In April, we introduced the idea of using Specdrums by Sphero to turn colors into sounds and sounds into learning. The Specdrum is a silicone ring that, when connected to an app, can be tapped onto a color to produce an assigned sound. Many sound packs such as musical notes or animal sounds come along with the two Specdrum apps. You are also able to record your own sounds--and this is where a technology toy designed around colors becomes a learning tool for students with visual impairment.
Not only can you record sounds, but you can assign them to specific colors. This means that any color-coded object or paper can become an auditory cue for a student who is visually impaired. We decided to leverage this idea into creating an activity to foster mastery of the braille cell that played off an existing hands-on braille cell exploration utilizing a 6-compartment muffin pan.
Children who are very young and learning the concept of the braille cell need lots of practice daily. This is my second year being a TVI, and I found myself with a caseload that includes a young five year old just learning how to braille. I tried using the swing cell compact from APH, but I was not having any luck after six weeks of daily repetition. My mentor came to observe me and suggested I switch to using a muffin pan. She shared that using a muffin pan with tennis balls can sometimes be a very useful strategy when teaching about the braille cell. The pan represents the six braille dots. Placing a tennis ball in a compartment represents a raised dot.
This is the letter C represented in the muffin pan:
As soon as my mentor mentioned the muffin pan, I instantly thought about how I could use this kitchen vessel to cook up a fun and engaging experience for my student. I was excited to get my technology coach and co-writer, Estee, to help me program my technology and bring my creativity to life. We were actually already planning to make an interactive book using Spectrums (an idea we plan to explore and blog about later), but what I really needed in that moment was a way to get my very young student to wantto learn braille. I had been letting the five year old play with the musical Specdrums as a reward, and I knew she was going to love using them in a new way. Estee and I got to work.
The big idea would be that the student would read the braille letter on a card and listen to the directions for how to braille the letter. Next she would then use the muffin pan and tennis balls to make the braille letter. The muffin compartments would be labelled with braille numbers, but also color coded so that the Specdrum would read the braille cell number to the student when she tapped the bottom of the compartment.
Below is a video of the student exploring the muffin tin for the VERY first time. For many students, understanding that there are six holes and the spatial relationship between these holes is not an easy step and may take multiple days of practice!
Note: In the video, the 5 year old student holds the Specdrum's ring in her right hand and firmly presses the ring on the colored foam circle at the bottom of each muffin pan comparment. The Specdrum ring activates the Spectrum app to announce the dot number. The student uses her left hand to place the tennis ball in the desired comparment.
Through collaboration and trial and error, the process we followed is outlined below:
6-compartment muffin pan, colorful foam, 6 tennis balls, small basket, blank APH flashcards, peel and stick pom poms, brailler, Specdrum by Sphero, Specdrum Edu app
- Cut into circles and use colored foam to line the muffin compartments in colors that closely match those provided on the Specdrum play pad. It is best to hot glue the foam so the student does not pull it out. Use braille stickers to label each compartment in the muffin pan to match the six braille dots.
Gather your six tennis balls and place them into a basket.
- Cut a large red foam square for your directions pad. Consider using a foam shape sticker or dot to give tactile feedback and make the directions pad easy to identify.
- Use braille writer to create flash card. Create lead in and lead out lines (dots 2 and 5 repeated) for orientation purposes. Work with the student on flashcard lesson so that he/she creates a braille representation on the card using peel and stick pom poms. You can also use high dots if you do not have the pom poms.
- Setup your sound pack on Specdrums Edu app. The video below will guide you through the set up.
From there, you are ready to implement with the student. You will need to orient the student to the materials then lead them through tapping the directions and braille dots with the Specdrum. Our materials and setup are pictured below.
The student instantly fell in love with the activity and we practice daily using the Specdrum. My favorite part about using the Specdrum is that she can re-listen to the directions on her own. She doesn’t have to rely on me to keep repeating the direction. She can do this independently. I like that the most. I also appreciate that she can continue to practice braille in her regular education classroom while other students are working on their own literacy skills.
Used in this way, you may think the Specdrum is nothing more than a voice recorder like the one APH offers. In a way, this is true, but Specdrums offer more learning extension activities than a regular digital recording device. The APH digital record device is chunky, and you would need about 7 of them in order to create the muffin pan activity. Along with the related apps that allow for recording and saving of sound packs, Specdrums help create audio scaffolding in a streamlined and shareable way.
Skills this activity encompasses
Practicing the muffin pan activity using the Specdrum supports my student’s ability to memorize the spatial elements of a braille cell. They are able to touch the muffin pan then scale it down to actually using a traditional size braille cell with a braille writer. You can also teach basic literacy skills of identifying the top, bottom, middle, left, and right side of the pan. This is the same concept you would teach sighted students on how to read letters right side up. The voice output using the Specdrum helps build the cognitive sequence skills needed to identify dots 1-6. It also builds the auditory skills of young learners because they can re-listen to the directions if they do not understand them so that they can complete the task independently. Building the letter using a muffin pan helps young braillers learn to read and write the braille code.
It would be nice if Sphero, the company that sells Specdrums, could design a device that has unlimited numbers of colors to code. One drawback to the Specdrum is that you have the ability to code 12 different colors at one time for an activity. Theoretically, you should be able to code more, but the device has trouble distinguishing between more than a few shades of the same color.
Another obvious flaw is that the Specdrums apps do not yet work well with voice over so coding the Specdrums is not as accessible as using them. This means that students and teachers with visual impairments would have a hard time creating their own sound packs.
A Call for Collaboration
I love that I can create a lesson on my cell phone, take a picture of the scan code, and send it to the other TVI that I work with so she can scan it with her student’s device and get started. It would also be beneficial to have TVIs and O&Ms share their coded lessons by sending an image of their scan codes. We encourage you to take a screenshot or picture of the QR code to any soundpacks you make and share them in the comments of this post.
The image below is the QR code for the letter C pack; it is also available as an attachment at the bottom of the post. It can be scanned by the Specdrums app.
At the end of the day, my biggest tip for working with the Specdrums is to have fun. If you are not good with technology reach out and ask for help. You will be surprised at how simple you can color code lessons. The possibilities are endless. In fact, we will end with another activity we adapted from the student’s regular education class. This was a cut and paste activities where students had to order first, second, third, fourth and fifth. Because of the adapted, color-coded Specdrums activity, the student had the chance to learn right along with her peers. Do you have an idea for another activity like this you can share in the comments?
the video below demonstrates the student playing another Specdrums activity. In this activity a print worksheet has been modified. The worksheet has five birds sitting in a row. There is a different color foam square on each bird. The student presses the Specdrums ring to the square to here the position of the bird in the row: First, Second, Third, Fourth or Fifth.