How I Learn Best: Self Advocacy for All Students

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Last spring I read Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It by Harvard neuropsychologist Jerome J. Schultz. Of the many things he advocates for in his writing, one in particular touched me. He tells the story of one child that he had helped learn to advocate for herself, and how they worked together to create a document that explained how she learned best. Later, the girl told her mother there was no way she would ever give the document to her teacher. Then the following year, the girl’s mother contacted him to share that her daughter’s new fifth grade teacher had started the year with a writing assignment titled “How I Learn Best.”

The teacher started the school year with a dialogue, asking her students to communicate their learning needs.

The girl had learned how to advocate for herself, yet she was too self-conscious or perhaps defeated by her learning struggles to give a teacher the document that she had created with Dr. Schultz. Thankfully this perceptive teacher knew to ask her entire class to advocate for themselves.

As we get ready to start another school year, I have pondered this simple idea. Special education teachers often train their students to advocate for themselves as they mature, and yet, isn’t self-advocacy something that all students should learn? We ask students to write about their favorite pets, colors, foods, books, sports, games, and other personal preferences, which is part of self-awareness. Shouldn’t that include awareness of their academic strengths and needs, and how to explain them to someone? And once we decide to ask our students to advocate for themselves, how do we help them learn that life skill?

We can start by making it age- and ability-appropriate using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. Let younger children draw small books about themselves, or speak in a video, or use augmented communication with a picture exchange system. Ask them to tell you about the things that are easy and the things that are hard for them. For the very young, try prompting them, perhaps using pages with pictures, and ask them to circle things that they like, don’t like, find easy, or find difficult. Older children can create a digital or hand-written one page profile, and some may be able to reflect on their educational challenges and what they have done in the past to work through them. Encourage students to communicate what the teacher can help with.

IMD3 - I'm Determined app iconThere is even a free IOS app by The I’m Determined Project, which teachers can use to manage digital one pagers for an entire class. Students can use the app to create their one pager, a personal goals plan, and a good day plan. The app even lets the students take a photo of themselves to go along with their profiles.

Once we ask students to advocate for themselves, then we must challenge ourselves to listen and act. We can start thinking about ways to differentiate learning so that students can reach mastery goals. If students say that writing is hard for them, clarify if the physical act is hard or if getting their ideas down on paper is hard. If students communicate that mastering math facts is difficult, find out if memorizing is hard or if working with numbers in general is hard. If students say that they have a terrible time with spelling, then add some multi-sensory techniques to the word study. Think about the challenges and plan the next steps.

Self advocacy is about autonomy, and we can lead students to be independent people who take charge of their own learning. An independent learner is a lifelong learner.

More About Self Advocacy

AudioNote App

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My Interest in AT and UDL

Some of my readers are aware of my strong interest in assistive technology and universal design for learning (UDL), but you probably don’t know that several years ago my interest became an urgent need to learn as much as I could. It began when our oldest son was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and continued when our second son was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. For the next few years after those diagnoses, I read everything I could find on those topics, including assistive technologies to help them communicate and learn. I learned how to create social stories, got trained in the Orton-Gillingham reading method, and experimented with dozens and dozens of programs and mobile apps to find things that would work for us.

This year we reached a critical point. Our second son started fifth grade still struggling with reading at grade level, and based on the previous years’ experience, I knew how difficult science vocabulary would be for him. The school’s textbook did not have an audio version available, so I decided to make audio recordings of every reading assignment. He needs multi-sensory input–audio, visual, and kinesthetic–for complicated vocabulary and ideas to stick. Though we could have read each assignment aloud together, he and I thought the recordings would be a good idea because they are reusable. He listened to each audio recording and followed along in his textbook, which helped his reading and retention. We saved all of the recordings for this school year, and he used them whenever he needed to study for a quiz or test.


The first thing I decided was that we needed the audio files to live on an iPad so he could take it anywhere. I scoured the web for audio recording apps, and narrowed my list down to about six. My criteria were:

  • The app must be easy to use, both for me and for him. My son should be able to use it autonomously.
  • The app must be free or relatively inexpensive.
  • The app must have good playback. Unclear recordings would not be helpful.

AudioNote_400x281I installed and tested the apps on an iPad 3. For testing purposes, I read aloud the same page from the science textbook into each app and saved the file. After going through my recording phase, I had my son listen to all of the recordings and try using the apps himself. We had to spread it out over several days to accommodate his attention span, but at the end of our testing we had one clear winner: AudioNote from Luminant Software.


To start with, AudioNote met all of my criteria. We found it very easy to use, and my 10-year-old son was able to learn it in just a few minutes. The price for the full version is right, just $4.99. The recordings are clear and easy to understand. The free version of the software limits recordings to five minutes, and there are no limitations on the paid version. The software is available for iPad, Android, Windows, and Mac, and the files can be transferred across platforms using Dropbox.

The software has other features that we like. It lets you type or draw notes on the screen, and time stamps the notes to align with the audio recording. Sometimes my son doodles a picture or writes a word onscreen while listening, and all of those notes are saved with the audio. In the screenshot below, he drew an example of a river created by glacial movement, and added arrows to show water flow.



We think the notes feature will be extra helpful as he makes the transition to middle school, because he can record explanations by teachers or group interactions and then draw or make notes to go along with the audio.  He can even take photos and embed them in the note. We are very happy that he will use this on his BYOT tablet.

Thanks for reading!

Second Grade Dreams

When I was in second grade, I decided that I would go to college and study to become a teacher. This was not a whimsical notion; I pursued my goals with determination and purpose. I did all the typical things that many teens who were interested in education did in the 1970s and 80s: babysitting, Red Cross training, volunteering with Teens Against Cancer and Young Authors programs. I spent the summer between my junior and senior year at the local college library, where I studied education policy and gathered material that I would use for my high school speech competitions. I don’t remember everything I wrote for my speeches, but I’m certain that some of my conclusions would have benefited from actual teaching experience and a few more years to gain wisdom. Still, it was an excellent project that stoked my interest in educational leadership. After high school, I fulfilled my dream. I went to college and became a teacher.

Currently, I am preparing to return to teaching after some time at home with my children. I am pursuing a graduate degree in instructional technology while volunteering at a local elementary school, and I plan to work as a technology resource teacher/coach at the elementary level. My bachelors degree is in music education, and my first graduate degree is in elementary education. That’s where my education heart is, in K-5 schools. In the years between undergrad and the present, I taught in U.S. schools abroad, earned a certificate in information technology, and gained real-world IT and instructional design experience. Life in education and technology has been very interesting and challenging.

So why am I here?

This is my space to share lesson plans, tips, ideas, inspiration, challenges, and perhaps ruminate on the current and future states of technology in education. I am about the learning first; technology is a tool for learning, a means to the end. I like to geek out as much as anyone, but ultimately the technology must be the right fit for real learning to happen. By real learning, I mean learning that makes the students want to keep going even when lesson time is over, learning that inspires and keeps them talking about it for days, learning that has them tell their parents about it over dinner, learning that challenges and changes their ways of thinking, learning that inspires a second grader to say, “I want to go to college and become a teacher,” or whatever they choose.

I am a parent and an educator, and I look forward to many good conversations with readers.