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.

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