Center for Literacy, Education & Employment

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Reflections on communication: Never taking it for granted – Teaching All Students

By Sydney Gilreath, senior in journalism and media studies at the University of Tennessee. This is Sydney’s first in a series of articles sharing her experiences and insights while supporting Tennessee special education training events during the summer of 2021.

When presenters, Susan Usery, Dr. Alex Da Fonte, and Alison Gauld announced to the audience that they would be ordering their lunches via communication boards, the room grew to a deafening silence. Over a hundred school staff looked around the room, sharing glances of confusion, interest, and maybe even a touch of anxiety. This was one of many training situations these presenters would place them in to aid mindset growth on students with low incidence disabilities.

Their task at hand forced them to communicate only through the boards they were given – no texting, no typing, no writing, no gesturing, and no speaking to one another  – during the entire lunch period.

The problem the majority of the attendees ran into was actually using the boards, which was to be expected. Some individuals had two-page boards, others had just one-page, so participants had varying levels of vocabulary. During the activity debrief, attendees were divided on whether or not having more pages was beneficial or harmful, as they had to flip between pages while trying to not hold up the lunchline. 

Participants in this exercise, as well as the training itself, were all individuals directly involved in special education across Tennessee, as part of the Teaching All Students [TAS] initiative through the Tennessee Department of Education’s [TDOE] State Personnel Development Grant [SPDG]. The goal of this training was to aid the project’s first cohort in changing their instructional mindset. Eighteen high schools across the state were chosen via application to participate, and each had four people in attendance – an administrator, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and a special education director.

Boards like the ones used by attendees are often used by students with complex cognitive disabilities to communicate, although some students have no communication system. These boards are made up of a set of boxes with predetermined images, words, or both. Anything not on the board simply cannot be communicated. As participants discovered, the vocabulary within the boards is limited, and can create conflict while trying to perform common tasks.

This resulted in participants spending their lunchtime silently on their phones, not even bothering to attempt to communicate to their fellow colleagues. These educators found the boards so difficult to communicate with, they simply gave up. Sitting in silence and isolation was easier than struggling to connect with others, through no fault of their own. 

This is the same feeling of isolation and exclusion students with complex needs experience every day.

I grew up in a relatively smaller high school, and we did not have much of a special education program, so all of this information was new to me. Getting to witness the attendees struggling, and often sitting down defeated and frustrated, after leaving the lunchline was an experience I do not think I will ever forget. 

And, while I am not, and probably will not, be involved in the educational field, it’s information that I hold dear. I never really thought about how those who cannot communicate or learn like me may struggle in plain sight while passersby never notice. 

Alison Gauld, the primary facilitator for the Teaching All Students initiative, is the current Low Incidences and Autism Coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education’s Special Populations department. For more information regarding the initiative, including how you or your school can get involved, email

Resources for Supporting TN Students with Disabilities During COVID-19

The rapidly evolving challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including statewide school closures, have caused countless disruptions for educators across Tennessee as they strive to support their students with disabilities while working remotely.

UT CLEE was honored to collaborate with other TDOE Special Populations grantees providing services to special populations within public schools to identify, develop, and share resources that educators can use to serve their students and families well. UT CLEE ‘s contribution to this collection is our Self-Advocacy and Career Planning and our Transition IEP development resources.

The full online resource collection  provides both full text online, as well as in printable format (linked below).

  1. Information sheet for educators
  2. Information sheet for families
  3. One-page reference guide for families

Please join CLEE in giving thanks to all the organizations involved in this project:

Virtual Events: The New Norm

Change is good; you go first.

A month ago, we never imagined how our work would change in the blink of an eye. Knee-deep in planning face-to-face events, our biggest concerns were streamlining our mobile app services and modernizing the the look and feel of registration websites for our next conferences. These details all seem trivial now compared to what we are facing in the event industry. It is a scary and uncertain time.

Q: How do we plan when we aren’t sure what the future holds? How do we stay afloat when the very career we dedicate our lives to has been flipped upside down?

A: We keep going. We adapt. We innovate. As planners, that is what we are inherently made to do. We look for problems and solve them before anyone can feel the effect and we overcome challenges that others may deem impossible.

This is our time to shine – Virtually!

How do we do this?” you ask? Maybe an online event is something you have never even considered. Perhaps the very idea of helping thousands of people to connect online seems like an insurmountable task. We assure you that it can be done! As we face a new future in the event industry, our adaptability and creativity are going to launch us into an exciting new adventure.

Faced with a cancelled in-person event, how can planners support their customers to meet their training goals and provide event services to their attendees? Our immediate solution, echoed in this recent article posted by Aventri is to move your event to a virtual platform.

In today’s time, resources for virtual events are – virtually –infinite. The exciting part? Everyone across the world is in a similar boat… we are stuck at home and desperately searching for something to pass the time. So, why not provide an engaging online “gathering” (more than 10 people allowed) to not only provide attendees with something to do but to also make a memorable impression. Think about it… an in-person conference in the midst of everyday hectic lives boosts enthusiasm for a short period of time… but a virtual event where people can connect and learn when their everyday lives have become less busy will leave a lasting impact and foster a greater excitement for the future of online meetings.

We encourage you to Take on the Challenge! Welcome these changes as a growth opportunity and view this seemingly temporary situation as a launch pad for evolving your business  – and this industry – into something that will stand the test of time.

Unsure of how to do this? Reach out to us!
We would be happy to share tips and even partner with you to take your events to the next level.

Already conquered this challenge? Tell us about it!
Post your experiences, tips, and successes below!

2020 Partners in Education (PIE) Conference Highlights

After a year of planning, in late January 2020, the UTK CLEE Event Team executed the Tennessee Department of Education’s (TDOE) 2020 Partners in Education (PIE) Conference. The conference was held at the Music City Center in Downtown Nashville, TN.

At this annual conference, special education and general education teachers and administrators from across Tennessee gather to learn and highlight evidence-based best practices to ensure all students are prepared for postsecondary education, employment, and independent living. The UTK CLEE Event Team was honored to received public recognition for our efforts from TDOE event hosts, Allison Davey and Joann Runion, with the Whole Child Initiative (see image below).

From a planning standpoint, major accomplishments/successes from the 2020 PIE Conference include:

  • a record number of registrants and attendees,
  • a significant increase in program income,
  • a streamlined check-in procedure resulting in decreased in check-in wait times, and
  • an increased mobile app adoption rate and attendee and funder satisfaction.

For the second consecutive year, the PIE Conference had a record number of registrants (2545) and attendees (2350). With this increase and a small change to the registration timeline, the Event Team was able to increase event income by more than $50,000 without raising registration fees. The conference also had 78 exhibitors and 16 sponsors, which generated nearly $10,000 more income than past conferences.

Despite the increase in registrants, the 2020 PIE Conference attendees experienced shorter wait times at the onsite conference check-in. As part of CLEE’s commitment to continuous improvement and customer service, a revision to our attendee check-in processes streamlined the experience for all attendees.

The 2020 PIE Conference marked the first time the conference did not have a printed program. All conference related information and materials were moved to an online mobile app. More than 90% of attendees actively viewed session schedules, completed session surveys, and interacted with fellow attendees in the mobile app. This is the highest adoption rate we have seen at the PIE Conference.

While the Event Team is pleased with these accomplishments, they would be completely meaningless if the attendees and funder were not satisfied with the conference experience. Other than feedback on meals, all questions on the overall post-event attendee survey were rated above 90% for very satisfied or satisfied.  Onsite, the Event Team received multiple compliments from the funder, and public shout-outs on Twitter as shown above.

Overall, the 2020 Partners in Education Conference has been viewed as a successful conference by the attendees, the funder, and ourselves. While these are things we should definitely be proud of, the UTK CLEE Event Team takes the most pride in being considered a long-time partner of the Tennessee Department of Education.

We are also thrilled to announce that this partnership will continue. While onsite at the 2020 PIE Conference, TDOE asked us to begin planning the 2021 PIE Conference. We are all very excited about planning another Partners in Education Conference for the Tennessee Department of Education.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month October 2016 – #InclusionWorks


National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) was originally called “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” when Congress, in 1945, declared the first week of October an opportunity for employers to look beyond a person’s physical limitations. In the 71 years since, perceptions have changed, verbiage has been updated to better reflect the limitation rather than the person with the limitation, and the growing movement of #InclusionWorks is celebrated with various events, small and large, around the state of Tennessee throughout the month of October.

The United Stated Department of Labor chose as this year’s theme #InclusionWorks and it “…seeks to inspire social media awareness of workers with disabilities.”

“By fostering a culture that embraces individual differences, including disabilities, businesses profit by having a wider variety of tools to confront challenges. Our nation’s most successful companies proudly make inclusion a core value. They know that inclusion works. It works for workers, it works for employers, it works for opportunity, and it works for innovation.”

-Jennifer Sheehy, deputy assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy

Organizations are encouraged to hold their own NDEAM events or join events in their area to show their support for the diversity brought to the community, gain valuable knowledge to bring back to their employees, and celebrate the countless and diverse contributions of the American worker with disabilities. The events held throughout the U.S. embody the ‘can-do’ spirit of people who deal with varied limitations on a daily basis.

A honored and proud supporter of NDEAM, The Center for Literacy, Education and Employment’s Corporate Connections Account Representatives in collaboration with the Tennessee Division of Rehabilitation Services are coordinating and supporting events throughout the state. These events include:

-Disability Mentoring

-Awards and Recognition for employers and employees

-Community Awareness events

-Employer Outreach and Educational presentations


Celebrate Adult Education and Family Literacy Week!

2016-07_aeflw_logo_dateWe invite you to join us in celebrating Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, September 26 – October 1, 2016.

Adult education and family literacy programs serve adult students who need to improve their basic literacy and math skills, improve their oral and written English, obtain a high school equivalence degree, and prepare for community college or vocational training.

Family literacy programs serve parents and their young children, teaching basic skills, English as a Second Language, and parenting skills to adults while their children are provided high quality instruction. These programs are focused on breaking the cycles of low literacy, low education, and poverty.



LINCS & CLEE at COABE in Dallas

COABE2016CLEE Staff from the southeastern LINCS Regional Professional Development Center (RPDC II) will be presenting at the annual COABE conference in Dallas, TX.  Held April 10 – 16th, this conference is one of many activities by the national Commission on Adult Basic Education designed to advance national and international adult education and literacy opportunities for all persons.

RPDC II presentations at COABE:

  • Monday, April 11, 3:45–5:00
    Creating Effective Learning Environments
    by Gail Cope
  • Tuesday, April 12, 9:30-10:45
    Critical Thinking and Numeracy in Social Media
    by Aaron Kohring and Duren Thompson

More COABE session information:

Knoxville “Community Conversation” on Employment for People with Disabilities

Community conversationWhen: 6-8:15 pm, August 11, 2015

Where: Embassy Suites, 9621 Parkside Dr., Knoxville, TN  37922

Who’s Invited: All members of the Knoxville community

Why Attend: To share and discuss ways to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities in Knoxville.

How do I register:

The Knoxville Area Employment Consortium (KAEC), Tennesseeworks, and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center are hosting a Knoxville “Community Conversation” to discuss employment for people with disabilities. These Community Conversations have been conducted throughout the state – resulting in great feedback from community members and the development of successful strategies to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the local communities.

Community Conversation Knoxville Flyer – Please pass the word!

All members of the community are welcome to participate – Knoxville Mayor, Madeline Rogero plans to join in! As KAEC members, CLEE Center staff Mike Sass, Tina Jones and Stephanie Cowherd are helping to plan and facilitate this event.  Look for them there!


Madeline Rogero


Stephanie Cowherd


Mike Sass


Tina Jones





CLEE’s Flipped Learning Presentations at FlipCon 2015

picture-Duren ThompsonCenter staff member Duren Thompson was selected to attend FlipCon 2015 on July 13-15th, as a presenter for two topics. Her presentations highlighted the Center’s efforts to improve the quality of professional development for adult literacy practitioners, as well as strengthen adult learners’ skills for college and career transition.

FlipCon, held at Michigan State University and sponsored by the Flipped Learning Network, is focused on a growing trend in K-12 and Universities to ‘flip’ the traditional learning experience – moving direct instruction (lecture) into individual learning time (typically online, through focused visual presentations). This then provides more time in group settings for applications of learning, higher level discussion, and problem solving real-world tasks with the immediate support of instructors and peers. Take a look at ALL this year’s scheduled sessions online here.

Duren’s Sessions at FlipCon2015:
All sessions at FlipCon2015 model the flipped approach, requiring ‘pre-work’ for conference attendees.

Find out more about FlipCon2015 and Flipped Learning in this article from EdTech k-12 Magazine:
FlipCon 2015, the Flipped Learning Conference, Expands in 8th Year.

FlipCon2015 on Titter: #Flipcon15

Sponsors: As a graduate student in the Instructional Technology Master’s degree program at the University of Tennessee, Duren’s conference attendance has received support from:


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