When I dove into assistive technology, head first, a colleague had directed me to A.T.TIPSCAST, a podcast providing over 460 quick and easy AT Tips available for all learners to use in the school setting. Since then, I have enjoyed listening to Chris Bugaj share his knowledge and experiences, often incorporating them as soon as I walk in the door at my school. Of course, I have now also read his book and attended a webinar, using his advice and strategies to improve the life of my students. Let's just say, he's quite the guru of Practical and Fun ways to integrate strategies and technology into the classroom. So this is kinda like a professional Wayne's World moment....
Thanks again Chris for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for the post!
- Your shared experiences make me want to work for Loudoun County School System! Have you always been in education?
Yes, in fact, I’ve worked my entire professional career in LCPS. I started there in 1999 and haven’t ever felt the need to leave. I’ve looked, applied, and even interviewed other places since I started but the grass never appeared greener anywhere else.
- You’ve been an SLP for how many years, now? What inspired you to focus on assistive technology?
I was the speech-language pathologist for Hillside Elementary School for 3 years. In that time the school had an autism program and a program for students with intellectual disabilities. I also worked extensively over the summers with students receiving extended school year services, wasn’t afraid to share my opinions and strategies at staff meetings, and occasionally demonstrated how I was using technology to manage my caseload. In 2002, LCPS hired a full time assistive technology person. She created a team of volunteers but lobbied administration to create a dedicated team. Our director of special education saw the need and established the team.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to be on the new AT Team. For one year, my fourth year with the district, I split my time. In the mornings I did speech-language services in a preschool classroom and in the afternoons I worked with my teammates to establish the district’s AT Team. I found it incredibly rewarding to be trusted with such a tremendously important task. We all dove right in!
- I know I can describe the times I felt totally validated when I was working a student who demonstrated success; you know, when they finally get the picture exchange concept during a sensory based play experience or when that non-verbal kiddo says “cool” for the first time. Can you share one of your most fond therapeutic moments?
There are so many! It’s hard to choose, but these are probably the two moments that stand out.
- BIG PUMPKIN LIVE - When I was the SLP at the elementary school one of the books I used regularly in lessons was BIG PUMPKIN. It’s about big, strong, capable monsters trying to get a pumpkin that is stuck in the ground off the vine in time for Halloween. In the end, it’s a tiny, weak, but clever bat that figures out how to solve the problem. A student with autism with social and verbal expression goals had read the book with me. Later in the month at the Fall Festival assembly I directed some teachers through a live adaptation of the story. Teachers dressed like characters from the book and performed it live as I told the story. At the end of the play, before the crucial scene where the bat flies in with the winning idea for how to get the pumpkin off the vine, I stopped the show, turned to the audience and asked, “What do you think they should do to get the pumpkin off the vine.” The first grade student with autism immediately raised his hand. I ran to him, jumping over Kindergarteners in a single bound, and shoved the mic in his face. Then I asked, “Do you know what they should do?”
With all the confidence in the world the boy grabbed the mic, pulled it to his
mouth and yelled, “They should work together!”
b. One summer as a speech pathologist I worked with a middle school student with some of the worst articulation difficulties I'd ever seen. He worked on his family's farm daily in near isolation. He was shy, embarrassed, worrisome, friendless, and nearly unintelligible. On the last day of our summer together his grandmother told me that he told her that he felt like I had helped him so much that he wanted to buy me something with his own money. They went shopping and he bought me this plaque. I’ve kept it ever since.
- What prompted you to write the book and create the A.T.TIPSCAST?
Our assistive technology team was established. It was working. We had pushed the boulder of establishing our presence with policies and procedures up the mountain. The task changed from creating a team to maintaining the team. Being part of building the AT Team was the single most fulfilling thing I’d done in my professional career. I realized that I enjoyed the building and creating part of the experience. We made something that wasn’t there before. Once it was made the question became, what should I be a part of making next?
At the time I was commuting 2 hours a day and listening to many podcasts. When I went searching for podcasts on assistive technology I found the pickings to be slim. That inspired me to try my hand at it. I ran it past my wife, who was nothing but encouraging, and off to work I went in the evenings producing the first few episodes of the A.T.TIPSCAST. The excitement of making something has been there ever since!
As for the Practical (and Fun) Guide to Assistive Technology in Public Schools, Sally Norton-Darr, the co-author of the book, and I were presenting at our very first national conference, FETC (The Florida Educational Technology Conference) in Orlando. Our presentation was called Chew the P.H.A.T. Policies and How-To’s in Assistive Technology. The presentation was designed around our service delivery model, which at the time, was pretty unique in the country. The night before the presentation I had the idea to incorporate Disney references on just about every slide and invite people to yell out the movie titles when they saw the reference. I ran it past Sally about an hour before the presentation. She loved the idea and we jumped in altering slides.
The presentation was a huge success with a great amount of audience participation and interaction. At the very end a man came up to us and asked us if we’d ever considered writing a book on the subject. I said, “Absolutely!” and Sally agreed. That man was Jeff Bolkan, a managing editor for the International Society on Technology in Education. I had just launched the A.T.TIPSCAST the previous month and there I was with Sally writing the book! Like the presentation, the A.T.TIPSCAST, and everything else I try to do, we wrote the book in a very unique style with the hopes that it would be engaging to reader. We didn’t want the book to feel like a chore to read. By using fun analogies to zombies, leprechauns, pirates, robots and more we thought it might be something that would keep readers turning the page instead of falling asleep.
- You are coming up on your 150th podcast milestone soon. When you started it, did you ever think it would be as widespread and popular as it is? Are you going to do anything special to celebrate?
I don’t know how widespread and popular the podcast really is. The underlying message of the show is that the technology we use for students with disabilities is really technology that could be used to for everyone. Sometimes I think just the fact that the term “assistive technology” is in the title keeps general educators from discovering it and the show is as much for them as it is for anyone. Still, I had no idea anyone would ever listen to the show and to this day the number of downloads vary wildly per episode. I do have an idea for the 149th and 150th episodes, but it is going to take some time to pull those together. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of it.
- What does the future hold for the Bugajs? Perhaps a traveling education show with your wife, Melissa, discussing special education, and your kids commenting on how to use multisensory media to get projects done?
Absolutely! There are definitely future plans for my wife and I to present even more in the future. We present together as often as we can because we have a lot of fun together! As for the kids, that is also something we’ve discussed. Every year our school district puts on its own educational technology conference in June called ActivLoudoun Plus (#ALP15). We’ve been discussing the kids being co-presenters showing the fun technology we use to complete our school assignments.
As for me specifically, I was just asked to join Bruce Baker, creator of Minspeak, on a two week presentation tour of Australia and New Zealand. I’ll be headed to the Land Down Under and the Land of the Long White Cloud this summer to talk about implementing core vocabulary into the classroom. Also, Melissa gets to fly out and join me for a few days as well! We can’t wait, Mate!
- As a school based therapist struggling to get administration to acknowledge the knowledge and experiences of the in-house therapists and teachers, what advice do you give to people like me to help them develop their own AT Team? (besides buying the book!)
Do remember the character Mad Eye Moody from the Harry Potter series. His key phrase was “Constant Vigilance!” Stay at it. Keep banging that drum. Also, remember that in order to truly sell the idea of the team you need to convince administration that it will save money in the long run. Administration will see the money it will cost to pay a team of professionals. It’s your job to show them the money they’ll save by having those professionals in place. Less non-adoption of technology, less abandonment, less wasted therapy time, less wasted money on technology that isn’t used, less time on training, and so forth. Explain how a team will reduce the amount of headaches they have to deal with on a weekly basis. Show them that you’ll start the process of assistive technology consideration by thinking about what’s already in the environment and attempting to solve problems using least restrictive solutions. Lastly, put the responsibility on yourself to make the change. Don’t get frustrated that the administration isn’t doing what you know is right. Chances are they want what you want, but the barrier is often tied to the purse strings. Knowing that, you can focus on getting some really sharp scissors to cut those strings.
- What is your favorite app (and it doesn’t have to be AT related)?
ATEVAL2GO, of course!
But, I’m also a fan of Timehop - for remembering all my old posts, Up *synced to my UP24 band)- for tracking my steps and calories, and, in the summer, Zombies, Run! which is a clever way to get me out the door and on my feet by being chased by a horde of zombies.
Finally, my absolute app, of all time, is the podcasting app. There is SO much free content out there that is really interesting to me I never have time for it all.
- What are the top five items in your therapy tool box?
Back in grad school I saw a classmate spend all weekend making a super fancy board game to play with a kid. I whipped up my crappy little board game in under an hour. We went in to our respective therapy sessions and both kids came out smiling from ear to ear enjoying themselves. I realized early on that the best therapy is making connections with people, not the tools or gadgets you have in your backpack. If you’re genuinely enjoying yourself then the student will too and then they’ll make progress. What are my top 5 items?
- A smile coupled with a laugh
- Video Camera
- Sense of Humor
- You are a very busy person! On top of a family man, you are a speech therapist, author, blogger, podcast host, TedTalker, Webinar-er, App Developer and national presenter. Am I missing anything?
I try to workout and run every now and again. Back in 2009 I weighed close to 200 lbs. On my son’s first day of Kindergarten I changed my eating patterns and started exercising. Since then I’ve lost about 55 lbs and have managed to keep it off. I’m pretty proud of that.
On top off all of that, I really enjoyed writing the children’s stories with my wife. Night Light Stories has been a really fun, rewarding ride for us! Our other responsibilities have prevented us from keeping up with it at this time but it is something I hope to get back to soon because I really enjoyed creating those stories for kids of all ages!
- And if anyone wants to get in touch with you, what is the best way to contact you?
I can't thank Chris enough for taking time out of his zombie-running, podcast-producing, therapy-giving schedule. I highly recommend heading to iTunes and subscribing to A.T.TIPSCast to learn quick and easy tips on your drive to work that you can implement once you get there. You can also find videos on Chris’s You Tube channel for you visual learners. And if you want to learn how to be constantly vigilant and develop your own AT Team in your district, consider reading The Practical (and Fun) Guide to Assistive Technology in Public Schools, available through ITSE publishing. It's informative and entertaining. Don't forget to check out his TEDx Talk "Disability-led innovation for the masses" and Night Light Stories.