Keeping students engaged and involved in their learning is a challenge for most
educators. But for children with special learning needs, it can be daunting – especially for a first-time teacher. “When I first started, I had never worked with any students with autism so to say I was intimidated would be putting it mildly,” says Shannon Putman. “The occupational therapist that worked with me at the time was amazing. She would tell me what the kids needed sensory-wise, and I would figure out how to make it academic. Sensory integration opened up a whole new world for not only me, but most importantly, for my students. I saw what a dramatic difference there was in my students once they had an aligned sensory system.”
But Putman didn’t stop there. “After witnessing firsthand the success of using the Xbox Kinect with my special needs students, I was inspired to get my students involved in the process and create a sensory-integrated, academic Kinect game that would appeal to all types of students,” she says. And so “Brain Drain” was born.
According to Putman, Brain Drain mixes research-based, proven, effective fine and gross
motor movements with sensory integrated tasks to create the highest learning environment possible. Students use their body and spatial awareness skills to complete academic learning tasks. “When students of all learning styles have an aligned and balanced sensory system, they are able to retain more information and learn new tasks at a much higher and more efficient rate,” says Putman. Putman showcased Brain Drain at the 2012 Partners in Learning US Forum.
Today, Putman gives us insight into the unique challenges of her students, and the potential that each school has to help all students – no matter their challenges – access a high-quality and caring learning environment. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Shannon Putman.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
When I first started teaching, I truly had no clue what I was doing! My undergraduate degree was not in education so I had no experience student-teaching. I was going through the masters program at the University of Louisville via alternate portfolio. This meant that I took classes full time and taught full time, so when I learned that I would have new students, I felt very scared. The students in my class have communication difficulties, which is why my class is a multi-modal communication classroom. I use American Sign Language, picture supports, augmentative communication devices, and anything I can to allow my students to communicate. Some of the struggles my students face are autism, Down syndrome and speech apraxia, among others. When I first started, I had never worked with any students with autism so to say I was intimated would be putting it mildly. After I incorporated sensory integration into my classroom, students were able to attend to lessons for over 45 minutes, they learned new information at faster rates, they retained information for longer periods of time, and their communication improved. I was also blessed with my two co-workers, Karen and Joi. They bought into sensory integration with me, and without their help and support, I would have not made it past the first week! Since then, I have created a sensory room in my school. With the amazing support of my principal, I was able to turn this sensory room into a safe environment for not only special education students, but general education students as well. I continue to try and educate my peers about sensory integration and how it can work for all students.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
As a result of these efforts, people finally believe in a new way of thinking.
They are seeing that kids do not have to spend their entire school day at a desk, “sitting and getting” as they say. They can be up, moving around, using their bodies, all while learning. Fourth and 5th grade teachers at my school have really embraced this movement. They use the sensory room with their students, and understand how effective sensory integration can be. I continue to try and give small tips and tricks and am overwhelmed at the response. Teachers are putting their work on yellow paper for active students, using calming blue, green and purple colors in their room, using calming scented air fresheners such as vanilla and lavender. I know that if one school in Kentucky can embrace this change, all schools can!
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
Some of the biggest challenges I faced were people not believing in the effectiveness of sensory integration, or not willing to put in the extra effort. This was very frustrating for me in the beginning because I could not understand why people would not want to do something that works. I realized that it was not that they were unwilling; they just were not sure how to go about it. Not everyone has a knowledgeable Occupational Therapist at their disposal to help teach them. So, I started small, telling them quick, simple things to help their students (e.g., work on yellow paper, use calming colors and scents, Velcro under the desk of an active student). Once people saw how easy it was, and how it can become a part of the entire class routine, they were more willing to embrace these changes. I would suggest to anyone who wants to help increase sensory integration in their school to start small and simple, focus on the fact that it comes from research-based best practices, and be willing to help in any way possible.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
The best thing that happened to sensory integration (and me) was the Microsoft Kinect for Xbox. The Kinect is an amazing way to incorporate movement into the educational day. That is what inspired me to create the fully academic, sensory integrated Kinect game “Brain Drain.” Brain Drain is a way for anyone to allow kids to use their bodies, get up and out of their chairs, have fun, and learn at a higher and faster rate than before. Even if I am not using Brain Drain, I use the Kinect and its camera to help improve my student’s sign language. They sign into the Kinect camera, and can see what their signs look like. The most important part about this is they see a mirror image of themselves. When they sign, they are not signing to themselves, they sign to a partner. By seeing their signs as a mirror image, they can see what the other person would see. This helps them realize if they have to move their hand up, down, how their finger shape is, and if they are signing slowly and clearly. Technology has truly opened up new doors for my special education students that I never thought possible before.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
I think this is a hard question because there are so many things being done well, and so many things that need major improvement. Yet, I think one of the biggest problems for education is a problem that is facing everyone – the economy. When times are hard, and there simply is not as much money, everyone feels it. There is less money for quality programs, districts have to make cuts in spending, and typically that ends up hurting the students. I know no one wants to cut spending for education, but it happens. I wish that money was something that we did not need, period, but sadly it is.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
I am so proud to be in a country where my students are being treated as equals. For a long time, students with special needs were treated differently. They were not allowed in public schools, and were seen as evil in some cases. My region/school impresses me on a daily basis. General education students are taught openly about autism, sign language, and what it means to be “different.” They welcome my special education students not only as classmates, but also as friends. They are nicer and care more about my students than they do themselves in some circumstances. My students have not had any issues with bullying or being left out of any activities. This is also a testament to the teachers and faculty at my school. They welcome my students with open arms, and have truly embraced the idea that they are not “my kids” but everyone’s kids. I honestly could not be happier with how well supported my students are in my school, county, and region.
What conditions must change to better support education?
I wish I had a great answer for what needs to be changed to better support education. I think there needs to be a better way of “holding teachers accountable” than simple test scores. I do not know what the answer is, though. I do believe teachers absolutely need to be held accountable for things; I have seen teachers who do not work hard and skate by. I have also seen teachers work as hard as they mentally and physically can, and get beat down. I know there is a middle ground somewhere, and I wish I could be the one to come up with an answer. I know that we need to continue to reach out into the community for support and help connect with our students’ families. I honestly believe that families must strongly support strong education – it is crucial for a student’s success. I believe that my district does that well and needs to continue to do that well, but on the whole, I wish I had more answers on how to help support education.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
I think the best opportunity for innovation in education is every day. Each and every day an idea or inspiration can hit us and we need to recognize those. There is not a day that goes by that I am not thinking about how I can better help my – and all – students. One never knows how big an impact they can have until after the fact. I wonder if Microsoft knew when they created the Kinect, that it would be helping students with autism all over the world. Innovation does not have to be something as grand as that. It can be something as simple as a new pencil grip for a struggling student. As long as we keep working, creating, and improving what we do as teachers, we will remain innovative and change education for the better every day.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
I would tell them to always fight for what is right and to never let anyone make you feel bad about it. There have been times in my teaching career where I have fought for what I know was right for my students, and some people did not like it. I allowed them to beat me down, and make me feel like I was worthless and I almost quit because of it. My grandfather told me, along with the rest of my incredibly supportive family, that I was where I was for a reason. I was meant to be with these kids and to never forget that. Sometimes what is right for students might not be popular. I would tell new teachers to expect to come across adversity, understand that it will happen and it does happen to everyone from time to time. Yet, if they know in their mind and in their heart that they
are doing what is best for kids, then never let anyone stop them. Of course there is a professional way to behave and one should never forget that, but do not ever let anyone make you feel bad because you are fighting for a student.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
In my school a new trend is sensory integration and forward thinking. I know I sound like a broken record, but it is truly a revolution! I know it in my heart, and the data proves that it does help students, so why not expand it as far as possible!?
A trend that I think is getting in the way of learning is the idea of “teaching to the test.”
I think there is so much pressure about getting good scores, and making sure that students do well on testing, that we are forgetting about the other important things. I see arts and drama programs, even physical education programs, being cut to make more time for reading, math and writing. Of course I think reading, math and writing are crucial to a child’s success in the world. But, if we cannot inspire their creativity as well, what will they have to write about? I hope that we can not only teach our students the core academic skills they will need to succeed, but also motivate them to become creative, productive members of their community.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
If I could give every child in the world the ability to understand what a difference education could make for their entire future, that’s what I would do. I see so many kids who are going through more challenges than I ever had to face, whether it’s a disability, a difficult home life, or family problems, that I do not know how they do it. I hear them say things like, “I am never going to use this” or “I can never learn” and I try to tell them it is important. A lot of kids I see cannot picture themselves graduating high school, let alone going to college, and I wish they could believe that it is for them and that they can do it. I want them to know that there are so many amazing things waiting for them and that they deserve to experience each and every single one of them. I want them to believe me when I say, “you can do it.” So, if I could give them the tool of self-confidence and self-worth, I would, and I continue to try and do that each and every day.
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About Shannon Putman
Born: Syracuse, New York
Currently live in: Louisville, Kentucky
Education: University of Tampa-BS-Criminology minor Psychology, University of Louisville-MAT- Special Education, National Board Certified in Special Education
Website I check every day: I cannot go a day without checking Syracuse.com to make sure that I know what is happening with Syracuse Football and most importantly the Syracuse Men’s Basketball team!
Person who inspires me most: My grandfather, Charles Reeves, has inspired me more than any person ever could. He was a Silver Star winner as a Marine in World War II. He taught me how to work hard, treat people with respect, and everything good I have in me came from him.
Favorite childhood memory: I have a brother who is 14 months older than me; we are both very athletic and were very active children. My mom would make these scavenger hunts for us. She would set up clues around the house and we would run around and try to find them as fast as we could. Every time I think of those nights I get a huge smile.
Next travel destination: I do not currently have any travel plans for the near future, but I hope to go someplace warm this winter (which is definitely NOT Syracuse!)
When did you last laugh? Why? At work today, I laughed for a good 10 minutes with my co-workers Devon and Tracy. We love the show Auction Kings so we frequently use the term “Ya bought it” and we were trying to explain to another co-worker why it is so fun. Some people just don’t get it!
Favorite book: The Shiloh Series (I have two Beagles and just lost our other Beagle, aptly named “Shiloh”).
Favorite music: Neil Diamond
Favorite quote or motto: “It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Visit Microsoft’s Accessibility in the Classroom website
for more ideas on making education accessible to all. The following are just a few examples of the wide range of resources and tools available:
Curriculum Resources – Curriculum Resources for Special Education for Windows 7 and Office 2010
Workshop – Accessibility Teacher Training Workshop