Apologies for being MIA...

It's been several months since I wrote any new content... *sigh*

I've got a really good excuse... I've been ridiculously busy with work - both inside and outside of my classroom gig! I pretty much fell off the face of the earth right after we won this amazing Google Glass grant that I'd been hyper-focused on in June & July of this year -- yes that's right we WON! You can check out the info about it here.

For the last few months, I've been spending my days in the classroom and my afternoons (and every spare second in between) managing a major Google Glass project working on finding a place in education, therapeutic and sign language interpreting settings for Glass! It's been exciting, but also completely exhausting. I also just finished up teaching my university course for the Fall semester ... thankfully, my final grades were submitted this morning!

I'm hoping to have a few weeks to rest, relax and start all over in 2015! My resolution for next year is simply to get back to blogging... I miss sharing my thoughts, experiences and crazy ideas about teaching, mothering and other random topics!

If anyone is still out there reading ... stay tuned, I PROMISE that I'll be back in 2015!

A NEW Sensory Experience: Tapioca Shreds

*Affiliate links included for your convenience*

It's no secret, I love sensory play - both in my preschool classroom & at home with my own child! I'm constantly experimenting with sensory play ideas & always keeping my eyes open for the next great (insert ooey, gooey, squishy, wet and/or fun word here) sensory experience for my kids... From time to time, I've even been known to fall down a virtual black-hole & Pin hundreds of sensory play ideas in a single evening... (see my sensory play board here).

Getting on the the main event, yesterday, after an amazing lunch at a nearby Korean cafeteria, we went shopping at the Asian grocery store next door. We only went in for a few items, but somehow I managed to leave the store with these fun Multi-Color Tapioca Shreds:

I've seen hundreds of blog posts about tapioca pearl sensory play and actually entered this aisle of the store to purchase a few bags of tapioca pearls for a classroom bin next week. Instead, I discovered the Tapioca 'Squiggles' right next to the pearls. They were multicolored & about $1.00 a bag (7 oz/200g) - perfect!

I hid a few bags under the other items in my cart - which turned out to be a weak attempt at avoiding my husband's questions; he quickly spotted the new addition to the cart & gave me a bit of a hard time about buying yet another item for my classroom - I quickly assured him that our child would also be playing with them and he let it go! I also thew these Training Chopsticks into our cart! 

Since pretty much everything on the bag is written in Vietnamese, I did a quick internet search to figure out how to cook the strange little squiggles. My search didn't turn up many great directions, other than 'cook until soft' & a few recipes for some coconut tapioca desserts (which I imagine might be tasty if you like the texture of tapioca). So here's basically what I ended up doing:

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil & add tapioca shreds.
2. Boil for 15-17 minutes, stirring frequently. (I tested them by tasting them - if you can't chew them, they're not ready!)
3. Drain & rinse with cool water.

4. Pour into container for play & add a few drops of oil - I used olive oil.

5. Play!
They were warm, wet, squishy, ooey, gooey & slimy! They looked a lot like gummy worms, but have no taste whatsoever. When my son was finished with them for the night, I put them into a plastic bag and threw them into the fridge to keep them from drying out & spoiling quickly. The next morning, they had solidified into a sticky gelatinous mass of tapioca noodles; I quickly remedied the issue by placing the tapioca noodle brick into the colander for a quick rinse under some warm water.

I placed a towel under the tray to catch any rogue tapioca shreds from becoming stuck to my furniture. As a warning, we did discover that a wet a tapioca noodle dries rock hard, sharp & very stuck to whatever surface it was left on... So clean up well, before anything dries! And, a dry tapioca shred cannot be put down the garbage disposal - we learned this the hard way!

I'm still unsure how long they'll last - we've used them twice & have rinsed them a few times. I was thinking that I'd add a few drops of lavender or tea tree essential oil to perhaps slow the growth of bacteria in our classroom sensory bin - to hopefully get 2-3 sessions at the sensory bin before they need to be trashed.

Anyone have ideas for maximizing the use of wet, squishy, sticky sensory bin fillers for classroom use?

Teacher Confessions: I give parents my personal cell phone number...

Teacher confession: I'm a teacher & I give my personal cell phone number to my students' parents at the beginning of the year...  

I know, right -- What am I thinking? If you're a fellow teacher, you're probably thinking that I must be crazy or begging for punishment... perhaps you're thinking that I make other teachers who don't engage in this practice look bad... which is not my intention at all!

It all started about 7 years ago when I was working in rural Alaska as a home visiting special educator in an early intervention program. It was pretty innocent really -- I'm incredibly disorganized & I simply couldn't manage my work cell phone AND my personal cell phone efficiently! So, I made the decision to just use my personal cell phone for everything. When I returned to classroom work in Maryland, I continued to offer my phone number to families. During the last 7 years of giving out my personal cell phone number to my students' caregivers, I've thankfully had very few instances where its been abused or misused.

Over the years, many parents have informed me that I have been the first and often ONLY teacher to ever offer my personal cell phone to them! Families always have positive things to say about this practice but my coworkers & supervisors have expressed mixed feelings about it - some coworkers have decided to also try it, while others really think that I must be completely bonkers! My supervisors have never really supported it, but also haven't told me that I can't do it either.

Why do I think sharing my phone number works? There are many factors at play here, but I think it boils down to accessibility... or the illusion of accessibility...
  • Accessibility!- by offering my personal phone number, it creates a very real illusion that I'm available 24/7, but in reality, I'm not really going to humor unnecessary middle of the night or weekend calls or texts -- I will likely answer, but will keep the conversation short if it's not truly an 'emergency'! Many families never call or text me on my personal number, but having the ability to contact me whenever they want, helps to build a positive relationship, especially with challenging families (although I've found that they're often the most likely to abuse the ability to contact me outside of school hours.) It makes me accessible to families - with the illusion that I'm 'always' available.
There are a few guidelines that I've come to define over the years of sharing my phone number... Most of which I had to learn the hard way -- of course!
  • If you're going to share your phone number, do it at the beginning of the year AND share it with everyone equally! Do not just share your information with a few select families - if you're going to do it -- do it with everyone! You do not want to be accused of having favorites or not treating everyone equally. I often include my information in the letter that I send home during the first week of school and/or during back-to-school night. 
  • Clearly identify the phone number as your PERSONAL phone number  & explain that if the number is used after hours, they will be contacting you outside of school hours. I often say something like "Remember, this is my personal cell phone number; if you call me after school hours, I will likely be with my family and if you call very late, I'll probably be sleeping." I remind parents of this often - especially when/if I have a family that has been abusing their ability to call/text me. 
I recently had an opportunity to make a connection with a family via my personal cell phone. A child that I've had in my classroom for quite some time finally had success on the potty! I'd been conversing with the family during drop-off and pick-up times each day, discussing progress and home routines. When the success finally happened, during the middle of the school day, I was able to quickly text the parent about it; she responded immediately with words of encouragement for her child and I responded with a quick snapshot of the child's proud smile. Then, the parent recorded the 'celebration' song that they sing at home and sent it to me to play for the child. The child, in turn, was extremely excited that her parent had sent a voice-message to reward her! This simple event was a perfect example of why I share my phone number with families AND why I'm constantly trying to integrate everyday technology into our classroom routine. Something simple of like a cell phone turned out to be a great tool to communicate & connect with families and reinforce student progress.

Of course, you have to decide based on your own situation whether or not sharing your phone number with families is a good idea or not - it surely isn't right for everyone & every classroom situation. My current classroom is very small, consisting of preschool students who often have multiple disabilities & very intensive needs - I have regular in-person contact with caregivers/families and everyone benefits from establishing & maintaining close relationships between home/school -- caregivers know what's going on at school & I have access to what's going on at home. And of course, I've also obtained permission from the family for utilizing this type of communication with them. Providing my personal phone number simply feels right & works well for now, but down the road -- who knows?!

Do you share your phone number with parents? How has it worked out for you?

yea for summer - still here, but super busy!

It's been far too long since my last post... between a back injury in April, my own busy preschooler, IEPs, assessments, parent-teacher meetings, end of year events, grant writing and a few top-secret extra special projects, I just haven't been able to keep up with everything!

Those of you who are paying attention, stay tuned -- I've got some fun posts coming up including a few product reviews, colorful arts & crafts activities, messy outdoor play, field trips to local attractions and lots of Ocean & Beach themed excitement - our summer school theme this year!

Another Fun FREE App: Sight Word Ninja

A couple of months ago, I shared two of my favorite FREE educational apps ... Well Alligator Apps added a new app using the same 'slicing ninja' format: Sight Word Ninja

Again the same concept as that popular fruit slicing game... but with sight words! I love that it's customizable with word lists for Prek-3rd grade, three levels of difficulty and adjustable play times. There are NO in app purchase opportunities or ads and it's FREE!

I'd still like to be able to set up multiple student profiles so that I don't have to switch the settings back & forth for each student who plays AND I would love to be able to email game data to myself for easier record keeping on student progress... And if anyone from Alligator Apps is reading this... I'm still waiting for this app with simpler concepts like shapes & colors for my students who have special needs...

p.s. just for the record, I was not compensated for my opinion in any way...

Jelly Beans & Playdoh - Easter Leftovers

This year, after Easter, I somehow ended up with several bags of extra jelly beans ... I obviously thought I hadn't purchased them more than once! What's one to do with so many leftover sweets... ?

We played with them of course!

First, I put a bunch of big & little jelly beans in a tray with some toothpicks. I showed my 3 1/2 year old how to push the toothpicks into the jelly beans and connect them to make shapes. This was pretty difficult for him to accomplish & he poked his little fingers more than a few times. However, he was very interested & motivated to figure it out. He did eventually figure it out -- with close supervision, there were no major injuries and plenty of fine motor practice & early engineering going on...

A few days later, we added a bowl of jelly beans to some homemade Kool-Aid play dough... and made lots of interesting foods...

Here are a few of our creations...

The jelly bean color same off on our play dough as we played & the whole activity was sticky, but yummy smelling & tons of fun!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar - DIY Interactive Book

A while back, I picked up a sticker book version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and then completely forgot about until I found it last week. Since a single stickerbook doesn't last very long in classroom of preschoolers, I made it into reusable interactive book - just like this Interactive Farm Book that I made last year!

Cardstock paper
Laminator & Laminating Sheets OR self-adhesive laminating film
Velcro w/ adhesive

How To: 
1. Carefully take the stickerbook apart at the binding - Before starting, examine how the book is put together; you may only need to remove a couple of staples from some books. Other books are bound more securely and require a sharp utility knife or heavy duty paper cutter. However you deconstruct your book, just remember how it all goes back together!

2. Remove stickers & adhere to cardstock paper, then cut individual stickers out leaving a small boarder. I left more border on the smallest stickers to make them easier to pick up and manipulate.

3. Laminate each page of the sticker book & all of the cut out stickers. Leave some space around the stickers so that another border can be included, ensuring that each sticker is completely sealed in the laminate. If you do not have access to a laminator, you can use self-adhesive laminating film or even packaging tape.

4. Add Velcro to the inside of the book & the back of the stickers.

5. Finally.... you're ready to read & play with your new interactive book!

Tips & Tricks: 
  • This project works best with stickerbooks that have larger stickers. 
  • If using a book with small stickers, leave extra laminate border & use poster putty for adhesive instead of Velcro. 
In my classroom, we use this book in addition to the picture book to work on expressive & receptive vocabulary, comprehension, retelling and early math concepts. I really love this kind of interactive book for kids who aren't especially interested in reading - it provides a new, exciting & hands on way to experience books for children who don't like reading!

Resource List: Keeping Hearing Aids on Young Children...

It's surely no surprise that keeping hearing aids (HA) and/or cochlear implant (CI) on little ones is a near impossible feat...
According to research reported by Anderson & Madell (2014), only about 10% of children achieve full time hearing aid wear (defined as 12 hours/day) & 40% of children wear their hearing aids 4 hours or less per day!! These numbers make me want to rip my hair out... if the kids aren't wearing their equipment, then they aren't hearing ... and if they aren't hearing then how will they ever to listen & speak? Figuring out how to keep the hearing equipment on little ones is an ongoing struggle and continues to be the #1 discussion that I have with caregivers.

The Anderson & Madell article linked above has some really awesome printable brochures for families that are full of fantastic ideas for how to keep hearing aids on children birth-kindergarten. Their list of retention ideas is also great -- they include parent ratings of different products & lots of detailed information about the development of listening skills from infancy through kindergarten age.

Below, I've compiled my own list of resources for products to help keep hearing aids on young children including commercially produced, handmade & DIY solutions ... in terms of ages, the effectiveness & appropriateness of the solutions listed will vary greatly from child to child - again see Anderson & Madell (2014) for a parent review of effectiveness & suggestions by age group. Now onto my list...
Most simply, there are four primary categories of 'hearing equipment retainers' for children:
  1. Caps/Hats
  2. Cords/Clips 
  3. Headbands 
  4. Adhesive/Tape
Caps & Hats
For very young children, one of the first suggestions frequently is a tight fitting 'pilot' cap style hat that covers the ears & hearing equipment and ties securely. This makes it more difficult for babies to pull their hearing aids out... but not impossible! Look for a tight fitting cap made of light weight material & strings long enough to tie securely.

Commercially Available Pilot Caps: 

Handmade Pilot Caps: 

DIY Options:

Cords & Clips
This options is pretty simple -- a cord (i.e. string) of some sort attaches to the child's hearing equipment and then is secured to the child's clothing. If the equipment comes off, it doesn't go far!

Commercially Available Options: 

Handmade Options:

DIY Options:
Dental Floss & Safety Pin
Sunglasses Holder & Safety Pin

Headbands for behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aid & CI's are specially designed with loops and/or pockets to hold the behind-the-ear portion - that is often too heavy for the tiny ears of an infant or toddler. Look for light weight materials and avoid covering the microphone area of the HA/CI.

Handmade Options 

DIY Options 

Toupee/Wig & Medical  Tape 
Toupee/wig and medical tape are adhesives that are specially designed for use on the skin - but can potentially be irritating to sensitive skin. Toupee/wig tape (i.e. double sided tape) can be trimmed to size then placed on a BTE hearing aid or CI processor - on the side that rests against the head. Medical tape (i.e. single sided tape) can be placed over the earmold portion of the hearing aid - over the entire outer ear. Used alone, adhesive options are not especially reliable, but are a nice addition to other methods. (affiliate links below for your convenience)

Toupee/Wig Tape

Medical Tape

Anderson K, J Madell. Improving hearing and hearing aid retention for infants and young children. Hearing Review. 2014;21(2): 16-20.

Peeps Play: Easter Sensory Bin

We made a stop at Dunkin' Donuts recently & my son saw those donuts with the Peeps on top. He insisted that he just HAD to have one... I caved & his new obsession with Peeps began. Here's the infamous donut before he gobbled it up... all except for the Peep!
The first time (hey, don't judge!) he had this donut, he ate the Peep then freaked out because he ate it - thanks Dunkin'! A few days later, we got another one of these ridiculously sugary confections & my son promptly took the Peep off & set it aside. He carried that little marshmallow bird around all day. Things started to stick to it. It was a little lopsided from being smooshed a few too many times. Then he started to dry out... I eventually threw it away - two days later! 

This is how the idea for our Peeps Sensory Bin was born...

I got out the Kool-Aid beans from a few weeks ago, added a pack of plastic Easter Eggs, some jelly beans that we played with yesterday, a handful of green plastic grass, and some bowls & spoons. Oh, and of course - a few beloved Peeps!

My son enjoyed filling & emptying the eggs. We compared the sounds of eggs filled with dried beans, jelly beans, plastic grass & squishy Peeps. Then he ran to the bathroom to get his boat -- for the Peep to drive:

He made a Peep nest -- complete with jelly bean eggs. "Shhh, Mama! The eggs is sleeping"

Then he went right on to make Peeps soup!

I'm glad he's not so fond of eating the Peeps for now... that's less of a sugar high that I have to deal with! He did, however, figure out that the jelly beans are yummy to eat, not just sensory bin filler.

In the News: Hearing Aids Improve Outcomes...

Well.... yeah! A recent study indicates that when children with hearing loss wear hearing aids, their speech & language abilities improve - seems kind of like a no-brainer, but it's a little piece of tangible evidence to support what many speech, language and hearing professionals have known for years. The more that kids wear their hearing aids, the better they do!

The study looked at a relatively small group of 180 three to five year old children with mild-moderate and moderate-severe hearing loss - the study did not include children in in the severe-profound range.  The researchers collected information on speech, language & articulation performance, hearing loss degree and hearing aid wear time. Two important facts were noted in their results:
  1. Children who received the most benefit from their hearing aids showed higher speech & language scores. 
  2. And, duration of hearing aid wear improved outcomes -- especially in children who received the most benefit from their hearing aids. 
These results provide a strong rationale for children with a mild hearing loss to receive & wear hearing aids - as they stand to benefit the most! For children with a moderate-severe hearing loss, it provides support to double & triple check hearing aid programing in order to ensure maximum gain - the more access to sound that these children receive from their hearing aids, the greater the potential long term outcomes!

Whether you're a parent or a teacher, the next time you hear (or think): 'He does fine without his hearing aids - why fight this battle?' remember this study! As a teacher who deals with this issue frequently, I often counter with my own question: How much better could he do if he could hear like you do?  

Check out the Reuters article for more information or the original article from the JAMA Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery.

Doyle, K. (13 Apr. 2014). Hearing aids for kids could improve speech and language. Reuters Online. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/07/us-hearing-aids-idUSBREA361HJ20140407

Tomblin J, Oleson JJ, Ambrose SE, Walker E, Moeller M. (2014). The influence of hearing aids on the speech and language development of children with hearing loss. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2014.267.

Listening & Language Games: What's in the Bag?

What's in the Bag? is a simple & entertaining guessing game that I frequently utilize in my preschool classroom... It's great because the possibilities for play are endless! The game can be easily modified to meet the individual needs of all of my students with very little effort on my part & it targets a wide variety of developmental & early learning skills including: vocabulary development, listening skills, speaking skills, social-communication, turn-taking, self-control and tactile perception.

What you'll need: 
A bag that you cannot see through
Collection of 5-10 small objects that fit inside the bag

There are many different ways to play, but he most basic instructions are as follows:
  1. Put the items in the bag - all, a few or only one at a time - you decide! 
  2. Take turns reaching into the bag - don't peek! Try to identify an object by feeling it before removing it from the bag. 
  3. The player to guess the most items correctly before removing it from the bag wins! 
Now here's where it gets fun... the possibilities are endless...

Practice Listening - Use objects that have sounds associated with them - we frequently use items from a collection of listening toys including objects like: cow/moo, butterfly/uffuff, baby in cradle/shhhh, ice cream cone/mmmm, airplane/ahhhh, ghost/oooooo, bee/eeeee, snake/ssssss, boat/buhbuh etc. Once the kids have a few minutes to explore the toys & practice the sounds, we put all of the items in the bag. The bag keeper will name an object OR make the sound associated with the object. The students must listen, then try to pull the correct item from the bag without looking. Once all the items have been removed, the items are cleaned up in the order the bag keeper dictates - so the students must continue listening in order to figure out which items have been requested by the bag keeper.

Practice Asking Questions & Giving Clues - Have a player choose an object to put inside of the bag. When we play this version at school, I have my students choose from a limited selection of items, so that the possibilities are a closed-set (i.e. only a limited number of possible answers). The bag keeper either gives clues OR answers questions posed by the other players. I usually have the bag keeper give 3 clues OR each player may ask 3 questions before guessing. If no one guesses correctly, we reveal the item & give another child a turn to be the bag keeper.

As the teacher, I'm often the 'bag keeper' when we play any version of this game, which allows me to modify game play based on each child's individual strengths & needs from turn to turn. I really love this game, as there are few small-group games that allow for listening skill practice along the entire hierarchy (detection, discrimination, identification & comprehension) in addition to expressive language skills practice.  

Rainbow Water Beads {fun & fail}

A few days ago, my son & I made up a tray of rainbow water beads to play in. Since I only had clear water beads, we attempt to color them - which was met with some success & some failure - but lots of fun too!

First, we tried coloring the beads with Kool-Aid (see our other Kool-Aid endeavors) - the idea of scented & colored water beads was enticing, but didn't work out... We tried to soak a teaspoon of clear water beads in water with two packs of lime Kool-Aid. We ended up with just slightly hydrated, sticky little green orbs ...

They never did get any larger than this... so we threw them out. With an older child... this might have been a great intro into a fun science experiment with the water beads (i.e. what happens to the water beads when we use different liquids to hydrate?) I'm pretty curious myself... so I might just do the experiment with my 3 year old anyway...

Instead of Kool-Aid, we resorted to traditional food coloring gels, hot water and ziplock bags. We hydrated a tablespoon of beads with several cups of water & a generous addition of food coloring for several hours. Then, I rinsed the beads in a colander before pouring them into our pan for play.  Initially they looked beautiful....

And my son had a great time playing in them....

But after a day or two, the colors faded and the whole bin was a drab shade of greenish-grey...

The moral of the story is... if you want rainbow water beads, buy the rainbow water beads that are already colored...  even though our colors faded, the beads were still quite fun!

DIY Tabletop Light Box {3 Simple Steps!}

(This post contains affiliate links for your convenience.)

So I've been wanting this Table Top Light Box for ages...

Unfortunately, the price tag has been a bit prohibitive... We have a larger DIY light table made from an Underbed Storage Box that works pretty good -- we followed the general directions for the spray paint method over at Teach Preschool for the first light box... my son plays with it nearly everyday!

A few tips on making a larger version w/ spray paint:
  1. The plastic primer is NOT optional - you must use it in order for the other paint to stick to the plastic.
  2. Scuff & clean the surface of the plastic bin with sandpaper before priming! We learned this the hard way actually... even with the primer, we had blotches of paint flake off -- especially places where my son put heavy items or tried to sit/stand on the bin :(
  3. Buy a big enough light for inside - we used a corded 18-Inch Fluorescent Light from the hardware store - it works pretty well! the smaller battery operated lights didn't seem to give off enough light for the price (+ the cost of batteries!) 
So... on to our DIY table top light box!

The other day I saw these 12"x12" plastic Scrapbook Paper Boxes at our local craft store for 40% off & I thought -- "Whoa! That would make a great mini-light box!" i.e. half the size of that tabletop box above... but for a fraction of the cost! I went ahead and purchased the plastic container and a set of White LED Lights. Since I used a 50% off coupon for the lights, the bulk of the materials for our table top light box cost less than $20!

I used a quick method for this version of a light box - also based on info over at Teach Preschool! Just 3 easy steps and your little one will be enjoying their very own light box in no time!

You need: 
A 12"x12" clear plastic Scrapbook Paper Box
A string of 50-100 White LED Lights
Aluminum foil
Wax paper or Parchment paper
Clear tape

1. Cut a piece of wax paper or parchment paper to fit inside the BOTTOM of the box. Then tape around the edges to hold it in place.

2. Cover the inside of the box (i.e. the top & sides) with aluminum foil & tape the edges to keep in place - make sure the shiny side faces inside the box for the light to reflect off of!

3. Arrange the LED lights on the LID of the box in a 'coil' of sorts & tape the cord down. You can drill a hole in the box for the cord if you want.

4. Then you're ready to go!

Overall, this quick method took about 20 minutes total & the result was pretty good! While I think that I prefer the 'spray paint' method mentioned above, this method allows for me to use the plastic box for something else later if my son completely loses interest in the light box (which is highly unlikely!)

I'd love to hear about your own DIY light box and light table ideas... please share!

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