The Many Roads to Becoming a Spelling Bee Champion

Aren participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Aren participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

At age 13, our son Aren can’t cross the street by himself, or eat without dropping food all over the floor. He struggles with reading and has difficulty following simple instructions. He also has a speech impairment called cluttering that often makes his speech incomprehensible to others. On top of this, he is hyperactive and needs to burn off his immense energy frequently throughout the day.

I could write pages about Aren’s many challenges and our struggles with figuring out how to work with them. As Aren’s parents, the journey has not been easy. On the other hand, Aren constantly surprises and humbles us with what he can achieve. Early on, we decided that our mission as parents was not to focus on his disabilities. We would not dwell on or be limited by the things he couldn’t do. Rather, we agreed to seek out and develop Aren’s unique strengths while scaffolding his weaknesses in a way he could understand and embrace. We vowed to be open to exploring his talents, even where he started out with marked deficits.

To accomplish this, we decided to pursue some homeschooling so Aren could work on both his strengths and challenges at his own pace. Later, we enrolled at Connecting Waters Charter School. Here, his teachers, principal, special education occupational therapist, speech therapist, and reading tutor each provide him with invaluable individualized support and guidance. Instead of subjecting him to traditional classroom instruction, which he would likely have tuned out, we chose the path of closeguided training. The results have been remarkable. Aren has developed incredible visualization, drawing, mental math, and creative skills. He particularly loves drawing complex freeway interchanges that would make a commuter faint. Remarkably, his drawing is effortless, and he often does it while in conversation.

Aren's intricate drawing of a highway interchange.

Aren’s drawing of a highway interchange.

When Aren was 9, my wife (staying true to being open to possibility) asked Aren if he’d like to compete in his school Spelling Bee. To be frank, my wife thought that a kid who didn’t read until just a year prior would not be interested in participating. To my wife’s surprise (and perhaps horror), he said yes. We later found out that he didn’t know what a spelling bee was; he just wanted to see what freeways we would drive to the competition. As a “human GPS,” he desperately needed to input I-580 to I-205 to Highway 120 to 99 to his system!

We were worried that Aren might be disruptive at the Spelling Bee and would not be able to sit still. But he surprised us—he put in diligent effort, was able to sit still and write legibly, and won! This victory left us both shocked and extremely proud. We were even more proud that he was able to follow through with the rules of the competition. Aren went on to represent his school in the county-level competition, where he came in 5th place! Once again, I was completely and utterly floored, and of course glowing with pride!

This was one of many humbling moments when I learned from my son that it doesn’t matter where your starting line is.

Aren continued to showcase his strength, winning, in total, four school bees and three county competitions. Later, at age 12, he even won the California State Junior High Spelling Bee! This child who could barely read 4 years prior had somehow spelled his way to the top of his state. Aren became so enamored of spelling that he dreamed of competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. This dream seemed impossible for our kid with a speech impairment, attention issues, and a reading disability. But yet again, Aren proved himself right, and proved us wrong. He tied for 42nd place at Scripps…out of 11 million. He had fantastic support and many people cheering him on. His school’s CEO even cut her vacation short to come watch Aren compete live.

Today, Aren is a happy, healthy, and energetic 13-year-old, brimming with enthusiasm on subjects as diverse as cars, chemistry, and mathematics. He is ahead of peer expectation in math and English. With strong parental involvement and support from our school’s special education department, he has come a long way in areas such as visual tracking and social interaction. His drawing skills and math talents continue to progress on his own volition. We are so excited to witness Aren’s future, his unique contributions to society, and the help and inspiration he can give to others.

Never give up, no matter where you are.


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.

Improving Early Childhood Intervention

Note: May is Better Hearing and Speech Month.

The Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC) logo

Infancy and early childhood are important times of life for all children, but more so for those who have delays in development. These delays may be from genetic conditions, disabilities, various risk conditions, or unknown reasons. While families may be the first to recognize a difference in their child’s developmental progress, professionals trained and licensed in early childhood intervention have the skills and knowledge to detect a developmental delay and to then provide intervention to remediate and/or minimize its impact on a child’s development.

Traditionally, professionals train in a single discipline that usually corresponds to an area of development. For example, speech-language pathologists are experts in the development of communication. Likewise, physical therapists are experts in a child’s physical or motor development. Additionally, most disciplines are trained to offer services and intervene across a broad age range—the lifespan of an individual. When a person completes a program of study in a discipline, the individual is then licensed in that discipline to provide services to persons across the lifespan.

These training and licensing practices create two challenges to providing effective early childhood intervention to infants and young children and their families:

  • Interventions may be focused to specific areas of development by discipline specific interventionists (e.g. an occupational therapist provides specific motor intervention and does not incorporate any other areas of development into her therapy/intervention); and
  • Interventions may be provided by a person who does not have any specific experience or competence in infancy or early childhood.

To address these challenges, the Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC), which is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education, joined representatives from seven national organizations to examine the professional knowledge, skills and competencies that all disciplines should have when providing intervention to infants and young children.*

First, ECPC identified personnel standards (i.e., knowledge and skill statements) for each of the disciplines represented by the organizations. This yielded 752 individual standards. The organizations and ECPC aligned and reduced these standards until four thematic areas emerged that encompassed all disciplinary standards. Representatives of the seven organizations endorsed these as equally important to all disciplines providing early childhood intervention services. These representatives also operationally defined each area, which are contained in the following table:

Operationalized Definitions of the Four Core Competency Areas

CORE COMPETENCY AREA DEFINITION
Family Centered Practice Family-Centered Practice is culturally competent practice in natural settings that involves and actively engages the family in decision-making and the provision of services/therapy.
Interventions Informed by Evidence Evidenced Based intervention requires the use of scientifically based evidence to inform all screening, assessment, intervention/instruction and evaluation delivered to an individual child and family. Databased intervention and instruction refers to the process of collecting data about a child’s level of performance and designing and implementing a plan (e.g. IEP, IFSP) of instruction/ intervention that is evidence-based and focused on remediating a child’s and family’s needs.
Coordination and Collaboration Coordination and collaboration refers to working across professionals from other disciplines and community organizations in every facet of intervention/instruction.
Professionalism Professionalism requires all who provide early childhood intervention to have knowledge and skills in the laws, policies, practices that govern their professional discipline. It also requires that all in early childhood intervention demonstrate professional ethics and advocacy with each infant, young child and family they work with. Professionals in early childhood intervention will also take responsibility to improve their knowledge and skills through professional development and self-reflection.

The organizations’ boards endorsed these areas and definitions, and the organizations are now working with the ECPC to identify and validate indicators for each competency area. Training and materials will then be developed for both preservice and in-service audiences to teach and support early intervention professionals from multiple disciplines to provide interventions for the infants and young children across developmental areas.

It should be noted that these competencies will not replace the need for therapists and teachers to retain expertise and be licensed in their own discipline to address the needs of the infant or child. Rather, it will help ensure the effectiveness of integrating all developmental areas into a child’s interventions.


* The seven organizations included: The Council of Exceptional Children (CEC), the Division of Early Childhood (DEC), the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Zero to Three.


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.

Mary Beth Bruder,
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Mary Beth Bruder, Project Director, ECPC, University of Connecticut

OSERS Assistant Secretary Talks Special Education

Johnny Collett, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and the National Center for Learning Disabilities Vice President and Chief Policy and Advocacy Officer Lindsay Jones talked about the March 2017 Supreme Court decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, teacher professional development related to special education, the U.S. Department of Educations’ role, regulatory reform efforts, and more during an April 18 interview.

“OSERS really is unique… one reason is we really get the opportunity to impact across the life of an individual with a disability, so really birth through adulthood including post-secondary opportunities and certainly our goal of competitive integrated employment for individuals,” Collett said. “That opportunity to impact across the life of an individual is just something that’s incredibly unique and really something I am struck by every day.”

Hear more from Assistant Secretary Collett in his recorded video interview, which was part of Understood’s “Chat with an Expert” series.

Another Journey

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

The Bae family during trip to England

The Bae family during trip to England

Just like any other school day, Eugene, my son with autism, left on the bus this morning to go to a day program provided by our school district. For the last 20 years, he and I wait for the bus by sitting on our front porch. As he steps on the bus, he shouts at me with his happy high-pitched voice, “Bye Mom!” This is our ritual to begin each new day, to meet that day’s challenges, emotions, promises, and hopes.

In June this year, he will age out from the district program. I cannot help being emotional whenever I think about his first day of preschool and the journey that Eugene and our family have been on since then. On that day, I cried in the car for two hours after separating from my miserable, crying child.

Since that first day, school has been a challenging place for both Eugene and me. While Eugene was learning the alphabet and phonics, I studied the never-ending list of special education acronyms.

Just like other special education moms in this world, when my child cried about his school work, I wept on my steering wheel, but when he was happy in school, I felt like I had the world on a string. At times, figuring out how to navigate the world of special education for our son with autism while struggling with his atypical behaviors seemed like a brutal mission for a family like us, and we often felt we were not understood, not just because of our heavy Korean accents

However, our fundamental concern has not changed in these 20 years, and that is to help our son reach the final destination for his journey—Eugene being able to live an independent and inclusive life in the community. Of course, this is the same concern shared by thousands of moms and dads who have children with disabilities.

Young and Eugene Bae

Young and Eugene Bae

As a family we have had to adjust the sails of our ship quite a lot to reach this destination. We had to get past phrases like “below average range” or “socially maladjusted” since they were not helpful in steering the path for our son. As a family, we now see more clearly the incredible strengths and positive qualities of a young man who is able to say proudly “I am a person with autism.” We have learned that it is more helpful for us to make sure that Eugene is in the center of all service plans than putting systems first and having him fit around these systems.

Because of putting Eugene at the center, we have become more efficient in figuring out how to change the world around us and finding the resources we and Eugene need to reach our goal. As Eugene grew, our family grew too and our minds opened up to the new experiences that our son brought us.

I am not completely positive about Eugene’s future in the community. I see and feel the gaps between how my family and how society see the possibility of Eugene becoming a “successful” member of the community, and how we define success.

Many people still have a difficult time moving away from the stereotype that measures people with autism and other developmental disabilities as a social cost. However, I also believe that our society is moving in a better direction, becoming more able to envision a person with a disability as a valuable asset.

We have witnessed the notably increased capacity of our schools and workplaces to accommodate individuals with disabilities since the first form of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act became law in 1975. These accomplishments were not possible without the sacrifices and efforts of so many parents, educators, and leaders of this country. Today, their legacy continues through the next generation of families, educators, and leaders, and it only expands as we as a family sail toward the final destination of our journey.

The next three months will be an interesting time for our family. Frankly, it makes me nervous thinking that Eugene will no longer be in the classroom. There will be no more IEP meetings to attend and no school buses to pick him up.

Eugene and our family know that this is a start of the next stage of journey. However, this time, Eugene will be the captain of the ship, steering us toward that goal of independence and community inclusion. This time, I am not crying; I will take a deep breath to prepare myself for another thrilling sea of possibilities and opportunities.


Young Seh Bae, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Community Inclusion & Development Alliance (CIDA) a federally funded Community Parent Resource Center in Queens, New York. She was a faculty member of Teachers College, Columbia University, and served as president of Korean-American Behavioral Health Association.


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.

Project ASD: Special Educator Preparation in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Supporting Children and Youth with Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month, and a perfect time to highlight the OSEP-funded Project Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Since 2004, this innovative personnel preparation project has been addressing the critical need for special educators prepared to serve the increasing numbers of children identified with ASD. A nationwide listing of teacher shortage areas revealed 48 states reporting shortages of special education teachers for the 2016–17 school year, with many states identifying the specific need for special educators prepared to serve students with autism.

What is Project ASD?

Two federal personnel development projects currently support Project ASD at UCF, projects ASD IV, funded 2014–18, and ASD V, funded 2016–20.They represent the culmination of over a decade of research focused on teacher preparation in ASD. Project ASD’s graduate program addresses persistent gaps in services, including the need to (a) increase the number of highly effective special educators serving students with ASD, and (b) prepare special educators with specialized knowledge and competencies for working with students with ASD. Project ASD addresses identified gaps by implementing three primary goals:

  1. Recruit high-quality graduate-level scholars including traditionally underrepresented groups with potential to become highly effective special educators for students with ASD.
  2. Prepare scholars in an evidence-based special education program that includes field experiences in urban, high-poverty settings, and leads to state certification in Exceptional Student Education (ESE) and endorsement in ASD.
  3. Retain scholars through completion of the program and induction into the profession through ongoing advisement, financial and academic support, and mentorship.

Master’s Degree and Certification in ESE and ASD

Project ASD has supported over 300 scholars in earning a master’s degree and full certification in ESE, and State Endorsement in Autism. The success of the project can be attributed to ongoing collaboration between university faculty, school district personnel, agencies, and families. Project ASD employs a multi-faceted recruitment model targeting exceptional scholars dedicated to the field of special education, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups. Scholars receive support to complete a graduate program of study, which prepares them to implement evidence-based practices for students with ASD to increase student achievement across domains including academic, communication, social-emotional, independent functioning, and vocational. Project ASD also hosts a Mentor Demonstration Classroom program that features project graduates who understand the challenges of the master’s program, and the unique needs of beginning special educators in classrooms for students with ASD. These exemplary teachers provide video demonstrations, serve as guest speakers, and open their classrooms to provide Project ASD scholars with opportunities to integrate coursework and field experience.

In addition to its close work with scholars at UCF, Project ASD disseminates information related to teacher preparation in ASD through publications as well as numerous presentations at state and national conferences. Teacher Education and Special Education recently published an article featuring Project ASD’s Quality Indicators for Classrooms Serving Students With ASD instrument. For further information, visit the Project ASD website, or contact the project directors at projectasd@ucf.edu


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.

Eleazar Vasquez III, Director and Associate Professor for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute
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Director and Associate Professor for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute
Cynthia Pearl
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Faculty Administrator in the Exceptional Education Program
Matthew T. Marino, Professor in the Exceptional Education Program
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Professor in the Exceptional Education Program

New at the IRIS Center

IRIS Center logo (an Iris, of course!)

The IRIS Center is a national center dedicated to improving education outcomes for all children, especially those with disabilities birth through age twenty-one, through the use of effective evidence-based practices and interventions. It has recently released two new resources.


Updated IRIS Module: High-Quality Mathematics Instruction: What Teachers Should Know

High-Quality Mathematics InstructionThe newly revised and expanded the High-Quality Mathematics Instruction: What Teachers Should Know Module from the IRIS Center describes the components of high-quality mathematics instruction, including a standards-based curriculum and evidence-based practices. It also highlights a number of evidence-based practices—for example, explicit, systematic instruction; metacognitive strategies; visual representations; and schema instruction—as well as other classroom practices that teachers can use to teach mathematics.

View the Module!


New Resource: IRIS Micro-credentials

IRIS Micro-credentials badge block

Recognized by a growing number of state and district professional development systems for recertification and continuing education credits, micro-credentials allow teachers to master discrete skills at their own pace and in their own classrooms. Every micro-credential earned comes with a digital badge that can be posted on professional social network sites. The IRIS Center now offers micro-credentials in partnership with Digital Promise.

Learn More!


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.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian is a program manager and behavior support specialist for the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE) in California. She has created and helped establish innovative programs that focus on developmental screenings and social skills and behavioral intervention. These programs include Caring Kids, which provides training and support for parents, teachers, child care providers, and social workers. Adrian is an Act Early Ambassador to California for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign. In this role, she helps promote ongoing developmental monitoring; helping children with delays get connected to needed early intervention services in a timely manner.


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

Monica: Right out of high school I got a job working in a U.S. Department of Defense child care center at the U.S. Air Force base that was in my town at the time. I immediately loved it and knew I wanted a career working with young children. I worked at the child care center while I started college, first earning an associate’s degree in psychology, and then a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on child studies. After college, I worked for five years with children with autism and their families in their homes; at the same time earning my teaching credentials in special education. When my son was born, I had planned to take a few years and stay home with him. However, when he was three months old, I received a call asking if I was interested in working for Caring Kids, a program that works with families to help their young children from birth to age five develop socially and emotionally. I realized that I missed the work of helping young children to build social skills and reduce their challenging behavior. I took the job and have continued to work with various programs that similarly focus on helping all children reach their potential. I also believe that as a professional I have the responsibility to continue to grow and learn. A year ago, I decided to go back and get a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on early childhood and I’m almost done!!

ED: What is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign, and can you describe your role as the Act Early Ambassador to California?

Monica: Learn the Signs. Act Early. is a public awareness campaign that aims to educate families and caregivers about young children’s development and developmental milestones with the ultimate goal of improving caregivers’ support of early development and increasing the early identification of developmental delays and disabilities. Currently, the campaign has 45 Act Early Ambassadors across the country (California has two). Being an ambassador is a two-year commitment. Our role as ambassadors is to promote ongoing developmental monitoring in our state, and to help make sure young children exhibiting developmental delays are connected to early intervention or early childhood special education services as early as possible. We know that many kids with developmental delays or disabilities are often not identified until they go to school at age five, but this is inconsistent with what we know about brain science and the importance of intervening early. We’ve worked hard with different groups of professionals (doctors, social workers, child care providers, and others) to encourage them to move away from the “wait and see” approach, sharing with them the importance of identifying concerns early. This allows for children and families to be connected with appropriate services and interventions. So many different professionals and family members see and spend time with young children regularly and we want everyone to know what typical development looks like. We want to help families promote optimal development and also be able to identify when there should be concerns with development. Learn the Signs. Act Early. has developed evidenced-based and easy-to-use tools and resources for families and professionals which are free and easy to order. Some of my favorite resources are the Watch Me modules developed for child care providers. These modules train providers on why monitoring children’s development is important; what their role in developmental monitoring is; easy ways to monitor a child’s development; and how to talk with families about their children’s development. Child care providers can access the modules for free in English and Spanish and in using them, can even earn continuing education units (CEUs) or professional growth hours. We are working with the California Department of Education so early educators can also access the Watch Me! modules on California Early Childhood Online.

ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and development?

Monica: Merced County is in the central valley of California, right in the middle of the state. This is a region of high needs with minimal resources or services. Through our county office of education’s Early Education Department, we administer several programs that help to ensure quality early care and education services for our community. Our programs focus on promoting optimal development for all young children since we know the impact early experiences have on later academic, health, mental health, and employment outcomes. Most of our programs focus on young children at risk for developmental delays and negative outcomes later in school. We work to help families provide safe, stable, and nurturing environments. Many of the families we encounter live in poverty or are dealing with multiple stressors; this work is hard since we usually can’t remove the stressors. Our goal is to help parents build resiliency and provide a buffer from stressors for their children in spite of the adversity they experience. Given many of the children we work with live in families with pervasive—or, wide-ranging—needs, our approach is multi-generational. Our philosophy is that parents are their children’s first teachers, but parents also need support to fulfil this role. We want to implement a process that supports families in being fully present with their children.

I supervise two programs. First is the Caring Kids program I mentioned earlier. Through this program, we provide home visiting services to young children displaying challenging behavior or delays in social skills, and facilitate weekly social-skills-building playgroups and parenting workshops around the county. The second, our Early Connections program, is a collaboration between our county office of education and our county human services agency. This program conducts developmental screenings with children from birth to age five who have had substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect, and then connects the identified kids to any needed follow-up services. In order to act on the federal mandate that requires all of these children to be screened, our county tasked the Merced County Office of Education’s child development staff, who had the most relevant expertise, to conduct the screenings. They work closely with social workers from the human services agency, a collaboration which has been critical for many of the children with the greatest needs in our county.

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

Monica: One of the challenges is that, as we push to identify more children with developmental delays and disabilities earlier, we need to ensure that the services and service providers who understand how to work with them are available. We really have to look at current systems and policies; identify early learning and intervention champions across disciplines; and empower them to communicate to decision makers the importance of increased funding for mental health and early intervention services, and for programs that are multi-generational. Given the research base, we should be able to make the case to decision makers that investing in these early programs will have long-term financial and social benefits. We really need to think about where we as a community invest our funds. When thinking about how we can better prepare children to enter school on a level playing field, the answer is more than just preschool. We need to look across different systems. As I mentioned before, one useful strategy is to identify champions, like a local school superintendent or principal who understands the importance of early experiences. Individuals in the medical field can also be really helpful advocates. I’m really excited that doctors recently coming out of medical school seem to have a strong understanding of the importance of developmental screenings—we should capitalize on their expertise and the fact that their perspective is one that is likely to influence policy makers.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in promoting developmental screenings?

Monica: Engaging a wide range of stakeholders is really important. Start by having conversations about the importance of developmental screening and how professionals and families can play a role in this. Build a collaborative team of people that represent different agencies and disciplines, be sure to include families, and create and continue to follow an action plan. Consider important questions with this group: What is the vision for children’s future in your community? How does developmental screening fit within this vision? Try not to recreate the wheel; utilize the various resources that are already out there. In addition to resources from Learn the Signs. Act Early., there are great tools available via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Birth to Five, Watch Me Thrive website. Many states also have a Help Me Grow initiative, which typically focuses on providing resources to best promote developmental screening and monitoring. You can also contact the Learn the Signs. Act Early. ambassador in your state or territory for support.


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.

Monica Adrian
Posted by
Program Manager and Behavior Support Specialist, Merced County Office of Education (MCOE), California

“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
Posted by
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.