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Student homelessness and reframing disabilities are season's first EDTalks topics

As another school year gets under way, a handful of nonprofits and foundations are gearing up to launch a series of speaking engagements called EDTalks. A hybrid of the inspirational TED Talks series and civic-engagement speaking events c0-hosted by AchieveMpls and the Citizens League, these education-oriented events feature two guest speakers who highlight an issue  — through research and personal anecdotes — and then field questions and comments from audience members.

EDTalks launched in the fall of 2012 as an effort to engage people who were not already involved in the education sector, said Rachel Shields, events and communications manager for AchieveMpls, an education nonprofit involved in hosting the event. But they often attract a large crowd of those who have some professional tie to education, either through a school or a nonprofit.

“Initially they were designed to be kind of a young professional happy-hour policy thing,” she added, noting the majority of attendees tend to fall between ages of 25 and 40. “It’s a very low-key, casual event. And we try to create some opportunities to network both before and after the program, to keep [people] talking about what they’ve heard.”

This year’s series, which will be hosted at the Icehouse, begins Sept. 25. The program will feature two speakers under the theme “understanding the experiences of students with unique needs.” Bryan Boyce, a pioneer in supporting creative writers with disabilities, will talk about reframing disability as an asset. Dr. Ann Masten — a local expert on child development, homelessness and resiliency — will talk about her research as well. While there is some overlap between these two student groups, says Shields, these labels should not be conflated. The program is designed to look at those who are experiencing homelessness and those who have a disability as two distinct groups.

Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. and the program will start at 6 p.m. All are welcome to attend for a $5 ticket free that includes the cost of appetizers. For those who can’t attend but are still interested in tuning in, all programs are archived as YouTube videos or podcasts, which can be accessed online. Three additional EDTalks will take place this year, focusing on mindfulness and social-emotional learning, restorative practices, and the importance of coaching and mentoring.

Changing perceptions

Growing up with a brother who has a developmental disability, Boyce admired his brother’s penchant for risk taking, especially when it came to the everyday human interactions that he found intimidating as a teenager. Whether it be talking to a stranger, going to a school dance or simply talking to girls, Boyce says he “learned and grew” from watching how his brother handled himself in these types of situations.

As a college student home on winter break, years later, he realized he wasn’t the only one who stood to benefit from being exposed to his brother’s uninhibited forms of expression. He didn’t know how much reading or writing his brother did at school, but he did know saying a tongue twister — to show staff he’d swallowed his medication — was part of his daily routine. And he knew, coming from his brother, this often resulted in some pretty inventive renditions. At home, he asked his brother to share one of his tongue twisters while he wrote it down.

Bryan Boyce
Bryan Boyce

Inspired by what he’d captured, Boyce wrote a grant to do creative writing classes with his brother and his brother’s peers. It evolved into miniperformances at a local coffee shop and grew from there.

Today, Boyce runs Cow Tipping Press, a creative writing nonprofit geared toward supporting authors with disabilities. It’s mission is twofold: to empower people with disabilities to express themselves through writing and to challenge mainstream perceptions of the disabled.

“We’re showing how in the creative writing space, people with disabilities — development disabilities in particular — can create things that are new and valuable and different; and the rest of society is missing out on that value when we don’t choose to integrate and value this kind of diversity,” he said.

Preparing to speak to a room full of teachers and their supporters, he says changing perceptions at school means being intentional about exposing mainstream students to the creativity of authors with developmental disabilities, who are capable of experimenting with punctuation and putting words together in a very beautiful, avant garde way.

At the upcoming event, he’ll be accompanied by Cow Tipping author Shinoa Makinen, whose voice he describes as very poetic, sometimes ephemeral and sometimes sweeping. It’s the sort of imaginative work that inspired the organization’s name, which came from the first poem published by a Cow Tipping author.

“It’s kind of fun and mischievous,” Boyce said of the name, adding it’s indicative of the work the authors often create. “You’re more likely to hear a story about a cow tipping in the dark than a story about unlocking your hidden potential.”

Ordinary magic

Masten’s presentation will focus on another student group that’s often misunderstood: the homeless. Currently a Regents Professor of Child Development and the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, she’s spent more than 25 years studying competence, risk and resilience in children and families who have experience adversity. A significant portion of her work has focused on identifying the factors that enable homeless youth to succeed despite their circumstances.

Her interest in resiliency ties back to her own experience as a military family child, observing the impact deployment could have on the children left behind. “I had lots of protective influences in my lifes, but I could see there were many kids in my life who grew up with challenges,” she said.

Through her research in Minnesota, she’s collaborated with both shelters and the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Her findings have helped inform policies aimed at better supporting youth who have experienced homelessness and the trauma often connected to this state of uncertainty.

Dr. Ann Masten
Dr. Ann Masten

At the school level, she hopes her work can help inform educators who work directly with these students. Masten and her colleagues have found that although achievement for those experiencing homelessness is much lower than that of their peers, there are a lot of children who have experienced homelessness who are doing fine at school.

“There’s a lot of risk because the average achievement is much lower of children who experience homelessness,” she said.  “But on the other hand, there’s a tremendous variation in the achievement of children — which begs the question: How is it that some are doing well in school and learning whereas others are really really struggling?”

Seeking to decipher what traits or skills or conditions help certain homeless students rise above their circumstances, they have researched the positive impact of things like improving attendance rates, and strengthening self-regulation skills and positive relationships with adults.

“‘I’d like for educators to leave understanding the scale of the problem — this is a very serious threat to achievement. But on the other hand, many children in this situation do get through it and thrive and protective factors make a difference. That’s where the ordinary magic part comes in,” she said. “ A lot of the same protective factors that help children in many different kinds of situations make a difference here as well. And schools and educators can play a big role in protecting and fostering the development of children in difficult circumstances."

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