"What is a hard conversation? Why do we have to have them? Do we really have to have them?" Education consultant Jennifer Abrams paced the front of the vast room while the more than 1,000 attendees of the 12th annual ASHA Schools Conference squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of initiating difficult conversations. Although the conference drew school-based speech-language pathologists from across the country, it was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—the heart of the Midwest, where people pride themselves on being nice.
Opening speaker, Jennifer Abrams
It was obvious nobody in the audience wanted to have a hard conversation. Ever. And that's fine, Abrams told them, but not if the quality or safety of services a student is receiving is in question. Then you have to be direct and honest.
"Everyone wants to be nice and wants to be liked," Abrams explained in her opening plenary. "But not all situations call for that. Do you think a Milwaukee policeman is out there right now not giving speeding tickets because he's afraid no one will like him? No, and nor should you. It's our collective responsibility as adults to know how to speak up when something is wrong or something needs to be better."
And, she added, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) loom in most states and school districts, and those hard conversations and tensions could be right around the corner. The standards will require significant collaboration (see "Integrating the Core"). And collaboration, she pointed out, can be the flash point for some personalities. The key, Abrams said, is to learn how to keep the higher purpose in mind and to have the conversation humanely so it gives a person the time and will to respond positively and not get defensive.
Throughout the audience, heads nodded with recognition and, not surprisingly, Abrams' workshop session in the afternoon was packed. In it, SLPs collaborated on how to tackle tough situations with colleagues and administrators, with parents, and even in their personal lives. As the session ended, SLP Carol Cooney from Massachusetts said she felt prepared to tackle whatever happens come September.
Conference attendees found resources and connections in the Exhibit Hall.
"I've learned how to take the emotions out of it and to be very clear about what I want and why it's important," Cooney said. "Funny thing is that I wasn't even going to come to this workshop at first, but when I heard [Abrams] speak this morning, I knew I needed to hear this. We all did."
Lessons for All
Abrams wasn't the only speaker to touch on the CCSS at the conference. Other jam-packed sessions devoted to them included:
- How to Integrate the CCSS Into School-Based Treatments, led by Lissa Power-deFur and Perry Flynn, who described the combination of general education teachers (the experts in curriculum) and SLPs (the experts in differentiated instruction) as the "perfect marriage."
- Using Academic Language, led by Laura Justice. She encouraged SLPs to include the "specialized language of academic settings" as vocabulary with their students, because students need academic language in their lexicons to navigate the demands of the new standards. Other reasons Justice cited for teaching words such as "function," "correlate," "imply," or "abstract" (what Justice described as "general, all-purpose academic words") include increasing concerns about reading comprehension and the growing number of studies showing what "good vocabulary intervention" looks like. "We need to get these words into our students' heads," Justice told the audience. "A lexicon is an emergent structure and everybody's is different. Your moments with each child are precious—use words to build their lexicon. They can learn them."
Other popular sessions focused on treatment-specific topics such as Joleen Fernald's discussion on selective mutism and the developmental, individual-difference, relationship-based (DIR) Floortime™ model; Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin's discussion on practical implications for service delivery to very low-income or homeless children; Timothy Kowalski's 100 treatment techniques for adolescents with Asperger syndrome; and Samuel Sennott's discussion on using mobile technologies, such as smart phones and tablets, in treatment.
Sennott's session (where many of the audience members were fittingly taking notes on their tablets) introduced the audience to a series of questions to ask before choosing an app for a student. The series, called the SETT (Student, Environment, Task, Tools) Framework, was created by Joy Zabala. It forces clinicians to look at the student's functioning level, work and play environment, and tasks, as well as the available technology. This framework, explained Sennott, can help streamline the technology or apps decision-making process. And those choices, Sennott said, have become much easier and enjoyable because of the wide array of socially ubiquitous gadgets available to students.
"Just like eyeglasses—which used to be used only for a vision disability, but now people are wearing them as fashion accessories—these devices have become fashion accessories," Sennott said. "Taking something that was once for a disability and making it fashionable is powerful. Think of what that can do for a kid walking into school. Never forget the coolness factor."
Jennifer Clayton, a speech-language supervisor for Chicago Public Schools, said she found Sennott's session very informative as her schools begin to use more and more technology and apps for speech and language intervention.
"It's coming up more in our schools in Chicago," Clayton said. "We have isolated clinicians beginning to use apps, and I want to bring back lots of good ideas for them so they can implement them. Right now, our clinicians are choosing their own apps and we approve them. It's slowly coming about, but using apps in the classroom is definitely coming for us."
In addition to choosing from 23 educational sessions, attendees browsed 28 poster sessions late Saturday afternoon, discussing such topics as assessing the language skills of bilingual children, identifying language deficits in children with emotional and behavioral disorders, and supervising speech-language pathology assistants (SLPAs). Those gathered around the SLPA poster considered ASHA's year-old associate program and agreed the benefits of working with SLPAs are undeniable in light of many SLPs' increasing caseloads. Some noted that much depends on the relationship between the SLP and SLPA, as well as the profession's acceptance of this category. Kathy Wheat, program director and professor of speech-language pathology at Oklahoma City Community College, shared her sense that some hesitate to accept the new category fearing that assistants will do all the "fun" intervention, leaving SLPs with the paperwork and assessments.
But that situation can easily be avoided, she said, by setting clear expectations up front.
"An assistant can actually help you free up some of your time so you can do more of the fun stuff," Wheat said. "I think some of the worry is because many SLPs may not really know how nor have been taught to supervise."
Beyond the Sessions
Outside the walls of the Frontier Airlines Convention Center, conference attendees sampled other ASHA offerings. On Friday night, ASHA members attended a fundraiser for the ASHFoundation at the lakeside Milwaukee Art Museum, and on Saturday evening, members gathered at the ASHA Political Action Committee reception, which featured reasons to support the committee as it promotes the professions on Capitol Hill.
Attendees also explored the offerings of downtown Milwaukee. Known for its German heritage and passion for food and drink, Milwaukee serves up many a friendly brew pub and intimate restaurant on its river walk and in its quaint neighborhoods. Some conference attendees watched the Brewers lose three of four games against the Washington Nationals, attended the boisterous German Festival, or had a photo taken with the "Bronze Fonz," a statue of the TV show "Happy Days" character Arthur Fonzarelli, on the riverwalk.
As the conference came to end on Sunday morning and attendees packed up, Sheril Silva from Somerset, Massachusetts, was already making plans for next year's conference in Long Beach, California. This was her eighth time coming to the Schools Conference and far from being her last.
"I love coming to this conference," she said. "You get to get away for a few days and focus on what you do and how to do it better. It's always a good feeling."