Monday, September 24, 2012

Music and Speech

We got our piano tuned the other week.  Rose has been making great strides with her piano lessons, making the instrument sing each morning with her practicing -- so we wanted to be sure it was singing in key!  (Didja hear the one about how people keep having to break into song because they can't find the key?  Heh.)

Anyway, the guy who did the turning also plays a variety of instruments but is particularly skilled with the marimba.  He's won numerous awards, plays from a repertoire of over 250 songs, and has performed in Wisconsin's Capitol Rotunda.

He also has autism, and didn't speak until he was eleven.  Now, in his mid-thirties, his list of accomplishments is long.  In his work as a piano tuner, he is accompanied by his mentor, a retired piano tech who supervises his work and helps him stay focused.  His mom, who manages his scheduling, also taught him at home.  By the time we'd completed the whole transaction, I wound up with two of their CDs -- one of his performances, one of her compositions.

Mom's songs, as it turned out, were integral to his education.  Twenty-some years ago, public schools were open to students with disabilities thanks to the 1975 "Education for All Handicapped Children Act" (predecessor to IDEA) -- but in his case at least, they weren't very successful at figuring out how to serve him.  His mother was a kindergarten teacher, and she discovered that what he best responded to was music; that if you sang his lessons to him, the material would actually stick.  So her CD features the songs of his education, created as she put together a music-laced curriculum for him.

Joy, meanwhile, has gotten off to a fine start this school year.  I was concerned that the transition back into school, with a mostly new-to-her team and coming off a late-summer riddled with behavioral challenges, was going to be rocky at best.  But her new special-educator and teacher and student-teacher met with us repeatedly in August, processed the mounds of input we had for them, and felt like partners in the education of Joy before classes even started.

On top of that, Joy has been blessed with musical SEAs (special education assistants).  The past two years, she was met first thing every morning by an SEA who plays drums and teaches piano.  We were sorry to leave that aide behind as Joy moved up to 2nd grade, but simply delighted to hear her new morning-greeter SEA announce, "I'm a singer!"  Joy's affinity for melody and tempo was quickly evident to this new SEA.  We've been hearing updates about Joy echoing little tunes and tapping rhythms.

Then on Friday, she sent home this piece of artwork.

"Song Spots"

Joy, who had never made it all the way through art class before as far as I knew, hung in for a full 45 minutes with her singer-SEA on Friday and dotted this sheet in one marker-color after another -- in time to music.  It sounds like her art teacher got into the act with the music as well.  I know he plays the bass, and the note said "Teacher plays quiet jazz too!"

Teachers have been badly scapegoated lately in Wisconsin and nationwide, and SEAs are even further down the totem pole.  As a Madison teacher-blogger posted just yesterday:
SEAs choose to stay in a career where they are often sworn at, kicked and challenged. They do this, because they care about our children and they understand the importance of their role in our students’ lives. We need to start rewarding SEAs both financially and by treating them with the professionalism they deserve.  Most importantly, we must create school conditions that foster success for the students they serve.

In tandem with the new music delights, we've had a burst of words these past weeks as well.  The speech-settings on Joy's mixer-board are hitting new highs.  I now regularly hear at snack-time, when Joy finishes the first serving of goldfish -- "moh... CACK-uh!"  Not too long ago, when Joy was angling for her iPad (which was busy charging up on the other side of the bedroom door), we got a three-word prompted utterance out of her: "I... want... iPad"!  Heck, just yesterday JoyDad was watching football with her, and was teaching her to raise her arms and say "Touchdown"!  (Next on the list of sports-speak to teach her will be "Go Bears!")

Music to our ears.

And yet, while all this wonderful music and speech and overlap between the two is happening on the home front, down at Wisconsin's Capitol, a new Chief of Capitol Police has been tasked with squelching musical free speech in the Capitol Rotunda.

I've blogged about the Solidarity Sing Along before: red heart balloons, and holiday defiance in the face of an attempted December crackdown last year.  Since March of 2011, the Sing Along has gathered daily to continue expressing opposition to the ongoing depredations of the Walker administration.  This remarkable resistance-movement has been a thorn in the side of the Republican regime since the singing first began.  They tried to squelch us last December with a ridiculous, unconstitutional re-interpretation of Capitol permitting rules, flying in the face of the Rotunda's rich history of being a public square, intentionally designed with acoustics suitable for free political expression.  We showed up by the hundreds in December, daring them to arrest us all -- and, in large part due to the thoughtful leadership of the previous Capitol police chief, no arrests were made and the Sing Along continued.

Now, however, the arrests have begun.  Chief David Erwin, a former Scott Walker bodyguard, has led the Capitol Police in an anti-singer campaign.  The arrests and citations have targeted the people who attend the Sing Along most frequently.  While Erwin gives interviews complaining about disruptive protesters who go around "terrorizing" tourists and Capitol staff, the arrests are for holding signs.  Or banners (like the one held by JoyMama the rabble-rouser in the red coat below).  Or for attending an unpermitted event, or for sections of the Administrative Code that have never been interpreted in this way before. Despite repeated requests for clarification, the Capitol Police are declining to specify what activities might be deemed citation-worthy on any particular day.  They've taken to showing up at people's homes and workplaces to deliver citations, without having approached the individuals at the Capitol at the time of the supposed infraction.  It's intimidation, and they're pairing it with a cynical propaganda campaign that Rebecca Kemble wrote about compellingly in The Progressive the other week: The Two-Pronged Assault on Dissent in Wisconsin's Capitol.

The citizen-lobbyists of the Solidarity Sing Along believe that our permit to lift our voices in musical dissent is contained in the following words of Wisconsin's Constitution (Article 1, Section 4):

The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.

"What part of SHALL NEVER BE ABRIDGED don't you understand?"

And if we poke a little bit of fun at Chief Erwin with masks and signs, that too is free speech, a bit of political theatre to bring home our message.  We gather and sing in peace, but we are determined.  We intend to keep singing until Wisconsin is back on the right track.  Even then, we will continue to be involved on a new level.

There's too much at stake -- and my Joy, who delights in rhythm and song, is at the heart of the future I'm fighting for.

See you at the Capitol.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ode to Joy

On the occasion of sending my daughter off to her first day of second grade: a YouTube video of an orchestral flashmob, that Joy and I have listened to together repeatedly this past weekend.

I'm sure that part of why she loves it is that she knows the tune so well from Baby Einstein.

I love it because it's so soaring and beautiful -- and the resonance of the title as Joy starts a new school year.

To Joy, my second-grader!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Product Hits & Misses: Keeping the iPad Audible (and safe)

Can you hear me now?
Can you hear me now?
Can you hear me now?
- Verizon wireless commercial

When we look back at the summer of 2012, I think we may remember it as the summer of the toilet training -- and of the iPad.

I threatened way back when to do a bunch of product reviews around Joy's iPad equipment and apps.  I naively figured that I'd work my way down Joy's list of apps and tell you all about them.  But at the pace I'm blogging versus the pace we're adding apps -- yeah.  It's not going to happen quite like that.  What I decided to do instead was to create a separate page that will represent a running list of her apps, with notes (see the new tab at the top of the blog!)  As well as being a good way to share, I figure it will be a good record for me, too.    I'm also resurrecting my "Product Hits & Misses" category, one I haven't used in quite a while.  The old ones are chock-full of useful information though, even across several years' time.

On to the product reviews!

Back when Joy's speech therapist was evaluating iPad technology with Joy, but before I'd had any chance to explore the iPad myself, she noted a concern about the iPad's volume levels.  She wanted Joy to be able to use the iPad to speak above a noisy classroom if necessary -- and indeed, the iPad's speakers are not among its most highly-praised features.  So she recommended that we look into external speakers.

When we did so, we found that most external speakers connected to the iPad via cords, which absolutely wasn't going to mesh with our active, tough-on-equipment young lady.  There was one product, though, that combined external speakers with a tough-looking case, complete with carrying handle: the iAdapter 2 from AMDi.  It's a pricey product, at $265.  The reviews looked good, though, and for what we were trying to do it was about the only reasonable option. So we pitched it, together with the iPad and ProLoQuo2Go and a couple other apps, for funding via Wisconsin's Medicaid waiver for children's long term support.  And we got the whole shebang.

The iAdpater encases the iPad in a 2-part assembly that fastens together with nine screws.  The speakers sit behind the iPad.  The case has openings for the front and back cameras and the iPad recharging plug, while the the opening for the Home button has a removable sliding cover.  (Joy figured out how to slide it open and get to the Home button pretty quickly.)  The case covers the iPad's volume controls, offering instead a 3-position volume switch, Hi/Lo/Off.  The case offers its own Sleep button that sits atop the iPad's Sleep button; the iPad's rotation-lock / mute switch is not accessible without unscrewing the case.

For the most part, we were pleased with the iAdapter sound quality.  We found that we seldom wanted to turn the iPad's internal volume higher than about three-quarters; Joy generally prefers the iAdapter volume switch set to "Hi."  We did run into at least one situation where an app wouldn't play well with the iAdapter -- in the Whizzit 1-2-3 counting app, some of the spoken instructions were inaudibly soft, while the rest of the directions and sounds were fine.  When the iPad was removed from the iAdapter, the problem disappeared.

Of my two other concerns with the iAdapter, one is an issue that affects all users, and the other is more specific to Joy.

The universal issue has to do with the fact that the iAdapter itself needs charging, separately from the iPad.  It comes with a cord and a wall-plug adapter for the purpose, which is great.  However, there's no indicator to let the user know how far the battery has run down, or how close the iAdapter is to being recharged.  We've never run it all the way out, so I don't know what would happen.  Does the iAdapter just go silent, and would the cause be obvious?   Meanwhile, we learned that we couldn't charge both the iAdapter and the iPad in a single standard 2-socket wall outlet: the wall-plugs are too big to both fit simultaneously.  You'll need either a powerstrip or two wall outlets close together.

The other issue is more Joy-specific though it applies to other kids like her:  girlfriend is tough on equipment. When Joy gets frustrated, stuff goes flying.  The iPad in its iAdapter case has gone flying down the stairs a couple of times, along with various lesser flings, since we got it at the beginning of the year.  Soon we began to hear little rattles within the case.  When I opened it up, I discovered that the inside of the case isn't as tough-looking as the outside.  The iPad is essentially held in place by slender plastic tabs, and several of these tabs had begun cracking off.  After several flinging incidents, the tabs had crumbled enough that the iAdapter case began to rub the wrong way against the volume control, causing the volume to suddenly mute at inopportune moments -- a development that Joy did not appreciate.

The tech support fellow I corresponded with at AMDi was extremely helpful.  He answered e-mail promptly, did a fine job of diagnosing the volume issue, and set things up so that we could send the iAdapter in for free repairs even though technically the flinging damage was not covered by warranty (and if it happens again, we're on our own.)  He also filled me in on the design principle behind the relatively-fragile internal support tabs.  Apparently they function like crumple-zones on a car, designed to absorb impact at their own cost in order to protect the cargo.  Of course you'd rather have your car-body crumple in an accident rather than your own body!  Turns out that both with iAdapters and with cars, the safety/protection features are secondary functions, and the crumple-zone protection is a one-shot affair.

Before I packed up our iAdapter to send in for repairs, we needed something to keep Joy's iPad usable and safe in the interim.  After a bit of surfing around, I settled on the SuperShell from M-Edge ($34.99).
There are several similar products out there, apparently.  The SuperShell is made of the same kind of material as Crocs footwear. It doesn't have any amplification qualities, though it does have a little cut-out for the iPad's speaker.  There are also cut-outs for the cameras and the charger plug.  The volume control and sleep button are accessed via partial cut-outs; the rotation lock/mute button is covered.  To install the SuperShell, just stretch it around the iPad and it springs tight.

What really sold us on the SuperShell (besides the awesome hot-pink color option) was this video, wherein the interviewer flings a SuperShell-clad iPad into walls and the floor of an exhibit hall:

The SuperShell really does work just the way it does in the video.  Joy has tested it, repeatedly.  It bounces.

The one criticism we have so far is that the cutout for the charger plug doesn't really let you get the plug in and out, so you have to pull the SuperShell off that side of the iPad to do the plugging in. But that's easy to do.

After the SuperShell arrived and we sent off the iAdapter for repairs, we learned something interesting.  The iPad on its own was actually PLENTY loud.  I'm not sure what the concern was in the first place.  We actually find ourselves repeatedly diving for Joy's iPad to turn the darn volume DOWN (she has become adept at adjusting it loud-where-she-likes-it.)

And the SuperShell is so cute, and we feel confident that the shell itself is not going to break when flung...

We actually never did re-install the iAdapter.  We probably ought to find another good home for it.