Uplifting Student Voices: Using Accessible Templates and Tools for Virtual Presentations

by Alison Forger

I’m a special education teacher in New Orleans, teaching in a middle school self-contained special education classroom. I serve a small group of students in grades 4–8, with various exceptionalities and low-incidence disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities, and specific learning disabilities. In the classroom, my students receive a myriad of accommodations and modifications designed to meet their specific needs and support them in building their academic confidence and performance. Throughout this time of distance learning, it has been my highest priority to ensure that my students are receiving a rigorous educational experience that is both engaging and accessible to them, and that meets them where they are in terms of the social-emotional stressors of this time. As a teacher serving black and brown students with exceptionalities—individuals whose identity markers are disproportionately not afforded the exceptional education they deserve and have a right to—it is all the more important that the assignments and support I provide push them toward achieving their individual goals and support their mental and emotional health, happiness, and development.

In this case study, my students and I worked to recreate a process we had used in class for building presentations and practicing oral presentation skills to share what they know and what they have learned. With the goal of creating and orally (virtually) presenting a Google Slides presentation about a famous person of their choice, my students used virtual accommodations and creative solutions to complete projects they were proud to present to the class in a Zoom call at the end of the week. Virtual accommodations that made this possible included a presentation template/organizer in Google Slides, daily pacing (adding a slide each day), built-in sentence starters in the template, a built-in word bank, access to a select-to-speak tool on Chromebooks as needed, direct support via Google Hangouts Screen Sharing for students who needed direct teacher or para support in completing their presentation, and more.

Uplifting Student Voices: Using Accessible Templates and Tools for Virtual Presentations

Learning goals

  • I can use basic research skills to learn about people and things I am interested in.

  • I can create a presentation including words and pictures on Google Slides.

  • I can use my voice and presentation skills to orally present a finished presentation to my classmates.

  • I can think critically and give positive and constructive feedback to classmates about their presentations.

Keywords

virtual presentations, online learning, engagement, self-contained classroom, middle school, multiple disabilities, special education, reading, writing

Transition to distance learning

Activities

Face to Face

  • Student selects a person/topic to research and create a presentation about.

  • Over three to four days, student completes teacher-paced research on the person’s life, profession, work, and news articles about them, using teacher-printed articles or internet searches.

  • Student compiles information in a Google Slides presentation, with teacher and para support for spelling, etc., as needed.

  • Student adds photos to the presentation using copy and paste, with teacher support as needed.

  • Student presents completed Biography Project to the class orally, with presentation on the SmartBoard.

  • Student fills out a “Classmate Feedback Form” for each classmate, writing or circling what they did well or could add to improve.

At a Distance

  • Student selects a person/topic to research and create a presentation about.

  • Each day, the teacher remotely adds a new slide to the student’s Google Slides presentation document. Student uses the teacher’s sentence starters, word bank, and research tips to find the one or two pieces of information needed each day. In research of internet articles, student uses select-to-speak tool to read articles as needed.

  • Student types information in the Google Slides presentation, writing complete sentences and using the spellcheck tool and voice-to-text tool as needed.

  • Student adds photos to presentation in the spots the teacher has marked with a photo icon, referring to teacher’s directions if necessary.

  • On a Zoom call with the whole class, the teacher shares the presentation on the screen, and the student orally presents the completed Biography Project to the class.

  • After each classmate presents, student thinks about what they did well or could add, and then unmutes to share thoughts on Zoom.

Materials

Face to Face

  • Google Slides “Biography Project” presentation template

  • Printed articles, internet access for research

  • Setting for in-person oral presentations

  • Printout of “Classmate Feedback Forms”

At a Distance

  • Google Slides “Biography Project” presentation template, paced by adding one slide per day to student copies of the presentation; including sentence starters, a word bank, and research tips in Google Slides “Speaker Notes” section

  • Select-to-speak, voice-to-text, and predictive text accessibility features enabled on student computer, as needed

  • Google Hangouts for teacher support through screen sharing as needed

  • Zoom call link for presenting on the last day of the week

  • Graphic showing ways to give feedback to classmates (“great speaking!” “interesting research!” etc.)

Strategies

Face to Face

  • Directing student to other supports, strategies, tools, and resources to use independently (anchor charts, etc.) before asking you or another teacher for direct support

  • Teacher read-aloud directions, sentence starters, and prompts

  • Supporting student writing/spelling verbally by helping to break a word into segments or sounding it out

  • Supporting students in self-directed discussion by facilitating them calling on the next person in class when giving feedback and asking questions about classmate presentations (e.g., Student A gives feedback, then passes the mic to Student B, who passes it to C, and so on)

At a Distance

  • Directing student to use online supports, strategies, and tools independently before asking for direct teacher support

  • Virtual accomodation: Select-to-speak accessibility tool enabled on student computer, so they can select your written directs and receive this read-aloud accommodation

  • Virtual accommodation: Directing student to word bank in template, providing same support via Google Hangouts video chat, or supporting student in using voice-to-text tool, if appropriate

  • In virtual discussion, feedback, and questions about classmate presentations on Zoom, teacher can mute all participants, then unmute the first student speaking. When that student finishes, they tell the teacher who to unmute next based on whose hands are raised in their screens.

What worked well

My students loved having the choice to pick any person to research (within reason). They chose everyone from Tom Holland (Spider-Man) to Barack Obama to Michael Jackson, and they were excited by the visually appealing Google Slides Template.

I made a copy of the template presentation for each student and posted the template to Google Classroom assignments, with only Slides 1 and 2 on Day 1, then adding Slide 3 on Day 2, Slide 4 on Day 3, and Slide 5 on Day 4. Day 5 was presentation day, so I sent out our Zoom link via Google Classroom and student/parent texts. The pacing of the project and the clear expectations about what should go on each slide (based on clear questions, sentence starters, and directions for adding a photo) helped students feel confident about completing the project as independently as possible.

I was surprised by

Some of my students took their creative virtual-accommodations-problem-solving a step further (which didn’t surprise me, but it was wonderful to see!), finding ways to type their Google Searches for research via Google’s voice-to-text search bar capability, or copying spellings of words from their research websites into their presentations. I was really proud of the self-direction they showed and the creativity they employed in finding solutions that work for them—because that’s really what this is all about.

Next time I’ll try

One thing that remained frustrating during the execution of this project was that since each student had their own presentation document to work on across multiple days, I ended up having to create and assign a different Google Classroom “assignment” for each student (assigned only to them) for each day. This was possible because it was a small group, but it would be impossible to do with more students. If doing this project or a similar project again, I would troubleshoot this by creating one Biography Project “assignment” each day, but instead of linking to the student presentation directly and needing a separate one for each student, I would link to a folder with each student’s assignment inside it. The students would then know to open the folder, click on their own assignment from that folder, and complete their work from there. Then I wouldn’t have the logistical nightmare (the Google Classroom logistical struggle is real, y’all) of having six “assignments” to create every day for this single project (on top of other daily assignments).

My big picture takeaways

Finding ways to make virtual accommodations work for students is not only possible, it’s essential! It’s too easy for educators to assume their students (especially students with exceptionalities) will not be able to do something during distance learning because they don’t have the exact supports that are used during in-person learning. But the reality is that it’s our most important work, as educators, to figure out a way to find, build up, and teach students how to use virtual accommodations. It’s been a privilege to work with so many awesome educators to figure out, troubleshoot, and innovate different ways to make sure this happens in my school and beyond, so that all students get access to the high-quality education they deserve.

About the Author

Alison Forger is a special education teacher at Success @ Thurgood Marshall School in New Orleans. She has a passion for juvenile justice, youth social-emotional and arts empowerment, and working with young people using a strengths-based model. She also loves plants, good books, Taco Tuesday, and going to the movies. She has a BA in justice and peace studies and English from Georgetown University. Beginning in fall of 2020, she’ll be pursuing her master’s in social work at Howard University with a focus on juvenile justice.

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