March 8, 2015

Building A Sensory Light Table (on the cheap!)

I've been adding elements to our sensory room (I promise to post a new picture soon!). I wanted to make sure to address visual sensory needs more fully, so this weekend I built a light table. The requirements for this project was that the finished result needed to be:
(1) easy to build
(2) easy to store
(3) super cheap.

I stumbled across an Ikea Lack end table on clearance for $4 last week and picked it up hoping it would be something I could use for this project. Even if I'd had to buy it, the sale price was only $7, so that wouldn't have broken the bank. I've also seen these often on Craigslist.





The only other supply I needed to purchase was something to cover the top. Originally, I wanted to use plexiglass, but after pricing the size sheet I would need, I decided that the $25 price tag was more than I was willing to spend. Instead, I picked up a sheet of plastic paneling that covers florescent light fixtures. It cost $9.



The last item I needed was lights. Buying short florescent light fixtures was going to bump the cost back up, so I snagged a strand of 100 white Christmas lights.



Now, the how-to:

The top of the Ikea lack table is actually filled with corrugated cardboard and covered with a thick layer of laminate. I measured about 2" in from each side and started scoring through the laminate with a utility knife. This took a little while and a little muscle. Once I got through the laminate, I had to stick the end of my utility knife in and wiggle it back and forth to force through the final underlayer of laminate.



Pry up the laminate. You'll see the cardboard beneath.



Scrape out the cardboard. Get rid of all the loose bits clinging to the glue at the bottom.

Paint the bottom with white craft paint and a sponge brush. This does NOT have to be perfect. You'll never see it. You just want to white to help reflect the light.





Screw your table legs in place.



Now, the tricky part. Because I didn't want to invest in a battery pack, I had to create a hole large enough to fit the female end of the light string. The largest drill bit I own is 1/2" which wasn't large enough. So, I did a combo of drilling a couple of holes close together and then using a large flat head screwdriver as a chisel and hammer to break away the remaining wood. Is it pretty? No. Is it functional? Yes. And I figured since it would be facing the wall, I'd just touch it up with a little white paint and no one would be the wiser!


Feed the lights through the opening leaving just the plug portion exposed to attach to an extension cord.



Arrange the lights across the surface. To keep them from shifting, I tacked some of the cords in place with a little clear packing tape. If I'd had a choice of lights, I would rather have used ones with white cords. But finding Christmas lights in March is not easy! I decided I either had to be less picky and ignore the green cords, paint them, or wait to build this once stores started stocking for Christmas. I voted for ignoring!



Now, I had to cover the top. Here's what NOT to do! Sigh. The width of the light panel was a little less than 1/4" larger than I needed. I elected to let it overlap each side about 1/8" instead of trying to cut the brittle plastic. The problem was that the entire panel was 48" and I only needed two pieces measuring 21 1/2". At first I tried scoring it with the utility knife with no luck. We're talking brittle hard plastic. 


So, I finally got frustrated and slowly bent the two pieces together *hoping* that it would just split in half. Well.....it did, but not evenly. One side was fine. The other had a corner break off. And shards of brittle plastic shooting all over my kitchen. Yikes. I do NOT advise being impatient like me! In retrospect, I would have wrapped masking or painters tape on both sides of the plastic and either tried to cut it with a jigsaw or a router. It still might come out a little uneven, but I suspect it would be better than my mess. If you have the money (or are too perfectionistic to live with imperfections!), order plexiglass or an acrylic sheet cut to size. If you go the route I did, just know that it will NOT be perfect. But it will work. If I worked in a clinical setting where we might use this table many hours a day, I would spend the extra money. But since I'm in a classroom setting where we will only use it in short increments across the day, this will be durable enough for our purposes. Use your judgment.

Because of the flex of the plastic, I laid the two bumpy sides together, so the strength would be doubled. It worked well and also helped by bluring the view of the light strings.

Last, apply a little tape on the corners of the plastic, lay it in place and drill a hole in each corner. Peel off the tape, clean away your sawdust, and use wood screws to attach.



We are using our light table with translucent geometric shapes. Magnatiles are on my wish list to add to our light table stash. We also plan to do artwork by covering the table in translucent plastic wrap (to prevent seepage) and then use additional clear plastic sheets to paint or draw on. The play of light on different art materials will be great fun! 


Questions? Post them below in the comments! Happy light table building! ~Kelley

June 5, 2014

Swimming with Rainbow Fish

Today is the last day of school.

For me, the first and last days are always bittersweet. Days full of excitement and trepidation, fun and uncertainty.

This spring I watched my son learn to scull, and as he practiced, I couldn't help but compare the experience with my daily life as a special education teacher. In August, we push off from shore with our brand new clothes and our brand new shoes and our brand new pencils ready for a new adventure. By November, we've got the rhythm down. We know our roles: cockswain who encourages and directs, stroke teams working together to keep the rhythm and move forward. We've learned how to work in unison.

By February, we hit the doldrums. Exhaustion sets in. The end feels so far away. Are the kids where they need to be at this point in the year? There's so much left to teach. Tests loom in front of us like storm clouds, so we open our umbrellas and remind ourselves of how unimportant they really are in the scheme of everything. Like a winter storm, they blow in gray and noisy and then fade away a quickly as a whisper.

But then, the last few weeks of school approach, first creeping up on us with quiet little feet that soon graduate to determined, flip-flop clad stompers that will trample you if you don't duck out of the way fast enough. Those sharp pencils are now nubs. The soles on our shiny new tennis shoes are worn thin. But the same feelings echo in me. Relief that a break is coming, worry about whether my students accomplished all we set out to accomplish.

As I stood in the entrance to school this morning waiting and watching for my students who might be confused by the change in morning routine, I realized that sadly there are so many children that I don't "see". Those kids for whom learning comes relatively easy, for whom social relationships are built with fewer bumps and bruises. It's not that they are less important. On the contrary, I work with students in extracurricular groups like Student Council and UIL specifically so that I can get to know these students and keep my finger on the pulse of "typical".

But what I realized, as I stood there in the foyer, was that those students swim past me like schools of fish, lovely silver, swimming in straight lines, attending to the world around them with ease. But mixed in the current are rainbow fish, with beautiful, sparkly scales. One may have an odd-sized fin and swim in more of a zig-zag than a straight line, but he leaves a wake of beauty. These are the students who mean so much to me.

I'm so fortunate to get to spend my days in the company of these interesting and lovely little humans, these rainbow fish.
~ Kelley

April 3, 2014

Talking to Students about Standardized Testing

It's that time of year with standardized tests looming on the horizon...


Many of my students are showing signs of stress and anxiety regarding the upcoming tests. We are working through a unit on stress and stress management in our social thinking groups and the topic of tests is top on the stress chart for most of my students.

I have definite feelings and opinions on the one-size-fits-all, high-stakes testing issue, but that is not a problem we're going to solve today, unfortunately. In the meantime, I thought I would share some strategies and a tool I am currently using with students to help de-mystify the whole testing routine and help them realize that they've got the tools they need to keep their stress levels low. 

First of all, I use the story of The Wizard of Oz with my students to help them understand the purpose for benchmark tests and state standardized tests. I tell them that at the beginning of the year, we start off walking down the Yellow Brick Road with our friends. Along the way, we will learn many things and the goal is to make it to the Emerald City to see the Wizard (representing the total learning for the year) by summer vacation.

I tell them that their job is to do the work to learn and practice new skills along the path. A few times a year, the teachers want to check to make sure they are moving father down the Yellow Brick Road and getting closer to Oz. We do those checks through benchmarks and (in our case) STAAR tests. I tell them that taking those tests is the same as when we use a ruler to measure distances. The tests measure the distance we've traveled down the Yellow Brick Road. My students seem to really understand this analogy and it has calmed down some of the anxiety.

Along with the Yellow Brick Road story, we do what we can to de-mystify the big, scary test. We look at examples of released tests so they can see that the questions don't look any harder than work they do successfully every single day at school. We make lists of things we know, want to know, and then have learned about what to expect.

Finally, we review the powerpoint below which can help answer nagging questions. Feel free to use this powerpoint with your students if it would be helpful for them.

One piece of advice is to not assume that your students know information that you think would be common sense. For example, after our last district benchmark test, I found out that the biggest source of stress for one of my students who was in an oral-administration group, was that the administrator didn't spell out for him how to indicate to her that he was ready to move on. He needed to be told explicitly what to do ("When you are finished answering the question, look at me. That will let me know you're ready to move on.")  Also, for kids on the Autism Spectrum, please take the time to show them the space where they will test (and the administrator if it is not going to be you) BEFORE the test. The more you can take the mystery out of it, the less anxiety they will have to deal with.

And finally, encourage parents to keep it all in perspective. Kids only stress when they pick up on stress from the adults in their lives. In the long run, remember that these tests are NOT good indicators of successful learning, job readiness skills, or how successful they will be in life. They only indicate how well they've learned to answer multiple choice questions and bubble in answer sheets. I reinforce to parents that the most important thing to me is how well kids make progress toward IEP goals and how they show their learning in everyday and authentic learning tasks.
Click here to download the powerpoint to your computer.








September 21, 2013

Check Out Our Sensory Break Space!

I'm doing my happy special ed teacher dance! You know....the one that goes like this?


Elaine Dance photo ElaineDance.gif
Yes, I'm a Seinfeld fan. I mean, seriously, how many moments in our lives are identified with Seinfeld references?! Low talkers, close talkers, fat free yogurt, "No soup for you!", Mulva, puffy shirt, Festivus for the rest of us, Junior Mints. In fact, when I searched for this image I started laughing so hard my TA thought I had lost my mind! I know, I know...Topic Twister invaded my brain for a minute. Sorry about that! Back to the topic ~ Our New Sensory Break Room!

This year our school had a classroom that was being used for other purposes. My brilliant and fantastic principal gave us permission to expand our sensory break space into this room since our space was so limited in our tiny little classroom. I'm counting my lucky stars to have it for as long as I get it. I know it is HIGHLY unlikely we will have it next year. So, we are enjoying it while we do!

Check out our Gross Motor Center (complete with racetrack!)....





Our Fine Motor Center....



And our Calm Body Center...


I change out the activity offerings in each center (except the gross motor center which remains the same) on a weekly basis so it can stay interesting to the kids.

The kids check in at the Learning Zone poster when they enter the room.

They then choose a center that will help get their bodies into the green learning zone.

We are also working with Leah Kuyper's Zones of Regulation curriculum to help us identify "tools" for our ready to learn toolbox.

This week, we will be working to identify the effect various "tools" have on our emotions. Each child will have his own "toolbox" available.  Click here to download a copy of the toolbox.

This space has been such a blessing! We are able to start our days feeling good, conduct periodic sensory breaks as needed (or as scheduled!) during the day, and end our day in the room while we wait out the noisy chaos of dismissal. This has helped us start and end our days feeling calm!

I know that it is unlikely that we will have this space every year, but even if we don't I can use the same centers model with smaller and easier to store activities.

Thanks for checking our our Sensory Break Space!
~Kelley