Monday, December 3, 2007

Web based technology to Support Writing in the Content Areas

Teachers, time, assessment and technology. It often seems that teachers never have enough time, and way too many assessments to do! However technology can be a way for teachers to maximize time and manage assessments. Judy Richardson (among others) discusses this in her article from Reading Online. Many technology supports exist for teachers on the web, indeed it seems new websites are launched daily. There is such a wealth of resources out on the web to support students writing in the content areas, that one blog post can't do justice to them all. However, I did want to highlight some of my favorites and some new ones that I have come across lately. These are listed in no particular order. subscription based site has a free 30 day trial and some of the features are always available for free. Brainpop (and its offshoot for younger students, Brainpop Jr.) is great for building background knowledge in any content area and for providing writing prompts. There are also online quizzes available. It is also available in Spanish.

ReadWriteThink is a fabulous site from the National Association of Teachers of English and the International Reading Council. While there is a big focus on the Reading/Language Arts curriculum, there are many cross curricular tools within the website, making it of value for students and teachers across content areas. Within the website some of my favorite activities include:
The Acrostic Poem Maker
Compare and Contrast Map is a social annotation and bookmarking tool--much like on steroids. One of the coolest things that diigo can do is to create sticky notes and annotations right on websites. This can be invaluable for students doing research on any subject and as a pre-writing strategy. Watch a video about diigo on YouTube.

Merriam Webster's Word Central is a great dictionary and word finding resource. There is an online dictionary, thesaurus, rhyming dictionary, as well as word games and a create your own dictionary where students can add new words that they have come up with and want to share with others.

There are so many more resources, so as I find outstanding ones, I will add posts to highlight them. Please let me know your favorites, too!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

You Don't Feel Alone

George Donahue of Watertown is a role model to young people in the Boston, as a mentor for the online program, Partners for Youth with Disabilities that is out of the Boston area. He uses online communication tools to connect with other individuals with disabilities.

"Being online and talking to other people, it keeps you social," said Donahue, who has a neurological disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses a wheelchair. "You don't feel alone.", November 26. 2007

This article by Don Aucoin of the Boston Globe, goes on to discuss how a Donahue and his 28 year old protege, both with disabilities and in wheelchairs have created a solid friendship online, despite the fact that his protege, Gregory Walsh is non verbal and does not have use of his hands. Gregory will soon take the lessons he has learned from Donahue to another, when he becomes the mentor to a Boston area teen who is also non-verbal.

This is such a great example of how technology opens up the world for individuals with disabilities. In a school setting Gregory and Austin might have been viewed as less capable simply because of how they looked and the supports they need. Opportunities for writing and socialization would have been limited by the time that it takes them to generate language and Gregory, who looks at a chart with letters to spell out what he wants to say while an aide writes it down, it is likely to have have been viewed as not really doing his own work. But give these individuals an accessible computer, computer based voice output systems, and other technologies (I imagine they use word prediction or other tools to increase their speed) and the playing field is leveled.

As the world of education and technology continue to merge and as Web 2.0 tools become more commonly used by teachers, opportunities for individuals like Gregory Walsh expand. Writing is oral language for for individuals who are non verbal and communication online becomes an opportunity to write to learn--about the world.

For more information on Partners for Youth with Disabilities visit and for info on their online program see

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Technology is Not Gravy! A musing on Thanksgiving Weekend.

"The big step between us and animals is language. But the big step between civilization and more primitive forms of human society is written language.... it doesn't just enable it (civilization) in the sense of making it possible, but rather, it constitutes it. " - Dr. John Searle, Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at University of California- Berkeley (COTC interview)

I am currently taking an online course on Writing in the Content Areas, from PBS Teacherline. In this course we have focused on writing across different curriculum areas, specifically examining secondary students and curriculum. I am the only special educator taking the course and probably the only teacher who has worked with students with severe speech and physical impairments. The perspective that most teachers have presented throughout the online discussions in the 5 weeks we have been taking the class has been that technology is a great tool, but is the gravy on the turkey (forgive the trite comparison, but it is Thanksgiving weekend!). I have tried to explain that for the students I work with technology is a necessity. However, after no one showed too much interest in my descriptions of how my students communicate and access the curriculum with switches and keyboard emulation, I just sort of gave up and tried to pretend I was just another teacher, using my 11 year old daughter and the work she has done as a 6th grader as my example for all things.

In our online discussions, we discussed the importance of time in teaching writing, but I don't think anyone in my class quite gets the fact that it takes one of my favorite students, Lizzie, a good 2-3 minutes to use her head switch to construct a simple sentence using her Vantage voice output device, let alone type an entire paragraph.

We discussed the impact of technology in writing for today's students. One of the teachers in my class worries that technology has over taken social interaction for today's students. I guess I should have done a better job explaining to him that technology opens social doors for my students who would not be able to have a face2face conversation without technology, and who often love email because their disability becomes invisible when they are on the computer.

So where am I going in my rather morose musings this evening? Am I just venting online for all the world to see (can you tell I haven't quite come to terms with the fact that anyone who is looking/stumbling around might see this?)? No, not really, although I can see how bloggers can really use this as a form of therapy. I will instead try to turn this around and move on to how one of Karen Janowski's latest posts directed me to a fascinating website called The Children of the Code
"How well children learn and how they feel about themselves as learners profoundly shapes their lives. For many millions of children, how they feel about themselves as learners is determined by how well they learn to read the 'code' of our written language. The connections between the code, literacy, learning, self-esteem and life success are profoundly under-appreciated in our society. " This quote from the website really sums up to me the importance of providing accessible education for all children and the role that technology can play in altering how a child feels about themself as a learner. Karen's blog directs you to some great simulations that let an individual without a disability see what it is like to have dsylexia and other reading disabilities. Try being dyslexic for a few mintues and then tell me if technology to support reading and writing is just gravy or if maybe it is at least the sweet potatoes with marshmallows that I will not celebrate Thanksgiving without.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Getting Started

Well, I have put off really starting this blog for months now. I have had the best of intentions. After reading Will Richardson's book, Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts, and reading his blog I was blown away by the power of a blog and other web based tools to motivate students to write. I thought, "Wow, I need to do this so that I can provide a model for both writing and use of web tools for students!" However, I just never could seem to motivate myself to sit down and do it. I have started blog entries in my head, over and over again, but to just put it out there on the page seemed more than a bit intimidating. Yet, teachers ask their students to do this all the time--put their thoughts down on paper (or in digital text, which is my preference) and turn it in to be graded and left open to criticism. And a blog is putting it out there for strangers to see! (Yes, I know you should not start a sentence with and or but.) However, (is that better than but?) I am taking a class on writing and one of the choices for our final is to start a blog, so here I am!
The purpose of this blog is going to be to write about strategies to support students with technology, but this introduction is really just about me getting over my fear of writing for general consumption. As I write I do realize however, that without the technology I am using there is no way I would ever do this. I need to be able to cut, copy, and paste. I need to use spell check and right click. I need to be able insert, delete, and rearrange my thoughts. So I am beginning this blog on how to help students use technology to achieve in school and I am using technology in order to do this. This may not be nearly as inspiring as Will Richardson's work, but it is a start.