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A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

By Dr. Yvonne Bui

A rising tide lifts all boats.” A colleague recently reminded me of this quote. I had vaguely heard it before but couldn’t remember the context or if I was really sure what it meant. As an English learner, I struggle with English idioms. To ensure I didn’t embarrass myself further by using it incorrectly, I did what every good researcher does…I “Googled” it.

According to Wikipedia and other questionable internet sources, the author is unknown although President Kennedy gave significance to the phrase when he used it during a speech in Ohio in 1960. The phrase is mainly used by politicians and economists, and the gist is that when improvements are made in the general economy, all participants benefit. I’m not a politician or an economist, but this seems like common sense to me. The phrase has also been used in education, particularly in discussions around educational inequities and the redistribution of resources as a means to reduce the achievement gap in the U.S.

In this short blog, I would like to consider the phrase in the international context of persons with disabilities in other countries, including “developing countries.” [Note to reader: while not perfect, “developing countries” appears to be the most politically correct term to use and refers to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that are still developing systems of health care, education, water, and electricity].

The global statistics around persons with disabilities are sobering. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 billion people (15% of the world’s population), live with disabilities. One billion! That is close to the entire population of India. Given the aging population, increase in chronic health conditions, and recent and ongoing conflicts around the world, this number will only grow. Eighty percent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries (WHO, 2011), and 90% of children with disabilities in these countries do not attend school (UNESCO, 2009). Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to being excluded and abused because of their gender and disability. Approximately 6.7 million persons with disabilities are forcibly displaced from their countries due to persecution, violence, and conflict and live in rural/urban centers, refugees camps, or camps for internally displaced persons (Women’s Refugee Commission, 2013). While these statistics are grave, they are not hopeless.

As a university professor and a special educator, I have had the privilege to travel to many countries, including several developing countries, to visit local and independent schools, universities, and communities that are grappling with the issues of how to provide educational and vocational services for persons with disabilities. As you can imagine, this is not an easy task, and in most cases, the costs are prohibitive. When a community is struggling to secure safe drinking water, basic health care, reliable power, and free or reduced-cost public education for the mass population, providing services for persons with disabilities is typically not a priority.

When I travel internationally, I am often reminded of how fortunate we are here in the U.S. No other country has encompassing federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that mandates free and appropriate public education for children and youth with disabilities or prohibits discrimination through civil rights legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In many ways, the U.S. has been a leader and the model of how to provide inclusive educational services for children with disabilities and integrate individuals with disabilities as active and productive members of mainstream society.

However, where the U.S. has failed the international disability community is by not ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRDP is the first comprehensive human rights treaty in the 21st century and was entered into force on May 3, 2008. It represents a paradigm shift from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects” to be fixed or pitied to “subjects” who have human rights, can make their decisions, have avenues to defend their rights, and can contribute to society. The purpose of the CRDP is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity (UN-CRPD, 2008).” Some of the general principles include: participation and inclusion, accessibility, non-discrimination, and individual autonomy.

Currently, over 151 countries have signed and ratified the treaty including: Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Morocco, Tunisia, United Kingdom, and Vietnam. President Obama signed the treaty on behalf of the U.S. in July 2009, and it was almost ratified by the Senate in 2012, primarily because of the dedication and commitment to the treaty by former Kansas senator, Robert Dole. Sadly, the ratification failed because they were short 5 votes. Today the treaty languishes with the 114th Senate.

I mention the United Nations CRPD because I feel it is important that we (and here I mean the collective we) must stretch beyond our borders. Like you, most special educators I know in the U.S. are brilliant, passionate, and compassionate, people, and they have dedicated their professional careers to this work because they want to make changes and improve the quality of education and life for individuals with disabilities and their families. In essence, they want to raise the tide. To do this, we cannot just lift the boats floating on our own shores. We have to reach across the borders and raise the global tides overseas.

My overseas travels have brought me to Vietnam, Tanzania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Peru, Belize, Malawi, El Salvador, and Uganda where I have visited special schools, prepared teachers, provided professional development, and presented at conferences. At these conferences, I have met international special educators from all over the world. Every person that I have encountered through these experiences want the same things that we want for our children and adults with disabilities in the U.S.—something better for their communities with all the same principles outlined in the CRPD. There is no lack of brilliance, passion, or compassion. What is lacking are resources (political and financial), facilities and technological assistance, and most of all, teacher preparation and professional development around research and evidence-based practices in special education.

I have been very fortunate to have these international experiences. They were life-changing and have shaped who I am as a person and as a special educator of a global community. At the same time, there is nothing particularly unique about me or these experiences. There are many professional organizations to help connect volunteers overseas and thousands of international schools and universities that want and need well-trained special education teachers and professors. With today’s technological capabilities, you don’t have to actually have to leave the U.S. to make an impact overseas, as there are also ways to provide assistance through online sources.

What I like most about this phrase, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” is that it represents interdependence and connectedness. It doesn’t matter which boat you are in. We can all ride with the tide or we can work together to raise it for everyone… A rising tide can lift one billion boats.


World Health Organization (2011). World report on disability. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/en/

Women’s Refugee Commission (2013). Disability inclusion: Policy to Practice. Retrieved from https://womensrefugeecommission.org/programs/disabilities/disability-inclusion

UNESCO (2009). Towards inclusive education for children with disabilities: A guide. Retrieved from http://www.uis.unesco.org/Library/Documents/disabchild09-en.pdf

United Nations (2008). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html


Yvonne Bui earned her Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 2002. She is presently Professor and Chairperson in the Department of Special Education & Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University.

Yvonne has been the Project Director of several personnel preparation grants from the Office of Special Education Programs. Her research interests include developing curriculum and instruction and culturally relevant strategies for students with disabilities in high-poverty, urban settings. She has worked in the field as a paraprofessional, classroom teacher, mentor teacher, and volunteer in international settings.

She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Council of Exceptional Children and on the Advisory Committee for Exceptional Children and Youth for the Office of Overseas Schools at the  U.S. Department of State.

Quality Lives of Youth with Intellectual Disability: Reforming Transition to Integrated Employment

Dr. Mary Morningstar

The purpose of transition services is to support students with disabilities as they exit high school special education programs and move into the next stage of their lives, including to postsecondary employment or educational settings. Transition is both a federal mandate as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as an organizational framework for providing high quality planning and services to meet individual student outcomes. For almost 30 years, it has been seen as a bridge between the security of school, and the risks and opportunities of an adult life (Will, 1984). Youth with intellectual disability often have complex support needs, especially when it comes to finding and sustaining integrated employment. Unfortunately, when compared with other students with disabilities, youth with intellectual disability, continue to experience among the least successful adult outcomes (Sanford et al., 2011). Given the prevalence of segregated employment for this group of youth, combined with false assumptions about capabilities and strengths, many youth with intellectual disability find that innovations in the field are beyond their reach, including the transition services and supports necessary to support them in moving from school to a quality adult life inclusive of working in integrated community settings (Braddock et al., 2013; Certo et al., 2006).

The recent settlement of a class action lawsuit disbanding sheltered workshops as the primary option for adults and youth with intellectual disability is the culmination of many years of extended work and effort among a wide range of advocates, including the lead attorneys, self-advocates, community members, schools and families. It is important to consider how such compelling legal decisions shake loose tightly held beliefs of limited expectations. The experience of serving as advisor and litigation expert for the plaintiffs in one recent case has confirmed the importance of confronting injustices from multiple leverage points. We are at a point in time where the constellation of emerging research, effective practices, federal legislative actions and strong legal advocacy is producing strong impetus for change, probably more than I’ve seen in the past two decades of work.

Research and innovation certainly lead to new practices; yet may require an extended arc of time to see such changes implemented within schools. Certainly the same is true of the past decades of focus on transition-related teacher preparation efforts as well as 25 years of federal transition statutes. Don’t get me wrong; class action lawsuits take several years to litigate; yet the immediacy of the impact can be unprecedented. In this case, essentially the front doors of sheltered workshops are now permanently closed in Oregon. No longer will any youth exiting high school or transition services be funneled into segregated employment. Youth with disabilities most vulnerable to meaningless and low paying jobs must now be prepared to make a seamless transition to integrated employment – meaning real work for real wages.

This decision fundamentally alters the provision of transition planning and services, because schools cannot continue to maintain the status quo perpetuating low expectations for sheltered employment. Restricting entrance to sheltered workshops halts youth from entering the pipeline of special education resulting in low paying, and often lifetime segregation. Like closing the front door of large, residential institutions, it is the only practical strategy to reduce segregation over time. It does not deprive youth and their families of the freedom to choose employment services – only from being relegated to segregated ones.

Nationally, several states have established policies affirming that sheltered work is no longer a reasonable or valued option for young adults with intellectual disability. When such bold alterations in services take place, a domino effect occurs, whereby transition expectations and preparation also must change. Schools can and should presume competence and high expectations, and then ensure that youth with intellectual disability are prepared to achieve integrated employment outcomes, including customized and supported employment. This shift in perspective ensures that evidence-based programs and practices known to lead to employment success will be incorporated when previously, not considered. For example, research is clear that utilizing personalized and person-centered approaches such as Discovery (Condon, 2012) targeting the interests and preferences of youth and families is more likely to lead to integrated employment. Models of successful approaches to career development and work experiences specifically for youth with intellectual disability have emerged over the past two decades such as, the systematic provision of work-based learning experiences such as Project SEARCH (Rutkowski, Daston, Van Kuiken, & Riehle, 2006; Wehman, et al., 2014). The importance of intensive paid internships (Carter et al., 2010) and seamless transition models that incorporate high levels of interagency collaboration are emerging as strong predictors of success (Certo & Luecking, 2010; Luecking, Cuozzo, Leedy, & Seleznow, 2008). Schools in collaboration with community agencies must now unilaterally implement such effective models.

More and more doors are opening with passage of federal policies and requirements such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA, July, 2014). Federal focus is now targeting youth with disabilities and the effective preparation for competitive, integrated employment. For the first time, Rehabilitation services will be offering pre-employment transition services (PETS) that expands employment services to youth with disabilities as young as 14 years old, even if students have not yet applied for VR services. Services include effective and evidence-based practices (i.e., job exploration, work-based learning, counseling, workplace readiness training and self-advocacy) as well as strong expectations for supported employment, among other requirements. While transition planning has always been done best with strong interagency collaboration, the federal initiatives such as WIOA substantially strengthen the foundation and operation of IDEA. Other exciting efforts, such as the transition to postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disability (TPSID, supported by the Higher Education Act) offer further opportunities to established collaborative and innovative methods for improving quality adult outcomes. The next five years at KU, with support for a new postsecondary education program on campus will pave the way for Kansas youth with intellectual disability to experience inclusive college experiences leading to integrated employment and full community participation.

Indicators of transition and career development for youth with intellectual disability are now well established and multi-dimensional. Models of effective programs leading to postschool employment have been established through research and development. Essential pillars of transition success require a student-driven and self determined approach to career assessment and job development; and access to work-based learning and paid integrated employment. It is only through such directed and explicit experiences will youth with intellectual disability and their families be ready and able to achieve their dreams. It is an exciting time to be engaged with adolescents and youth with intellectual disability!


Luecking, R. G., Cuozzo, L., Leedy, M. J., & Seleznow, E. (2008). Universal one-stop access: Pipedream or possibility? Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 28(3), 181-189.

Sanford, C., Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., Knokey, A. M., & Shaver, D. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults with Disabilities up to 6 Years after High School: Key Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). NCSER 2011-3004. National Center for Special Education Research.

Wehman, P., Schall, C., Carr, S., Targett, P., West, M., & Cifu, G. (2014). Transition from school to adulthood for youth with autism spectrum disorder: What we know and what we need to know. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 1044207313518071.

Will, M. (1984). Bridges from school to working life. Interchange, 20(5), 2-6.

Condon, 2012. Create a Model Transition Program surrounding the concept of customized employment. Retrieved from http://www.imdetermined.org/files_resources/408/self_determination_and_the_discovery_process.pdf

WIOA Overview, 2014. President Barack Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law on July 22, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.doleta.gov/wioa/Overview.cfm


Dr. Mary E. Morningstar is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas and Director of the Transition Coalition, which offers online transition professional development and resources for secondary special educators and practitioners. Her research agenda includes evaluating secondary teacher quality and professional development, culturally diverse family involvement in transition planning, and interagency collaboration. She is also examining the impact of inclusive secondary experiences for students with significant disabilities on postschool outcomes. Currently, she is developing a multi-dimensional model of adult life engagement for transition.

Dr. Morningstar coordinates an online masters program, focusing on preparing secondary educators across the country to provide transition education and services to youth with disabilities. She has designed and teaches several of the online classes and is currently coordinating the online masters in transition program. She also coordinates the teacher education program for teachers of students with significant disabilities, and in this role, is working with colleagues to transform special education endorsement coursework to support inclusive practices in schools and the community.

Dr. Morningstar has been involved in training, professional development and research regarding transition from school to adult life for over 25 years. Prior to moving to Kansas, she worked as a teacher for students with significant intellectual disabilities. Mary has been an active advocate for all persons with disabilities based on her experiences as a sibling of a brother with disabilities.

Supporting All Families of Children with Disabilities: A mission not yet accomplished

Dr. Mian Wang

No one would argue against the importance of supporting all families of children with disabilities. Over the last few decades, there are significant strides being made in the United States that manifest the paradigm shift in the cause of family support. Family centeredness has been widely embraced as a philosophy or a key principle by professionals across a variety of helping professions in the medical, social, and educational world for delivering services towards children with disabilities and their families. Thanks to IDEA mandates, family participation in decision making of their children’s education and service has been increasingly promoted and safeguarded. As a result, home and school collaboration or family and professional partnership emerges as indispensible component of effective family support which can mediate the effect of service provisions on family quality of life (Summers et al., 2007).

The family system and function and role of family in their child’s development throughout lifespan is granted paramount importance on the basis of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory of human development as researchers and practitioners attempt to gain a better understanding of the cultural niche and sustainable routine of family to facilitate family resilience. Voices of parents of children with disabilities and family advocates are increasingly heard in the public and professional arenas as they speak up in sharing their lived experiences.

However, a myriad of challenges remain for families since many individuals with disabilities, especially those with severe needs, require some form of lifelong assistance to live independently, work in the community, make friends, enjoy leisure activities, and exercise self-determination in their life decisions. Families must provide the majority of such assistance over the life course regardless the level of supports they receive. It is worth pointing out that family caregiving is beneficial to society as a whole in which Mahoney (1976) described it as a national treasure. Caregiving families make an enormous public contribution to the U.S. society while they bear the burden of providing essential assistance that otherwise is very expensive, well beyond the general safety net programs available in the country.

In contrast to enormous contribution of families there comes a dilemma for family support policy and practices with its dire reality. Despite the recognized centrality of families in assisting their children with disabilities, only 4% of public funds for developmental disability services are allocated for family support (Braddock et al., 2015). As a result of such policy, over 2,500 parents of individuals with ID from all 50 states voiced strongly in a 2011 national survey (L. Anderson, Larson, & Wuorio, 2011). More than 50% of the participating families reported major problems on all items of a list of common family needs indicating that much of what caregiving families need is not yet available. Thereby, caregiving families have substantial needs for services aimed at bolstering their capacity to provide support and to achieve an enhanced quality of life. There is a compelling need for evidence-based practices for providing such support.

However, a comprehensive literature review and meta analysis of evidence based practices regarding family supports to individuals with developmental disabilities reveal some alarming facts on the shortfall of evidence-based practices for supporting families (Wang & Singer, in press). The most troubling findings are that families underserved remain the same for the last decade and that family support practices center on only mothers, but not the whole families. Inequality in service access and quality manifests in families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds as well as in families living in poverty. The other concern lies in a limited literature of effective parent education and support programs only applied to mothers. We do not know much about how to support fathers, siblings, and grandparents of children with disabilities. We also fall short in knowledge about supporting family as a whole. In addition, there is still a lack of evidence about long-term effects of many identified evidence-based practices for family support.

It seems clear that while researchers and practitioners have come a long way in learning how to support families, the United States is still at an early stage of creating a service system, which provides evidence-based practices as standard practice. If the nation hopes to adequately address the needs of its elderly and its citizens with disabilities, it will need to embrace public policies that are more supportive of family caregiving for the family member with disabilities regardless of their nature or cause. Over a decade ago, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue my doctoral study in family and disability policy at KU. I had the privilege to study with Ann and Rud Turnbull, the leaders in the field of disability and family research. Ann and Rud are shapers and movers for numerous national policies on family and disability and are role models for the younger generations of scholars in terms of using cutting-edge research to inform and influence policy changes. They also wear the hat of family advocates in addition to the hat of researchers and public intellectuals. As we face many challenges aforementioned in supporting families of children with disabilities, we should be reminded of our role as family advocates who need to stand up for families. When so many families are left behind in receiving necessary services and supports, we must champion for policy changes to better support families of children with disabilities.

Doing high quality research is the other important aspect of our mission to supporting families of children with disabilities. When the family research literature is still replete with knowledge mainly surrounding middle class mothers, we are ill-equipped to gain understanding of and provide useful services to families underserved who typically come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and families marginalized due to social economic status. One other remaining enigma in family research has to do with finding proper means of inquiry to unravel family issues both conceptually (e.g., holistic construct of family like family quality of life) and methodologically (e.g., unit analysis of whole family). The emerging trend in bolstering multimodal treatment approach (e.g., combination of positive behavioral support and mindfulness training or Stepping Stones Triple P) for family support requires even more empirical evidence garnered from research prior to its full-scale implementation.


Anderson, L., Larson, S. A., & Wuorio, A. (2011). 2010 FINDS National Survey Technical Report Part 1: Family Caregiver Survey. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Research and Training Center on Community Living.

Braddock, D., Hemp, R., Rizzolo, M.C., Tanis, E.S., Haffer, L., & Wu, J. (2015). The state of the states in intellectual and developmental disabilities: Emerging from the great recession. Washington, DC: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).

Mahoney, M. J. (1976). Scientist as subject: The psychological imperative (Vol. 14). Oxford, UK: Ballinger.

Summers, J. A., Marquis, J., Mannan, H., Turnbull, A. P., Fleming, K., Poston, D. J., . . .Kupzyk, K. (2007). Relationship of perceived adequacy of services, family–professional partnerships, and family quality of life in early childhood service programmes. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 54, 319–338. doi:10.1080/10349120701488848.

Wang, M. & Singer, G. (in press). Supporting families of children with developmental disabilities: Evidence based and promising practices. UK: London. Oxford University Press.


Mian Wang is a Professor in the Department of Education and Faculty Director of the McEnroe Reading Clinic. He received Ph.D.s from the University of Patras, Greece, in Applied Developmental Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Development of Children with Intellectual Disabilities as well as from the University of Kansas in Special Education with an emphasis on Family and Disability Policy. Before his 12 years working experience in the field of disability and special education in several countries such as Canada, China, Greece, and USA, he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Psychology in China. Dr. Wang’s research interests include: child and family outcomes of early childhood services, family-professional partnership, atypical child development, positive behavioral support in cultural context, and disability policy.

In recent years, his research has primarily focused on examining family outcomes of early childhood services (e.g., early intervention programs and early childhood special education programs), particularly in the areas of family quality of life and family-professional partnership. As a primary researcher of the research team at the Beach Center on Disability of the University of Kansas, he participated in two federal funded research projects by NIDRR (National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research) and OSEP (Office of Special Education Programs) of the U.S. Department of Education which have led to the development and validation of two family outcome measures: Family Quality of Life Survey and Family-Professional Partnership Scale. Other areas of his interest pertain to disability policy issues that focus on supporting families of children with disabilities, analyzing impact of policy on the system structure of early childhood service and service delivery (i.e., policy on the streets), and analyzing comparatively international policy on disability and special education, in particular, those of China. Another set of interests concerns studying positive behavioral support (PBS) in cultural context, in particular, culturally responsive PBS practices to families of children with disabilities who are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. In addition, he is interested in atypical child development research aiming at understanding how children with and without intellectual disabilities differ in their cognitive development in terms of the structure, sequence, and rate of development.

Writing Is Not Natural

By Dr. Steve Graham

When asked about writing when I started the doctoral program in Special Education at the University of Kansas, I had a single answer. What do you know about writing? “Not much.” Do you like to write? “Not much.” Are you a good writer? “NOT MUCH.” In fact, I was pretty certain that everyone felt the same way I did, except those people who are naturally born good writers.

The view that writers are born and not made is pretty common, as many people think that good writing is a talent. You have it or you don’t. I suspect there is a kernel of truth to this idea, but if someone asked me today if I thought this concept is valid, my answer would be: “Not Much.” Experience and research led me to value the flip side of this outlook; namely, writers are made not born.

The experience side of this formula is based on almost 40 years in the trenches as an academic writer. I wrote my first article (with my advisor Floyd Hudson) towards the end of my Doctoral program. I wrote, rewrote, sweated, and agonized over every single word. Nothing came easy, but when it was published I was very proud of it. I quickly got my comeuppance though. I shared it with some basketball buddies. They were very polite, but also very clear that they didn’t understand much of it. To make matters worse, the paper was about how to develop individual educational plans. Such a paper should have been clear even to those gym rats!

Thank God I had a relatively thick skin or I may have persisted with my “not much” mantra. Over the years, I read and analyzed academic papers that I thought were well written and used them as a basis for much of my early writing. Before starting a first draft of a paper, I was very thoughtful about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, working most of the details out in advance. Although I often found it painful, I asked others for advice about my plans and drafts. I also put what I thought was the final draft of a paper aside for a little while so I could revise it one last time with new eyes. As I became a better and more confident writer, I experimented with writing in new ways. For example, I stopped planning so much upfront. Instead, I would begin a writing project with several guiding goals and develop most of what I wanted to say as I went. My growth as a writer is not an idiosyncratic event fortunately, as I see such growth in many of my former doctoral students as they write more and more over time.

Given my initial feelings about writing, it is ironic that most of my research focuses on how to help others become better writers. From this work, what has most convinced me that writers are made not born is the work my colleagues, students, and I have done with students with special needs. Many of these children find writing extremely challenging and form negative attitudes towards it. However, when these students are taught how to write, they can make incredible gains in the overall quality of their writing, and even come to like writing (although this latter outcome is less certain).

So keep in mind, if someone says you, your child, or your students are weak writers, don’t despair – Writers are made not born.

photo steve graham

Dr. Steve Graham is the Warner Professor in the Division of Leadership and Innovation in Teachers College at Arizona State University. For over 30 years he has studied how writing develops, how to teach it effectively, and how writing can be used to support reading and learning. In recent years, he has been involved in the development and testing of digital tools for supporting writing and reading through a series of grants from the Institute of Educational Sciences and the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. His research involves typically developing writers and students with special needs in both elementary and secondary schools, with much of this occurring in classrooms in urban schools.
Steve is the former editor of Exceptional Children, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Journal of Writing Research, Focus on Exceptional Children, and he is the current editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology. He is the co-author of the Handbook of Writing Research, Handbook of Learning Disabilities, APA Handbook of Educational Psychology, Writing Better, Powerful Writing Strategies for All Students, and Making the Writing Process Work. He is also the author of three influential Carnegie Corporation reports: Writing Next(link is external), Writing to Read(link is external), and Informing Writing(link is external).
Steve has served as an advisor to a variety of organizations, including UNESCO, National Institute of Health, National Writing Project, and the What Works Clearinghouse. He was the chair of the What Works Clearinghouse guide Teaching Elementary School Students to be Effective Writers, and he is currently chairing a similar What Works Clearinghouse guide for teaching writing at the secondary level. Steve was a member of the National Research Conference committee on adolescent and adult literacy. He has provided background information for a wide variety of magazine, newspaper, television, and radio reports including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, La Monde, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, National Public Radio, CBS Sunday Morning News, and NBC Today Show.
He is the recipient of the Career Research Award from the International Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the Kauffman-Hallahan Distinguished Researcher Award from the Division of Research (CEC), Samuel A. Kirk Award from the Division of Learning Disabilities (CEC), Distinguished Researcher Award from the Special Education Special Interest Group of the American Education Research Association, J. Lee Weiderhot Lecture Award from the Council of Learning Disabilities, and the Don Johnston Literacy Lectureship Award for career contributions to literacy. He also received an award from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU in 2015 for Outstanding Research with Sustained Impact. The award that is closest to his heart, though, is Distinguished Alumni Award from Valdosta State University, as his mother was able to participate in the awards ceremony and it took place in his hometown of Valdosta, Georgia.
Steve is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, a Fellow of Division 15 (Educational Psychology) of the American Psychological Association, as well as a Fellow of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities.
He is an avid basketball fan and movie buff.

Wearing Two Hats at the Same Time

By Dr. Katie Krammer

I want to talk about what it is like to find out your son has autism when you have a PhD in special education. At minimum I knew that Trey, who is now five years old, had an expressive language delay when he was only saying or signing seven words at age two. But there were other behaviors, other warning signs that started piling up making it impossible for me to ignore. In my mommy heart I wanted to believe that everything was ok, but my training and experience told me otherwise. Trust me, I wanted to think it was just limited to language; but I knew that it wasn’t so I pushed on despite many people in my life arguing with me that “so and so was a late talker and look at him/her now,” or “he’ll catch up,” or my favorite “I just wanted to think there was something wrong because I work in the special education field.” Yes, someone actually said that to me. Can you imagine, wanting your child to have autism? At any rate, in the end I was proven right when after three days of evaluations, the Cleveland Clinic told us on November 18, 2013 that Trey indeed had ASD (Autism). In the beginning, part of me suddenly felt like I knew nothing even though I had plenty of people who indicated that I was lucky to have a background in special education. When you find yourself on the other side of the IEP table in some ways yes, I did have an advantage, but in other ways I just wanted to be treated like any other mom.

I actually started my education at the University of Kansas to become a sign language interpreter and then later moved on to Deaf Education. One of my professors at KU, Dr. Barbara Luetke-Stahlman, had two adopted daughters who were Deaf. Ironically I can remember thinking that I wanted to adopt a Deaf child someday. Little did I know that the universe had other plans for me! So after many years spent focused on Deaf Education, I ended up taking a position in higher education training teachers to work with mild to moderate disabilities including Autism and I am now an Associate Professor of Special Education. Thus, when we got the diagnosis, I considered Kubler-Ross’ (1969) work on death and dying in which she outlines the stages of grief often likened to learning your child has a disability. While I respect that each family has their own experience, for me, this model didn’t fit. I really never experienced denial and certainly didn’t experience the anger or bargaining stages. Now depression? That is another story. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sad at the news, and that I’m not still sad from time to time. But the stage I can most relate to is acceptance. Consequently, one of my first thoughts in framing this new adventure (because I do truly see raising a child with autism as an adventure) was to think again about two other professors of mine from KU; Rud and Ann Turnbull. I thought about the model they provided for me in how they raised their son Jay. I saw from them that having a child with a disability can indeed have many positive effects, beyond just acceptance (Turnbull, 2001).

I am not saying all of this happened over night, and that there aren’t days where I wish I could wave a magic wand and take his Autism away. But, I am now able to say that being a parent to a child with a disability has made me not just a better parent, but a better professional and overall a better person. I have even more patience both at home and at work. I have more empathy and I am a more reflective practitioner. With everything I teach them I think to myself “am I doing all I can to prepare the kind of teacher I would want teaching my child?” I share with them the challenges and the joys. I use Trey’s IEPs for case studies in my classes and invite a couple of students to his IEP meetings every year. I have also partnered with another parent and our local state support team for special education and started an Autism Support Group for parents and caregivers. We are now in our second year and have grown to over thirty families who regularly attend. We have become friends and support each other in many ways including providing respite care for one another, being that listening ear, and that shoulder to cry on when need be. Additionally we have a Facebook page with nearly 100 members, we hold Autism parent nights out, playgroups, barbeques, and trade respite care for each other, and we were the leading fundraisers in this year’s Cleveland Walk Now for Autism Speaks. If it weren’t for Trey I would have never had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful new friends, nor would I have had the opportunities I have had to help my community.

In short, I have made it my mission to wear both hats at the same time in order to support others who are beginning or going on this new adventure. I thank not only all of the professors I had along the way, but I also thank Trey who is the joy of my life and has taught me as much if not more than all of my years at KU.

2014-07-01 Katie & Trey

Dr. Katie Krammer is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Lake Erie College (LEC) in Painesville, Ohio. She is also the Coordinator for the Special Education Licensure Program and the Interim Director of Online Learning at LEC. Dr. Krammer prepares future intervention specialists to evaluate, select, plan, and implement research-based methods and instructional strategies to benefit students with mild to moderate disabilities. Her scholarly interests and research focuses on universal design for learning, differentiation, cognitive strategy instruction and collaboration and partnerships; particularly with parents who have children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Dr. Krammer is a Kansas native who went through an Educational Sign Language preparation program, earned her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, her Master of Science in Special Education, and her Doctorate in Special Education all at the University of Kansas (go Jayhawks!). Before going into higher education, Dr. Krammer spent several years as a sign language interpreter and also as a Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for Blue Valley School District. She met and married her husband in 2006 when he was stationed in the Air Force near Kansas City. Upon completing his term in the military she and her husband returned to his home town in Ohio. They have two children; Quinn who is one year old and Trey who is five and has ASD.


Kubler, R. E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: Scribner.

Turnbull, A.P., & Turnbull, H. R., III (2001). Families, professionals, and exceptionality: Collaborating for empowerment. Upper Saddler River, NJ: Merrill.

The Need for Culturally Responsive Multi-Tier System of Supports

By Dr. Michael J Orosco

The Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) framework has garnered much attention as a means of improving the education of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. CLD students are part of a large and increasing U.S. student population that may come from homes in which their native language is not English and from varied cultural/racial backgrounds. As an example, the majority of students in the 100 largest school districts in the United States were Hispanic or Black (63 percent) (Sable, Plotts, & Mitchell, 2010). In addition, about 4.85 million students enrolled in public schools were not yet fully proficient in English in the 2012-2013 school year, representing nearly 10 percent of the total public school student enrollment (Aud, Hussar, Johnson, Kena, & Roth, 2013). The English Language Learner (ELL) population is the fastest-growing population of public school students in the United States.

MTSS reform effort has been seen through research in many ways. As an example, many articles have been authored promoting MTSS as a multi-tier prevention system of academic, behavior, and social difficulties through the explicitness of delivering instruction, utilizing and developing effective curriculum, administering assessment, and using data to guide instruction, especially in the elementary and middle school grades, having pushed the field further substantially. In addition, the use of MTSS has provided 1) screening for at-risk students; 2) monitoring of responsiveness to instruction; and 3) problem solving intervention within schools. MTSS hold promise in helping policy makers, administrators, educators and researchers in shifting the education field from focusing on finding disability or within-child deficits to focusing on providing the best instruction for all students.

With this said, although MTSS and associated policy innovations (e.g., IDEA and NCLB) have benefited many general and special education students, the academic outcomes of CLD students continue to be far from satisfactory. Evidence of this systematic failure is that national reports continue to document the instructional ineffectiveness of these students in comparison to White students, for example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (Aud et al., 2013), in 2012 only 7 percent of ELL fourth graders and 3 percent of ELL eighth graders scored at or above proficient on reading assessments, as compared to 37% and 35% of native English speakers. As MTSS school-based research continues to be conducted in addressing this achievement gap, researchers will need to also look at the role sociocultural and cognitive needs play in this coordinated effort. Research on the role of practices in supporting the development of CLD students’ sociocultural and cognitive needs for academic, behavioral, and social improvement is extremely sparse.

Multitier Systems of Support

MTSS has the potential to change ways schools think about supporting CLD students that past models could not do. For example, in past approaches, students needed to experience years of academic decline, and possibly for several years of poor general education instruction before adequate instruction and intervention was provided. Thus, increasing the probability of a student being misidentified with a learning disability (LD), and being placed in special education. MTSS moves away from this previous approach by: (a) emphasizing the focus on making sure all students receive an evidence-based (e.g., high-quality and meaningful general education); (b) providing ongoing student progress monitoring that identifies at-risk students, and providing immediate intervention support for these students prior to special education referral; and (c) having a systematic and strategic plan for improving and building upon instructional capacity at all levels that is driven by a student data-based decision making model.

Scaling Up for Diversity Complications

Although MTSS holds significant potential, many schools are finding “scaling up for diversity” complications that threaten this systematic reform effort. In raising this issue, schools are concerned with underlying assumptions embodied within the MTSS model regarding the way schools should be organized that are incoherent and difficult to espouse within a system, especially with schools that have distinct features such as cultural and linguistic diversity. Some of the assumptions underlying MTSS may be flawed, problematic and a cause for concern. As an example, because the MTSS model has been primarily developed and implemented by experimental researchers using “evidence based practices” that were rigorously tested on White-dominant English-speaking populations, this has left many school leaders with a narrowly conceived model that presents a universal blueprint (“one size fits all approach”) for how to intervene with non-diverse student populations, but little focus on how to deal with the sociocultural and cognitive needs of a growing culturally and linguistic diverse population (e.g., Orosco & Klingner, 2010). Also, many school districts lack the expertise to develop programs that meet the specific needs of their culturally and linguistically diverse populations. And because of this, many school-based teams may be without the professional development and expertise to implement this model. Finally, the inadequacy of MTSS literature in providing specifics on how to address CLD student needs’ should be addressed poses significant challenges for schools. Without this added emphasis, schools face tremendous barriers in developing people, policy and practices in addressing the learning needs of their growing CLD populations.

At this point, it is too early to know whether MTSS will have a systematic effect on the educational opportunities provided to CLD students. Not only must schools adequately interpret the MTSS concept, but also they then need to decide how to implement this recommended model according to the nature of their student body and the community context. If the model fails, the assumption may be that school personnel were incapable of or resistant to carrying out the model when in fact implementation might not succeed because of an inability to provide their students with the learning and evidence based supports they need (Orosco, 2010). I am concerned that if we do not engage in addressing the sociocultural and cognitive needs of CLD students, MTSS models will simply be like old wine in a new bottle, in other words, just another deficit-based approach to educating children (Klingner & Edwards, 2006).


Aud, S., Hussar, F., Johnson, G., Kena, G., & Roth, E. (2013). The condition of education 2013 (NCES 2013-037). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013037.pdf

Klingner, J. K., & Edwards, P. A. (2006). Cultural considerations with response to intervention models. Reading Research Quarterly, 41(1), 108-117.

Orosco, M. J. & Klingner, J. K. (2010). One school’s implementation of rti with English language learners: “Referring into rti.” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43(3), 269-288.

Orosco, M. J. (2010). Sociocultural considerations when using rti with English language learners. Theory Into Practice, 49(4), 265-272.

Sable, J., Plotts, C., and Mitchell, L. (2010). Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the United States: 2008–09 (NCES 2011-301). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Michael J. Orosco is an associate professor in education specializing in bilingual special education at the University of Kansas.  He was a bilingual special education teacher for five years before earning a PhD in Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Dr. Orosco’s research foci include the disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education with learning disabilities, comprehension strategy instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse students, and enhancing the sustainability of culturally responsive and evidence-based practices through professional development.  Dr. Orosco has published in several journals, including Exceptional Children, Exceptionality, Journal of Educational Psychology, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Journal of Special Education, Learning Disability Quarterly, Learning and Individual Differences, and Theory into Practice.  Dr. Orosco has received funding from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences and Office of Special Education & Rehabilitative Services.  In 2014, Dr. Orosco won the Samuel Kirk Award for outstanding article, Effects of Cognitive Strategy Interventions and Cognitive Moderators on Word Problem Solving in Children at Risk for Problem Solving Difficulties (awarded at the Council for Exceptional Children).  Also, in 2011, Dr. Orosco won the Frank Pajares Award for Outstanding Theory into Practice article, A Sociocultural Examination of Response to Intervention with Latino English Language Learners (awarded at the American Educational Research Association).  He is a member of the American Education Research Association, Council for Exceptional Children, and International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities.

Happy New Year!

By Michael Faggella-Luby

In my first post for Hawk Hopes, I wrote about the hope that teachers embody during difficult times. At the dawn of a new school year, my thoughts for this post turn to the hopes of new beginnings that come each fall for teachers and students across the country.

Teachers are fortunate in that we receive two formal “do overs.” Two chances to begin anew: The traditional January first start of the calendar year, and my favorite reboot—Back to School.

I often marvel each fall that the students keep coming in waves, magically remaining the same age—a somewhat irresistible force of energy, passion, and challenge. Yet, as the wave will inevitably move past us, on to the next grade level, we the teachers remain—the immovable objects of…well, energy, passion and challenge!

This is not say that we do not grow and change. Rather, that we remain so that we are given the chance to do it all over again with a new crop of students, and hopefully better this time. We are gifted with the opportunity explicit in the film Groundhog Day, to reexamine what and how we engage the learners of our classroom—seeking the impossibly perfect lesson, perfect unit, or perfect school year. Because of course, not only do we live in a new context each year (changing practically day-to-day), but the waves of students we encounter change from year-to-year, and moment-to-moment. We must be ready to change with them, to tinker with our lessons and paradigms so that we meet the critical needs of the students in front of us, rather than the students we idealize (or worse yet, the student we once were).

Teaching can be a life-giving adventure, especially for those who find teaching to be their vocation. A vocation is something that gives us voice. Vocation is a call we hear and must respond to in the actions of our lives. For me, my vocation is teaching. Simply put, I could not be anything else.

Yet teaching can also be draining. To borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, I don’t know anyone who “spen[ds] themselves in a worthy cause” who is not exhausted in the spring. Maybe the end of the school year was thrilling and energizing for you! Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you dreaded the final grading that never seems to get read, creation of cumulative folders to be passed on (and again, never seem to get read!), the packing up (and often moving) of a classroom. Maybe you dreaded saying goodbye to a retiring colleague or someone who had decided to move on. Maybe it was the weariness of arriving to school long before the first bell only to find yourself arriving home long after the sun had set. Maybe it was personal frustration with the misguided passions of youth, or as likely professional frustration with the stagnation of those unwilling to change.

When I feel run down and worn out, I return to my roots as an English teacher. In a poem by William Wordsworth entitled Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, there is much of beauty in nature for the reader to reflect on. Perhaps my fondest memory of this poem, is that the narrative finds the poet sharing this natural beauty with his sibling, hoping that she will someday, in times of trial and struggle, be as he is, able to draw upon the memory of such a place to provide a fountain of energy and renewal when times are most difficult.

The notion of finding a wellspring to allow us to start anew, even after we are worn down by the giving ourselves to our students, is a powerful idea. I think of it as the Magic of Summer: The impossible-to-predict moment when I transition from tired and spent in the previous year’s struggles, to the optimism and reflection for planning a new year of learning for my students.

I have found that the magic does not always come where I think it will (a family vacation or attended wedding), though it can. Instead, the magic often sneaks up when I am not looking, when I am fully present in life’s little moments of joy instead of the big ones. For me this year, the magic was tied to nature and to water.

First, it came in the sweet words of my four-year old son whispering an unscripted prayer for his recently deceased uncle. Words that were at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Next, it came in the splendor of ocean waves reflected in my 18-month old daughter’s eyes as she saw the ocean for the firs time. She ran toward the water, suddenly stopped, and turning toward me shouted, “Pool! Pool. Pool?”

The magic of summer came in the screeches of laughter from my nieces and nephews as my father’s birthday was celebrated with a rented dunk tank! Each successive splash of aunt and uncle into the chilly water leading to cheers of, “More! Again! Can I try? Me next!”

There were many more moments I am sure, but these stand out at the end of the summer as the guideposts of renewal. These magic moments reach out and tap me on the shoulder, whispering, “It is time to return. It is time to find your voice again. It is time to grow. It is time to teach.”

I wonder what your moments were? Perhaps you will leave a comment below and share something that was important to you. Something that changed your heart, or gave you a boost, or said: It is time to return. It is time to teach.

So Happy New Year to you and yours! May your passions for the vocation of teaching be rekindled in the year ahead! May the tidings of the new school year be filled with hope for our colleagues, our students, and for you!

PS—One great thing about having New Year’s in the fall is that no one asks you about your weight-loss goals! : )


Dr. Faggella-Luby is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the College of Education at Texas Christian University (TCU). He is also institute faculty in the Alice Neeley Special Education Research and Service (ANSERS) Institute.

Dr. Faggella-Luby teaches courses related to preparing educators to evaluate, select, plan, and implement research-based methods and instructional materials for teaching students with and without disabilities who are at risk for failure. His scholarly interests focus on learning disabilities, literacy, reading education, special education, diverse learning needs, instructional design, secondary education, and school reform. He has written publications related to cognitive learning strategies, response-to-intervention (RtI)/scientifically research-based instruction (SRBI), self-determination, literacy, and urban school reform.

Dr. Faggella-Luby’s primary research interest focuses on embedding instruction in learning strategies into subject-area courses to improve reading comprehension for all levels of learners. He received the 2006 Outstanding Researcher Award from the Council for Learning Disabilities and the 2007 Annual Dissertation Award from CEC’s Division of Learning Disabilities for his dissertation study Embedded Learning Strategy Instruction: Story-Structure Pedagogy in Secondary Classes for Diverse Learners.

Before joining the faculty at TCU, he was an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut, including positions as research scientist at the Center for Behavioral Education and Research (CBER) and associate research scholar at the Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability (CPED).  Dr. Faggella-Luby was a doctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning under the direction of Drs. Donald Deshler and Jean Schumaker. Dr. Faggella-Luby is a former high school administrator and teacher of both English and Chemistry.

Marching on: Reflections of the Second Year Doctoral Program

“The mission of the doctoral program in special education at KU is to prepare civically-committed scholars who, through rigorous and relevant research and transformational interventions, address significant educational and social problems in ways that advance education, social policy, research, care giving and public service to enhance the quality of life of persons of all ages with (dis)abilities and their families.”

The editors of Hawk Hopes asked the cohort members to reflect on their learning experience in the program. Here is one more inside look at the KU Special Education Doctoral Program. 2013-2014 Cohort members provided five words that described their experience as well as a short reflection of something memorable about the second year.  Good luck to the 2013-2014 Cohort as they enter their third year!


Maggie Beneke

I am in awe of the transformative experiences I have been able to be apart of this year, including: growing a movement of Deweyan pragmatists in Civic Professionalism; digging deep into transcripts with discourse analysis; collaborating with Sorcha and members of the Lawrence/KU community to plan the first See/Saw Film Festival; co-teaching Naturalistic Inquiry; helping to lead a trip to Costa Rica with undergraduate and Masters’ students; hearing Barbara Rogoff present at AERA (!!!); decolonizing everything with my peers in Cultural Psychology, and so much more. As I navigate my personal/professional identities, these experiences have helped me to define and redefine who I will be as a future scholar. And through this dialectic process I continue to wrestle with the perspectives of those around me. So thank you to this incredible community of peers, mentors, colleagues, and friends for engaging me in critical dialogue, challenging my assumptions, and always finding “another article” for me to read J.

David Royer

Favorite memory is winter break 2014, decorating cookies at Molly’s house to resemble faculty members, especially Rud and Ann Turnbull whom we continue to miss dearly.

Gretchen Goodman

My 2nd year started with a sense of familiarity and comfort- no longer felt the fear of the unknown. Relationships with my cohort members have grown even stronger and I continue to be amazed (and envious) of their intellect and dedication. It is disappointing to realize our individual interests are directing us to different classes within the School Education and out into the broader university- I’ve become quite accustomed to seeing these people on a regular basis.

Molly Siuty

In the fall semester, we had two courses with Dr. Tom Skrtic – Civic Professionalism and the Cross-Specialization Seminar. As Tom got ready to leave the room so we could complete our student evaluations, he addressed the group. He got choked up (sorry Tom!) as he expressed how proud he was of us for the growth we had made as a group. His comments echoed my observations of our entire cohort. The final presentations from Cross-Specialization just blew me away. I felt so grateful to be in a group of such brilliant thinkers and also in a program that cultivates and supports innovative thinking. Let the revolution begin!

doc students 13-14 (640x160)

Reflections on Improving a Course-Embedded Field Experience

By Heather Haynes Smith

I always look forward to the weeks leading up to the start of a new semester with excitement and anticipation. I get excited about the revision of a syllabus based on new learning objectives, student feedback, student performance on assessment measures and new research. I look forward to meeting my new students and facilitating their learning about special education and disability.

I am starting my second year at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and I find myself giving much attention to the 15 hour field experience component of my Understanding Exceptional Learners in School and Society course. In general, this is a survey course on special education. However, it is more than a survey course, giving attention to issues of social justice and disability studies. The course is popular with students in all majors because it meets requirements that are part of our liberal arts curriculum and it is also part of a Minor in Teaching offered at the undergraduate level. It is also important to note that this field experience is not student teaching and teacher certification is only offered through our one year, post-baccalaureate Master of Arts in Teaching program.

I first began to consider revisions to the field experience following the grading of the reflective paper assignment at the end of the semester last fall. Overall, the writing was good and most students detailed meaningful experiences with the utmost respect and sensitivity about the individuals they met and worked with across the city. For some though I got the feeling the experience was lacking. I didn’t see the same positive, emphatic declarations of understanding I had seen in so many. As such, I felt as though I could have done a better job in making course connections more clear and the experiences more meaningful. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

In considering the field experience and how it might be enhanced I have asked myself a number of questions: How can I ensure the experiences are meaningful? How can I use the field experience to introduce the idea of civic professionalism? Is there a better way to connect students with educational and community groups supporting students with disabilities? How can the field experience reflect a service learning focus?

In the paragraphs that follow I describe some more background information and considerations in revising the field experience, providing details on the steps I am taking to enhance the experience this fall.

This course is not taught as a ‘disability of the week’ type course, but rather focuses on essential understandings with an integrated focus on characteristics, instruction, and supports. We begin the semester with a 3 week unit on disability studies and social justice, followed by 2 weeks on the legal and theoretical foundations, and then into the essential understandings (instruction, systems, universal design, family involvement and dynamics, life span issues, and technology). With the expectations and format of the course in mind, it is important the field experience involve much practice and application of overarching concepts of inclusion, advocacy, social justice, rights and responsibilities, equality and civic professionalism. I am not content with students selecting experiences that provide volunteer type opportunities which allow for little interaction with the students or adults with disabilities. To be meaningful, and achieve the learning outcomes, the field experience might benefit from being structured as a service learning opportunity.

My university, and maybe yours as well, is placing more emphasis on experiential learning opportunities. For those of us in education, this is not something new. We have long realized the importance of practice and learning while doing. With this growing emphasis campus-wide, I thought it was a good time to also reflect on the key tenets of experiential education and how that understanding might also enhance the field experience component of this course.

Having only been back in San Antonio for a year, I am fortunate to have someone at my university who actively engages with community groups, businesses, and non-profit agencies for the purpose of coordinating student service learning and internships. This has been immensely helpful in identifying possible partnerships and being introduced to the contacts in these groups. In many cases, our university already has a collaborative relationship there and we have students from multiple departments doing service learning, internships, shadowing professionals, or volunteering. For this course we worked together last year and it went very well. However, knowing my desire to enhance the field experience, we are collaborating even more this year to explore some new community connections and visit them together.

One of the first things we are doing is hosting a pilot Ability Awareness Fair, much like the one KUPD used to host, in the hopes of creating an ongoing event to match students and educational and community partners for this and other courses. Additionally, we are visiting sites together to talk to partners about what they are looking for from us and our students, to talk about service learning, and learning about events they host throughout the year we can possibly support.

In the course itself, I am making some changes to the course calendar, guiding questions, and the final, reflective paper assignment that covers the field experience. I will be giving more attention to the community groups in the early weeks. I will meet with my students to make sure we have a good match for community group and their strengths. I have revised the assignment rubric to reflect the expectation of developing civic professionalism more explicitly.

So, in short, I am going to try a few new things and see if the student learning and experiences detailed in the reflective paper assignment are better aligned with the student learning outcomes and my (big) expectations for the 15 hours outside of class. Here are brief answers the questions I posed early on outlining what I have decided to do.

How can I ensure the experiences are meaningful? Placing more emphasis on learning about educational and community groups providing supports and services for individuals with disabilities and then providing weekly guiding questions to prompt connections to the course and text. Hearing from the community groups and researching other opportunities of interest

How can I use the field experience to introduce the idea of civic professionalism? Focusing on learning about the educational and community groups, course reading, on-going communication with the educational and community groups about their needs with the students playing a role during their visits and reflecting on their role as a civic professional.

Is there a better way to connect students with educational and community groups supporting students with disabilities? Holding individual student meetings in the second and third weeks of class to help identify field experience placements and individualize the experiences based on a conversation about experiences and knowledge of individuals with disabilities.

How can the field experience reflect a service learning focus? Collaborating with the university coordinator and onsite visits from myself and the university coordinator to determine a range of needs for matching with student interests, aptitudes, and learning needs. Communication with educational and community partners about selecting service learning experiences versus volunteering.

For others considering changes to their field experiences these are some of the things I have found helpful as I have worked through the field experience revision the last few months:

  1. Start with student learning outcomes. [I use the KU Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) Course Organizer to ensure alignment of goals, content, and assessment.]
  2. Identify key partners at your university with connections to the community. [Have a meeting (or a few) with this person and see what ideas and opportunities are out there.]
  3. Provide an overview of selected groups to students. [Set aside class time just to introduce some of the options and have students do independent research following the overview.]
  4. Hold individual conferences with students to discuss their strengths, interest, and the research they have just conducted on educational and community groups. [This way you can differentiate learning for individuals (especially non-education majors in my specific course) and provide explicit next steps, allowing them to take responsibility from this point on.]
  5. Select educational and community partners to collaborate with who provide support to diverse groups [I consider age level(s) supported, have a mix of school and community based partners, and make sure that the options provided support individuals with a variety of exceptionalities (eg. Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, Learning Disabilities, Hearing Impairments, etc.]
  6. Take a more active role in integrating the field experiences into course meetings and providing guidance during the semester. [This semester I am going to provide weekly guiding questions that align with course content (essential understandings) and the assessment of the field experience for periodic progress monitoring and communication with students.]
  7. Visit the sites before placing students there (when possible) and during the semester (when possible). [This is important for keeping up communication with the community groups. It will be beneficial in identifying any problems early on and for envisioning future placements.]
  8. Enhance the reflective paper assignment rubric. [I am adding a piece on evidence of civic professionalism.]

As a teacher and teacher educator I know I will continue to tweak and tinker with courses. I’ll keep you posted on the enhanced field experience. If you have suggestions or advice, please share it. I would appreciate learning more about how others are structuring their field experiences to form collaborative partnerships with educational and community groups, focus on service learning, and encourage deeper student growth in thinking about persons with disabilities and their civic professionalism.


Heather Haynes Smith, Ph.D., completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She then taught in inclusive, self-contained elementary grade classrooms in several Texas cities. As a result of experiences and interest in supporting struggling readers and students with learning disabilities she then worked as a reading coach, supporting K-3 general educators and K-12 special educators in implementing RTI, reading intervention and assessment. This lead to work as a state level Reading Technical Assistance Specialist supporting district reading coaches and then as a Project Coordinator for the Higher Education Collaborative at the University of Texas coordinating professional development, support and study of implementation of scientifically-based reading research in Texas teacher education programs. Heather entered the doctoral program at the University of Kansas, as part of a fellowship studying implementation of RTI under the advisement of Dr. Wayne Sailor. Following completion of her doctorate she was as an assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University. Heather is now an assistant professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas teaching undergraduate courses in special education and urban education with an emphasis on inclusion, social justice, advocacy, and disability studies. Her research continues to focus on struggling readers, students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders, implementation of multi-tiered systems of supports, and the preparation of effective inclusive, educators. Follow her on Twitter @DrHaynesSmith

Djenabu’s Lesson

By Shana Haines, PhD

Of the countless experiences I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Namassi, a village in the northeastern area of Cote d’Ivoire, this one continually surfaces in my memory: I have lived in Namassi for about a year and feel like I have a general understanding of the village. As I do every night, I am eating dinner with my village host, Ahmadou “Six” (pronounced, in French, “cease”) and, as usual, we are sitting at a card table set up under the one light bulb hanging in the middle of the dirt courtyard Six and his family share with his five brothers and their families. A little girl, maybe 3 years old, runs up, round face adorned with a brilliant smile, and hugs Six. He pulls her up onto his lap and feeds her with his own fingers. He talks to her enthusiastically, mirroring her smile. I have been here a year, and I think this must somehow be a daughter I have never met, the connection between the two of them is so strong. I interrupt Six to ask if the child is in his family. He looks at me like I am crazy… don’t I know who is in his family by now? “No!! She is not in my family.” Six is related to literally at least a third of the village; I can’t understand the relationship. “Who is this little girl?” I finally ask, perplexed. Six tells me that her name is Djenabu, and she “likes to be with me.” He says that she sometimes comes to sleep in his hut with his family. After this day, I see Djenabu almost daily, cooking with Six’s wife or playing in the courtyard, and realize that her presence adds to the family’s happiness. I ask about how her own family feels, aren’t they worried when she is not home with them? Six replies, “Oh no. She is just like that. She likes to be with my family and me. She prefers to sleep at our house and eat with us.” The freedom, the trust, the understanding of the individual child’s desires, the nurturing, the sharing, the acceptance, all while expecting (and receiving) respect for elders … What a difference from the way I had grown up! “She is just like that” runs completely contrary to my (delightful) childhood on the shores of Long Island Sound, where it was widely accepted that studying, lessons, and experiences take you from who you are to who you (or others) want you to be. I had heard, “It takes a village to raise a child;” through my experience with Six and Djenabu, I learned that it takes a village of empathetic and perceptive people to raise children who are accepted, nurtured, and valued for their strengths.

This memory surfaces repeatedly as I work with immigrants and refugees who are navigating American society and schools for the first time. The clash of cultures I felt as I sat in Six’s courtyard under the light bulb is miniscule in comparison to what newcomers experience continually. This difficult-to-explain phenomenon of cultural clash happens on so many levels, in almost every environment newcomers experience. School is not an exception; in fact, it might be one of the hardest areas of navigation for children as they often go at it alone.

As a teacher, I knew many students who became “Djenabu” to me. Soon after returning from the Peace Corps, I got to know one “Djenabu” at a school where I taught in New York City. Isaac was newly arrived from Cote d’Ivoire, and, although already a second grader, had never before attended school. He was placed in a remedial reading group with other 8-year-old English Language Learners, but he did not know the alphabet or understand school expectations like sitting at desks and eating in the lunchroom. His teacher (my colleague, who was otherwise a very effective teacher) had a negative view of him and his mother, stating that he never changed his clothes and his mom didn’t value literacy because they didn’t have any books in the home. School personnel perceived Isaac as a behavior problem who lacked academic and social skills. He was not given the support he needed, and he was labeled and punished for his perceived deficits. Though I never knew his village in Cote d’Ivoire, I imagined him running barefoot through town, beautiful smile adorning his face, as he pursued his interests and thrived in the nurturing of his many strengths. Over 10 years since I met him, I can still hear Isaac sobbing and see those huge, quizzical eyes fill with tears of loneliness, frustration, and exhaustion as I tutored him on the sidewalk in front of the crowded hair salon in Harlem where his mom braided hair. Oh those Little Critter books!

About four years later, I met another “Djenabu.” Coco was about 10 years old when she arrived in the US with her grandmother. Speaking not one word of English, the grandmother had brought her four granddaughters to the US from the Congo. In addition to learning about everything in the US (using a stove, comprehending the language, finding and taking public transportation, grocery shopping, currency, banking, etc.), the grandmother needed to navigate the school system. All of the granddaughters were kind, gentle, resilient, and interesting people. Although most did fairly well in school with the supports they received, Coco struggled significantly with reading and math. She loved sports and was a very attentive and dutiful granddaughter, but she faced criticism and ridicule at school as the letters and numbers swam together in her mind. She grew to hate school and dreaded attending. Eventually her grades slipped too low for her to continue playing basketball in middle school. Her grandmother accepted her, loved her for who she was, and did not understand the negative situation. She also did not advocate for her granddaughter to receive the supports that could help her find success; like Six had said about Djenabu,“she was just like that.” I learned so much from this family; one of these things was that a great divide can separate refugee and former refugee families from the schools their children attend, and family-professional partnership can foster student success and help bridge the divide.

Another “Djenabu” became the focus of my dissertation at KU. I conducted a case study of a 4 year-old boy who was under evaluation for a disability because he lacked communication, engagement and self-regulation skills. The boy, “Habib,” was born in the US to Somali parents. Attending Head Start as a four year old was the first time Habib had ever been without his parents.  He did not speak in English or his native Somali, at home or at school, and he cried and ran out of the classroom several times a week during school. I saw that the family and teachers’ perspectives on the importance of intervening to directly foster Habib’s development of engagement and self-regulation skills contrasted greatly (please see Haines, Summers, Turnbull, Palmer, & Turnbull, 2015 for details on this study). At times during this case study and when I was conducting a similar study, family members of children with disabilities or, like Habib, at risk for disability, spoke to me about the difference between raising children in the US, where people are territorial, private, and stressed to succeed, and the more communal and accepting contexts in which they grew up. Parents spoke about learning how to self-regulate and engage when they were children in Africa by freely interacting with others in the protected freedom of their own village or, if they lived in a city, their extended family’s courtyard. In a small apartment in the suburbs of Kansas City, Habib was not benefitting from the natural learning opportunities inherent in his parents’ childhood in eastern Africa.

The beauty of acceptance and valuing all children for who they are can be lost when we get caught up in the fast-paced and high-stakes world of our education system. Accepting, nurturing, and valuing our students while also setting high expectations and providing responsive supports to enable them to reach goals is the challenge educators face, and those of us in teacher preparation need to help our students (future teachers) understand these goals through modeling them in our own teaching. Developing strong family-professional partnerships can help all families understand expectations for their children behaviorally and academically at school. These partnerships can also help educators understand expectations for their students behaviorally and academically at home. Assuming a posture of cultural reciprocity enables educators to learn from the families they serve; through partnership we can all seek out meeting and continue to learn from the Djenabus we meet.

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I am an Assistant Professor in the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont. I came to UVM in 2013 from the University of Kansas, where I studied Special Education, family-professional partnership, and disability policy and worked for the SWIFT Center. For seven years before moving to Kansas, I taught diverse elementary students in New York City and Portland, Maine. My experiences working in these contexts, especially with students who were not finding success at school, have driven me to try to make schools great places for all students. My research interests include understanding and improving the experience of refugee families and their children with the American school system, family-professional partnership, inclusive school reform, and innovative teacher education. In my free time, I love exploring Vermont with my husband and three young children, jogging, gardening, and sailing.

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