by Kara VanHooser, Speech Language Pathologist and Leigh Stratton, Classroom Teacher
“What did you do this weekend?”
Do you ever ask this question on a Monday morning? Do you enjoy telling others at work or school about your own weekend? Of course you do!
The students in Ms. Stratton’s elementary class in Chapel Hill have fun talking about their weekends, too.
How is it that they do this, given that most of them are not verbal and communicate just a single message at a time?
The answer is relatively low-tech and not exactly new: BIGmack Communicators by AbleNet.
Each Friday, a BIGmack is sent home in the backpacks of students in Ms. Stratton’s class. Sometime over the weekend, families record a message about their activities and then send the BIGmack back to school on Monday morning. Those recordings that come back to us in Spanish or Burmese are translated by enthusiastic student volunteers.
Now all the kids are ready to tell about their weekends! They tell each other and their teachers about their weekends during Morning Meeting. They tell their therapists during therapy time. They tell their circle of friends during peer visits to the classroom and during inclusion in general education classrooms. It goes such a long way to have something for our students to contribute to the conversation, particularly when a peer replies with something along the lines of "Hey, I do that too!"
Do all of the kids understand the full interaction? Probably not. Do they all benefit from the interaction? Certainly.
Some of our students are able to participate in meaningful turn-taking using the BIGmack. Others may not understand the language but enjoy hearing the familiar voice of a parent or sibling. Still others love the reactions they get to their responses. And they all benefit from sharing incidental information with their teachers and peers - because knowing more about a student’s family life helps us to make our interactions more meaningful and individualized. When a student consistently tells us that they listened to jazz over the weekend, we find ways to incorporate jazz into classroom activities and therapies.
When a student talks about visiting extended family, we make connections to the literature we are reading. When a student’s message celebrates some accomplishment (like becoming more affectionate at home), we celebrate with them.
The success of this program seems to lie in the way it makes families feel connected to school. Very rarely does a family forget to record a message. Never (yet - fingers crossed!) has a family lost or broken a BIGmack. If ever a week goes by without the BIGmack being sent home (which rarely happens but hey, we’re not perfect!), you can bet we hear about it from families. When sending the BIGmack home each week, we typically record a response like “Wow! Sounds like you had lots of fun at the pool last weekend! What will you do this weekend? We can’t wait to hear about it!” - to let families know we really did listen to their Weekend Report. The recordings have been coming back to us week after week for about 10 years, so we figure something is going right. (One of those things is that we are very careful to let families know that the Weekend Report is NOT meant to pressure them into doing something extra-exciting each weekend. Kids are very happy to report simple things like snuggling on the couch or splashing in the bath.)
We must give credit to the Chapel Hill - Carrboro Public School Foundation for funding a grant that got this program up and running. Since those first BIGmack Communicators were purchased, our class size has grown and digital technology has improved the sound quality of recording devices. We’ve had help from our school PTA, our principal, our program director, and the district Assistive Technology team as we’ve increased the number and improved the quality of our devices.
Our biggest challenge has come as our class has grown to include more children from families who not only speak a language other than English but who are also struggling mightily to feed, clothe, and shelter their children. For these families, retrieving the device from the backpack, recording a message, and sending the device safely back to school each weekend can be a burden rather than a joy. So, we are working on ways to better include the couple of students who are not really participating in this aspect of our classroom community.
Do you have any ideas for us? We’ll eagerly check the comment section of Jim’s blog in hope of inspiration!