Thursday, March 25, 2021


Mary Jo O’Neill, M.Ed. Is a Special Education Advocate at Hickman & Lowder Company in Cleveland, Ohio. As an educational advocate, Mary Jo works with families of children with learning disabilities. Her background as a teacher and intervention specialist supports collaboration with teachers, administrators, and school systems to work together to create and implement the best systems and tools for successful learning. She is a contributing author for my new book on story structure, Story Frames for Teaching Literacy. She was generous enough to give a video interview to talk about how she helps families write their family stories. The video and transcript are below.

If the video does not display correctly, you may also find it on YouTube.


Carolee: Good morning, Mary Jo. Thank you so much for being here with me to talk about my book and thank you for being a contributor.

Mary Jo: Thank you for having me. It’s exciting for the families. It’s exciting for the educators.

Carolee: My book is Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning Through the Power of Storytelling and the chapter you’ve written is “Advocating for Students: The Family Story.” In just a minute, I’m going to ask you to talk about your role as an advocate, what that means, and who you advocate for, but before we do that, I have a little story to share about how we met. 

 Carolee: Here we are in Annapolis with either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, I’m not sure who. We were in Annapolis in 2015, along with Paula Moraine, who is also a contributing author for my book. We were there for the Destiny Meeting of the International Dyslexia Association and we were working on strategic planning for the organization. At that time, I was the president of the Southwest Branch.

Mary Jo: And I was president of the Northern Ohio Branch.

Carolee: Your chapter is in a section of my book dedicated to “The Power of the Personal Narrative.” I’ve always been involved in stories. I’m an author of young adult novels, and as a speech-language pathologist working in the public schools for twenty years, I often used stories as a medium to work on expressive and receptive language, but I was surprised to find out that writing stories was a part of your job as a parent advocate. Tell us about that. That is fascinating to me.

Mary Jo: When a parent comes to us, there is a journey. The IEP (Individualized Educational Program) process, the special education process, are pieces to the puzzle. I need to listen to their story and find out where they are in that process. Are they at the planning meeting stage? Are they at the ETR (Evaluation Team Report) pieces? Are they receiving a 504 plan? I need to actively listen to where they are, if their needs are being met, and find out how they are feeling about the process. Then I take that information and we go back to the district, and we collaborate together to make sure that their child’s needs are being met.

Carolee: You have a whole process of writing a story with the family. That’s what you talk about in my book. How do you actually come up with the story that they write that they then share with the school?

Mary Jo: I call it a non-emotional timeline. It gives us the beginning, middle, and end of their story. When did they implement Orton-Gillingham instruction? When did they add occupational therapy? We bring that story to the school district and the district might have some “aha” moments. “Oh, I didn’t know you were doing speech-language therapy at home. I didn’t realize you were doing occupational therapy? It brings the story together.

Carolee: Does the school have their own story, their own perspective or version of events?

Mary Jo: Yes, they do have their own story, and their story matters. When that student is in speech-language therapy maybe twice a week at school, and then the child is getting speech twice a week at home, we may be wondering why he is so emotionally drained when he comes home, and it might be because he’s having speech four times a week. It may not have been necessary, or maybe it was, but either way, he is emotionally drained. Listening to everybody’s story helps us figure out what’s happening throughout his day - during the school day at home. 

Carolee: That perspective-taking is something that I have found is one of the most valuable aspects of getting kids to read a variety of stories from different people, different cultures, and different backgrounds. That ability to take other people’s perspectives, not only take the perspective but to honor that perspective. That is something that we need very much in our world right now. Perspective-taking through stories, writing your own story to share your perspective, reading other people’s stories to learn theirs, is invaluable. Tell us a little bit about that perspective-taking.

Mary Jo: Everyone has their version of the narrative. We need to respect the educator’s version and we also need to respect the parents’ version. By bringing those stories together we are able to understand the child’s learning patterns and we are able to put in place better instruction, which will only support the child.

Carolee: Mary Jo, thank you so much for sharing how you advocate for smilies through stories. This has been such an invaluable addition to my book and I hope that parents are inspired and empowered now to share their stories. Thank you so much. 

Mary Jo: Thank you for having me.

To receive a code for 20% off of Story Frames in my March and April newsletters and receive a free story template, sign up for my mailing list.

Q & A With Brookes Publishing

Read my recent Q & A with Brookes Publishing where I discuss my new book.

Q. Your book explores the ways in which analyzing and creating stories can improve literacy and learning skills for all students. How does the process of mastering storytelling help boost those critical skills?

A. As a speech-language pathologist, anytime I evaluate a student’s receptive and expressive language I look at how they express themselves in connected discourse. Retelling a story is often part of that process. The ability to retell a story or create an original narrative are important skills for both school and life. Standardized tests have even been created to measure these abilities, and I discuss some of these tests in my book.

Understanding story structure gives kids a framework to organize a narrative that helps them determine which details to prioritize so they can recall those details, sequence information, make meaning out of new words and concepts, and learn to self-question to assess their own comprehension.

Stories are part of our daily lives. Families members tell stories to connect with each other, share their history, and to inform. Peers share stories to build relationships. Educators use stories to teach. Marketers use stories to persuade. Lawyers use stories to prove guilt or innocence. Detectives interview witnesses and use their stories to solve crimes. Stories help us to take the perspective of others, organize the events of our life, and make meaning from chaos.

I have found that struggling learners typically have two approaches to retelling a story. Either they have no frame of reference for the events, shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know,” or else they feel they must start at the beginning and include every single detail they can remember. Both responses stem from not understanding the basic structure of a narrative and what elements are essential to include in a retelling. When a student understands that structure, they then have a framework for organizing all kinds of narratives—those they encounter in school and those they encounter in everyday life. Consider how many core subjects use stories to convey information on topics as diverse as the Revolutionary War to space flight...

For the rest of the Q & A, visit the Brookes website. To receive a code for 20% off of Story Frames in my March and April newsletters and receive a free story template, sign up for my mailing list.

Sunday, March 21, 2021


A box arrived this morning and I opened it to find my preview copies of Story Frames for Teaching Literacy - 270 pages of my heart and soul - plus about 80 pages of additional online material. I lost count somewhere along the way! It is available for sale to the public on April 2, 2021, at Brookes and on  Amazon.

This book is the culmination of two decades of work as a young adult author and a speech-language pathologist in the public schools as well as in my private practice working with students with dyslexia. 

Here I am below, looking a little more composed.

In Story Frames, I combine my insights as a fiction novelist with my experience working with struggling learners to show students how to think and create stories like a professional writer. I owe a debt of gratitude to the parents and students who allowed me to share their stories in my book. Thank you to all my students, young and old, who inspired me to find a method to teach storytelling and writing that is accessible to anyone. 

Here is a little secret - I use the same basic strategies with first graders, middle school students, and teens as I do when I teach novel plotting to adults who want to become professionally published authors. I am able to do this because almost all stories (movies, novels, and even picture books) are based on a universal structure found in myths and fairy around the world. 

I shared these strategies with my friend and fellow author, Jennifer Cervantes (as best-selling author of the Storm Runner series she goes by J.C. Cervantes), and she used the strategies to teach her college literature students the structure of stories.

"I used this text with my university students to illustrate story structure as well as highlight the most important elements of a hero’s journey." - Jennifer Cervantes

Whether you are young or old, a published author or a struggling writer, whether you want to publish the next great novel or simply want to preserve your personal family stories, I hope you find inspiration from my little book.  

To find out more about Story Frames, please join me on March 31 for an online Coffee Chat hosted by Brookes Publishing. Register for the Coffee Chat HERE. Sign up for my mailing list HERE and get a code in my April Newsletter for 20% off of Story Frames.

Now I have to go. It's party time! My new book has arrived.

Happy Writing! 


Sunday, March 14, 2021


Get a discount code for 20% off of my new book, Story Frames for Teaching Literacy, in my March and April Newsletters when you join my MAILING LIST. You may unsubscribe at any time. You will also receive a free fill-in-the-blank story template called Travel Trouble.

I'm also excited to announce that I will be holding a live online Coffee Chat with Brookes Publishing on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 from 1:00 - 1:45. Register HERE. The description from Brookes is below:

Presented by: Carolee Dean, M.S., CCC-SLP, CALT, Speech-Language Pathologist, Certified Academic Language Therapist, Dyslexia Therapist Age range: Upper elementary (3–5) Who this chat is for: teachers, speech-language pathologists, dyslexia tutors, and therapists Analyzing and creating stories can boost critical literacy skills for all learners—and this engaging and informative coffee chat will show you how. Presented by Carolee Dean, author of the new book Story Frames for Teaching Literacy, this must-see chat introduces you to the twelve elements found in almost all stories and reveals how to teach these elements effectively to your students. Through an overview of the book, Dean will emphasize ways you can use narratives to help students with a variety of learning objectives, such as improving comprehension, written language, and other key skills. ATTENDEES WILL: • Learn the underlying structure present in almost all stories—and explore how to effectively teach this structure to students to improve comprehension

• Understand how using the context of a story facilitates vocabulary development

• Explore how teaching self-questioning (and other strategies) improves both comprehension and written language

• Discover activities that will inspire even the most reluctant writers


Sunday, March 7, 2021


Brookes Publishing has created a lovely two-page handout entitled, 6 Ways to Explore Story Elements With Your Students. It's a great visual to share with teachers, librarians, and school administrators especially if you are requesting funds to purchase my new book - Story Frames for Teaching Literacy. The publisher and I have worked hard to keep this resource affordable by creating a robust downloads section with power points, activity sheets, and book synopses. It is due for publication in early April of 2021.

To learn more about how film structure inspired me to write this book, check out my previous blog post Screenwriting and Novel Plotting: The Inspiration Behind Story Frames.

Each section of Story Frames starts with the evidence base behind the strategies for that chapter and there are links to the Common Core State Standards throughout. There is also a lengthy reference section at the end. Go to the Brookes Website to get the downloadable version of this handout and don't forget to sign up for my NEWSLETTER to receive a free Story Template if you have not already done so.