Two Mercy professors traveled over 7,000 miles from home in summer of 2023 to bring their expertise to teachers teaching children with autism in India — and return to their roots. In August, Sudha Ramaswamy, Ph.D., associate professor of special education and chair of the School of Education’s Department of Special Education and Educational Leadership, and Roseanne Vallice Levy, Ph.D., the School of Education’s associate dean for academic affairs and assistant professor of special education, traveled to Bangalore, India to conduct training and research at Behavior Momentum India (BMI), a network of private clinics across India that serve children with autism. Given their deep expertise in special education and teacher preparation, BMI’s clinical director invited them to train teachers in India to improve students’ reading performance.
In collaboration with Amy Davies Lackey, Ph.D., executive director of education at the Manhattan Children’s Center, Ramaswamy and Levy trained elementary-level teachers in Reading Mastery, a Direct Instruction program, which is a highly structured instructional methodology designed to accelerate student learning. “Direct Instruction is evidence-based practice in our field, and we also know from our own experience as special educators that it is highly effective for students,” said Ramaswamy.
Upon arriving in Bangalore, Ramaswamy and Lackey led five days of Reading Mastery training. BMI flew in teachers from the Middle East and throughout South Asia to attend the training in person. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “The teachers were so enthusiastic and eager to learn about Direct Instruction,” said Ramaswamy. “We made sure that the training was very interactive with a lot of hands-on practice, and I think that was quite different from how the teachers were used to being trained.”
Though experts in their fields, Ramaswamy and Levy intentionally maintained a learning orientation. “We went into this project not only as teacher educators and scholars but also as learners since it’s a brand-new experience for us to work with teachers in India,” explained Levy. “We began by learning about the teachers and their cultures, rather than simply imposing our American mindset about how training works. By doing that work upfront, we were able to ensure that the training addressed the needs of the teachers and their students. Even though we teach our teacher candidates at Mercy to do this, it was a much-needed reminder to practice this ourselves.”
Alongside their work with teachers in India, Ramaswamy and Levy took the opportunity to plan two research studies: one led by Ramaswamy on the training’s effect on students’ reading skills and the other led by Levy on teachers’ perceptions of their preparedness and confidence in teaching reading to students with autism.
Levy began the first stage of her study before leaving for India by conducting a survey and a round of virtual interviews with BMI teachers to measure the teachers’ perceptions of their preparedness and confidence teaching reading to students with autism before the training. She will conduct another survey and a second round of interviews midway through the year and a final round at the end of the year to assess the extent to which these perceptions have changed over time.
Ramaswamy gathered baseline student performance data as well and will gather that same data at the end of the year to evaluate the extent to which Reading Mastery training and curriculum made a difference in students’ reading skills.
The trip also offered a unique opportunity for Ramaswamy and Levy to return to the country where their families came from — Ramaswamy’s family from the Tamil Nadu area and Levy’s family from Kerala. They both felt humbled to support Indian teachers and students. “To do important work with teachers and students in India, especially supporting students with disabilities, and to return to our families’ country of origin — this project is a dream come true!” said Levy.
Ramaswamy and Levy were able to fund their trip thanks to two grants — one awarded by the Mercy University Faculty Development Committee and another by the Engelmann Foundation, which supports the development of educators implementing Direct Instruction with their students. The grants supported the purchase of Reading Mastery kits for the BMI teachers. “We were particularly excited to be able to give kits to the teachers because they are quite expensive to purchase otherwise,” said Ramaswamy. “Though there has been progress in recent years, there are still lots of barriers that affect the educational opportunities of children with autism in India, including a lack of funding.”
They hope to inspire Mercy students to find ways to give back in their daily work in schools. “In India, we found a community of learners and teachers who would not have otherwise had access to this type of instruction,” said Ramaswamy. “But teachers encounter marginalized populations everywhere. We must teach our teacher candidates to look within themselves to see how they can make the world a better place for the students they support, the parents they interact with and the colleagues they work with. They must think about how to use the skills they gain at Mercy to improve outcomes for marginalized populations no matter where they’re teaching.”
Ramaswamy and Levy are hopeful that their collaboration with BMI clinics will continue and expand over time. “Education can help lift children and entire families out of poverty, so the potential reach is huge,” said Ramaswamy. “This is just the beginning of this project, so we’ll see where things go from here.”
This article is from the Maverick Magazine Fall 2023 issue. To read more, click here.