222: Connections Make Anything Possible With Middle & High Schoolers

Show Notes:

Hey there, fellow SLPs! In this episode, Hallie chats with speech-language pathologists Matt Kostel and Margaryta Kuzmin to share their innovative strategies for engaging teen learners. Listen to Matt and Margaryta talk about innovative ways to weave student interests into therapy sessions, from comic books to current tech articles, and how personal stories of our own goals can normalize the growth process. Plus, we're tackling the common fears of stepping into a new age group and how forming meaningful connections can lead to a rewarding journey for both you and your students!

Matt has been the Supervisor of Speech/Language Improvement for District 75 since December 2013 at New York City Public Schools.

Margaryta is a bilingual pediatric speech-language pathologist and child educator who specializes in feeding and swallowing disorders, as well as augmentative and alternative communication. With over 10 years of experience, she has serviced hundreds of mild to severely delayed and medically complex children. Margaryta is also the author of a children’s book titled ‘Baby Zoo’ and has contributed to various publications. She has received multiple awards throughout her career.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Strategies to integrate curriculum goals with real-world interests and personal storytelling to make sessions relevant.
  • Technology's role in bridging connections across schools and tailoring education for students with IEPs.
  • Using interests like comic books and technology to support literacy-based activities.
  • Incorporating reading buddy programs and vocational activities into therapy sessions.


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Q: What month always asks questions and permission?

A: May

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00:00:00 Hallie: Hey there, SLP. You are listening to this podcast, so I know that you love to listen to podcasts. And if that is the case, then I know that you are gonna love my secret private podcast, Secondary Secrets for SLPs. It's six short episodes will have you walking away, feeling refreshed and inspired and ready to take on those challenging secondary speech students. So if you work with grades four through 12, and are in a planning rut or wanting some fresh new ideas to keep your students motivated, make sure you head to speechtimefun.com/secondarysecrets. You are not going to find this podcast in your iTunes podcast search browser. 

00:00:49 Hallie: You can only get access by going to that link. So head to it now. It is six short episodes that you can listen to it in under an hour, like totally Netflix binge-worthy. I made this just for you and I know you are going to love it. SLPs have been telling me already that it has changed their way for working with their older speech students. So head on over again to speechtimefun.com/secondary secrets or use the link in the show notes and I can't wait to hear what you think. Now let's head on to this week's episode of SLP Coffee Talk.

00:01:28 Hallie: Welcome to SLP Coffee Talk, the podcast designed exclusively for speech-language pathologists who work with older students, grades four through 12. I am your host, Hallie Sherman, your SLP behind Speech Time Fun, the Speech Retreat Conference, and the SLP Elevate membership. And I'm thrilled to bring you conversations, strategies, and insights that will give you the jolt of inspiration that you need. Whether you're tuning in during your morning commute, on a break in between sessions, or even during a well-deserved relaxation time. I am here for you each and every week. Let's do this SLPs.

00:02:09 Hallie: Hey, hey, and welcome to another episode of SLP Coffee Talk. I'm so excited. I have someone I went to graduate school with a million moons ago here with us today. And when I found out that he was presenting at ASHA in Boston, all about literacy for middle school students, I was like, I need to get you on the podcast. I need to get, we need to talk. We need to do this. So I'm so excited. And he brought a colleague of his on the show as well. So Matt and Margaryta. Welcome to the show. 

00:02:40 Matt: Hello, hello. Happy to be here. 

00:02:42 Hallie: Yeah. So I want a little bit about your SLP journey and what you guys are up to. 

00:02:47 Matt: Sure. So, I'm a District 75 supervisor of speech-language improvement for, uh, in Brooklyn for the past 10 years. Been on the DOE since 2007, obviously went to graduate school with Hallie. So our pasts, you know, came back together with each other. And I, you know, so I help speech therapists like Margaryta, all across Brooklyn, about 114 people work with students ages three to 21 years old, with a wide variety of classifications such as autism, emotionally challenged, multiple disabled. We have some inclusion students, of course, too. And we just do the best that we can focusing on speech, language, and communication skills. 

00:03:33 Margaryta: And I obviously work for D75, it's special education within New York City. And I'm actually a split position, so I work three days in the elementary school and then the two other days I work in the middle school and high school. So that's an inclusion program for our kids with various diagnosis that are a little bit on a higher end and able to do a lot of things. So I work two days a week there. And I've been doing this… I'm in the Department of Education for 11 years, and in middle school and high school, I think this is my sixth year. 

00:04:10 Hallie: What was the biggest change going from the elementary to the middle school?

00:04:16 Margaryta: I was petrified actually going into that setting initially, because all my knowledge was, you know, working with elementary students. And I was very fearful on not knowing exactly what I need to be working on and how the attitudes are going to be. Am I going to be worrying SLP for them? So that was kind of the initial fears, but going through it and meeting those kids and working with them, I just found a new passion within it and I absolutely love it now. 

00:04:55 Margaryta: And I established amazing relationships with them, with their parents and I wouldn't trade it for the world. And I'm very surprised that I'm saying this right now because I remember feeling how I didn't want to be there initially, but I absolutely love it and I now would not trade it for the world, so. 

00:05:15 Hallie: And I felt the same exact way, so not to worry. I was like, these kids are taller than me. They are, they don't wanna be here. I don't know what I'm doing with them. How can I make… what I'm doing relevant in my speech closet. And it's a whole new beast. So, Matt, I'd love to hear your take on working with the older bunch. 

00:05:37 Matt: Sure. So working with our middle school students, especially as a provider who did work for elementary, way back when, before I became a supervisor. I've just noticed that, especially as the years have gone on, that we have to kind of do a fun mix of working on the curriculum, but also working on like real life stuff. You know, for a lot of our kids, and I have a daughter who's in third grade, going to be going to middle school. 

00:06:04 Matt: As much as working on the curriculum, like she loves playing Minecraft and she loves LOL dolls and all this stuff like that. So I've seen the shift in activities of obviously special, you know, in a special ed period. You want to work on obviously, you know, the curriculum, but also you want to work on what makes sense for those students. We're going to motivate them for those 30 minutes and keep them there versus being just another person who's trying to, you know, stuff some literacy down, like their brains and whatnot. Like, you want to motivate them to be there for that half an hour. 

00:06:41 Matt: And I noticed that with middle school, especially high school, especially in District 75 where we go to 21, how are you going to motivate that, maybe that one student in an 8-1-1 or a 12-1-1 classroom to leave his or her classroom and join you for a half an hour without making it seem as if you're punishing them for having to remove them from their classroom or not to get made fun of for coming to leave your classroom and come into the therapy room. So you kind of have to, it's, you know, you wear a lot of hats to make sure that you are that entertaining, motivating person to get them to come to therapy with you for 30 minutes or 40 minutes.

00:07:17 Hallie: Did you have any tricks up your sleeve to, that you like to tell your staff to utilize to get them to convince them to come with you? 

00:07:27 Matt: Well, this was also pre-iPad. So iPad now, you know, would be obviously the biggest thing or working on anything digitally, like yourself, Ms. Instagram influencer with all your fun activities. But really it was just kind of like, you know, getting to know them. It's all about like that student interview of like, what are your likes? What do you like to talk about? What do you like to do when you're home?

00:07:49 Matt: And then shifting whatever those goals are, because again, we work in the language communication, speech field, so we can flip anything really into a 30 minute lesson, right? And use whatever is motivating to them. So talking about music of the day back then talk about sports with them. You know, with the girls, like you would for me, just being the guy, I'm just going to say it. Like I would lean on my coworkers and say, hey, like this one loves to like, you know, X, Y, and Z. Can you guys give me some tips on how to motivate this 14 year old girl to come with me for speech, right? 

00:08:22 Matt: So it's just kind of all about just looking at like who the student is in front of you. Which is what we're supposed to do anyway, right? When we write our IEPs and when we're working with our students, but it's a little bit of a combination between curriculum and just who you are as an individual and how can I get you to sit here for half an hour and work with me? 

00:08:40 Hallie: Margaryta, do you have any tips that you love to use that they found that it works for you?

00:08:44 Margaryta: Yes. So what I absolutely love to do is refill out a yearly resolution in the month of December, where I specifically ask on those, first of all, it's going to be a lot of literacy questions, like in reading, where would you like to improve? In writing, where would you like to improve? Where do you see yourself? And also like other things, of course.

00:09:12 Margaryta: Where would you like to travel? Where would you like to visit? And we go through that activity in detail because I really want to know where that student feels that he is at and where that student would like to achieve. And that's what I use part of the IEP, of course, but that's to me is more important than the IEP goals that we might've done like half a year ago. Right? 

00:09:37 Margaryta: Because I want to know like, what is the motivating thing to like? So I'm gonna give you an example. One student said that he would like to ask a girl out on a date. This is a high school student, and he had a really hard time expressing his emotions and expressing his feelings towards this girl. So his resolution was to basically practice on asking this girl out. To me, that was so powerful. So it was just like overwhelming because I wanted to help him exactly with that because that is relevant to the student. 

00:10:15 Margaryta: And this is something that he feels that he's struggling with. So just things like that where it just makes our job more powerful. And we don't just go by the goals and ABC and need to target this. But we actually just look like Matt said, look at the child and look at what is important to that child today. What is the child struggling today and how can I help that child? Because maybe I had a different goal in mind, but you know what? Not today, today we are going to be learning on how can I tell this girl that I have feelings for her. 

00:10:46 Margaryta: And to me that was just so amazing that the child was able to share that with me, number one, right? So I know that I have a good relationship that you're able to hear that. And also trust in that I can actually help that child with that task. So I absolutely love that activity. It doesn't have to be a New Year's resolution. It could be just like, hey, tell me, let's go through these little questions. You prepare the questions ahead of time. Because sometimes it's hard to just when you ask them bluntly like, what are you struggling with? Ask a question, where do you see yourself? You know, where would you like to improve in reading? Where would you like to improve in writing? Where do you like to improve in your speaking skills or making friends and so forth? So that's, I think it's a good motivator. 

00:11:32 Margaryta: I also use a lot of snacks. Middle school and high school population, they love those chips and little things. So I will have some reinforces and I know who likes what. So that sometimes works as well. But also just trying to create a very positive environment for them where they can feel super supported. So another example would be, they know that if they have an assignment that is due, that they didn't have enough time to finish.

00:11:59 Margaryta: I always let them know that we can always target that in speech. So because they are part of the inclusion program, they have other classes and it's overwhelming sometimes. Sometimes they're not catching up on their reading assignments because they're reading helmet. Are they reading like Shakespeare? Sometimes they can catch up on essays because the essays are too long. You know, the classroom is asking them to do like six paragraphs and they're just not able to complete that. 

00:12:24 Margaryta: So I always tell them this is the time, this is your half an hour where I can help you with those things, even though it was not related to what I was originally wanted to do with them. And that's okay. So things like that will create a better space and they feel so supported and you want to come because they know that I can help them with homework. I can help them on the assignments or I could help them with the little things that they are struggling with, such as relationships. So those are my little tricks that I use up my students. 

00:12:59 Hallie: They do love the talkies. And I had a student last year also that invited me and he found out that I knew the girl that he wanted to ask out and was like trying to convince me to play matchmaker and I'm like, okay, you can do like a claim here. Give me the evidence and your reasoning, [Sierra.] Let's tie in some literacy-based. It is, but I was like, they feel comfortable. They're going to be willing to take risks and they're going to be willing to work with us.

00:13:27 Margaryta: Yeah, absolutely. And they go through a lot of stuff and they share with, you know, they struggle. So absolutely, I love that part of the middle school and high school population is because you get you get to see that little child transform into a young adult. And it's a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun. It really is. 

00:13:45 Hallie: And I love that you do that in December, because it does probably help a lot with that transitional part of the IEP. And often we do that stuff in September or those listening that have August that they go back to school. But we need constantly having those conversations with them. 

00:14:00 Margaryta: Yeah, for sure. 

00:14:00 Hallie: Using that information. 

00:14:02 Margaryta: Yeah, and I also include myself. Like I fill it out myself as well. I want to show them that all of us have things that we are struggling with and we want to improve something about ourselves. So I will use myself as an example as well. I would say, you know, I would like to read three more books. These are the books on my list. I would like to exercise more because that's a part of where I want to go. And things like that. 

00:14:25 Margaryta: So I'm always using myself as an example to show them that we are all not perfect. We all have things that we are working on and it's okay to also acknowledge that there are things that we need to improve about ourselves. So I agree with that. I think it's, it is a great activity and it works. 

00:14:41 Hallie: I love it. All right. I'm going to transition into our favorite literacy-based activities and how to get them strategies that you find are the most successful to get those wins for our students. What are your favorite literacy-based activities for your older students. 

00:14:56 Matt: Currently, right now, I would say product books are kind of like the biggest thing right now I'm seeing out in the field with our middle school SLPs and high school SLPs. Anything that can kind of be adapted to like real life right now outside of the school walls. I know, you know, a lot of the schools have like, you know, their specific curriculums, which we are supporting. 

00:15:16 Matt: But then, you know, if you have a student who has like a twice a week, three times a week, four times a week mandate, that's when we kind of like get into like those like student interests and whatnot and see exactly what might be entertaining for them again, to be there for the half an hour and to really get like that narrative language happening. 

00:15:31 Margaryta: Yeah. And I, what, what I would add to that is that it's kind of like what Matt said in the beginning, really knowing what your child likes. I have a student who likes, who would like to be an engineer. I have a student who is really passionate about comic books. I have a student who loves everything technology-based. So I love pulling up new articles that are coming up. There's so much cool information out there. I'm just so glad that we are part of this technological world where we can get everything so quickly on iPads and computers and so forth. 

00:16:06 Margaryta: We just read about a heart transplant that was took, I think, taken out of a pig and it was a transplant made into a human. We read about a possibility of teachers being robots in the future and just discussing and debating, do you think it's a good idea? And why do you think that would be a good idea? Or one would be like the negative parts of that and just like discussing that. And a little article can take you so far that we could do the literacy, we could do the vocabulary, we build it, now we could do the debate. 

00:16:37 Margaryta: Now the two students can't debate amongst themselves, you know, who got a stronger point. And then we can write about it. Well, how would you imagine a teacher would look a computerized teacher would look like and so forth. So then one activity kind of expands into like three, four, five sessions and we target different things. So that's what I love is using the interest, but also like finding the new stuff because I want them to be current. 

00:17:03 Margaryta: Like there's a lot of like VR stuff, right? Can we go to school by just wearing a VR glasses, you know, and stuff like that. So I try to keep it more fun for them. So then, and it's also exciting for me to read about. There's a lot of stuff I don't know. So it's, I'm learning, they're learning. I feel like it's a win-win for everyone. Yeah. 

00:17:24 Matt: And also remember too, it's not always just like books, right? So like taking walking trips and vocational trips, that's all literacy-based right there in terms of like labels, road signs, things like that. So like, we can kind of like go outside of the box of just getting those books on literacy skills.

00:17:42 Hallie: Who needs to spend more on that? I want to hear more about some of these vocational activities that you guys do. 

00:17:47 Margaryta: No, I actually would like to share something that we do that started as like a pilot program and now we have implemented it on a yearly basis. So what I do is because I'm into locations, I've decided, well, how can I incorporate both of the kids that I serve and make it more functional? So what we created is a reading body program. So where I have my middle school and high school students who are inclusion programs, come to the elementary students and read to them. 

00:18:21 Margaryta: So, and it's like a whole process that we do. So the first step is that we are revisiting library and we're picking specific books for our elementary students. And we talk about, you know, the levels that those kids are and what's the appropriate books to choose, you know, more pictures, less words and so forth. Then once we pick those books in our sessions, we read in those books and we practice them because, you know, some kids in middle school still struggling to read. 

00:18:48 Margaryta: So we still need to practice some of those skills and get them a little stronger. And then the third point is them coming as a trip to the elementary school and reading as a teacher in front of the class, reading to those children. It is the most amazing thing to observe and watch when you see a student who is himself struggling reading, presents a book and read in front and go to a little child and let the child point to a picture and we obviously practice those skills beforehand, facing the book outward, you know, letting them stopping, letting them point to something, letting them find something in a book and engaging with a child's elementary student. It is absolutely breathtaking. 

00:19:38 Margaryta: And then at the end, what I do is I do reflections. How did you feel? And a lot of things that the students, middle school and high school students shared is that they felt that it made them feel like a teacher. It made them feel powerful. It made them feel like they were there to teach. They knew more than these kids, they had power. And I was like, there's nothing else that I really need because when you have that confidence, like, I did it, like I read and yes, I struggled a little bit, but I did it and all the kids clapped and I had some smiles. It's honestly beyond amazing. 

00:20:20 Margaryta: So once we did the first one and it was so successful, now we're doing this program twice a year. We do one in the spring. I mean, yes, one in the spring and one before Christmas. So we actually getting ready right now to do another one. We're gonna do one in May. And the kids now are asking, when are we going to do the reading body program? When are we going to the elementary school? Like, when are we going to the library? Like, I'm ready to, you know, to pick up books. So it's obviously very encouraging and positive experience, but that meant they feel like adults.

00:20:49 Margaryta: They feel like, wow, like I'm doing something very powerful. So that's the program that I wanted to share with you, which is very vocational because it allows the person to feel like a teacher and allows that, you know, public speaking skills. It allows him to, or her, to feel responsibility, like I'm responsible for these kids. I'm responsible to carry over the message of this book. So it's been absolutely amazing. And now it's a part of the program in our school. So yeah. 

00:21:19 Hallie: Love it. That's amazing. So, it's amazing.

00:21:23 Matt: To go with that, to piggyback on it, that was one of the reasons why Margaryta and myself had attended ASHA where Haley and I had connected or reconnected from Adelphi. Because that was one of the programs that we wanted to highlight for everyone that was attending our session to learn more about like programs such as that programs that we are focusing on with elementary middle and high school students across district 75. So and again going back to the vocational sites. I don't know if you still want to talk about that?

00:21:49 Hallie: Yeah, definitely some other. Yes. Here's some other activity that you guys…

00:21:52 Matt: Yeah, we have middle school and high schoolers going to physical locations like goodwill going to shop, right, going to nursing homes and doing real-life skills like in terms of cleanup, cooking, you know, getting a grocery order together, restocking shelves. But again, remember that all of that has some sort of literacy, you know, concept to it, you know, so outside of the great work that Margaryta is doing with the reading buddies program, which again, is an outside of the way of a box of idea of focusing on those students skills.

00:22:28 Matt: We're also teaching real life skills. So it's kind of like double dipping because again, as we all know, all three of us being, you know, SLPs that, you know, language is everywhere. So there's always a way to kind of tackle, you know, literacy, regardless of it being inside a classroom, in a therapy room or out in the community. 

00:22:44 Hallie: I love it. And it's always ways to incorporate your speech goals while doing all of these things and that's why it makes it relevant. And that's how that we get them motivated and willing to leave the classroom to work with us because we're doing things to prepare them for that experience where they feel so empowered and so excited and successful. So…

00:23:03 Margaryta: Exactly. 

00:23:04 Hallie: And them asking for it now, that validates that you are doing the right thing because if they are motivated to do this, then I have all the power to practice, you know, working on those skills and so forth. So that's exactly where it is. When you're truly checking yourself, you're making a progress monitoring yourself, like, am I doing a good job? The way that I know I'm doing a good job, they're asking for it again and again. So yes, I think this program is amazing and I would highly recommend it anyone in this. 

00:23:34 Hallie: And again, you don't have to be a person in a split position, you just need to know someone in another school and just get a connection and just start having these discussions with the administration. And I don't see why this would not be possible in any other districts and in any other schools. Definitely a great program.

00:23:54 Margaryta: And especially now with technology, if you can't get busing and moving to another building, hop on Zoom, hop on Google Meet, get a face time going and let's just read to other students. Like, that's amazing. 

00:24:07 Matt: Yeah, we used to have a couple of years ago, I think right before COVID, Margaryta, if you remember, we used to have like virtual pen pals. So like some like, you know, students from one end of the Brooklyn to the other would just kind of like do this and engage in conversation and do like read alouds or just kind of have like back and forth conversations. You know, so again, the world that we're in right now, I think it's a perfect way to kind of connect with anybody, you know, with all of our students. 

00:24:32 Hallie: I love it. Any last bit of advice or tips that you would love to share with everyone listening that might be wondering how to motivate their students, get some activities, literacy based, anything under the sun? 

00:24:44 Margaryta: The only thing I could just add at the end is that we're, you know, working with these students, really taught me to really just meet them where they are. You know, it's just amazing to me how different the skills are of a child with the same diagnosis. It's just, it truly is amazing and just accepting the child where they are today and just moving one step further, not jumping a hundred steps, because even in middle school and high school, the expectations are very high and some of our kids cannot meet those expectations.

00:25:23 Margaryta: And I always tell them, and that's okay, and let's just work on one more extra thing, just one extra step. You don't have to do a jump today because sometimes they're not ready to make that jump. So just meeting where they are and accepting them and loving them exactly where they are with their literacy, writing, reading, pragmatic skills, exactly where they are. I think that's the biggest lesson that I've learned working with these kids.

00:25:47 Matt: And again, I would say for all of our students, just specifically, them who have IEPs, obviously it's an individualized education plan, right? So kind of piggybacking on what Margaryta is saying, you have to make it individualized. Like one activity is definitely not going to work for another kid. You know, you might have some similarities where you might be able to do the same thing with a handful of kids, but we got to try to adapt the materials. And that just applies to every type of student, regardless of classification or what school they attend. 

00:26:15 Matt: As Margaryta said, you want to make it about them. Making about their interest because again, for that half an hour, once, twice, three times a week, you have to give them a reason of now I'm here. I'm in a new setting. What am I doing with Matt? What am I doing with Margaryta for a half an hour that is going to pique my interest to participate? Because again, being SLPs, we have data that we're looking to collect and try to see what, you know, based on what they did today, what do we want to do with them next time? So we want to make sure that we continue to get as many opportunities as possible. Just to kind of know who they are and make sure that we can get them coming back to us kind of every single session. 

00:26:53 Hallie: So that's true. So social media and where they're at and making a difference each and every day. And thank you guys so, so much. This is amazing. I could talk working with all the students and all this fun stuff all day long, all day, every day. So thank you so much. I'm so glad that we reconnected. It's been a wait, wait, like what? 15, 16, 17, 18. I look math is not…

00:27:13 Matt: I don't want to say the numbers. So…

00:27:14 Hallie: I don't want to say the numbers way too many years. I'm so likely reconnected I always end my episode with a joke because jokes build humor. There's a lot of language involved and builds reports but and certain springtime. What month always ask questions and permission?

00:27:41 Margaryta: May I? May… I do? 

00:27:44 Hallie: Your multiple-meaning word right there, guys. But I'm cheating. 

00:27:47 Matt: Done. 

00:27:49 Hallie: There's a joke you can tell everyone. It can be your, you know, dinnertime conversation or… 

00:27:55 Matt: I'm going to use that at me at the U of T meeting for a better speech and hearing month. I'm going to steal your joke at the UFT. 

00:28:01 Hallie: You can steal it. I give you permission. I didn't write it. I found it on the Internet. So it's really okay.

00:28:09 Hallie: All right, everyone listening, thank you so much. We have in the show notes, information. If you want to follow up on what Matt and Margaryta are doing at the D.W.A. District 75 and all the things, go check them out. And until next week, everyone, stay out of trouble.

00:28:29 Hallie: Thanks so much for tuning in to another episode of SLP Coffee Talk. It means the world to me that you're tuning in each and every week and getting the jolt of inspiration you need. You can find all of the links and information mentioned in this episode at my website, speechtimefun.com. Don't forget to follow the show so you don't miss any future episodes.

00:28:53 Hallie: And while you're there, it would mean the world to me if you would take a few seconds and leave me an honest review. See you next week with another episode full of fun and inspiration from one SLP to another. Have fun guys!