New Insights Into Research-Based Curricula: Interview with Dr. Angel Lee
We’ve been very lucky to work with outstanding researchers and authors here at Attainment.
Dr. Angel Lee was part of the team of researchers at UNC-Charlotte that developed the Early Literacy Skills Builder and Pathways to Literacy curricula, which we were proud to publish. As of October, Dr. Lee is now a valued employee at Attainment, and we are delighted to welcome her to the team. The interview below provides insight into the process of developing a curriculum as well as the path that leads people to a career in special education. We hope you are as inspired by Dr. Lee as we are!
How did you get interested in education as a field of study and career?
The path that led me to special education has been pretty indirect. Like many who end up in the field of special education I started off as a Psychology major. I also majored in special education but did not student teach. After college, my work experience was somewhat a blend of psychology and special education. I worked in a group home setting with the “Willie M.” population, a label only used in North Carolina stemming from a 1979 lawsuit. Willie M. programs provide treatment for youth with emotional disturbances who display aggressive behavior. Working in a group home required me to work 2 1/2 day shifts. At the time I had a young son and needed a more typical work schedule. I began working as a teacher’s assistant at a nonprofit agency called LifeSpan. At LifeSpan, I worked with the students who were medically fragile and were considered to have the most significant disabilities. After a few months at LifeSpan I knew I could have a future in the special education field. I returned to school to get my M.Ed. I enjoy working with students who have unique challenges. These two groups may seem dissimilar but they are both groups of students that, even among special educators, are the kids that most do not choose to work with.
"Many things fell into place for me to end up where I am today. I ended up working with LifeSpan for 16 years, in a variety of capacities."
LifeSpan was an agency that advocated for inclusion and for persons with disabilities to be given opportunities to reach their potential. It was working at this company that both created a passion for persons with disabilities and provided me with the opportunity to work on the RAISE Grant at UNCC.
Did you ever think that you’d write curriculum for this student population or was this task somewhat unexpected?
Actually, maybe I did! Well, maybe I didn’t know that I would be writing a curriculum but I can remember talking with my supervisor at LifeSpan, when I was still a classroom teacher and telling her that I wanted to be known in the field of special education. I wanted to do something meaningful.
However, in the beginning of RAISE, when we realized that there was no curriculum out there that was appropriate and that we would have to create something on our own, I was hesitant. The skills that we were talking about teaching (e.g., syllabication, letter sounds) had never been taught to this population. Within the range of students with moderate to severe disabilities, I had taught the students with the greatest challenges so I admittedly, was skeptical. Again and again, I have been pleasantly surprised at what this population of students can learn.
Tell us a little bit about being a part of the research team that developed Pathways to Literacy. What type of research went into it?
Even though I was so happy with the progress that we saw for students with the most significant disabilities who were using the ELSB, there were students who needed something different for literacy instruction to be accessible. Students who did not yet have a consistent, meaningful mode of responding, and were just beginning to become engaged in literacy instruction were the focus of the Pathways to Literacy curriculum. Additionally, the curriculum is designed to meet the needs of students with visual impairments who are just beginning literacy instruction.
Pathways was developed after the completion of a single case study with three participants, each with a different mode of responding (i.e., eye gaze, touch, selection of object). The research was conducted via a team study with myself, Pam Mims, and Diane Browder making up the team.
What were your team’s goals for the final product? Were there any surprises along the way?
As with the ELSB, we did not start the project with the goal of developing a curriculum. However, the research went so well and in order for ALL students to have access to literacy instruction, a sound curriculum was needed to provide special educators with some guidance.
After the original team study was completed successfully and the curriculum was drafted, a second study was completed with a larger and more varied group of students. The most rewarding part of this research was the barriers that were overcome. Some students had incredibly short attentions spans but were eventually able to sit through a lesson. Some students had very limited motor skills. We worked with the teachers to problem solve so that the students could demonstrate understanding. Others had challenging behaviors like switch banging or grabbing/pulling items.
These are serious barriers that can easily keep a student from learning. Again, through persistence and systematic instruction, these students were able to decrease these behaviors and replace them with meaningful actions.
Have you heard feedback from teachers or administrators about using the curricula you’ve helped develop?
All of the teachers who participated in the research were positive about the curriculum. After Pathways to Literacy was published by Attainment, it was purchased by Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS). I provided a training for about 50 of their special educators. Occasionally, I will get an email from a teacher with positive feedback.
From time to time I also hear from professionals in other parts of the country. A doctoral student in California conducted her dissertation using the task analysis from Pathways with students with autism. Her study was a success and a positive experience for the teachers implementing the study.
What made you want to join the Attainment team full time?
For almost a decade now, Attainment has had a wonderful working relationship with Diane Browder and all of us working within the General Curriculum Access Grants at UNC-Charlotte. I recall how highly Diane spoke of the company years ago when the ELSB was being developed. Attainment was one of the few companies that employed people with disabilities and featured them in their catalogs.
Even though I am a very new employee, there are a number of things that I appreciate about Attainment. They are mission driven, with employees who have remained with the company for many years. They develop quality, research-based products for a range of people. I love that in addition to products for school aged students with moderate to severe disabilities, they also have products for seniors, and for students with high incidence disabilities. All these things make Attainment an outstanding company that I am very happy to be a part of!
Is there a new Attainment product (or an old favorite) that you’re especially excited about, and why?
Attainment has so many great products, most of which I am not truly familiar with yet. As I have been reviewing products I love Explore American History because in addition to providing content that special educators may not be teaching, it uses multi-media to present information in an engaging way.
Currently, if I had to pick a favorite, I would pick TS: ELA (Teaching to Standards: English Language Arts). This curriculum provides teachers and students with grade appropriate literature, both narrative and informational. The use of grade appropriate literature is still something that is not always seen in special education classrooms, yet it can have so many positive consequences. For example, every year, at one CMS school, students with disabilities, along with their typically developing peers, put on a play based on Sadako and the Thousand Cranes. Visitors, as well as students from across the district come to see this event!
Thank you, Dr. Lee! Do you have additional questions or feedback for Dr. Lee? Let us know in the comments!