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NEA News

Teaching and Learning Summer 2018

Three articles on making the world accessible to all students.
Published: June 1, 2018

Key Takeaways

  1. Making guidebooks for special education students.
  2. An interview with Michele Gianetti about what it ultimately took for her daughter Elizabeth, diagnosed at age 2 with Sensory Processing Disorder and Global Dyspraxia, to succeed.
  3. NEA member Audrey Nichols talks about reaching struggling students with poetry.

Make the World Accessible to All

Guidebooks for Special Needs Students

By Brett Bigham, 2018 NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow

A few years ago a student came to me with such anxiety about new situations it was almost impossible to take her out of the classroom. When she got upset she would punch herself in the face. I saw a very bleak future for this young lady, so I began to work on a way to better support her.

We had an upcoming field trip to ride the Portland Aerial Tram, so I decided to try making a guidebook on how to ride the tram. For many people with autism, going somewhere unknown is very stressful, and this would be a way to explain what to expect. I went the week before, took pictures, and created a guidebook with every step of riding the tram. My students studied the book during the week, and that Friday we had a successful trip. I began to make guidebooks for every field trip destination, and my students’ negative behaviors and anxieties disappeared, including that young girl with autism.

I shared my Ability Guidebooks with my autism specialist who suggested I share them with the entire community. I posted them online for other teachers and families to use and the feedback was immediate. Teachers began telling me that the books made field trips possible for some of their more anxiety-ridden students. Better yet, teachers were planning more outings because they had the Ability Guidebooks to support them by providing students with clear direction on what is expected, how to deal with crowds, where to go when they feel stressed or get lost, and how they should behave at a particular place all in a picture book format.

Making the books became a hobby. Everywhere I went, I started taking pictures for books. I was thrilled when the Portland International Airport asked me to create a book to help people access the airport. I envisioned more people heading out to see the world because the airport was now easier to use.

Ability Guidebooks Go Global!

When I was selected as an NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow, I was provided a yearlong professional development on global lesson planning. As a part of this program, I went to Peru with a group of teachers to meet with students and educators. And of course, I made some Ability Guidebooks. Peru has five of them now, including one on visiting Machu Picchu. I’ve since created books from other parts of the world, like Denmark and Australia, and next year I will be going with the Global Learning Fellows on a field study to South Africa, where I will make even more books.

I’ve written 99 books for 26 countries, which can guide visitors but also provide a window for your students to look through to get to know the wider world. I recently finished a book for Delhi, India, on how to visit an ancient mosque.ÊThere are books for Sweden, Mexico, Russia, China, Egypt, Senegal, the UK, and many more cities and countries. Every city I visit now gets a book.

I know I can’t cover the entire world, but I can inspire someone in Nepal to write a book for their community to share. Perhaps a teacher in Vermont will create an Ability Guidebook for a trip to the fire station, and a parent of a child with autism in Saudi Arabia may create a book for a trip to the seaside. It has taken me five years to write 99 books. I won’t be able to change the whole world at that rate, but I can be the inspiration that creates an army to change the world.

Find the Autism Guidebooks at  

Helping Children with Special Needs Succeed

One Mom's Journey and the Lessons Learned

By Brenda Alvarez, NEA staff writer

When Elizabeth, who was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder* and Global Dyspraxia** at age two, walked across the gym to receive her high school diploma, Michele Gianetti, mom, felt immense pride, awe, admiration, and even gratitude. The first three emotions were a given: “Elizabeth worked so hard to get to this goal,” recalls Gianetti. But gratitude? That was for Elizabeth’s high school intervention specialist and aides who helped her succeed in high school.

It didn’t always go smoothly for Elizabeth, but as educators head back to class refreshed, with new and improved lesson plans and ideas, Gianetti shares her story as a reminder of how important communication can be.

NEA Today caught up with Gianetti, a nurse, author, and blogger, to talk about the lessons she learned and what it ultimately took for Elizabeth to succeed.

What was the biggest challenge the team had to overcome?

It was Elizabeth’s sophomore year that was most challenging. She had great success her freshman year with supports in place, but as a result of her success, the supports were taken away unbeknownst to me. Soon Elizabeth began to show signs of stress, anxiety, and indications of overload. We all noticed the changes in Elizabeth, but we had different opinions on the cause and had to talk it through before we could address the problem. Through dialogue, strong advocacy from me, and willing listeners at the school, we were all able to turn this struggle into a better understanding of Elizabeth, her disorders, and her needs.

Knowing what you know now, what would be your top suggestions for educators who work with students with special needs?


They are there for the asking and they contain everything you could want to know about the students, with informative details about their disorders and medical conditions. It tells you how those disorders and conditions affect the student day-to-day. These pieces of information are critical to understanding what makes the student tick and can provide a full picture. In my experience, the IEP’s are not always a top priority for busy teachers, but if I can be the voice in your headÑplease make reading the IEP a priority.


Hearing is one of our senses. But listening is a skill, and one that takes practice and work. Please be the one to listen to the parents or caregivers of these special children. They know what they are talking about. They live their days with this child and can help you understand the child better than anyone. They want to help.


You might not recognize a disorder or medical condition. Asking about it and learning more is a sign of a strength not a weakness.


If you become an active listener, then a partnership will form. This partnership allows for teamwork rather than an “us and they” approach to problem solving. This will only benefit the child, which should be the focus.

A Road Less Traveled

To reach some students, you need to invest time to find a new path

By Audrey Nichols, Member Contributor

I often think of this poem because of the many choices people have in their lives. And just because they are young, does not mean that children are simple. Like adults, their problems and issues are complex and dynamic and require more than simple solutions. Guiding students through academic and personal problems takes time, effort, and genuine care.

One of my fifth-grade students, in particular, needed this type of approach. She hated coming to school, and her negative attitude and lack of effort in the classroom developed into a reputation among teachers and administrators.

But I tend to not take negative behavior at face-value. Rather than the disciplinary action she was accustomed to, I decided to try a different approach: I got to know her. I started by always saying hello in the hallways, which then turned into invitations into my office for quick chats, which eventually became full conversations.

One day I finally asked her why she doesn’t like school. She said nothing. So I then asked her what she doesn't like to do. “I like to write,” she said.

When she finally showed me her poetry, I was moved. I wanted to let her know that she had a special gift. I wanted to tell her that her ability to write could take her so far. But I knew that telling her these things would only do so much. So instead, I asked her to make a deal with me.

I told her that if she brought me a poem every day, she could ask for something from me. What she asked in return was very simple she wanted to eat lunch with me every day. During this time, we would read the poem she brought to me that day, which would

spark conversations about more of her interests, her family, her future aspirations.

Slowly, she began letting go of the anger that once followed her like a cloud. Her teachers raved of her improvement, which reflected in her grades. Her mother noticed a huge difference at home, noting that her child was happier and more confident. You could tell that this child felt differently better about herself.

Student improvement and personal growth doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something you invest in over time through words of encouragement, motivation, and a genuine sense of care.

Through the struggles and hardships, I never gave up on that student. And in the end, she never gave up on me either. By taking the time to prove myself as a true advocate, she put her trust in me. Watching her as a student and her classwork grow and blossom continues to be one of my greatest accomplishments as an educator.

Five years later, Jordan still sends me her poetry. And five years later, it’s still my favorite thing to read.

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