Facilitator of An Innovative & Dynamic Autistic Support Classroom

My classroom aid and I find ourselves laughing with and often at each other. We agree that in Room 435 behaviors are wildly eccentric and enlightening. While giving our students the tools to navigate society, it is important that we can also preserve each student's intricate personality and autonomy by nurturing their strengths, interest and abilities.

Each day, we are able to enjoy the gifts our extraordinary students present. I'd like to share these gifts, hopefully opening a window in the world of students with autism. It is my goal, to let others see that students with cognitive variations have insight and abilities far beyond what many may imagine. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

For Students with Autism, An Online Tool to Level the Playing Field

Check out Autism Expressed's recent feature on Generocity.org


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Navigating the Digital World : A Feature on Our Classroom

Check out the feature embedded below.  If you can not view the page, click here to visit the notebook's website. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Autism Expressed gets press!


Corzo incubator has a flair for creative ventures

Jessica Herring
special to the business journal

PHILADELPHIA — When Michele McKeone walked through the door of the Corzo Center Creative Incubator last November, she was a business novice. She had a newly minted degree in digital media from the University of the Arts, but understood little about how to build a startup.
A few months from now, she’ll launch Autism Expressed, an online learning curriculum that teaches autistic students to use social and digital media. Her business is an expansion of a pilot project she first implemented in the School District of Philadelphia.
The training, mentoring and funding she received through the incubator gave her the preparation to expand the program nationwide.
“My time at the incubator was invaluable,” McKeone said. “Not only did it introduce me to the business community, but it gave me the means to incorporate social entrepreneurial thinking so that I can provide a needed service to a population that wouldn’t otherwise be given such an opportunity.”
The Creative Incubator, located at 320 S. Broad St., was created last year to assist creative business ventures with workshops and competitive grants that fund startups. It’s part of the Corzo Center for the Creative Economy, a center established within the University of Arts in 2005 to provide business workshops and lectures for students and faculty and expose them to business and government leaders.
McKeone is one of four entrepreneurs who won grants this year for their business ideas, each of which reflects a mixture of design, technology and sustainability. The other winning ideas were a sustainable knitted clothing company, a jewelry line for people with cancer and cancer survivors which donates 10 percent of the profits to the American Cancer Research Institute, and eco-friendly building panels that require less energy to heat and cool.
The incubator nurtures ideas from inception to a final business plan. Participation is open to about 15 University of the Arts seniors, graduate students or alumni each year, with public workshops also drawing business professionals. Evening and weekend workshops are led by professors from institutions such as the Wharton School, and cover topics such as how to develop a business plan, read contracts, fund social and creative enterprises, assess a market and more.
The idea for the incubator was first discussed “when several of us — inside the university and outside in the design community — realized that we should find a way of supporting new creative initiatives, startups and those trying to link business, media and technology,” said Neil Kleinman, a professor of media and communication at the University of the Arts. “The creative incubator was formed … to provide reality behind the idea: through a dedicated fund of $40,000 a year, it has begun to support four startups a year in a wide range of topics…environmental, design, fashion, videography, theater, Web interactivity, education and health.”
McKeone attended incubator workshops for six weeks from November to December.
“As I entered the Corzo incubator I was still trying to find my focus,” she said. “My idea was to patent the curriculum that I developed over the years while working with students with autism. After working through the incubator, attending its workshops and open office hours with experts in law, business, marketing, etc., the vision was getting clearer.”
At the end of the intensive program, incubator students compete for startup capital through a fund supported by Wells Fargo and the Corzo Center Endowment. Grant prizes range from $2,500 to $10,000.
Students make 10-minute presentations to a jury made up of local professionals.
Thomas Miles, principal of Miles + Generalis Inc. real estate company in Old City, is a University of the Arts alumni and trustee, and serves as an incubator jury panelist. He said winners are chosen on the strength of their concept.
“We have to be convinced they have a firm grasp of their budget and business plan, and that they understand what they’re really getting involved in,” he said.
“My initial reaction was, ‘you want to do what?’” Miles said of McKeone’s presentation. “It was a little out of my expertise for the kind of interactive computer models she wanted to develop. But she was so passionate about it. And we realized what a need there was for the program.”
“She was very far along in creating an extremely complex system,” Miles continued. “That’s who usually win the grants — people who are on a precipice and this is what they need to get to the next stage.”
In addition to grant money, each winner is paired with a mentor whose role continues beyond the terms of the grant. They also receive access to other advisers from the Corzo community and support from university resources.
McKeone won $10,000 in startup capital and was paired up with Garrett Melby, a jury member who is also the CEO of Good Company Ventures.
“I was going to name my company ‘Digital Express,’ but he didn’t like the name,” McKeone said. “He said it was too ’90s.”
All grant winners get to take advantage of the incubator’s close relationship with Good Company Ventures, an independent nonprofit incubator housed in the Corzo Center that offers business workshops for social entrepreneurs.
Although not a Corzo program, Good Company collaborates with the incubator in many aspects. “UArts students from the industrial design program provided design to our entrepreneurs, and we help organize educational content that Corzo has been producing,” Melby said. Good Company also gives Corzo grant winners access to its business workshops and consulting.
The Corzo Center continues to provide new forms of support for aspiring business owners. It will soon launch Corzo Create!, a funding source for early-stage ideas that will provide $1,500 each month to a university student or alum who receives the highest number of votes in an online poll. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Sandwich Approach

I didn't realize how funny this story was until I was nonchalantly explaining today's lesson to a colleague.  

In an effort to develop writing ability, I decided to emphasize proof reading skills in the classroom.   This year, the task analysis for any writing assignment always ends with:

-Proofread your own work and
-Have a classmate proofread your work

The first time I attempted to implement this, there was an immediate problem.   Loud pronounced comments such as, "This is wrong! You spelled persevere wrong. It's on the board!"  and, “Lam, you forgot to capitalize the first letter of your sentence,"  filled the classroom.  

I stopped all peer proofreading immediately. Though, it was me that made the mistake. I never taught them how to give feedback to each other.

"Let's have a discussion about how we should critique each other’s work."  I explained to the class that a critique was when we give feedback about our work.    "We all work very hard in this classroom and while we would like to know how to make our writings better, we don't just want to hear negative things about our work, right?  We also would like to hear good comments about our writings."  

I introduced the Sandwich Approach by drawing a picture on the board of what was supposed to resemble a sandwich and explained the positive-negative-positive model. Next, to make this abstract concept more concrete, I told my students,  "After you read your classmate's work, start off by saying something positive about what they wrote.  Did they stay in sequence? Did they follow the four, focused-on grammar rules?  Was their paragraph creative, informative, persuasive etc.?  Then, explain the things they need to change in order to make their writing stronger.  Do they forget punctuation marks?  Are there too many thoughts included in one sentence? Finally, finish the critique by again noting something positive about their writing.  

I wanted make sure everyone understood what I was saying while providing an opportunity to practice using this approach through a fun activity.  I started with Vit, who loves to dance.  "Vit, critique my dancing using the Sandwich Approach." And so I danced...like it was nobody's business.  

"Well, Ms. McKeone," my diva-licous Vit began, “you obviously have rhythm.  You could use a little more footwork in your dancing, but I really like your little shimmy."

Excellent. He got it…and he liked my shimmy ;)

Next was Maj. Maj is famous for creating birthday cards that include stick figure portraits to accompany his birthday wishes, which typically include a wish for a large amount of money, a trip to an amusement park and a dinner at the Grand King Buffet.   "Maj, critique my self-portrait using the Sandwich Approach."  I went to the board and drew a stick figure with big curly, frizzy hair, which is how my hair might typically look on the days that I do not tame it with the flat iron. 

"Um, that's a nice picture, Ms. McKeone, it’s a nice picture. But, but your hair, your hair don't look like that today.  You should change the hair because it don't, it don't look like that.   But, it's a nice picture. You did a good job." 

Not as specific, but Maj got the concept and we can always work out the details with practice.

I had the students each come up and perform while students in the 'audience' went on to critique each performance using the Sandwich Approach.   It was Lam's turn to come up and perform.  Lam is a HUGE fan of pop culture. He loves wrestling and all things hip-hop.  Lam will write a dissertation on De La Soul and Africa Bambaataa any day, especially in an effort to avoid what the actual assignment is asking.  As such, Lam is himself, an all-star rapper.  I should mention that Lam is in fact classified as non-verbal.  He does make utterances that can be understood in context and to a trained ear, but not while he is in the midst of free-styling.  

In this instance (while he is rapping), it's probably more appropriate that one can not make out his utterances, because while Lam is a sweetheart and will steal your heart any day of the week, he is in fact,  gang-stah.  Chances are, you may not be able to understand what he is rapping about, but you can be pretty sure he just called you a punk (or worse) and said something about your mamma. 

So Lam gets up and begins his rap.  He went on and on, feeling the flow, throwing his hands up in the hair and finally ending with two fingers to the crowd and what anyone could recognize as a, "PEACE!"  Everyone clapped and I called on Detective D to use the Sandwich Approach to critique Lam's performance.  This would be no easy task for most students, but Detective D is clever and insightful.  He is the type of student who can recognize the social dichotomy of the classroom and turn it into a murder mystery (more on that later). 

"Ok. Detective D. Use the Sandwich Approach to critique Lam's rap performance."

Detective D had a thoughtful face on, but did not hesitate for a moment as he presented his critique. "Well first thing, the lyrics were great."

Yes! In case, you missed it, this is where you laugh. I have fallen out several times since the first time I retold this story, though sometimes others have not been so quick to pick up on the humor and beauty in this moment.   Even for me, it did not initially register while working with the students in the classroom.  Perhaps it was because I was so caught up in the assessment process, making sure that everyone was grasping this concept.  After all, immediately after his initial comment, Detective D went on to say that Lam could have had more eye contact with the audience, but had great body language when using his hands during the performance.  He gave a very appropriate critique, demonstrating his comprehension of the Sandwich Approach.    

However, what Detective D has truly demonstrated was his ability to empathize.  Detective D had assessed this moment prior to his response and in his choice of words, he chose to be supportive and encouraging to his peer.    

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wilt & Blossom

It's the end of the year and we are breaking down the classroom and re-organizing for next year.   The classroom is almost completely bare except for Tilja and Audrey who are both sitting in front of the window, vibrant and beautiful.  Tilja is a peachy-pink hibiscus that was once wilting in my apartment as winter temperatures dropped.  Audrey was a dying duo of a lilly plant and some other leafy green that my roommate placed next to our trash can one day.  Originally, her name was Lola (she was a show girl).  I had brought both of these plants to school because I knew they had a change of survival in our tropical climate classroom.  For some reason, maintenance likes the temperature kept at 80 degrees and above. 

I remember how excited the students were to receive Audrey and Tilja.  Each student came up with an original name for each plant and we all voted for our favorite one.  It was Vit, who requested the job of caring for these two plants for the entire school year.   He began watering them each day and we started to see some progress.  However, when our winter break came and went, we returned to two very dilapidated plants.  At one point, it was suggested that there was no hope at all for Audrey and that she should just get tossed. 

Vit did not like this idea at all.  He told me that there was still a little green left and that he wanted to keep watering both plants.  So we agreed to keep Audrey and see what happened.  As time went on, not only did she grow, but she thrived.

Vit's thumb was not the only part of him that was green; his social skills were a bit novice.  As a freshman, transitioning to a new school, and like any other kid, he wanted friends very badly and was eager to be accepted as soon as possible.    Vit's overwhelming need for attention and validation made it difficult to make friends initially.   This caused Vit a lot of emotional distress and his behaviors fluctuated from extremely extroverted to depressed and introverted.  On several occasions, he even became physically aggressive with other students in our classroom.   We decided that Vit would benefit from counseling and soon began anger management sessions with his counselor. 

Fortunately, Vit's social skills began to develop throughout the year and he was making friends. We saw an increasing sense of empowerment as he utilized his interest in the arts.  This year alone Vit has contributed to our award winning Computer Fair project by producing original music and comic strips, auditioned and performed for the school's talent show, performed the lead role for a script written by his drama class at Barnes and Nobles and won a Black History Month Poster Contest!   Vit was also known among his peers as a phenomenal dancer.  While he had gained the support and admiration of so many, there were also students in the school who were not as friendly—haters.  ;)

Throughout the year, Vit had suffered harassment from a few students in the hallway who yelled out sexual orientation slurs.  When Vit finally reported these incidences to me, I immediately took him to the school police to identify the students.  We all wanted to make it very clear to Vit that he had the right to walk throughout the school without being harassed.   It was in the spring time when Vit 'came out' to me, expressing that he was bi-sexual.   He told me that his counselor had given him good advice: "He told me that I can be anything I want to be."   I told him that I agreed with his counselor. Since that day, we have seen Vit's self-esteem and sense of empowerment grow immensely.   His attention seeking behaviors in the classroom have diminished and he seems slightly more comfortable in his skin.  

Through this school year, Vit has experienced some wonderful successes in establishing supportive and healthy relationships and perhaps even more valuable he has learned from many of his painful failures. While Vit continues to see his counselor regularly, he has found a mentor in our classroom aid, Mama E.   The blossoming of this relationship was powerful to watch.  Initially, Vit's behaviors were hard for our classroom aid (and many others) to understand or accept.   However, with such subtle grace, they have been put together for each other's benefit.   While anyone can see how much Vit values Mama E, Mama E has often expressed to me just how much she has learned from Vit and how much she values that growth.   She tells me, “God puts us in each other's lives for a reason.”

I think that one of the most important lessons that Mama E has presented to Vit in her mentorship is that he will most likely continue to encounter struggle, perhaps even more frequently than most of us.  But she reminds Vit that we must remember a certain vocabulary word from our classroom word wall: persevere.  This is a word that every one of my students will come to know, understand and use. 

Although the word walls are down and classroom is near empty, it is the life in Audrey and Tilja that remind me of what we have all accomplished this school year.   I can assure you that Tilja, Audrey, Vit and Mama E were not the only ones to both struggle and persevere this year in Room 435.   We have all had moments of weakness and trial, and days that wilted our stems.   At the same time, we have all blossomed with great vitality.  We did not merely survive this school year, but we thrived, with the love, patience and support of Room 435. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Autism Awareness Event for the School District

After winning third place at the Philadelphia Regional Computer Fair Competition, our students were asked to present at the 3rd Annual Autism Expo. The Expo included state legislators, researchers, advocates, superintendents, parents, teachers and anyone else interested in networking with providers who specialize in resources for students with Autism...