Krystal Starke, GSE PhD student, conducts a lesson with a young child at GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center, a new Buffalo nonprofit, July 2021. (UB Photo/Meredith Forrest Kulwicki)

Teaching at the Playhouse

GSE students teach children with Down syndrome in a new nonprofit partnership

BY MARCENE ROBINSON AND MICHELLE KEARNS

UB’s new partnership and pilot program with Buffalo’s GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center has developed into a new opportunity for UB students to learn and teach.

GiGi’s Playhouse Experiential Learning is an independent study that began with a small group of UB students who earned credit toward internship or professional teaching certifications by tutoring preschool and elementary-school-age children with Down syndrome.

The course addresses a critical preparation gap for future teachers who will work with children with Down syndrome and other disabilities. The need has become more urgent as schools increasingly integrate classrooms to include students with learning differences, said co-instructor Claire Cameron, GSE associate professor of learning and instruction.

“Most students who qualify for special education spend 80 percent or more of their time in typical classroom settings. Decades of classroom-based research show that students with disabilities benefit from inclusion, or learning alongside their typically developing peers, whenever possible. What’s more, typically developing peers also benefit,” said Cameron. “With the nationwide wave of retiring teachers, colleges must prepare new educators for classrooms of today, which increasingly include students with a wide range of learning needs. Colleges must prepare professionals, including teachers, to work effectively with exceptional learners.”

GiGi’s Playhouse is a nonprofit that offers free educational and career development programming for people with Down syndrome, their families and the community through a playhouse model. The Buffalo center, one of 54 throughout the U.S. and Mexico, opened in August 2020 on Kenmore Avenue, behind UB’s Anderson Gallery.

The GSE team preps for an afternoon session of a pilot class. Left to right: Olivia Holmwood, Claire Cameron, and Krystal Starke, July 2021.
(UB Photo/Meredith Forrest Kulwicki)

The new GSE coursework and teaching partnership can help teachers learn the techniques for helping more children with Down syndrome learn to read, said Emily Mondschein, a Playhouse co-founder and its executive director.

“The issue is, schools oftentimes don’t have the strategies and techniques to properly work with this population based on the accommodations that they need,” she said. “Reading is a strength for people with Down syndrome. Some  people with Down syndrome are able  to read at their grade level.”

During the course, students review research literature about education for children with Down syndrome and volunteer with GiGi’s One-on-One Literacy Tutoring Program and meet with families in a hybrid mix of Zoom and in-person sessions. For a final project, students develop an at-home program of activities and strategies personalized for the child and family.

“There are certain skills, such as behavior management and tailoring curriculum and instruction styles to unique student profiles, that are limited during formal instruction. Experiential learning teaches our future teachers these skills by allowing them to observe and practice them in real time,” said Krystal Starke, a GSE doctoral student and Early Childhood Research Center instructor who co-developed the syllabus.

Cameron and Starke plan to continue the course, offer it to more UB students and study its effectiveness. They also hope to expand and include other organizations that specialize in teaching young people with learning differences.

Mondschein welcomes their efforts. “I’m proud of them for stepping up to do this work, which is really uncharted and really needs to happen,” she said.

“Exceptional learners are an integral part of our society,” said Cameron. “We can do more to educate all members of society about the gifts and advantages to everyone when exceptional people are meaningfully included in our classrooms, workplaces and communities.”