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Overnight we have woken up to a “new normal” due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day the situation seems to change and has resulted in extreme measures taken by our national and local governments all in an effort to keep us safe.
One of the safety measures taken was the closing of schools to help with “flattening the curve.” With orders to stay home and the closing of schools, many special educators are feeling overwhelmed by the expectation to continue with providing instruction during such crazy circumstances.
As special educators, we already have one of the most challenging jobs in education, but now we have been thrown into a situation where we are navigating a digital learning environment. This is all while taking on the nearly impossible task of providing some sense of normalcy for our students who have suddenly become homeschool students. We are trying to learn how to use virtual platforms, many of us without thorough training and without the ability to explicitly teach our students how to interact with us and eachother online.
On top of this, we have to consider the barriers to technology access that many of our students may face. We can’t assume that every one of our students has access to a working device, internet, adult support, etc.
Another consideration that we have to make is our parents. Many are in situations where they may have to work during the day, either inside or outside the home, and simply aren’t able to supervise instruction for their kids.
As providers of specially designed instruction, we also have to think about things such as routines, avoiding regression, data collection, documenting services, and IEP deadlines. General education teachers and students are going to suffer from this, but students with disabilities are much more at risk of having a significant and long-lasting impact from the current state of education..
Because of all that our community is contending with these days, I wanted to compile resources and strategies that may give special education teachers ideas on how to get through the next few months of teaching students with disabilities in a digital environment.
Setting Up Your Workspace
Before you even dive into the technology aspect, you want to make sure you have a workspace that is going to be conducive to working from home. If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated office or space for working, then you are already off to a great start.
For many, lessons are now going to have to take place at a small desk, a kitchen table, bedrooms, or anywhere that we can find a clutter-free, presentable environment. Try to find a place where you are going to be comfortable sitting for an extended period of time and where you can limit the number of distractions.
To recreate some of the instructional methods that you utilize at school, such as modeling for students, there are some tech tools that can help streamline your instruction. Most laptops and tablets come with a built in camera, but for some it may be worth it to purchase a separate web cam.
Some may also choose to use a headset when creating videos or engaging in virtual learning and meetings. Anything that has a noise cancelling feature has been a life saver for me when trying to work in a busy household.
At this point I think that most are familiar with Zoom and Google Hangouts, which give you the capability of sharing your screen with attendees. To provide modeling of math content where you want to write directly on a document, you can use a tablet or you can look into a stand alone drawing tablet that connects to a PC.
Free software that can be used along with a drawing tablet would be Sketchbook. If you don’t have access to a drawing tablet, then you can also check out the Chrome extension Page Marker, which allows you to draw on any webpage that you have pulled up in your browser.
Something that we may want to consider for students with disabilities, is creating actual recordings of lessons or examples in either subject area. This would be one way of providing accommodations and modifications to students in a virtual environment.
Unlike hosting a live session, students with disabilities are able to view the video in their own time, pause the video to take breaks or for extended time, rewind the video for repetition, etc. You can also differentiate your videos based on student need or choose to provide content in short bite-sized chunks for your students.
In order to record your screen to create lesson videos, Chrome has an extension that can be added called Screencastify This could be a good option if you are just wanting to try out screen casting, but the free version of this program comes with limitations. These limits include a 5 minute limit on recording and not having access to the program’s full functionality.
An alternative would be the use of Quicktime which provides an option for recording your screen. For recording lessons, I have had a lot of success with Camtasia, which provides the ability to capture your screen. The software is pricey, but they do offer a free trial and a significant discount for educators.
Virtual Learning Platforms
There are several online platforms that are offering discounted or free access for teachers and students. For Reading, consider checking out Learning A-to-Z which has a variety of platforms that support reading goals. Epic!, which provides access to a variety of books, videos, and audiobooks that support a variety of subjects, is providing free access until the end of the year. They also have books that are “read alouds”, which can act as an accommodation for students with disabilities. Achieve3000 is offering some of its programs that support literacy to schools for free and also has free printables that can be used as a supplement at home.
As always, Khan Academy, is a free program that can be utilized to support with mathematics instruction across grade levels. Zearn is a free math program for grades K through 5 that follows Eureka Math’s scope and sequence.
Curriculum Associates (creators of i-Ready) is providing free printables for reading and math across grade levels K through 8. Students who already have access to i-Ready can also access their accounts from home. Abcmouse, which is geared towards students in grades K through 2 is currently free for teachers. MobyMax and Learnzillion are also offering free access for teachers and both provide access to math and reading content that can be used to supplement your lessons.
Tobii Dynavox, the makers of Boardmaker, is currently offering free communication resources. Boardmaker is also offering free resources, including a free 90 day trial for their Boardmaker Online software. Sounding Board is a free iOS app that can be utilized on an iPad or iPhone. You can only download it in the iTunes store.
easyCBM has a free version of it’s assessment and data collection platform that teachers can access. Some assessments would have to be administered via a one-on-one conference, but there are others that you can assign to students online. Formative is a platform where teachers can create their own online formative assessments for students for. The company is also currently offering premium memberships for free through districts and schools.
Go Easy on Yourself
Lastly, as you navigate this new learning environment, remember to go easy on yourself, your students, and even your school leadership. None of us are used to teaching and learning in this environment.
Try to keep up with your district’s expectations, even though some may seem unrealistic at times. If something isn’t working, try it out first so that you will have the data and experience to provide feedback further down the road.
This blog will be updated regularly as I learn of more useful resources that can support special education teachers with digital learning. If there are any resources that you think would be helpful for other special educators to see, please contact me so that we can get them added.