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Helping Students with Disabilities to Express Themselves Through Literacy and Creativity

Kid making art

Special Education Research & New Mexico’s Rich History

“Something needs to be different.” That was the reaction of Laurel Semsch (now Laurel Lane) after 9/11. After the horrific events of that day in 2001, she decided to do something positive and make a difference in the world—by becoming a teacher. So in 2002, she began commuting from Taos to work on a Bachelor of Arts degree in Secondary Education at the University of New Mexico. Eventually, she moved to Albuquerque.

In May of last year, Laurel finished her Ph.D. in Special Education. She credits the Ivins Memorial Scholarship, which she received in 2014, for helping her complete her degree three years sooner than planned. The scholarship allowed Laurel to leave her job at John Adams Middle School, a Title I school with a high poverty, multicultural, at-risk student body, and give her full attention to researching arts-based literacy instruction for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

Drawn to special needs kids

When she started teaching public school, Laurel was drawn to the kids who came from troubled families or who had special needs. Looking back, she thinks her own background has something to do with that. Growing up in extreme poverty in a rural area of Michigan, Laurel credits the kindness and help of two teachers for encouraging her in school.

At John Adams, Laurel taught language arts and English as a Second Language. Her classroom included kids with all abilities, and she taught to a range of disability types and severities. Some suffered the effects of emotional or physical abuse. To teach literacy in this challenging setting, Laurel incorporated arts activities. She says that “creative expression allows every person, regardless of disability attributes, to show us what they know about the world.”

“The Ivins Memorial Scholarship truly changed my life. It allowed me to work on my doctoral degree full-time, which gave me ready access to original research materials for my dissertation.”

Laurel Semsch

Laurel Lane (Semsch), Ph.D.

Passionate about her research.

Laurel spent hours in the Zimmerman Library at UNM, pouring over original documents in the Center for Southwest Research. In this collection, she discovered The Nambé Community School Teachers’ Diaries—the materials that would become the basis for her dissertation. This collection from the 1930s and early 1940s records the use of arts-based literacy instruction remarkably similar to what Laurel advocates for students today.

Now, Laurel plans to teach at the university level and work with public schools and non-profit agencies to promote arts-based education for literacy learning.

To support the scholarship program in the UNM College of Education, contact Mary Wolford, at 505-277-1088.

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