Chris Walsh Center
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A center at Framingham State University dedicated to helping families and educators of children with unmet needs.
Executive Producer Jan Blancher provides background on "Autism Goes to College" film
In this piece, Executive Producer Jan Blancher provides background on the film “Autism Goes to College.” The Chris Walsh Center will be hosting a screening of the film followed by a Q&A with Blancher on April 4 from 7 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. This event will be held both in person and via Zoom. Register now!
Blancher’s visit holds a personal connection for her as her mother was an FSU alumna - a student athlete who went on to become a fourth grade teacher.
What inspired you to get into this line of work, specifically in the field of Autism research?
When I was an undergraduate, I was interested in kids who developed off the beaten track - if you will. And of course, that's when I was introduced to Autism. That said, I trained in that as a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and immediately left graduate school studying families who had children with very severe disabilities. Now, back then that would have been the ’80s. It was not in vogue to really talk about disability, right? We didn't like to label back then, so we might have said severe or moderate or profound disabilities. But as the field of Autism began to become popular, I went back and looked at my datasets and realized that from a third to a half of my families had had Autistic children. That started me on my way to look more carefully. I have been funded by the National Institutes of Health for most of my 40 years as a researcher, so I've been very fortunate to have that kind of funding and with it, I studied families of children with Autism. Fast forward to the present, I have two family members who are on the spectrum and that was unexpected and came later in life. So I guess that really underscores the 1-in-44 prevalence of Autism.
How did you become involved with the film?
We started a series of studies at SEARCH Center, the Family Autism Resource Center at UC Riverside, on undergraduates with Autism, and with faculty who had them in their classes. We noticed that a lot of faculty were showing up at our events and asking questions, and so we launched a series of studies we call, “Autism 101.” We wanted to learn what the campus at large knew about Autism. We interviewed faculty about their definition, their views of Autism, whether they thought they had Autistic students in their classes - and by the way it was not uncommon for them to say, “Oh, no. There would never be any kids with autism at UCR.” But of course, we already knew the students in their classes. We were aware that this was somewhat of an invisible disability at the college level. It was really, really interesting, so I called the filmmaker, who happens to be a well-known documentary maker and a friend of mine. I told him [Erik Linthorst] we have some really interesting faculty and students stories to tell, and asked if he would come out and make a YouTube for us just to advertise our setup. He volunteered to do so, and came out for that purpose and after filming for about 15 minutes, he stopped everything and said, “You know what? I'm not going to film a YouTube video for you.” He said, “This stuff is too good. We need to raise money and produce a voice documentary.” And that's how it all started. We continued filming, raised the money, and the rest is history. We are raising funds now for a follow up that really focuses on Autism at work. Because even with a college degree, it's very difficult for many individuals to get and keep a job, and so that's really the next level of filmmaking that we'd like to do - both follow up the stars of our film, but also involve individuals from all over the country, and even more widely representative of diversity.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, aside from the fact that it was a labor of love, I think it's important to add that the Autistic students themselves, as we got into the filming process, became more and more not just subjects of the film, but part of the filmmaking process. We embraced and welcomed their input as partners in the film, not as subjects in the film. To that point, I would like readers or audience members to know about the online resource center that grew out of the film, www.autismgoestocollege.org. On that, you can see the over 20 podcasts that have been made with young adults on the spectrum - all different types of manifestations of Autism - even one made with the valedictorian from UC Berkeley, who's nonverbal. That was interesting with a translator. And so we've moved toward even making those podcasts under the guidance and direction of Autistic individuals themselves. So the new podcast host, for example, has Autism. And so I think that's the other thing I just wanted to make clear, that we have been conscious and encouraging of having our Autistic partners become directors and become very involved in the direction and the course of these filmmaking projects and podcast projects.
Dr. Liza Talisman reflects on her "Identity-Conscious Educator" presentation
What do you feel is most important that people get out of this presentation?
Identity and diversity conversations don't have to be divisive. It can actually build compassion and curiosity and critical thinking and community. It doesn't have to divide us. I just think so much of the news cycle is, “If we do this we’ll fall apart.” No, we don't have to.
Why do you think it was important to write this book?
Because in my own teacher education, and in the teachers that I teach, they've never done this. They've taken a multicultural class. And in that class, it was like, “How do I deal with children/students?” and we never have classes where it's like, “How do I deal with me as a teacher?” “How do I create space and time to explore who I am and how that impacts what I do as a teacher?” We're always so focused on the outcome and never the input.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I am just grateful, especially to Framingham State and to the Chris Walsh Center and Education Department and all of the groups hosting [Education Club as well as the World Language and Criminology & Sociology Departments] because they are creating the time and energy to give people the opportunity to do this work. You actually have to create space for that. So, I'm just really grateful that the University and all the people who are here decided to create the time and space.
ChileMass Program continues to thrive at FSU
Marissa Piligian, Professor of Education at Framingham State
What is the ChileMass program - can you give me a brief overview?
ChileMass is an organization that fosters a relationship between the Chilean and Massachusetts governments to collaborate and share knowledge about science, technology and education.
How were you put in charge of teaching the classes? What was your role in the program?
This fall I was asked by Dr. Therese Ajtum-Roberts and Dr. James Cressey, both from Framingham State, to teach the ChileMass course, which was taught by Ajtum-Roberts last year. I worked in the education section with the ChileMass Teachers Program. In this program, educators from diverse areas of Chile engage in a yearlong interactive study to increase strategies for student-centered learning. Educators in the program ranged from students in their final year at their university's teaching program to established veteran teachers.
What was taught in the course?
Our class met on campus at FSU during the face-to-face stage of their year-long program. Four seminars, about three hours long, were spread out throughout the month of February. Our course focused on Universal Design for Learning, a framework created by CAST to facilitate educators' use of inclusive learning practices by stimulating students' interest, presenting content in a myriad of ways, and differentiating the way students can express what they know.
What was your experience teaching the classes and working with the educators from Chile?
My overarching goal for our seminar was to facilitate methods of understanding and embracing the complexity of students' diverse needs to practice creating inclusive settings aligned with the realities of the Chilean education system. As a former special education teacher and instructor of the Inclusive Practices course for Early Childhood and Elementary education majors at FSU, I was thrilled to share my passion and commitment to neurodiversity. Additionally, I look forward to connecting with the Teachers Program participants next month, as we discuss on Zoom the implementation stage in their teaching settings.
What was the most rewarding part of your experience?
Learning alongside the Chilean teachers and creating a global network of collaboration on best teaching practices was the most rewarding experience. The participants were dedicated and thoughtful educators, eager to refine their skills. We learned from each other, shared a lot of laughs, and certainly increased my desire to travel to Chile and research more about their educational system.
Sanchez teaches English as a second language and has been teaching for over six years. He is now pursuing his master’s in education.
This program is a great opportunity, especially for a Chilean teacher. It is like a once in a lifetime opportunity. At Framingham State, all the people were extremely kind and very nice to us. If we seem to be lost, they run to help us and tell us what to do. The teacher’s lessons were very good, and we have learned a lot from this University. The academic experience has been very, very good. Our lessons with Professor Piligian focused on UDL. She adjusted her lessons many times for us and she was a wonderful teacher. She taught us how to apply, for example, in this case, UDL in very practical terms and we learned a lot from her and every experience that we have had here at FSU.
There are a lot of things I would like to take back to Chile. First of all, the academic experience since I am studying for a master's degree and it is valuable to share what this studying looks like here in comparison to Chile. Most of the time, for example, we talked with students or professors here, and they mentioned a completely different system from Chile. For example, you can pick different lessons - you can construct your own degree. You have more freedom. You're ready to select what you want to learn. In Chile, it's not that free. So to consider what it would be like for new generations to study at the university - it would be a great experience to select and orientate your path during your academic career. It will be very helpful.
Additionally, we had wonderful lessons at Lesley University talking about trauma sensitive schools. I think this is the most important piece take back to Chile because we have many problems with the social emotional aspects of our students. In Chile, we don't have a complete name for that or a complete conceptual framework in order to talk about what is social emotional learning. We just do activities for the small integration, but the most important thing that FSU provided us was related to trauma. The lessons gave us specific approaches, and we expect to work with that and we expect to continue working with FSU and Lesley University in order to bring that to Chile because it is a new concept. It's something that we haven't even talked about. So it's like this new discovery and a very important aspect to bring back to Chile.
To be here at FSU to study and to meet new people - it was a wonderful experience and I will never forget it. The facilities are amazing. I think it is beautiful and an amazing place to study, but relaxing outside the city. Visually, it's a charming place. It's quite different from what we have at universities in Chile. It is a beautiful university with beautiful people and very nice kind people who are more than willing to help you.
Aguilera is in her last year at university studying to teach English as a foreign language.
In Chile, it’s actually a bit hard to get into an exchange program because there are only a few and they're really expensive, but this one isn't. It is similar to a scholarship and it provides you with almost everything. The amount of money that we have to spend is insignificant. Additionally, doing an exchange here while Chile is on holiday allows you to do the program without interrupting your studies.
Coming here was such a great experience. I was a bit scared because, well, we had this little issue in Dallas. We arrived during the storm in Texas. So we got stuck in Dallas, and while we were looking for a place to stay, a lady said to us, “Oh, you're nice people. You're not from here.” And that kind of stuck with me and I thought like everyone here was going to be rude. But then, we arrived at FSU and everyone was so nice. It's been amazing. Because they sent out an email, a lot of people knew we were arriving and they were super nice. Older Latino people were looking for us to speak Spanish and so it was great.
In terms of classes, at first, it was a bit complicated because we already knew a lot about UDL. But the teacher - she's just amazing - she modified the whole course to meet our expectations. I was worried because I wanted to learn something new, but we were able to reflect on what we knew and get practical experience. It was actually so useful that I was impressed.
Something I’ll take away from this experience is the introduction to a small university. Everyone kind of feels familiar. That's what my university is lacking. We're always just so individualistic, like we don't care about the person that's next to us. So I think that's one and the other one, well, about the educational system. I think that I can take a lot from that to my country like the way it works here. You have more freedom. You have more autonomy to choose. Back in Chile you don't have options like it's just, “These are the courses that you need to take,” and that's it. But here, the whole educational system promotes autonomy.
All the courses that we took here and at Lesley University taught us resilience. During the course on UDL, we reflected on our pedagogical practices and that's about resilience too because you need to be able to criticize yourself and also to highlight your strong points. And then we also had this course in which we needed to do difficult manual things, and that taught us the process of doing things that are challenging for you, but not giving up.
This program is not just studying, but also getting to know about the culture because they set up meetings with the Spanish speakers here. I'm glad to have met them and they were not only of Latino descendant people, but also, Americans that speak Spanish. I realized that it has a strong cultural component because they want us to keep in touch with the students here even though we're coming just for a month. They were trying to give us that opportunity to share this experience with other people.
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Resource of the Month
Social Justice Books
SocialJusticeBooks.org is a project of Teaching for Change, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world. Age appropriate books are an excellent resource for starting conversations with your kids about identity and diversity. Since its founding in 1989, Teaching for Change has vetted and promoted social justice books for children and adults. This is in response to the wide diversity gap in children’s books and the publishing industry. More than half of the children enrolled in U.S. public schools are people of color or Native American, but only 22% of children’s books published in 2016 were about people of color, and fewer than 13% of books published were written by people of color or Native Americans.