When COVID-19 closed our physical school, I cried. As an elementary special education teacher, I knew the difficulty of trying to adapt in-person learning to a remote environment.
Fast forward to the start of this school year: When human resources from my district called to ask if I could teach my students virtually for an entire year, I was unsure how to engage them through technology the same way that I can in person.
Amid the obvious challenges the shift to remote instruction presented, I never expected this outcome: distance learning has made me a better teacher. I have grown more in the last eight months than in the previous eight years. I now understand “educational technology” and “blended learning” not just as buzzwords, but as true game-changers.
Here are some of the best tools I’ve used this year to adapt my in-person classroom to effective remote learning for students with special needs.
Game-changer #1: Google Slides
Most of my students require visuals to aid in comprehension, so the first quarter of this year was spent mastering Google Slides. This free resource is also accessible from anywhere. Attendance is difficult for many of my students, even in person, so it was imperative to build Slides that were engaging.
Initially, my students and I added clip art, then began uploading real pictures for our students who have difficulty generalizing. I also started isolating images at remove.bg. The site allows you to remove the background, download a new image and drag it right into your Slides. I’ve since started adding GIFs (I prefer giphy.com) to grab the students’ attention. Making your pictures move (fade in, swirl, and more) is simple. Right click on an object, then click “animate”. Here, you can add transition effects to your pictures, or to the entire Slide.
Game-changer #2: Google Chrome Extensions
Attractive Slides are a start, but most of my students have difficulty reading and/or are nonverbal. Google Chrome extensions are free add-ons that can make your Slides more accessible. Talk&Comment is an extension that allows you to add a voice recording to your Slides, so the teacher can read aloud a passage or provide verbal directions. Students can even respond verbally.
Pear Deck is an extension that allows students to interact with the Slide. Activities can be teacher-paced or assigned for student-paced work. Students can draw, type or even drag an icon. This makes the lesson appear more app-like, similar to Boom Cards, which our students love. I can see the student responses in the Pear Deck Teacher Dashboard. From hand-over-hand tracing activities to comprehension questions, there’s an adaptation for everyone.
Game-changer #3: i-Ready
Online tools such as i-Ready help support asynchronous, student-paced work and minimize the amount of material that I need to create. They’re aligned to quality curriculum and provide language-rich instruction that is differentiated to meet each child’s needs. i-Ready gives specific intervention lessons and the diagnostic reports are teacher gold because the data is designed to inform my instruction. This not only helps with grouping students and creating intervention plans, but helps me clearly identify areas of need to be addressed in my students’ IEPs.
Distance learning is difficult for everyone, but I’m thankful for the lessons it has taught me as an educator. I can’t wait to implement all these new skills in person. My room will be accessible in a whole new way, and I’ll have digital files of everything to reuse in future years.
Amanda Kipnis teaches elementary special education for students with moderate to severe disabilities in Lemon Grove, Calif.
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