Diane Browder, professor of special education at UNC Charlotte, believes learning something new empowers a person and gives one a sense of excitement and energy about life.
Browder, 57, of Kannapolis, is the first UNCC professor to receive the O. Max Gardner Award, the University of North Carolina system's highest faculty award.
Michael Green, a member of the College of Education, was part of a group that nominated Browder for the award. The group said her work had a clear and direct impact on children with disabilities.
People could see at a glance that something special was happening with the children, said Browder.
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Green is "not somebody I've ever collaborated on research with," said Browder. "I don't know him socially. He's just someone with a deep sense of service to the university."
Green and other members of the university put together a book of materials including publications and letters written about Browder.
"They warmed my heart," said Browder, who says she could read only a letter a day - otherwise they would make her cry. "The letters from teachers, the fact that they would take the time and find me, find my email, lets me know the kind of impact it's having."
In the past, people unintentionally made assumptions about what kids can learn based on the stereotype of their disabilities, she said. But for Browder, it was all about high expectations when developing the curriculum.
The first boxed curriculum Browder developed was the Early Literacy Skills Builder, designed to build a bridge to beginning reading. It's a pre-reading program that takes a child with almost no reading skills and enables them to decode simple words, Browder said.
"I think the reason teachers are so grateful is because it was field-tested here in Charlotte and it's very usable," said Browder. "It's not done in an ivy tower. The bugs are worked out of it."
For children who have multiple disabilities and possibly no communication system, a newly released boxed curriculum - Pathways to Literacy - involves a multisensory way of learning to read. This program starts from the beginning and provides ways to make reading surprising and exciting, said Browder.
She also has middle and high school math and science curriculums available nationwide.
The first steps in developing any curriculum are to conduct research in the area, talk to experts in the field and find out the most important parts to consider when it comes to teaching children with severe disabilities, said Browder.
Browder and her team take the information on how to teach students a particular subject and brainstorm methods to compensate for disabilities like language deficits.
It's about taking a subject like reading, finding out what you want to know, "the what's taught, the how it's taught ... and here's the way to teach a child with severe disabilities," said Browder.
Her hope is to make individual lessons easy and enjoyable to teach, and most of all, fun and exciting for children.
"A lot of our Charlotte teachers start from scratch," said Browder, whose curriculum provides word-for-word instructions for teachers. "A lot of teachers don't have the time to do all that. They can just pull it out and do it. That's why we script it."
Even if the teacher likes to start from scratch, it's important to have one or two lessons already there, she said.
Browder became aware of special education when she was in sixth grade and noticed the teacher had really high expectations of her students.
"I was fascinated with this teacher," said Browder, who thought at first that she should be showing a lot of sympathy and babying them. "But she was no-nonsense, and it was time to straighten up. She said it's kinder to have high expectations of a person."
Browder was the first woman in her family to attend college, and she pursued a degree in psychology at Duke University.
After her first year at Duke, Browder worked at an institution for children with disabilities in Lynchburg, Va. She witnessed hundreds of children unable to receive the treatment they needed. Babies spent the whole day in bed and their bodies would get stiff, she said.
Although it was the best thinking of the time, Browder said, people's focus was on civil rights, school integration and pursuing educational opportunities.
But she was left wondering who was standing up for children with disabilities.
"It gave me a passion for wanting to do this work, for wanting to have this high expectation," she said.
Browder graduated from Duke in 1975 and later continued her education at the University of Virginia, where she received her master's degree in special education.
"My research gives me the opportunity to work with teachers," said Browder.
She moved to Charlotte in 1998 and is focused on preparing doctoral students to work with special education teachers.
"To learn something new is, I think, to learn about ourselves," said Browder, who believes doctoral students are the future of not only her work but of all children with disabilities. "Students are learning, teachers are learning, doctoral students are learning. All those layers learning is really exciting."
Browder's perspective is more than just academic, she said.
Two decades ago, Browder worked with her niece, Beth, who had severe developmental disabilities. Together they explored the latest developments on teaching basic living skills.
Browder said her work with Beth has truly blessed her life.
"There was no pretense," she said. "In a family context, things work or they don't. Beth was quite good with telling me what's working for her and what's not working for her."
Browder lives with her husband, Wally Boswell, and has two grown sons. Boswell is a machine technology instructor at Central Piedmont Community College. When Browder and her husband are not teaching, they spend their time taking ballroom dancing lessons twice a week.