Several years ago Sharon Bruni, Director of the South Park Township Library (a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA), proposed a project for the Light the Way Grant to create literacy bags with a focus for children on the Autism Spectrum. Even though the South Park Township Library didn’t win, I have kept up with interest on the project’s progress.
Can you explain a little about the history of the Literacy Bags?
When I first started to develop this project I initially did a survey of research literature in the area of literacy interaction between students with ASD and their teachers. At the time I started this research, which actually was about three years ago, the literature indicated a lack of specifically designed materials that met the needs of the student with ASD. A good amount of the materials were created by teachers and parents as they went along. A lot of the materials that I read about were such that they allowed for individualization and were adaptable to the particular unique approach to literacy that any one student might have.
I was reading about a different way to approach literacy in general, a much more open approach that supported the students own way of development. This was very exciting to me. It seemed as if it was a new way to dissect learning that was very inclusive. The literature also seemed to suggest that literacy education could develop a course that was unchartered and developed from the unique interaction between student and teacher. Given the right materials to engage this process it seems as if anything could happen.
You created partnerships with the school district and other agencies. Can you describe the process?
I approached the school district (South Park Township) where our public library is located and met with our superintendent and special education director. They were very receptive to the idea of working together to develop some type of multimedia kit that would support literacy development in students with ASD. At this time I was researching funding opportunities.
The organization Better World Books had at that time an interesting grant available called “The Leap Grant.” This grant was open to all libraries and required you to pitch your idea to their organization. Through a series of meetings with teachers and administrators from our district as well as our county we came up with a plan and pitched our idea in writing as well as in person on Skype. We ended up receiving more funding than we had asked for as well as some matching grants from our district and township, resulting in over $20,000.00 to develop this project.
We immediately developed a committee to create this project. Our original committee was formed of special education teachers, education consultants and administrators from our school district as well as organizations in Allegheny County. In our first meeting it was decided that they were certain children’s books that the committee wanted to make accessible to all learners. It was decided that each kit would focus on one of these well-known books and from the content of the book develop material that would support the “Five Big Ideas” of literacy development; phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. The committee also decided to add an extra category for creative development and addition materials.
The partnership that our library created with our local school district has been the most meaningful for us. Since this project I have been invited to make presentations at school board meetings, the school’s Parents Academy as well as teacher workshops. Special Education teachers at our school district have set up classroom visits to our library and their students have all gotten library cards and now use our library.
Once the committee decided on the six categories for the kits it was determined that we should use a color-coded system to represent each category within the kit. The color-coded system would allow student/and or teachers to focus on specific trouble areas or to look at the kit comprehensively. We above all want these materials to be flexible.
If I were to take one of the kits apart let’s say the How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? kit you would notice 6 rainbow-colored mesh bags inside. Each the mesh bags contain multiple activity envelopes and pouches. The GREEN vocabulary bag has an envelope with a vocabulary card game that is both visual and text driven using words from the story. This game developed by teachers that can be played alone by the student or with a teacher/parent/friend.
In the RED phonics bag are two envelopes of activities. One envelope contains four folder activities created by teachers that contain rhyming activities of Velcro laminated images and text. The other activity is a purchased Lakeshore rhyming puzzle. The teacher created activity uses rhyming sequences and vocabulary direct from the story the purchased puzzle that specifically encourages self-expression and verbal skill.
The YELLOW comprehension bag contains one envelope of teacher created material. The teacher used Boardmaker® software to develop story specific comprehension questions that can be responded to by pointing to images and text.
The BLUE fluency bag contains a pouch with a Boardmaker ® annotated How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? book as well as the original book and a Scholastic video production of the story.
The PURPLE additional materials bag contains 5 envelope activities and one pouch. These activities include a dinosaur identification card game, a teacher created folder math activity that is dinosaur themed, a teacher created Boardmaker® social story that focuses on bedtime routines, a teacher created night-time activity chart, a teacher created folder activity for letter recognition that is dinosaur themed and a play bag of large plastic dinosaur manipulatives.
In addition to the kit the student/teacher/parent may elect to use the iPad loaded with the How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? apps full of relative activities to expand their interaction with the story
Some materials you bought, but others you created. Why did you make this decision?
It was decided that the kits would contain a combination of purchased and created material. Each kit contains a significant amount of teacher created material. The teacher created material is very specific to the content of the kits and each of the five literacy categories. The purchased material is mainly interactive games, toys, puppets and multimedia that support on a broader level the content. South Park Township Public Library librarians purchased all materials, ten iPads loaded with over one-hundred apps as well as the containers used in the kits and packaged and labeled all materials. The labeling was very extensive for this project as each kit has a considerable amount of components.
The school staff and the professionals with whom you worked were very excited about this project. How are they using the kits?
We have cataloged all kits into the public library county-wide Millennium software database to make the kits available on a county/statewide level. The kits are currently all checked out at the South Park Township School District as well as all the accompanying iPads. The school district has added the kits to their library catalog so that the kits may be checked out by teachers and students. The kits and iPads are currently being used in both support and regular classrooms on a daily basis. Multiple kits have been created for each theme which has allowed for teachers to allow students to take the same kit that is being used in school to be taken home for continued use.
How has the reception been with the children and families?
Teachers have stated that they have developed stronger relationships with the parents of their students due to the kits and iPads that the students have been taking home. Parents have stated to teachers that they enjoy being involved in their child’s literacy development.
If you started this project over what would you do differently?
If I were to start this project over again I would like to have even more time in the development phase where more students could be involved in the creation of the kits. The feedback and testing we received from the students was the most meaningful part of the process for me. I would like to see students taking more of an active part in the creation of the material. I would also like to have developed more of a relationship between the apps and the kits. It is pretty interesting how the kids relate to the apps and it certainly has added to the experience of using the kits.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?
The biggest obstacle for this project has been time. Each kit is very labor intensive. It takes a great deal of time to work with created material, as well as packaging that material and making everything attractive. It takes a great deal of time to promote these kits. When you are a small/medium size library such as ours with limited staffing it is a challenge to take on these type of projects that require a great deal of time outside the library engaged in planning meetings.
You have had such enthusiasm for this project. What has been the biggest highlight for you?
The biggest highlight thus far from this project has been a recent opportunity I had to watch a class interact with the kits and iPads. The amount of engagement that took place between the students, teachers and aids was incredible. All participants were involved and having a great deal of fun! I knew then that it has all been worth it.
Paula Holmes is ALSC Committee Chair, Library Services to Special Population Children and their Caregivers and Trustee for the Upper St. Clair Township Library