“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo is the 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and was honored to serve as the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year. She has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teaching and curriculum, both from Michigan State University. Melody is a wife, mother of three, speaker and presenter, author, and bullying-prevention advocate.


ED: How did you begin your career in education?

Melody: I never planned to be a teacher. I was planning to go into marketing and advertising. I had big plans to live in a city and take a train to work. When I was 19, I found out about a paraprofessional job at a local elementary school. They were looking for someone who spoke Chaldean, which I do, so I applied and was very lucky to get the job. It changed my career trajectory. I loved the school and the principal, and really loved the kids. I quickly realized what a positive impact you can have so quickly on young learners. I enrolled in an associate’s degree program at our community college focused on elementary education and then moved to Michigan State University to complete my bachelor’s (and eventually my master’s) degree in teaching and curriculum.

As a paraprofessional, I worked with kids in kindergarten through second grade, which I enjoyed. But during my year-long student teaching internship, I ended up in a third grade class. I realized I loved kids in third grade. They are independent enough to tie their own shoes and blow their own nose, but are still young enough that we can shape their learning, curiosity, and engagement. After student teaching I landed a job as a third grade teacher in the same district where I started as a paraprofessional, and have been teaching there since 2002.

ED: How did you become interested in the School Ambassador Fellowship program here at ED?

Melody: In 2015, I was honored to be the Michigan Teacher of the Year and spent the year working outside of the classroom. My biggest take away from that experience is that the educator voice is really lacking in critical policy discussions. I wanted to figure out how I could help increase teacher leadership and expand the role of the teacher voice in policy making. When I heard about the School Ambassador Fellowship program it seemed like a perfect next step, so I applied. The program enables outstanding teachers, principals, and other school leaders to bring their school and classroom expertise to the Department and exposes them to the heart of the national dialogue about education. In turn, school ambassador fellows are better equipped to facilitate the learning and input of other educators and community members.

In 2016, I was a part-time fellow for one year. This meant that I still had my classroom in Michigan and engaged and worked with ED remotely. It was an intense year, because I was staying involved at the classroom-level while being engaged in state- and federal-level activities. I am now the lead fellow here in DC and a big part of my work is with the part-time campus fellows, located around the country, who are still working in classrooms and schools. We have a fantastic group of 2017–18 fellows and my role is largely to support and connect them to work going on here at ED. I also have the goal of strengthening ED’s outreach to, and engagement with, educators. To accomplish this, we have been hosting monthly conversations on important educational issues to engage educators in the field. For example, one of our recent monthly topics was STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), particularly how teachers are incorporating STEM in the classroom. For each conversation, we pose a question about the topic via Twitter to generate conversations among educators, encouraging them to share examples of innovation. We then collect their input and feedback, and develop a toolkit of resources around that topic. Additionally, we are tapping into teachers by asking them to write for ED’s Homeroom Blog on each of the monthly topics. I also work with our fellows to promote and encourage teachers to sign up for ED’s monthly newsletter developed for teachers, The Teachers Edition. We have involved each of the fellows in Teach to Lead, an initiative that expands leadership opportunities for teachers and further develops their ideas.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a teacher and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Melody: I am a general education teacher, but I am also a parent of children with special needs. Through struggling to navigate special education as a parent, I have realized that I am ill prepared to teach children with disabilities and see there is a huge need to bring the special education and general education worlds together. We really need to rethink teacher training; general education teachers need more training on how to teach children with disabilities and to work with special educators. I realize now that if I had known more about some of the best practices in special education, such as positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS); how to do functional behavior assessments (FBA) and behavior plans; universal design for learning (UDL); and response to intervention (RTI), I could have had a more positive impact on not only students with disabilities in my class, but could have better met the needs of all of my students.

In my experience, co-teaching isn’t used widely. Children with disabilities are often pulled out of classrooms for their special services and I think that because of this we are missing an important opportunity to bring special educators and general educators together. After my twins began having challenges, I became more active in the disability community and realized how limited my experiences had been in a classroom. I never had a student with autism, cerebral palsy, or other more noticeable disabilities. As a parent, I’ve realized how important it is for children with disabilities to be included in general education classrooms and schools. As a teacher, I’d really like to learn different strategies and different techniques that would benefit all of the students in my class. I think we can do this by better connecting the professionals; it is a disservice to children to have those two worlds—special education and general education—segregated.

ED: What suggestions do you have for improving the quality of early learning and education?

Melody: I believe one of the most important things we can do is to raise the importance of the educator’s voice in making policy decisions. Teachers need to be part of the conversation. The educator’s voice is there but typically only in the policy discussions. Educators need to also be part of the decision-making process, since they are the ones who know what’s realistic and what’s not. I also hope that more educators will become policy makers. From the parent perspective, I think family engagement is critical and we need to do a better job making information easily accessible for families. When my kids were first diagnosed with developmental delays, I mainly relied on other parents, which was wonderful because it created a support network for us. I believe we need to do more to connect families with other families when making educational decisions—families are more powerful and informed when they are connected.

My specific advice for educators interested in becoming part of important local, state, and national conversations is to start looking for leadership opportunities in your community, district, and beyond. Develop your leadership skills, brand yourself as expert in an area, and let policy makers know. For example, based on your expertise and experience you could be an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expert, or a STEM expert, or an expert in best practices for increasing positive social emotional and behavioral skills. Engage in social media by following other teacher leaders, ED, state-level policy makers; develop your own website and blogs; and build an audience. It is okay if your audience is small at first, but you have to put yourself out there to engage. I really like the teacherprenuers initiative, where teachers think of themselves as innovators but also take on entrepreneurial leadership outside of the classroom. I would love for this to be part of teacher training. It is really empowering for teachers that think this way and have already begun engaging outside of their classrooms. So I encourage teachers to think like a teacherprenuer. This can be as simple as having a business card or presenting at a conference, and will begin to shift their idea of what it means to be a teacher and a leader.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Melody Arabo
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Melody Arabo, 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

Advocacy: The Foundation for My Success

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Carla Priest

Carla Priest

Carly Priest is a rising senior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she studies history and English. In her free time she dives for the Swimming and Diving Team, works in a local kindergarten, and writes for the school newspaper. Carly attends the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) conference as a representative for Eye to Eye, where she has served as a mentor, intern, camp counselor and Diplomat. 


Everyone has a different path to figuring out who they are. My own journey is far from over!  As a senior in college, I continue to learn about myself every day, but the ability to advocate for the resources I need continues to make all the difference. I share my story as a different learner to remind others who struggle with learning and attention issues, as I do, that success is not only possible, but critical. In learning differently, we have something unique and important to offer the world.

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I was seen as the “wacky” kid. Even though I was the “wacky” kid who had difficulty with spelling and a hard time following sequential instructions, no one suspected a learning disability because I loved to learn. Even with my love for learning, thinking back on my early education, I vividly recall feeling hopeless in the classroom. I had no words to communicate how I struggled!

My elementary school was a small public charter school that centered on a nature-based education model. The school’s kinesthetic and experiential approach to education allowed me to learn with my body, oftentimes outdoors. This emphasis on learning in motion, along with alternative instructional methods, ultimately mitigated my learning challenges enough to get by until high school.

Although mostly unnoticed through elementary school, my learning differences became apparent when I transitioned into a traditional high school. Within the first few months, my English teacher, sensing something was wrong, suggested we look deeper into what was going on. Evaluations revealed my visual processing disorder as well as attention deficit. It was good to finally have a diagnosis, but as I quickly realized, finally having a “name” for the difficulties I had always experienced was only the first step in the ongoing journey. Even though my diagnosis meant I suddenly received several types of accommodations, I still didn’t understand why I had accommodations, how they would help me, or when I should use them. I still needed to figure out what kind of tools would allow me to succeed.

Things dramatically changed for me in high school once I became involved in mentoring a younger student through Eye to Eye. Eye to Eye is a nonprofit, art-based mentoring program for students with learning and attention issues. Each art project focuses on developing students’ self-esteem, self-advocacy skills, and helping them understand how they learn and what they need to succeed.

More than anything, mentoring with Eye to Eye taught me so much more about myself. I learned that different accommodations could be helpful in different situations. I started to understand that extended time on tests was important, but in my case, it was far more important to have a testing environment with limited distractions. I looked for strong allies at school and found them. When I realized I processed information much better if my body was in motion, a psychology teacher encouraged me to walk around the back of the classroom during lectures, and would toss me baseballs to keep me focused and engaged in class. With these newfound allies, I was able to explore new ways of learning. With newfound confidence, I embraced my capacity to think differently, and began to explain to others what my “labels” meant. If I could self-advocate, success in college would not only be possible, but (as my allies assured me) inevitable.

Research shows that self-awareness and self-understanding are keys to success for young adults with learning and attention issues. A Student Voices study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities shows that young adults with learning and attention issues who are successful after high school have three things in common: a supportive home life, a strong sense of self-confidence, and a strong connection to friends and community. My community of support and allies, including my family, Eye to Eye, and my teachers, helped me develop and grow in these areas.

Now that I am in college, advocating for myself has become more important than ever. I speak to each professor about which accommodations I need and when I’ll need them. I am able to customize learning in a way that works for me. In addition to college, I have even had opportunities get involved in advocacy on a larger scale through an internship with the U.S. Department of Education as well as working with the National Center for Learning Disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy and personalized learning.

As I began to understand how I learned differently and developed the ability to communicate those differences to others, I laid a foundation for my future. Every learner should have the same opportunity to understand how they learn differently and embrace those differences. If we do not help our students access the resources they need, we will lose out on the intelligence, creativity, and passion of so many students with learning and attention issues who fail to see their future as one full of opportunities for success.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Carla Priest
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A student at College of the Holy Cross and a Diplomat with Eye to Eye

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Lillian Durán,
 National Center on Improving Literacy

Lillian Durán standing in front of a school

Lillian Durán

Lillian Durán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán leads National Center on Improving Literacy’s (NCIL) work on creating and translating resources for DLLs, and provides expertise on the topic of recommended practices in assessment and intervention with young DLLs with and without identified disabilities. Prior to Dr. Durán’s work in higher education she worked for 9 years as an early childhood special education teacher. 


ED:  How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Lillian:  I started my career as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was hired without special education licensure to teach a self-contained special education preschool class that was deemed “cross-categorical,” meaning the children all had disabilities but the type of disability varied by child. Around this same time I enrolled in a master’s program at George Washington University. I eventually became licensed and graduated with a degree in ECSE.

My next job was working with an early intervention home visiting program in rural Minnesota. We worked in home settings with infants and toddlers with identified disabilities, birth to age three, and their families. Many of the families were native Spanish speakers. Through this work, I started to become very interested in young dual language learners (DLLs). I grew up in a multi-lingual house. My mother was German and father Mexican, so I grew up learning and speaking 3 different languages and always saw the value in being multi-lingual.

I was surprised at the number of Spanish speakers in rural Minnesota. Many were agricultural workers and in some of these rural districts 30–50% of the families were Latino. I started helping these rural school districts by conducting Spanish language assessments, which piqued my interest in DLL assessments and literacy. I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program and working with Scott McConnell, at the University of Minnesota, who developed the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to measure preschool literacy. The focus of my doctoral work was on

  1. assessment and intervention with DLLs whose home language was Spanish and
  2. second language acquisition.

I have been an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Special Education Department for the past two years and last year had the opportunity to join NCIL.

ED:  What efforts have you and NCIL been involved in to improve the quality of early learning and early literacy?

Lillian: NCIL’s efforts in early learning are emerging. Our first year has really focused on laying the groundwork. We have been busy:

  1. building our repository of existing resources,
  2. developing professional development materials for educators and families around evidence-based instruction, screening, and assessment for students with literacy related disabilities including dyslexia, and
  3. forming partnerships with key stakeholders and audiences.

NCIL has a number of activities planned this October to raise awareness and improve understanding of dyslexia. I was specifically brought onto the NCIL team because of my expertise in screening and progress monitoring, especially for young DLLs. I am also a co-principal investigator for a research grant, funded by ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, focused on developing a Spanish version of the IGDIs for both screening and progress monitoring. This research and expertise will be wrapped into NCIL’s body of work.

In the second year of NCIL, we will focus more intentionally on early learning, particularly screening and assessment tools.  We are forming a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a simple tool that pediatricians can use to identify risk for reading-related disorders. We are excited to begin work with preschools, including building partnerships with existing Head Start and statewide Pre-K programs that are interested in improving early literacy screening, monitoring, and instruction. I have an early childhood background and it is my role on the NCIL team to ensure we are thinking about how to translate our work so it is appropriate for younger children and the various early learning programs they participate in. Working in an elementary school or classroom can be very different than working in an early learning program. There can be so much variability across different early learning programs—the education level and expertise of the teacher, whether or not they implement a specific curriculum, the overall quality of the program, and much more. You really need to understand the program and meet them somewhere in the middle if you want to be successful in helping them improve their instructional quality and contributions to early literacy. Our specific early learning work scope is still in development, but we are hoping to identify local Head Start and Pre-K programs to partner with and, within these programs, to establish regular early literacy screenings. We also hope to teach evidence-based intervention strategies to teachers within the programs so that once children are identified there is actually a system of targeted and systematic instruction in place to meet their identified needs.

ED:  What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Lillian: One major challenge is helping practitioners and administrators understand the systematic need for universal screening. Universal screening isn’t just about identifying children who may have a developmental delay or disability; it is also about identifying the instructional needs of all children. We need to do a better job getting this message across.

Related to this is figuring out how we train and support teachers to differentiate instruction. Once you do know where the kids are functioning (e.g., in a multi-tiered system of support, once you know which tier level the kids are), what do you do? How do you differentiate instruction based on children’s instructional needs? This is the research-to-practice challenge. Through research we can identify instructional approaches to meet the needs of various children, but translating these practices into real classrooms and early learning programs isn’t always easy. We need to understand the context and build strong partnerships with programs. We need to understand what programs are currently doing to see how the research-based practices can be embedded. For example, do programs have enough staffing to support the implementation of new instructional approaches? Do programs have an existing curriculum that these practices align with?  We need more people that are focused on this challenge—getting evidence-based practices into the hands of people working with children. I believe what’s crucial to this is researchers taking time to roll up their sleeves and get into classrooms, working directly with practitioners. This allows researchers to partner with programs to work through the practical challenges that always come up.

The final challenge I’ll mention is the need to address and improve the overall quality of early learning programs. I worked with migrant Head Start programs in Utah to implement a semi-scripted curriculum focused on early literacy and language. We found that with the right support they were able to easily implement this early literacy curriculum, and then found that it changed teachers’ practice throughout the day (not just when they were implementing the curriculum). The teachers were hungry for guidance and support on how best to help their children. Again, the message here is that researchers need to become more embedded in the classroom, conducting more focused observations of how what they’ve developed could be implemented in different classrooms and programs. A researcher’s work isn’t done after developing a product or intervention; this is just the beginning. The next critical step is figuring out what support is needed for the product or intervention to actually be translated into daily practice on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

ED:  What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting literacy development in young DLLs?

Lillian: My first bit of advice is to understand your own attitudes toward DLLs. This can be tough, but thinking from a strengths-based model is much more effective than from a deficit model, where you primarily think of the kids as not knowing English. Bilingualism is an asset and not a deficit. If we attend to children’s home language in addition to English when it comes to assessment and intervention, we will have a better picture to understand a child’s language and literacy development. This provides tremendous information when determining whether there is a language or literacy delay or disability. Additionally, it is important to learn more about bilingual development. What may be considered a concern with regards to monolingual development may actually be typical when children are developing two or more languages. Finally, seek out bilingual resources and hire bilingual staff.  And simply hiring bilingual staff is only the first step—they need support and training in order to implement evidence-based interventions. I’ve been in many preschool programs where there is a lack of attention to what the bilingual staff are doing. They need:

  1. training about language development, assessment, and interventions and
  2. curriculum and supports in place to guide their instructional practices.

Overall, the big frame is prevention. We need to screen and monitor the progress of all young children and ensure the instructional approaches we are using with young DLLs are meaningful and effective. By intervening early, we will hopefully prevent reading problems from developing down the road. Early intervention is a cornerstone in preventing reading difficulties and I hope to make that a key focus of NCIL. A house is only as solid as the foundation.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Words of Wisdom

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jordon Bills

Jordon Bills

Jordan Bills, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) at Washington Speech in Fairfax, Virginia. She works with children of all ages with various speech, language, and feeding disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and master’s degree from the George Washington University. You can read more about Jordan’s credentials and accomplishments on the Washington Speech staff page.


Why did you become a speech-language pathologist (SLP)?

In high school, I volunteered at a center for blind and visually impaired children for three summers. I worked side-by-side with the speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists at the center. The work they did was incredible and I knew this is what I wanted to do! One child in particular had a large impact on me. He was three years old and unable to respond to his name. By the end of our summer together, he was not only turning toward others when they said his name but also responding to their greeting. I’ll never forget the feeling when I heard him say, “Hi, Jordan!” In that moment, I understood the power of communication. Communication is what connects us to one another. It’s what makes our lives so beautiful! I feel lucky to spend my days helping children communicate more effectively.

Why do you enjoy working with children with Down syndrome?

As a pediatric SLP, I have the privilege of working with children with Down syndrome across their lifespans. This is one of my favorite populations to work with because of the great potential for growth. Every milestone is celebrated, even the small ones, as each child works so hard to develop their speech and language skills. Every child with Down syndrome has unique strengths and interests, which I use to support the development of new skills. I have targeted bilabial sounds /b, p, m/ in functional phrases while playing basketball; used a child’s desire for hugs to teach expanded question forms (Can I have a hug?); and taught subject-verb-object sentences using Disney characters.

With younger children, I spend a lot of time playing on the floor. Children tend to learn best through repeated experiences with real objects and situations. Play is their vehicle for learning. As they enter elementary school, our sessions include more structured tasks focusing on the skills they need to participate fully in the classroom and to interact with friends. My goal for all of my clients with Down syndrome is for them to be able to effectively communicate with friends, family, and professionals across environments. My hope is that improved communication will allow them to experience the joys in life that come from making connections with others.

One of my favorite events is the annual Buddy Walk in Northern Virginia. Attending this event gives me the opportunity to see some of my patients outside of the therapy room. I love watching them with their families and friends participating in a community event. It reminds me of why I love what I do!

What are some tips that you have for families with children with Down syndrome?

Parents and other caregivers are the primary communication partners in a young child’s life. Therefore, parents play a critical role in helping their children develop speech and language skills. Below are some strategies for families to support communication development from birth through early elementary school.

Strategies for Birth to First Word Users

  • Focus on pre-linguistic skills. These are skills a child needs to master before words emerge. They include: joint or shared attention, social referencing (checking parents’ facial expressions to understand how to react appropriately in new situations), turn taking, pointing, sustained engagement and attention, and imitation.
  • Use language stimulation techniques in everyday activities to help your child develop his/her understanding and use of new vocabulary words. Techniques include: self-talk, parallel talk, sentence completions, choices, and communication temptations (actions you can take to set up the environment to tempt your child to communicate with you).
  • Consider a Total Communication This evidence-based approach incorporates speech, manual signs, gestures, pictures, and/or a speech-generating device to help children communicate as effectively as possible while developing verbal speech. This approach can reduce frustration and support long-term vocabulary development.
  • Familiarize yourself with the stages of play. Challenge your child to engage in symbolic and early pretend play.
  • When teaching new words, use real objects or pictures of real objects. Incorporate vocabulary learning into your daily activates.
  • Don’t forget about your child’s oral-motor and feeding skills. Children with Down syndrome are at risk for feeding difficulties. A certified speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child and develop an individualized treatment program to help him/her improve oral-motor skills for feeding.

Beyond First Words: Learning to Combine

  • Research shows children begin to combine words when they reach a single word vocabulary of around 50 words. Ensure your child has a variety of single words (e.g. nouns, verbs, pronouns, social words, adjectives) he or she can use to combine. Keep a record of the words your child uses to monitor vocabulary growth.
  • Continue to build your child’s vocabulary during play and daily routines. Teach 2-3 word combinations and encourage imitation. Children with Down syndrome benefit from repeated experiences with the same activities and vocabulary.
  • Use expansions (adding one word to what your child says) to model phrases. Do this often! It will likely take many repetitions before your child imitates your expanded phrase.
  • Try a pacing board to help your child learn to combine words. Pacing boards provide a visual and tactile cue to remind your child to use two words. They are helpful for children with Down syndrome given their strengths in visual learning. A simple pacing board can be two large dots on a piece of cardboard or thick paper. Point to the first dot and say the first word, then point to the second dot and say the second word.
  • Read often! Try books with repetitive phrases your child can learn and eventually fill in.

Early School Age

  • As your child’s vocabulary and utterance length increases, speech intelligibility often becomes a main concern. Again, a pacing board can be a useful tool. This time, your focus will be on teaching your child to speak slowly and producing each word deliberately while touching one dot on your pacing board. Speaking with a slowed rate can help improve your child’s overall intelligibility.
  • In speech therapy, your child may be working on specific speech sounds or patterns of sounds. Work closely with your child’s speech-language pathologist to continue practice at home. To increase your child’s motivation, incorporate target sounds into highly meaningful words. For example, if your child is working on the /k/ sound, “cookie” and “car” may be very motivating words. Daily practice is key!
  • Use recasts to help your child develop appropriate grammar. Grammatical recasts are when you take your child’s utterance and repeat it using adult grammar. For example, if your child says, “dog eat,” you would say, “Yes, the dog is eating.”
  • Consider AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) to supplement verbal speech. This may increase your child’s ability to be understood, participate in class, and engage socially. It may also decrease frustration.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Things People Say

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

A guest blog by Jessica Wilson. Jessica and her son, Jasper (aka Jaz, Jazzy, the JazMaster, or Dude!), live in a cozy house of fur with two crazy dogs and two lazy cats. Their favorite activities include singing movie hits, dancing in the kitchen, snuggling and traveling the world together. Jessica is Director of Communication and Dissemination for the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) and Resources for Access, Independence and Self-Employment (RAISE) projects with the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey.


Number One. “Did you know?”

They never complete the thought, as if just looking at him implies what they’re really asking. I ache to play dumb: Know what? That he would almost never cry as a baby and be a champion sleeper? That he would love to swim but hate to play soccer? That I could love him ‘til it hurts and still get so annoyed by some of his antics? As obnoxious as my brain screams for me to be, I simply answer, “No. After losing the first one, I didn’t want to take any chances with this very wanted baby.”

The mention of my previous sorrow precludes them from saying anything directly about those tests, so I leave it at that. I resist ranting about warped concepts of perfection or the technologies the medical community pushes that are incapable of measuring the value of those born “dappled.” If I launch into my diatribe, their eyes glaze over as they nod in the faux agreement children give their parents when they just want the scolding to stop. I can always tell when they’re thinking, “I would have the test.” I couldn’t guess what they would do if it were positive.

Number Two. “My sister’s/cousin’s/brother-in-law’s/landlord’s daughter/nephew/classmate/neighbor is ‘like him’.”

What, rakishly handsome? Lucky them. A consummate flirt? Better watch out! The self-appointed town mayor, greeting every person or animal we see on the streets? Good luck getting anywhere quickly with such a gregarious kid.

I suppose it’s an attempt to connect, a way to say “he’s okay” because they know someone who knows someone who… But sharing an extra chromosome doesn’t make anyone like someone else any more than two people having green eyes does. Don’t tell me these six-degrees individuals are “like” each other. They aren’t.

Number Three. “He’s so high-functioning.”

Yeah, far more than I am at 3:00 a.m. “MOMMY!” “urgh…?” “WHY ARE YOUR EYES CLOSED?!” “I’m sleeping, baby.” “WHY?!” “unnnhhh…” “READ TO ME!!!!” (seriously?)

Number Four. “Funny, you can’t see it.”

What’s there to see? His almond shaped eyes that look through me as the spark of laughter flickering within them sears my soul? His cute little hands with that long crease across his palms holding mine, petting the cat, learning to write his name, wiping away tears when he’s mad? The orthotics helping reshape his desperately flat feet?

What exactly are you looking for that will legitimize him in your eyes? Maybe I should carry the envelope with the verdict handed down by some anonymous technician. Perhaps the letter from the state when the lab automatically reported his existence to the county health department “for statistical purposes.” What can’t you see? He’s a kid, growing up loved. What else are you looking for?

Number Five. “I’m sorry.”

You should be. You’ll never hear the thoughts he speaks to me with his smiling brown eyes as he tilts his forehead to rest against mine. You’ll never drink in the heat that radiates from his head or taste his soft hair on your lips. You’ll never be awakened (again) at 3:00 a.m. by the hot air from his mouth on your face as he whispers, “Mommy, I want snuggles.” You’ll never know how it feels to celebrate every jump forward in development that other parents take for granted, but when he finally does it, it’s a very, very large molehill.

You should be sorry that you can only see back in time. This is a new era with new opportunities and new ideas about potential and worthiness. I’m only sorry it’s taken this long and that we still have so far to go.

Number Six. “That’s awesome!”

Thanks, Brian—you are the right kind of friend. May everyone with a kid “like mine” know a man like you.

Number Seven. “I don’t know how you do it.”

I’m his mother. Still confused?

Things I Say.

“I’m so proud of you.” “Boy, you’re handsome!” “Why won’t you let me cut your nails?” “TURN THAT DOWN!” “Wanna go bowling?” “Sweetheart, don’t let the dog beg like that.” “Would you please put this stuff away?” “You’re just too good to be true/Can’t take my eyes off of you.” “No, I don’t want to smell your feet.” “I love you, my sweet angel. You’re my heart and soul, my love and my life.” “You know you drive me nuts, right?”

Number One.

“I’ve loved my son since before he was ever born. What else is there to say?”


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

From Daughter’s Advocate to National Advisory Board Member

One mother brings personal experience to the new
National Center for Improving Literacy

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Schultz is co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and previously worked as a Congressional Staffer for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and later as the Director of Federal and State Government Relations for a national trade association in Washington, D.C. She has a background in public policy and consulted for a Florida-based public relations firm for many years before “retiring” to focus on dyslexia advocacy to help children who struggle to read, write and spell in public school. She has two children, one a senior at Leonardtown High School and the other a junior at the U.S. Military Academy. Her husband is active duty Navy and they are a proud military family


Something was wrong, but no one could quite figure out what to call it.

At age three, my daughter Catherine spoke very few words compared to her brother. Early evaluations revealed that she needed speech and occupational therapy services.

Catherine displayed behavioral issues including aggression, which the school psychologist later attributed to possibly too much stimulation. At other times, she was withdrawn. She was held back in preschool because of these issues.

When she entered kindergarten, Catherine had meltdowns because of her frustrations with language.

What I saw was her having difficulty finding words and using incorrect language, which resulted in a scrambled output of the words she could find.

After three years in preschool and a year of kindergarten, she could not identify her letters and sounds, write her own name or spell simple words. I felt strongly that we were looking at a reading problem, and my advocacy finally resulted in her being found eligible for special education as a child with a “specific learning disability.”

As Catherine prepared to enter first grade at age seven, I was frightened and frustrated feeling that my child was in crisis and it did not seem that the district’s special education personnel knew how to address her reading and writing needs.

The years of pull-out services, small-group instruction and reading interventions produced few results.

Unfortunately it would take another six years from the time she was identified as having a “specific learning disability” before we understood her specific learning disability was dyslexia.

One year her teacher pulled me aside to share the Patricia Polacco book, “Thank you, Mr. Falker” and encouraged me to read it to Catherine. It was the first time anyone almost mentioned the common learning disability by name.

By fifth grade, our developmental pediatrician formally diagnosed Catherine with dyslexia. We shared the news with her school team hoping that we would finally be able to get the appropriate instruction in place for our daughter.

Unfortunately, we still found it difficult to bridge the divide between the evidence-based interventions being recommended and the programs and expertise available in our school.

By seventh grade, we had to move on to seek private reading and writing instruction for Catherine.

Through pinpointing Catherine’s dyslexia and getting her the proper services she needed, she is now a high school senior pursuing a certification in Computer Aided Design and Drawing (CADD), taking two English courses and making plans for college.

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Students like my daughter sit in every classroom in every school in every state. They are ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse. Many of these students will have access to the resources our family ultimately pursued and that is good, but truth be told, many more will not and that is a problem.

Unidentified dyslexia often creates social and emotional difficulties for struggling children. Parents’ and schools’ lack of understanding and awareness of dyslexia and other disabilities can exacerbate a child’s struggles unnecessarily. I knew other families and schools would benefit from knowing about early reading interventions that included phonological awareness and decoding instruction—this type of instruction would not only reduce the underlying cause of a child’s anxieties or challenging behaviors, but would also teach them to read.

My family’s experience, in what I would describe as an excellent public school system, motivated me to reach out to other parents of children with dyslexia. I knew that many of these families were experiencing similar situations and that collectively we may be able to raise awareness and bring much needed resources to our schools and communities.

We established Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a parent-led grassroots movement that offers awareness, support and advocacy for children with dyslexia, their parents and educators.

Through my advocacy work with Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, I was asked to serve as a parent stakeholder on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy* (NCIL), which was funded by Office of Special Education Programs in September 2016.

NCIL is an important component of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The center is tasked with:

  • Developing and/or identifying tools to screen for and detect reading challenges early;
  • Identifying evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology;
  • Providing information to support families;
  • Developing and/or identifying professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies; and
  • Disseminating these resources within existing federal networks.

Schools today are searching for information and assistance in implementing the evidence-based instruction outlined in ESSA and required by many of the new dyslexia laws passing in state legislatures across the country.

As I near the end of my family’s personal pre-K-12 journey, I’m excited to be able to offer NCIL the benefit of my daughter’s experiences to help change the way students with reading challenges and dyslexia are identified and taught to read.

It’s my expectation that NCIL, in collaboration with parents, educators, community partners, and reading researchers, will offer our public schools the information and guidance they need to bring the science of reading into their classrooms and to close the research-to-practice gap that sometimes hinders their ability to deliver best practices in literacy instruction to the students that need it the most.

This October, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, is the perfect time to learn more about the mission of the NCIL and to spread the word to your schools and communities about dyslexia and this new research-based resource. Encourage teachers, principals and families to visit the NCIL website and make suggestions about the types of information, tools, trainings and resources that are most needed.


* The National Center on Improving Literacy is a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


Understanding Teachers Make “All the Difference” for a High School Student with Dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan is a freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school. She is a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia who enjoys sharing her knowledge with students with disabilities about how accommodations in school can help create a pathway to academic success.


A teacher can make the difference between a good day and a bad one.

Actually, they can make or break a child’s entire school year by understanding what accommodations in a 504 plan or an individualized education program (IEP) can do to help a person like me who works everyday to overcome the impact of dyslexia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

I think I am lucky to have been surrounded by teachers who worked hard to make sure I was able to be as successful as my peers.

I have had a 504 plan since the fourth grade. It’s supported me through elementary school, middle school and now into high school.

At the beginning of the year, I introduce myself and my accommodations through email. I think it’s important for my teachers to know why I benefit from something that most of the other kids in my class don’t use. The game changers for me include:

  1. Extra time
    Dyslexia makes me read slowly and work hard to decode words. This means that it takes me more time to take tests. Knowing that I can work hard and answer the questions correctly at my own pace is very helpful for me. I would like to be able to show my teacher what I know.
  2. Read on demand
    Reading and spelling are harder for me than my classmates. I can decode almost any word after my remediation; it just takes me some time to do it if it’s a harder word. If I am really stuck, I would like to ask for help to have the word or phrase read to me. It makes me way more comfortable in class to know that if I get stuck, my teacher will know that I really need the help.
  3. Small group testing
    It helps to be on my own or in a smaller group. If I am taking a test with the class I might get to the third question and someone next to me is finished with the test because they can read it faster. I’d like to be able to focus on the content and do my best.
  4. Technology
    I use my iPad to ear read (text to speech) everything I can. Eye reading is tiring for me. Sometimes, I use an app to change a handout to a readable PDF and then ear read it, if I need to. Normally, I just eye read the handouts. My iPad also has an app that will let me record the classroom lecture, if I need it. I don’t access the curriculum exactly like my peers, but the system in place right now works really well for me.
  5. Teacher notes
    I am dysgraphic, too. That means it is hard for me to put my thoughts onto paper quickly. I learn best by listening to the teacher first and then practicing what I have learned. It is very hard for me to listen and copy things from the board or write things down as the teacher is talking. I take notes, but I miss a lot. The teacher’s notes help me make sure that I don’t miss anything when I am studying.
  6. Advanced notice when called on to read in class
    This accommodation makes me feel comfortable in class. It feels terrible if I think I might be called on to read out loud without knowing what I am going to read. If my teacher wants me to read something, they’ll just tell me the night before and I will practice first. I am a good reader now, but I still get nervous when I have to read out loud. Messing up on a word like ‘began’ feels really bad in a classroom full of my classmates. That’s what dyslexia will do to me.

With the help of my parents, my teachers and my accommodations, I’ve created a successful learning environment for myself. Because I need to work very hard to achieve the academic success I’ve had, I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate my teachers who have made an effort to understand me and my accommodations.

Teachers really do make all the difference!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


Carter Grace Duncan
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A freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school and a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia

New IRIS Modules: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (Part 2): Evidence-Based Practices

This new IRIS Center Module, second in a two-part series, highlights strategies that have been shown to be effective in teaching appropriate behaviors and skills and decreasing inappropriate behaviors with children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It next explores several strategies that are particularly effective with young children, elementary and middle school students, and high school students (est. completion time: 3 hours).

Autism Spectrum Disorder (Part 1): An Overview for Educators

This Module provides information on the early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as an overview of the difference between a medical diagnosis and an educational determination of ASD. Resources include notes on instructional considerations for teachers who have children and students with ASD in their classrooms, as well as things to keep in mind when working with the families of those children and students (est. completion time: 2 hours).

More information is available at: http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/


About the IRIS Center

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), the IRIS Center is headquartered at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. Its primary objective is to create resources about evidence-based practices for use in preservice preparation and professional development programs. IRIS then disseminates and offers trainings on those resources.

In Recognition of Hill Walker’s Contributions to Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)

Hill Walker

Hill Walker


There actually are moments when we benefit from the right people being in the right place at the right time. One of those moments was in 1995 when Dr. Hill Walker, a professor of special education at the University of Oregon, was invited by a local school district pupil services coordinator to assist him with achieving better allocation of district intervention resources to address the needs of students with challenging behavior. Hill Walker was already a well-respected scholar and program designer. His work on classroom management, and his emerging First Step to Success curriculum for students with significant problem behavior, were already appreciated as classic examples of extending solid instructional and behavioral theory to address pressing issues in schools. Our history has always been to be of assistance to those who host our research efforts. Hill agreed to do some thinking about this issue and wrote a detailed memo to the coordinator laying out a prevention agenda that would work district wide.

As a result of his on-going intervention research, Hill had become interested in prevention systems that could address problems early on in their trajectory. This shift in focus from “remediation” to “prevention” was not a strong theme in education at the time. In his memo to the school district, Hill described how an approach from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) emphasizing a 3-tiered prevention classification would be a functional fit for education. The focus was on health prevention, but the framework was enticing. Primary prevention (Tier I) involved strategies provided to all, and designed to limit the emergence of problems. Secondary prevention (Tier II) incorporated more intensive supports, but only for those who need a modest level of increased assistance to be successful. Tertiary prevention (Tier III) was more expensive, more intensive, and more individualized. Tertiary prevention practices received high visibility, but there was a recognition that no community could afford effective tertiary prevention practices without investment in the full multi-tiered structure. While the model was framed in a medical approach to community health, Hill recognized the value of the core ideas for education.

Hill contacted Mike Epstein, founder and editor of the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (JEBD), about this model and asked if the memo could be converted into a journal article for JEBD. Mike encouraged him to do so. The article was published in JEBD in 1996 and was well received by the field. This adaptation appeared to be the “right idea at the right time”.

To our collective benefit, Hill Walker was able to bridge the community health context, with the elegant concepts of multi-tiered prevention, and link these messages with the compatible notion of “response to intervention” being articulated by Lynn and Doug Fuchs. A major insight was his vision that the multi-tiered logic was a good fit with intervention practices he now saw as Tier I, Tier II and Tier III prevention activities for academic and behavioral outcomes. His 1996 paper offers a model with conceptual and practical messages that have been both highly cited and overtly followed. The importance of the multi-tiered approach (now cast as “multi-tiered systems of support:” MTSS) is evident in the evolving structure of response to intervention, the application of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), recent amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA: 2015), and emerging elements of the reauthorization of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The multi-tiered triangle, first introduced to educators in the 1996 paper, is now highly recognized and is an ingrained part of our understanding of educational supports. The positive implications of this approach for education in general and special education in particular are still emerging.

triangle

The unequivocal emphasis on demonstrating a research to practice framework has always been a defining characteristic of Hill Walker’s work. With the many variations, adaptations and elaborations that now exist of multi-tiered educational systems it is worthwhile to reflect on the debt we owe to the field of community health, and to those scholars like Hill Walker who have interdisciplinary insights and who can define common problems, and have been willing and able to see beyond the present and guide the future.


Authors

Sue Swenson,  Deputy Assistant Secretary, delegated the authority to perform the functions and duties of the Assistant Secretary

Rob Horner, Faculty, Alumni-Knight Professor, Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences, University of Oregon

Renee Bradley, Deputy Director, Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs,  Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Carl Calkins, Director, University of Missouri—Kansas City’s Institute for Human Development, and Professor of Psychology

 

 

Sue Swenson
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Deputy Assistant Secretary, delegated the authority to perform the functions and duties of the Assistant Secretary, OSERS
Rob Horner
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Alumni-Knight Professor, Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences, U of Oregon
Renee Bradley
Posted by
Deputy Director, RTP, Office of Special Education Programs
Carl Calkins
Posted by
Director, Institute for Human Development, UMKC

To The Mother Who Just Learned Her Child Has Down Syndrome

An OSERS Guest Blog post by Eliana Tardio, a mother with two children with Down syndrome. 


Ayelen and Emir holding hands

Ayelen and Emir holding hands

I was five months pregnant and ready to learn my baby’s gender. All I wanted to know was which would be the best color to paint the walls of his or her room. I didn’t want to know anything else, really. I honestly didn’t know there was something else to be learned at that appointment. However, and because life is totally unexpected, his gender was unveiled alongside another big surprise. The doctor said, “He may have a genetic disorder.”

I saw the world breaking apart into small pieces right in front of my eyes. I felt an immense disappointment and a desperate need to blame someone or something. I blamed myself, and then I challenged God by asking him for a proof of his greatness. I wanted my child to be cured, just because at that point of my life, I was so supremely ignorant, that I just didn’t know that Down syndrome is not an illness, but simply a way to exist and to be.

The following months were tough. I remember living on a roller coaster of emotions between denial and surrender to the incredible love growing up inside my womb. As the day finally came, I didn’t feel any physical pain, because all I wanted to see was his face. I wanted to see how he looked. He didn’t cry, and so, I had only a few minutes to hold him in my arms before he was taken to the NICU. In those hundredths of seconds, I looked into his eyes, and that was enough to fall in love. Down syndrome and all, I realized that he was already the most amazing and perfect child, because he was mine, born from me and to me.

Emir and Ayelen together

Emir and Ayelen together

It has been 12 years since Emir was born. Three years after, Ayelen, my second child, was born. This time it was a girl, who was born with Down syndrome as well. To the mother who just learned her child has Down syndrome, I offer this:

  1. You may not believe me now, but even if you never dream of this moment, this may turn into your dream life.
  2. All these painful and confusing feelings you are going through right now are just a path to a total transformation of your soul and your heart. Be patient and don’t blame yourself. These feeling are not out of lack of love or acceptance of your child. They are instead a proof of how much you love him, and how much you have to learn.
  3. Yes, your child is going to be perfectly fine. He’s going to be happy, he’s going to be smart, he’s going to make you cry out of pride, and he’s going to become your reason to believe, your strength to fight, and your most amazing excuse to slow down and enjoy the small things in life.
  4. For sure, there are going to be tough times. Just as you are going to meet amazing people, you are going to be challenged by mean and indifferent individuals as well. They will both teach you something. The first, that everything is possible. The second, that everything can be possible but you have to hold the power to make it happen—and you will.
  5. Your child, as any other child, is going to be the reflection of your love, faith, devotion and hard work as a parent. Being a parent is never easy, but it is definitely worth it!

And in a couple of years, on top of all the things that typical parents do for their children’s well-being, you are going to be proud to be an advocate, a specialist, an expert and the one who defines his future, has the power to change what needs to be changed, and to create what hasn’t been built yet. You are the parent of an inspiring human being who has no comparison: Your child!

Congratulations for that!


Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education and such endorsements should not be inferred.

Eliana Tardio, a proud mother with two children with Down syndrome, Emir and Ayelen. She works as a Program Director for the Parent Education Network and is well known as a diversity and Latino activist that works through her different online platforms to create awareness. Her English website is www.elianatardio.us.

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A mother with two children with Down syndrome, a Program Director for the Parent Education Network and is well known as a Diversity and Latino Activist.