Monday, July 27, 2015

An exclusive interview with Professor Julie Esparza Brown

A few weeks ago, we wrote here about a grant that Professor Julie Esparza Brown won from the US Department of Education.  Last week we sat down with the lovely Professor Brown herself for an exclusive interview about the grant, the program it helps fund for special educators, and how PSU is in a unique situation nationally in the special education field.  We hope you enjoy!

Image courtesy Kkmd/Wikimedia Commons

Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp Question: Let's start with the basics.  Will you please tell us about the grant you recently won from the U.S. Department of Education?
Julie Esparza Brown Answer: Sure.  Okay, the grant that we got is a five-year 1.25 million dollar grant from the Office of Special Education in Washington DC.  And it is to train students who are from underrepresented groups to be special educators, to work with children with significant disabilities such as on the autism spectrum, or children with intellectual disabilities or severe behavior disorders.  So we will train seven students a year for a total of 35 by the end of the grant. 

Q: What led you to pursue this grant?

A: So this is, gosh, I've written several grants that we've received over the time I've been here, about 17 years.  Probably 5 federal grants.  So we know that to train diverse teachers…generally they need financial assistance.  So in order to diversify our special education field, I'm always looking for funding opportunities to be able to help with their tuition expenses.  So this was another great opportunity.  We had a grant through a different federal office that ended two years ago, it was also a five-year grant to train bilingual special educators, so this is another similar one so that we can get people in the field that we really need to be able to meet the needs of our ever-changing population. 

Q: Why should a student consider enrolling in the program at PSU?
A: Well, because first of all it pays almost their entire tuition for getting a special ed licensure.  And again if they are interested in becoming a teacher, a certificated teacher, and their passion is working with children with disabilities, this is a great opportunity.  So we just admitted our first cohort and have a great cadre of seven students who are very passionate about the work.  Six of them are bilingual Spanish-speakers, so it's a great opportunity for them.  And they're really needed in our schools.

Q: Will a person need to already be bilingual in order to enroll in the program?
A: You do not!  But we are looking for people that have experiences across different cultural groups.  So for example, one of our new students is not bilingual, but she's had a lot of experience working in Alaska with Alaskan Native children, so for example she brings a really deep understanding of cultural differences.  So not necessarily bilingual-bicultural, but certainly experience in working across cultures and a passion for that.

Q: How do you think this grant will affect PSU and our role in nationwide special education?
A: Well, there was a article written about us, oh, maybe five years ago or so, that identified us as one of twelve programs in the nation that trained bilingual special-educators.  So, you know, there just aren't very many programs able to do the work that we're doing here, so we're just in a unique situation.  Prior to being at PSU, I was a public school educator, and I was a special ed teacher.  And then I changed school districts and was a bilingual kindergarten teacher for many years, and then went back into special ed and created a bilingual special ed classroom, so was actually able to do special ed and serve children in their native language.  And then I went back to school and added a school psychology credential, so worked as a school psychologist.  So I am firmly grounded in three fields, so it's a pretty unusual background, that I'm able to really understand how we combine the knowledge base from all the fields, to train people here or to create programs that will really help address the needs of the kids that struggle the most in our schools.  So, we're in a unique situation nationally.

Q: What do you envision PSU's role in special education will be like ten years from now?

A: Well, I'm hoping that we will be known for this kind of work, and that our programs will grow, will continue to find outside sources of funding to support diverse learners that otherwise probably wouldn't be able to afford to come back to school.  And that we'll make an impact on doing research on how we best work across language groups, so I'm just hoping that this grows and expands. 

Q: Finally, is there anything else you'd like us to know about this grant or Portland State's special education program?
A: I guess that just, it's another exciting opportunity because the students that I've worked with in the last grant and all the grants that I've worked with are so passionate.  The exciting thing with the grants that I have been involved with in the last 17 years…we've seen students that have begun as teachers, that are now rising to be top-level administrators.  So it's really neat to see kind of our family of alumni that are making a huge difference state-wide and taking those diverse experience and helping everybody to understand more about unique needs of kids across culture and language groups.  So it's very exciting work.

Our sincerest thanks to Professor Julie Esparza Brown.  We hope that some of you are interested in taking advantage of this program, and that all of you found this interview helpful.  If you apply, let us know how it goes!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The British Paraorchestra: Orchestral pioneers

On July 2nd and 3rd, 2015, the Fast Forward music festival took place in Bristol, England.  Headlining the festival was the British Paraorchestra, a group of virtuoso musicians who are no strangers to performing for large audiences—in 2012, they played with popular band Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games.  But there is something special about these musicians: all have different (some even say "extraordinary") abilities. 

The British Paraorchestra is the first large-scale ensemble composed entirely of musicians who have different abilities.  Founded in 2012 by British conductor Charles Hazlewood and television director Claire Whalley, it was created in response to the profound scarcity of musicians with different abilities Hazlewood had noticed in the orchestras with which he worked.  A veteran in the field of music (he won the European Broadcasting Union’s conducting prize in his twenties), Hazlewood first observed the lacking after his daughter Eliza was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  In twenty years of working with orchestras, he said, he realized that he remembered seeing only three musicians with different abilities.  Once he truly registered this, he started actively looking for such musicians, and those he found became the first members of the British Paraorchestra.

Today musicians in the orchestra represent a wide variety of musical talent, with instruments ranging from the ancient to the electronic.  Orchestra member Ziad Sinno represents the ancient—in addition to the violin, he also plays the oud, a Middle-Eastern string instrument.  As a blind musician, he's had trouble finding work in orchestras because he cannot read music in the traditional way; instead he listens to a piece, sometimes on a computer, and learns to play it by ear.  His fellow performer Lyn Levett represents the electronic end of the orchestra's spectrum—she uses an iPad to create her music.  Levett has cerebral palsy, and she pre-programs sound loops on the tablet computer that she can later trigger by using her nose.

Although they have different circumstances than many performers, the most important thing to the British Paraorchestra is still the quality of their musicianship.  As Hazlewood explains, one performer he talked with after a rehearsal didn't know what kinds of different abilities the rest of the performers had, and was not really interested in knowing.  To this group, the music is what matters.

You can learn more about the British Paraorchestra on their website, in the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Bristol Post, the Western Gazette, and in The Fix magazine.  A TEDx talk given by Hazlewood and featuring the orchestra is also available on and on YouTube.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Sesame Phone: An accessible touch-free smart phone

It's a novel idea: a touchscreen smartphone, able to be used without touch.  And yet for millions of people living with paralysis (as many as 6 million in America alone, according to estimates), that is the only way to use a smartphone.  Oded Ben Dov, co-founder of the Sesame Phone's parent company Sesame Enable, started work on the touch-free phone after he received a call from Giora Livne, who had been quadriplegic for seven years.

Livne, a former Israeli navy commander and electrical power engineer, had seen Oded Ben Dov on television demonstrating a mobile video game that users could play by using head gestures.  The two did not know each other, but Livne decided to track down Oded Ben Dov anyway and ask him to create the touch-free smartphone.  Together the two took on the challenge and founded Sesame Enable, and with the help of an Indigogo campaign, they were able to make Livne's idea into a reality.

The Sesame Phone is actually a Google Nexus 5, with Sesame software installed on it that can enable users to navigate the phone's native Android platform.  The software is activated when a user says "Open Sesame," and can be deactivated when a user says "Close Sesame."  It works by using the phone's front-facing camera to track a person's head gestures.

For people who cannot usually use a smart phone without assistance, it can be hard to perform everyday tasks like making a call or sending a text with any sort of privacy.  With the Sesame Phone, Livne notes that he can finally call his wife without having listeners around.  And because of the many capabilities that modern smartphones have, he can also use it to control things within his home such as lights, television, and air conditioning.

According to Sesame Enable's website, the phone is made for people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, ALS, and more.  In 2014, Sesame Enable won a Verizon Powerful Answers award—an award which came with one million dollars.  After the win, the company announced on their Indigogo page that they had decided to donate all funds raised through the page to devices that will go to people in need.

You can find out more about the Sesame Phone and Sesame Enable on their website, or on Forbes, Today, Wired, Business Insider, Engaget, and other places as listed on their website.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Portland State University awarded special education grant

Portland State University's own Professor Julie Esparza Brown recently secured a grant to prepare bilingual teachers for helping students with different abilities, The Oregonian reported on June 19th.  The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.

While it can be hard for some people with autism and other different mental abilities to learn, the struggle is often even harder for those who have to learn in a language that is not their first.  Concepts that can be difficult to grasp in the first place become especially challenging when they are presented in a language that is foreign to the student, but that is the scenario many students in Oregon have to deal with if they have different mental abilities and limited English skills.  The grant will go toward funding of a master's degree program that will prepare bilingual teachers to assist such students.

The program will train future-teachers for one year full-time or two years part-time.  It will be co-directed by Julie Esparza Brown, an associate professor in PSU's Department of Special Education, and Sheldon Loman, an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education.  Teachers who come from the program will not only be able to help their own students succeed, they will also be able to help other special education teachers with their students when bilingual skills are needed.

Read the full story over at The Oregonian/OregonLive (and on PSU's news page here).

Monday, June 29, 2015

A video and a new address

Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp recently shared this video from last year on their Facebook, which got us here at the Capstone office thinking that it's a great time to share it again as well.  Some of you who are enrolled this year may have already seen it, but we hope you will again enjoy and be inspired by the uplifting spirits of the counselors, staff, and campers in the video.

Before we get to our feature presentation, however, we would like to attend to a housekeeping matter.  PSU's Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp Capstone office has moved—we are NOT located across from Smith (SMSU) anymore.  Our new address is as follows:

Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp
Portland State University
School of Education
1900 SW 4th Ave  Suite 290-2

One way to reach the office is to enter from the entrance on Harrison Street, and then to take the elevator or stairs up to the second floor and navigate to Suite 290-2.  Here's a link to a Google Street View of the Harrison Street entrance.

And now, back to our video.  We hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Welcome to Camp!!!

Happy Wednesday, everyone!  For many of you enrolled in 2015's Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp Capstone, this is your first week at camp.  Others will be starting in two weeks for the second session, and still more will be coming for the third and fourth sessions (beginning July 18th and August 1st, respectively).  To celebrate the start of this summer at camp, we'd like to share some Letters to Future Counselors written by previous counselors.  For those of you who are already enrolled, these letters are available to read in their original hand-written formats on the capstone website.  For those of you who are not yet enrolled (or who are reading this some years in the future), we hope this will give you more of an idea of the wonderful things that can happen every year at camp.  Enjoy!

These letters were written by counselors at the end of their camp session, on forms titled Advice to Future Counselors that had the following instructions: "Think back to your first day and what was going through your head.  Then think about your experience at camp.  What advice/insights would you give to a new counselor?  (This will be given to a counselor next year.)"

And so, without further ado, here is our first letter (with names redacted for privacy reasons):

    When I was in your position I was utterly terrified.  It was my first time working with people with disabilities.  I was anxious about personal care, communication, and most importantly that I might not connect with my camper.  Now I see things in a totally different light.  Both my camper
[sic] were very different from each other.  I learned to communicate with both and created deep connections with them.  Kiwanis camp truly is a magical place.  My CS, ACS, and fellow councelors [sic] felt like family by the first Monday.  With so many unique people with different abilities the camp creates a place accepting of everyone.  It will seem like a dream world after a while; two weeks free from the sprawl of the city.  I never thought I could care for someone as deeply as I cared for my camper.  And I never thought I could trust people as quickly as I trusted my fellow councelors [sic].  Kiwanis Camp is a place that allows a reconnection to humanity.  We are immersed in the forest, surrounded by animals and mother nature, and the result is embracing every individual member of the camp for what they are: a person.  Even though you may be extremely nervous now, embrace the next two weeks.  Because there is a possibility when that second friday comes you might not want to leave at all.

And now, our second letter:

Bring candy!  Whatever you think you know about working with persons with disabilities, you're about to learn a lot more.  I came in with some experience, but found myself challenged the same as those around me with no experience.  Also, learn to trust your group.  I promise you that by the end of your two weeks you will see all of them totally different then [sic] the day you meet them.  This will change you in the best ways possible.  These campers are a total joy to be around and this place is truly magical.  It's hard work but it's some of the most fun I've ever had.

We hope you enjoyed these letters, and let us know in the comments if you'd like to see more.  And if you've had experiences at Camp that you'd like to share, please tell us about them!  In the comments here, or on Facebook.

Happy summer, everyone!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Teen carries brother with cerebral palsy for fifty-seven miles to raise awareness

Hunter Gandee, a 15-year-old high school freshman from Michigan, completed a fifty-seven mile walk on Sunday with his little brother riding on his back.  8-year-old Braden Gandee has cerebral palsy, a disease that has made him unable to walk without assistance, and Hunter carried him the whole way as part of a mission to raise awareness about the condition.  The event, dubbed the "Cerebral Palsy Swagger," began at Braden's school in Lambertville, Michigan, and ended at the University of Michigan Pediatric Rehabilitation Center in Ann Arbor.

It's not the first time Hunter Gandee has carried his brother on a long trek.  A year ago, the then-14-year-old carried Braden on a forty-mile walk, this one from the Gandees's hometown of Temperance, Michigan to Ann Arbor.  That hike lasted two days.  While the family states that this second trip is not a fundraiser, Gandee did set up a GoFundMe campaign after people last year expressed a desire to donate.  The proceeds will go toward the construction of an accessible playground at Braden's school.

During the fifty-seven mile hike, the elder Gandee alternated between the use of three different harnesses to help him bear the weight of his sixty-pound brother.  Rest stops were set up every three miles, and physical therapists would attend to both Gandees and help stretch out their muscles.  Hunter also carries Braden in everyday life, in places where he believes it is more convenient than Braden's walker, but not usually in walks of such magnitude.

Friends and family accompanied the brothers on their long journey.  On the second day, Hunter says he collapsed from exhaustion, but his friends picked him up and he was able to continue on to the third day.  Police and fire departments also escorted the teen, and spectators lined his route to yell out encouragement.  At last, on June 7th, 2015, the two Gandees crossed the finish line and broke the ceremonial tape.

Hunter gives credit for the idea of the Cerebral Palsy Swagger to his mother, noting that she had a dream in March 2014 about him carrying Braden to raise awareness, and that three months later that's exactly what he did.  Though both the 2014 and the 2015 walks were exhausting, Hunter says that he believes it is up to his generation to bring about change and to make the world a more accessible place.

You can read more about Hunter and Braden Gandee on ABC News, CNN, Fox News and affiliate Fox8, and on the Cerebral Palsy Swagger Facebook and Instagram.