick Wilmerding High School website, where we hope it will help neuro-diverse learners and their families more confidently and competently navigate the high school search process.

Or work in BAISLD is far from over–there are always going to be more needs to meet and more students who need our support. I can’t help but feel, though, that we’ve done something great. In just a few months’ time, we’ve combined our collective knowledge to create something that may better inform the entire high school admissions process in our region and affect a wide community of learners. I’m so proud of what we’ve done, and I’m enormously proud to work with my amazing colleagues here in BAISLD.


Dispatches from the K-8 Universe: Apps at CES and SHB

I got a great message last week from Krista Inchausti, one of our school’s Educational Innovation Coordinators. Krista’s role is to help teachers and students in our elementary schools to find creative, innovative educational tools and solutions for their classrooms. This sometimes means offering tips on great technology for the classroom. Here’s a list of killer apps that she recommends for younger students. Many thanks to Krista for sharing her insights!

Inspiration Maps is a helpful visual organizer. We have been unable to print the full concept maps but the maps can be transposed into outlines which print easily.

Notability is useful, primarily because there is no spell check in the iPad version of Google Docs. [edit from PMK: there is now but may not have been before. Anyway, Notability is still amazing.] This has presented a big problem for many of the girls but when they copy and paste their work into Notability they are able to check their spelling without moving to a laptop.

Dragon is improving their speech to text capabilities on the iPad (this app still works better on laptops). HOWEVER, newer iPads have Siri as a part of the keyboard, allowing for quick dictations in any iPad app.

Spell Better is a writing app that provides spelling suggestions to students as they type and will read their writing back to them aloud. We have only experimented with the free version.

Zapreader.com (website that works on iPads) is a speed reading tool, but breaks down text and presents it one word at a time. Speed is adjustable and there are pause and play buttons – just copy & paste text. Some students have found this helpful for getting through dense text.

The Week in Links: Terrific resources around the web

One of the things that makes me most thankful to be an educator here in San Francisco is something called BAISLD. The Bay Area Independent Schools Learning Differences group is a community of educators who work with what we like to call “neuro-diverse” learners in the independent schools in our region. Most of us are the learning specialist/academic support director types in middle schools and high schools, but our lively listserve and meetings include educators, counselors, diagnosticians, and educational therapists who work with students with a variety of learning needs. We meet in person two to four times per year, and we talk about best practices, trends, and helpful resources on our listserve daily.

Something else I'm thankful for: the view from my office window.
Something else I’m thankful for:                                                    the view from my office window.

It’s always a highlight of my semester to attend a BAISLD meeting. I have the selfish pleasure of coordinating the meetings, so I get to pick when they take place and where we’ll go. Last semester, we started our meeting at the Bay School, which may have the only view of the Golden Gate Bridge that’s nicer than the one from my office. Our latest meeting was yesterday at Marin Country Day School, where they have a great view of the hills and, perhaps less notably, of San Quentin State Prison. (Note to self: at some point, I’ll write about why I recognize the view: I’ve been visiting the prison and singing with my friend in music ministry there since the fall.) Among other things, the conversation ranged to technology tools. We pledged to share our ideas via the listserve, which we did. I shared some things I was aware of, but I discovered some terrific new tools that I’m eager to share with you. Be forewarned: these sites are a little link-dense, but they’re worth it.

Once again, I’m grateful for the wonderful personal learning network that BAISLD is for me. Many of us who serve neuro-diverse learners in schools are one-man or one-woman shows. I was thrilled this week to have a first-time meeting attendee exclaim, “I’m so glad I’m not alone!” That’s the most rewarding part of this kind of collaboration: it helps us know that we’re not alone–better still, we’re among smart, passionate, knowledgeable friends who are eager to help.

And now: the links we talked about this week in the wonderful world of BAISLD.

“iPad as…” This is an old favorite of mine. I love how this site phrases the question of how to use technology: it’s not about picking a cool tool and then retrofitting it awkwardly onto something meaningful for learning. Instead, the site organizes apps by the ways that teachers or students might use them for addressing their needs. Super cool, and a powerful way of thinking about technology.

Tech Potential. This is the website of local assistive technology guru Shelley Haven, whose work I admire and whose PEN talk and workshop on our campus at Schools of the Sacred Heart both blew my mind. Visit her site and comb through her wealth of resources. You’ll discover that your devices have all kinds of built-in features to support learning.

Power Up: Apps for Kids with Special Needs and Learning Differences. Common Sense Media is the nation’s leader in reviewing media for children and families. Full disclosure: I think Common Sense Media is great, and I happen to have written some reviews for their educator website, Graphite. I’m impressed by the work that CSM does to reach out thoughtfully and responsibly to families about digital media and digital citizenship. This isn’t a list that I helped make, but it’s one that makes me proud to be connected to such a smart, socially responsible company.

Teach Thought’s 55 Best Free Education Apps for iPad. This is exactly what it sounds like. And it’s delightful. Give yourself some time to explore–it’s worth it.

Info Out: Generating and Capturing Information

When I walk around campus at school, I’m rarely empty-handed. You’ll notice that I’m always carrying three things.

Thing one is my water bottle, since I am neurotic conscientious about hydration. I work out a lot and I’m a singer, so I’m doubly obsessed with drinking liter after liter of water.

Thing two is my iPhone, which allows me to retrieve my personal and work email, check my Google calendars, get up-to-date news and information (thanks to Twitter and Zite!), monitor the Facebook homework groups for the classes of 2014 and 2015, and keep in contact with students and faculty members via text. It also allows me to make updates to WordPress (this blog!), Evernote, and Bento on the fly. More on these last two apps later.

Thing three is my trusty Moleskine planner. While I use all of these digital tools on my iPhone (and my iPad and my laptop) to keep organized and to learn new information, I am committed to my paper planner. There’s something about putting pen to paper that I find soothing and secure–by putting pen to paper I make a tangible record of the things I need to do and the order in which I need to do them. It makes tasks feel more real to me if I write them down and have to shuffle them in my mind before setting them down in ink.

Staying organized is a huge part of my day: I have lots of email to send and lots of people who I want to see, and my attention span is way too short to keep track of such things off the top of my head. The phone allows me to access information that I don’t have instantly on hand in the planner: Which final exam comes first? What did Ms. Denny post on the Facebook homework page this morning? My iPhone and my interactions with people help me become aware of the things I need to do; my planner is the tool I use to create and execute my plan of attack.

In the short term, that means having a list of to-do’s that looks like the image at left: lots of active verbs, lots of stars, and (eventually) lots of check-marks. The active verbs are the most important thing: they give clear direction on what action needs to take place, and you absolutely can’t check a thing off of the list unless you’ve taken a specific action. No wishy-washy “think about finals schedule” or “look at calendar” will do: it’s all about physically emailing, connecting, choosing, and just generally doing.

While those two tools help me manage my most pressing concerns, there are three apps that I use religiously to generate, capture, and distribute information: these are Evernote, WordPress, and Bento.

Bento is probably the easiest to talk about. As you might expect, I keep descriptive learning profiles for each of the students I work with. These confidential profiles contain information about past educational evaluations, feedback from teachers on what sorts of learning strategies best help each student, my own notes, and feedback from students themselves on their learning. As a spreadsheet addict and hyper-organizer, I wanted to have a great way to store this information in a format that was customized to my needs. Bento proved to be exactly what I wanted: it let me create a database with exactly the  data fields I wanted and it let me organize them into an attractive format. I have Bento synced with my work laptop, my iPad, and my iPhone so that I can update and reference this information whenever I need it. I’ve been using this for a little over a year and I’ve found it to be a great way to help advise students and teachers on approaching learning and teaching, respectively.

WordPress is another favorite. As you might gather from the web address of this site, I blog through a service called WordPress, a free online publishing tool. The web interface is terrific on a laptop and its mobile app for iPad and iPhone are equally sleek. For example, the designers were really thoughtful about which features would be most important to have on the mobile app (the ability to update quickly and view posts at a glance) and which were less important (long menus for choosing themes and layouts). I’ll usually use the iPad app to update this blog when I’m at a conference, but when there’s no wifi available (sidebar: why is this still acceptable to anyone?), I’ll tap out my updates on my phone.

Finally, Evernote is my favorite thing in the world. Evernote is a note-taking program: you can use it to take notes, tag your notes with different topics (“Math”, “English”, or “History”, perhaps), and even record audio of lectures. The best thing about Evernote, though, is that your notes are saved directly to the cloud and can be accessed from anywhere–from your computer, from your iPad, and from your iPhone. I use Evernote for taking live notes during meetings and conferences. I love that it works without an active wifi connection and will let you upload things to the cloud later. I love that it lets me organize notes from work and from home into easily separated ways. That sorting really helps: I have some silly lists on Evernote (including a standing grocery list, clothing sizes for my husband, and a list of potential meals to cook) and I like that I can find those easily when I want to and cast them aside when I don’t.

So that’s my current universe in terms of outward information flow. As for the water bottle? That’s what helps me stay awake long enough to use all of these things at once.

Info In: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zite

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m trying to use this summer to make some thoughtful improvements on my practice. First up: managing how I get information on a daily basis.

I’m a bit of a news junkie. I hit several news sites every morning to get a sense of the day’s headlines and the ways that different news outlets interpret those stories. I wake up to news radio and listen to it on my way to work if I’m on the bus. (I do NOT listen to the radio while on my bike. Because that’s moronic.)

The problem is: I get stuck in a rut. I tend to keep hitting the same sites over and over during the course of the day. This does two things. First, I keep hitting exactly the same stories over and over. (“Yep, the Euro zone is still in crisis. Yep, it’s still raining in Florida.”) Secondly, I limit my exposure to new and surprising content by just letting myself do the driving. If my goal with reading the news it to be challenged and stretched, just reading lots of folks who agree with me isn’t really going to expand my knowledge.

I’ve been looking around a lot for how to make this whole system a lot better, and I think I’ve hit upon two great aggregators of information: Google Reader and Zite. With Google Reader, I subscribe to a bunch of sites for news (like NYT, WSJ, HuffPo, WaPo, LAT, SFGate, and the Houston Chronicle) and for other information I enjoy (including fun silly ones like XKCD and literary sites like McSweeney’s and The Rumpus). The stories come up in my reader in a plain old browser window using Google Chrome, and it’s really easy to customize and navigate. I like Reader because it forces me to get new information: it’s easy to identify which stories I’ve read so I can efficiently move on to exploring new information.

With Zite on my iPhone and iPad, I get several topic-related screens to choose from that offer me personally curated news stories on topics that interest me. I love a lot of things about Zite: most appealingly, it pulls from a lot of sources that I didn’t know about before–and it pulls from a lot of sources in general. Stuff I find on Zite constantly entices me and surprises me. Also, its interface is beautiful: all of their stories get formatted into a font called PT Sans from Paratype, which I adore for its sleek readability.

Additionally, if these two news aggregators aren’t enough, I’m becoming a big fan of the education-related tags on Twitter. Putting in the hashtags for #edchat and #edtech offer a daily barrage of posts from educators worldwide. While some of the posts are a little irritating for their bombast (“The Top Ten Things All Educators Must Know Immediately About Teaching!!!!”), a lot are good reads, and they’re nice provocations for reflection and further blog posts from me.

So that’s the new plan for getting information in on a daily basis. So far, so good.

What I did on my summer vacation

Happy summer to all! While summer’s not over yet, I wanted to send out a quick update on what I’ve been working on this summer and some of the blog posts you might expect from me in the weeks ahead.

One of my biggest goals for this summer is to increase my capabilities with digital media. This is a pretty broad task, but here are the dimensions I’m hoping to address:

  • More work on the blog. I’ve been glad to have this blog as a way to share out ideas I’m pondering, events on the horizon, and new resources I’ve found. I want to keep that up.
  • Mediate social media. As many of you know, I’m a Facebook early adopter: I’ve been on Facebook since 2004, when most of you were in elementary school. However, a lot has changed on Facebook (fun fact: did you know it used to just be limited to college students with current college email addresses?), and I know there’s a lot more to be said for other social networking tools. Currently, I’m enamored of Twitter, and I’m eager to learn more about it and how I can use it for work. I’m also eager to tell you more here on the blog.
  • Manage my information flow in. I have a few pretty ingrained habits of mind when it comes to reading the news: I’ll hit the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, SF Chronicle, and Houston Chronicle daily for headlines and information on topics I enjoy. While this is a lot of fun, I definitely get stuck in a rut: I scan the headlines, read op-eds I tend to like, and gravitate toward the topics I like most (health, food, film, books). This is a predictable way to search for news, and it predictably offers me predictable news. That’s not much of a way to learn new things or be surprised or challenged in my reading, so I’m seeking out new and better ways to sift through the masses of information out there. I was trying RSS feeds, especially through Google Reader, but I’m getting really excited about Zite, too. More on this soon.
  • Manage my information flow out. I have to manage a lot of data: there’s my daily email, school information I need to keep, student records about testing and service, and my own notes from meetings and professional development opportunities. I’ve got a few apps I’m using for this regularly–Evernote and Bento are my current faves–and I’d like to spend some time reflecting on how I use these and how I might use them better.
  • Flip…something. I had the honor of joining an amazing event this summer here at school: 17 teachers from Schools of the Sacred Heart participated in a three-day workshop on Flip Teaching, which you can read more about here. One important element of flip teaching is the idea of leveraging technology in teaching by using it to help augment existing best practices about teaching. The idea isn’t that technology replaces good teaching; the idea is that we use technology as a unique opportunity to extend good teaching in new and meaningful ways. I had a terrific time creating content and learning about different tools along the way.
    The question, though, is this: I’m not a traditional classroom teacher, so how can I use these principles and tools to enhance my particular corner of the school? I’m eager to help mentor others, but I also want to figure out how to use this myself.
  • Build and strengthen my PLN. I first learned about Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs, at the ASCD national conference in Philadelphia back in March. A PLN is the way that people use the resources in their world to learn new things. These resources abound: they can be people we know in our real lives, people we know through social networking tools, digital media, traditional (maybe paper-based) media, and other reference sources. I like Barbara Bray’s diagram for this best (sourced from here). I’d like to construct a similarly elegant, clear sense of where I get my information and how I can share it back out to others.
    from http://barbarabray.net/.

    Happy summer to all!