Austin & Lily is a boutique educational company dedicated to inspiring, motivating, and informing educators working with students with intellectual disabilities.
An Open Letter From Our CEO
My youngest daughter was born with Down syndrome in 2001. I was in shock and didn’t know what to think. What I did know, was that I already loved her very much, but I my heart was broken. I worried about what would be in store for her given her disability.
I was an ESL teacher at a middle school when Lily was born. I really love the topic of education and kept taking classes to learn more and more about at-risk learners. As a result, I slowly added endorsements to my teaching certificate. I also became the president of Down Syndrome Network of Arizona and was on a mission to learn all that I could about educating people with an intellectual disability. I went to conferences all over the country and brought speakers to Arizona to educate teachers and parents.
When Lily was about 3 years old, the opportunity to teach self-contained special education at an inner city high school presented itself, and I jumped at the opportunity. I had 14 students with intellectual disabilities and two aides. We were housed in a portable. The walls were dingy, the furniture was old, and there were no materials. My desk was completely empty, and the air conditioning was too cold. I really wondered what I had gotten into.
I started asking around about where the curriculum was. I kept getting sent to different people who were supposed to help me get materials. Each time I inquired about materials or curriculum, I was sent to someone else or back to someone I had already spoken with. Toward the end of the first week of school I was in the cafeteria with my students and I started chatting with the lunchroom manager and told him about my predicament. As luck would have it, he had the answer.
He had a cart that could be used to sell pizza and Gatorade that no one wanted to use. He said I could use it. All I had to do was create a club so that we could make money. In record time, I had the paperwork filled out to establish a club. I hand- walked the papers to gather signatures and awaited approval. Before I knew it, I was in charge of a new club.
Austin & Lily’s mission is to educate, support, and provide high-quality and engaging curriculum that meets the needs of students with intellectual disabilities by providing educators with the tools needed to create a world where people with intellectual disabilities develop to their potential.
Things were looking up. We painted the classroom a beautiful green color and adorned it with art work. I didn’t completely have a handle on how I was going to organize their day yet. What I did have, however, was a lot of time to interact with them, which proved to be priceless. We would sit around a big table and talk about all sorts of things. This helped me get a feel for what they knew and didn’t know. As I got to know them, I would get ideas about what to try based on my interactions with them.
It didn’t take long before we had plenty of money rolling in from our lunch cart business, and our talking time turned into business meetings. I gave each student a calendar to track our activities and important dates. I had no idea how much they would enjoy having a real calendar. We also kept track of how much money we had, and made plans and decisions based on our finances. During these meetings, through trial and error, I learned how to communicate ideas clearly so that my students were engaged and understood.
Here is an example that illustrates how I worked with the class:
“Find February. It is a month on in your calendar. February 14th is Valentine’s Day! Point to 14. That is the day we celebrate Valentine’s Day. I love Valentine’s Day. Who here loves Valentine’s Day? Me too! It is the 14th. Last Valentine’s Day, I got a Valentine’s Day card. It was red and had a heart on it. Oh…I loved it!!! It was from my kids. My kids signed the card. They wrote, ‘we love you, mom’. I loved that card. Have any of you gotten a card? Who was it from? Raise your hand if you have ever gotten candy with a card. I love the heart candies. Raise your hand if you like those heart candies. What is your favorite Valentine’s Day candy? What month is Valentine’s Day? Valentine’s Day is a day we give cards to people. It’s a special day for people who are in love. Valentine’s Day is Feb. 14th. That is next Tuesday. We have money. What should we do for Valentine’s Day?”
My students had great suggestions, and I facilitated the processing of their ideas. We talked about Valentine’s Day being sad for some people if they didn’t get a card. We talked about who we wanted to give cards to. One of my students suggested that we buy everyone in the whole school a Valentine. We voted on it and it was unanimous. Everyone in my class wanted to do that.
One of my students got out a van request form and I filled out the form with the class. I used the meta cognitive strategy of sharing my thinking out loud to model problem solving as we filled out the form together. “This form is asking where we want to go. Class…where do we want to go? I know we need candy, so we need to think of a place that would sell candy. We want Valentine’s Day candy. Which stores have Valentine’s Day candy?” We wrote down Walgreen’s and then submitted our van request. My students knew how everything worked. We had to fill out a form and wait for an answer. The next morning I was able to tell them at our morning meeting that I had heard back from Mr. X. and that I had very, very, very good news. The students waited with bated breath. “YES!! We can use the van to go to the store to get Valentine’s Day candy!” We then needed to go to the campus bookstore to withdraw money to go to get candy. That involved another form. Students took turns going to the campus bookstore to withdrawal money.
We then went to the store and bought bags and bags of chocolate candy. We spent an hour looking at the prices and figuring out which candies we thought the students at our school would like. We also bought things to decorate the table we were going to set up. We practiced things that we could say to the students on Valentine’s Day, such as “Happy Valentine’s Day” or “You’re welcome” or “Would you like a chocolate?” On Valentine’s Day we set up a table outside in the school courtyard with a giant poster that was signed by everyone in my class that read “Happy Valentine’s Day. We love you”. Students lined up to be given a piece of candy by my students. Everyone loved it! (As a sidenote, this sort of activity drew a lot of general education students to my class, which my students LOVED.)
I learned a lot from running our morning meetings. My students experienced self-determination. They collectively came up with an idea and acted on it. This concept continued to develop during instruction as they came up with more and more ideas that they were able to do something about. They were transformed. At the same time, I developed deeper and deeper insight as to what motivated my students and the strategies that helped with comprehension. I then explored the nuances of my instructional approaches and what tended to be engaging and what did not.
What I knew, was that my students liked having a class discussion focused on a topic. They liked answering questions, sharing experiences, and coming up with ideas. They liked assignments. They wanted what I have come to call “the real student experience” where they are given material they were to be held responsible for, engaging activities to study that material, and an assessment. I also realized that students did not need to know how to read to learn and that dividing students by reading level didn’t work. I started to put together academic units and through trial and error figured out what worked. I created assignments that met the IEP needs of the students that were on the topic of our current lesson. The students loved it and learned a lot.
All along the way, I discussed all of this with my friend, Stephanie, who was also a special education teacher and the mother of a son with Down syndrome.
Putting units together was a lot of work, and so I thought it would be nice to be able to buy something similar. To my great surprise, it did not exist. I purchased games and other materials that were meant for people with intellectual disabilities. Some things were ok, but they weren’t really curriculum. They were isolated worksheets, etc. I also bought materials that were intended for younger students, and that didn’t work. Nothing was designed quite right or worked as well as I hoped. They were missing key factors that I had identified as working. I realized that the materials I was wanting did not exist, and that Stephanie and I would need to be the ones to develop them.
I decided to study the topic of educating students with an intellectual disability more carefully, so I quit teaching and went back to school to get my doctorate in Education Leadership with a focus on students with intellectual disabilities. I found that the research supported the way I had been working with my students. I also learned a lot of new information and gained new insight. I would share what I was learning with Stephanie and we would see how new information applied to teaching.
By getting to know large numbers of students with intellectual disabilities, I was able to see how excited they got about learning and how eager they were to help others. My friend Stephanie and I have worked on this curriculum for quite a while (years-lol). We would get a new and better idea and we would go back and redo the previous units. My business adviser told me that we were nuts and that we should get the materials out there and then improve them as we go along. I just wasn’t feeling it. I wanted to wait until I felt I had a better handle on how I wanted everything to be. We will always be improving things, but I did not want to knowingly put out rough drafts. Finally, in August of 2017 we felt we were finally ready.
I hope you enjoy our materials!
With Gratitude, Janet
Janet holds a doctorate in education leadership focused on intellectual disabilities. Her passion has been understanding and meeting the needs of at-risk learners. She is certified in Arizona in the areas of social studies, reading, middle school, English as a Second Language, and cross-categorical special education. Janet has over 20 years of experience teaching at the middle school, high school, and university levels.
Stephanie holds an M.A. in Education and is endorsed in cross-categorical special education. She has completed course work in reading and English as a Second Language. She is a master teacher focused on students with intellectual disabilities. She has taught in both inclusive classrooms and self-contained programs. She has over 20 years of experience teaching at both the K-12 and university levels.
James L. Giel
James has a B.S. in Business Management. He wears many hats including helping our team figure out technical issues, create e-books, research and trouble-shoot problems, and help out where needed.
Jana Barrett, MS, CCC-SLP
Speech & Language Pathologist
Jana earned a bachelor’s of science in speech, language, and hearing sciences with a minor in linguistics from the University of Arizona . She then earned a master’s in speech and language pathology from the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Jana is very skilled at working with students with intellectual disabilities and developing their speech and language.
Steve has over 18 years experience in designing software solutions for Fortune 500 companies, SMEs and startups. He has co-founded three design studios. He holds a BS in Psychology and an MA in International Economics. His extensive background in all aspects of business have been invaluable to the development of Austin & Lily.
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