Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement


Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.

Celebrate #MLK Day with your students and children!
MLK I Have a dream

January 15, 2021 by Jhara Navalo

Read about Martin Luther King's legacy and America's rich and dynamic history from the perspective of Black Americans. The Civil Rights movement began a groundswell of change and gave voice to the cause of equal rights for all that continues in our country to the present day. Learn about our neighbors' struggles, challenges, and triumphs as diverse cultures have come together to define America's history. Here are a few audiobooks we recommend that students will enjoy reading as they learn about American leaders.

I Have a Dream


MLK - I have a dream

by Martin Luther King Jr.,
Recommended Grade Levels: All
On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, Martin Luther King gave one of the most powerful and memorable speeches in our nation's history. 


Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm X
Recommended for Grade Levels: 9 and up
The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand America.


Letter from Birmingham Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.
Recommended for Grade Levels: 7 and up
"The Letter from Birmingham Jail" is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King, Jr. The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism, arguing that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.


The Port Chicago 50

by Steve Sheinkin
Recommended for Grade Levels: 6 and up
Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin shares a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America's armed forces during World War II.


Freedom on the Menu

by Carole Boston Weatherford; Jerome Lagarrigue (Illustrator)
recommended for Grade Levels: 4 - 8
Eight-year-old Connie is too young to march or give a speech, she helps her brother and sister make signs for the cause. Changes are coming to Connie’s town, but Connie just wants to sit at the lunch counter and eat a banana split like everyone else.


Who Was Rosa Parks?

by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Recommended for Grade Levels: 3 - 7
In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. This seemingly small act triggered civil rights protests across America and earned Rosa Parks the title Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.


Gone Crazy in Alabama

by Rita Williams-Garcia, Recommended for Grade Levels: 3 - 7
Newbery Honor winner and New York Times bestselling author Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of the Gaither sisters, who are about to learn what it's like to be fish out of water as they travel from the streets of Brooklyn to the rural South for the summer of a lifetime. 


Freedom Songs

by Trina Robbins
Recommended for Grade Levels: 2 - 3
Fourteen-year-old Sarah is a slave in Maryland during the 1850s. She knows her only chance at freedom is to head North, where slavery is illegal. To get there, though, Sarah needs help from members of the Underground Railroad. But who can she trust?

Aunt Clara Brown

by Linda Lowery
Grade Level: 2 - 3
In 1859 Clara bought her own freedom and headed west to Colorado to find her daughter, who was sold when she was just a little girl. Clara didn't find her daughter there, but she did get rich, and she became known as Aunt Clara Brown.

Frederick Douglas

William Miller
Recommended for Grade Level: 1 - 4
Born into slavery young Frederick dreams of the day he and his people will be free. Yet until that day comes, his only escape is through the books he reads, which take him to worlds far from his own. 

Got a book list suggestion? Send your ideas to: allkidscanread@learningally.org and help us get you the books you want and need to read.


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Setting Reading Goals for the New Year
A book is laying open on a blanket and a dog with reddish/orange fur and long ears, has its nose in the book.

January 7, 2021 by Katie Ottaggio

By Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager and Kristen Witucki, CSP Curriculum and Content Editor

Reading for pleasure is one of the most rewarding experiences you can possibly have. Your mind and heart expand as you learn about a new world, inhabit someone else's experiences or just find solace or entertainment. There's also nothing like reading something that is not required. Kristen remembers early in her freshman year, even though she was reading a lot of great literature then, how freeing it felt to read something that was not written down on a syllabus.

Unfortunately, reading for pleasure can be difficult to schedule. College obligations like research projects and exams, life obligations like family and work, getting distracted by the news or social media, and exhaustion from all of this can interfere with our ability to read for pleasure. One way to alleviate this struggle is to set reading goals. Below we have brainstormed about the types of goals you can set when it comes to reading.

We'll Start With The Personal

Katie's goal is to read at least forty books between October 2020 and October 2021. She works fulltime and is the mother of two children who are currently in a hybrid learning situation, so carving out time to read is a very important part of her self-care. It's a way to forget about the stresses of the world and escape. Her reading interests include pretty much everything from historical fiction to memoirs, from true crime to romance, and everything in between. She's recently been interested in books set in Russia (check out some of her recommendations here.) To date, she has already read about a quarter of the way to her goal, so she's on track to finish ahead of schedule! If she does, she might decide to expand her number of books or to tackle one of the other goals we've suggested below.

Kristen's goal is to read something new again! It's a modest goal but given that her reading life was derailed by the pandemic, she feels it's a good place to start. Fortunately, Learning Ally, Audible, and Bookshare provide her with more than enough contemporary and literary fiction.

Other Goals to Encourage Reading

If number of books sounds too cut and dry or you want to take on a goal that is not constricted by time, there are several other types of reading goals you can set.

Increase your reading time - Maybe you'd like to just read more in general. Consider creating a goal around the number of pages you want to read or by spending a pre-determined amount of time each day, week, or month on reading.

Reading outside your comfort zone - Many of us have book types that we return to time and time again. But, think of the possibilities if you expand your horizons? If you only read fiction, try to read at least one nonfiction or poetry book. Or, try books from several genres such as autobiographical or memoir, biographical or historical, scientific, instructional, or many other options. Not only will you expand your knowledge, but you'll open up new worlds for yourself. The possibilities are almost endless.

Spinoffs From the Genres Goal

Some reading goals use different parameters to help people branch out and try something new. Here are a few that could be fun and interesting:

  • Alphabet Goal - A book with a title or author from each letter of the alphabet
  • Time Period or Decades Goal - An eighteenth century classic, a book set in the future, a book that came out the year you were born, a book from each decade of a century
  • Locations Goal - A book set in a place you'd like to visit, a book set in your home state, a book set in each country or state from a designated area
  • Push Your Limits Goal - A book that intimidates you, a book with more than 500 pages, a book about a difficult topic

Joining a Community

Reading does not need to be a solitary activity. There are tons of book clubs, many of which have moved to a virtual format. Find one you might like to try and learn more about what the specific club has to offer. When it's safe to gather in groups again, local clubs can often be a great option, as they offer you a chance to connect with fellow readers and thinking in your community by meeting at a library, book store, or a member's home. Having a reading community helps you to create a reading deadline and to connect with others who enjoy books as much as you do.

Social media is also a great place to find inspiration for your reading goals. Start following book and reading groups. The members of these groups often post their goals, which can be an encouragement to you. They are also great places to find book recommendations. If you need a specific type of book to meet your goal, post in the group and you'll get multiple recommendations in no time.

Make Your Goals Realistic and Obtainable

Regardless of the goal you set, think it through before you commit. If you give yourself a goal that is too easy, you may not feel much motivation or as accomplished as you'd like to feel when you do complete it. That being said, you also want to make sure your goals are obtainable. You may be excited and motivated to reach a lofty goal, but if your goal isn't realistic then consider how you'll feel if and when you don't reach it. Will it weigh on you? Will you put too much pressure on yourself? Ultimately, go with a goal that feels "right".

For reading recommendations from the CSP team, Learning Ally staff, and CSP Mentors, check out the links below.

Summer Reading Recommendations Part 1: College Success Program Staff
Summer Reading Recommendations Part 2: College Success Program Mentors
Summer Reading Recommendations Part 3: Learning Ally Staff
Summer Reading Recommendations Part 4: More Learning Ally Staff
A Brief List of Winter Reading Recommendations

No matter what kind of goals you set, or don't, we hope that 2021 is a year filled with books! Good luck!

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In support of our students, our educators and our democracy
Constitution Audiobook

January 7, 2021 by Learning Ally

Constitution Audiobook

We know the recent events at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. have been very stressful for everyone, not to mention the existing challenges related to the Pandemic. Learning Ally is here for our educators and parents with effective and equitable resources to help support our students.

An audiobook from our library that is very relevant to yesterday’s events and may help you to address them with your students and children is “What is the Constitution?” by Patricia Brennan Demuth for Grades 3-7.

Here is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the US Constitution came into being, including the hotly fought issues--those between Northern and Southern States; big states and little ones--and the key players such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington who suffered through countless revisions to make the Constitution happen. It illustrates how our democracy came to be, how to facilitate dispute resolution and how our democracy is designed to work. Check out the trailer! Narrated by: Jackie Starkis

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A Brief List of Winter Reading Recommendations
The image shows a book laying open on a table and the view is as if you're looking at it from table level. Behind the book is a coffee mug and holiday lights, both out of focus, giving the photo a soft glow.

December 22, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

Compiled by CSP Staff

The College Success Program staff wish you happy holidays and a rejuvenating end-of-semester break. One of the best ways to rejuvenate is with a good book, or several! During the summer, we gathered a plethora of amazing reading recommendations from CSP Mentors and Learning Ally staff, which you can find here, here, here, and here. Here are a few additional reading thoughts as you search for a good winter break escape. Please note: These books are not necessarily available in Learning Ally's audiobook catalog.

Mary Alexander, National Director, Student Initiatives

"Erin Morgenstern wrote The Night Circus, which I'm rereading now. It's got fantasy, magic and intrigue. Very good read."

Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager

"I've been very interested lately in books set in Russia. Here are three I've recently enjoyed."

Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris - "If you've read The Tattooist of Auschwitz then you'll recognize this main character, Cilka. Based on a true story, this book follows her journey from Auschwitz to a prison camp in northern Russia and all that she encounters there. It is a shining example of resilience with a little bit of love and is a great read."

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden - "A book set centuries ago in the wilderness of Russia, this story follows Vasya, who is different than the rest of the people in her village, though no one can really pinpoint why. She has a special relationship with the spirits in the woods and this book details how that conflicts with other religions and those who believe 'they are right'. This is a great book that allows you to get lost in a beautiful fantasy world."

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips - "You guessed it, another book set in Russia. If you're looking for something lighthearted and uplifting, don't read this. This centers around two missing girls from an isolated town in western Russia. Each chapter follows someone different from the area, but they all have some connection to the missing girls. At first, I thought it might be disorienting to read about someone new each chapter, but this is written in a way that has you invested in each character within the first few paragraphs. And the whole time you're wondering, "where are the girls?"

Abigail Shaw, Mentorship Coordinator

"I'm currently reading Mr. Dickens and His Carol. It's historical fiction and an enjoyable holiday read."

Kristen Witucki, Curriculum and Content Editor

"Though I've been incredibly fortunate during this trying time, I've thrown myself into an aversion to reading anything new. The thought of a character dying this year has been difficult. So, I've done A LOT of rereading. One way I've kept up with reading something is connecting with one of my closest friends every week on Facetime, and we've read and discussed a lot of short stories. Our favorite this year is Akiba Sullivan Harper's edited collection, Short Stories by Langston Hughes. Reading about the struggles and triumphs of African Americans and others from the 1930s through the 1960s gives us an eerie feeling of déjà vu: so many of these situations are playing out in slightly different forms even now in the 21st century as our nation confronts the legacies of racism, colonialism, and misogyny during the pandemic. But there are moments of dark humor, gripping suspense and grace in these stories as well.


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Parenting During the Pandemic: One Blind Mother's Journey
A black and white photo of a smiling Kristen Witucki.

December 10, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Kristen Witucki, CSP Curriculum and Content Editor and mother to Langston, Noor, and Karuna

"Mama, up!" my toddler daughter insists. When sleep is over for her, it's just over. No gradual shift between being asleep and awake, no coffee addiction. Karuna is fueled on youth and life and whatever the day ahead will bring. But I sometimes worry it won't bring her enough!

My nine-year-old, Langston, stumbles out of bed a little while later. He's closer to adulthood in that he needs some time to adjust to being awake. He remembers what normal used to be, that he used to eat a hurried breakfast and run out the door to school, that he hung out with a bunch of kids on the playground after school. All of that has changed now. He takes his time eating. He also hardly goes anywhere. Without a car, I can't take him to socially distant options like nature preserves and hikes. But he has more virtual communication options and a friend on our block he can hang out with.

Usually last to awaken is my middle son, Noor, a wild and wonderful four-year-old. He's the most social of us but now has the fewest connections during the pandemic. Once in a while he hangs out with a four-year-old on the next block, but we are also careful. She attends school in person and has a wider contact net than we do. Now that cases are surging again, we have quietly ended our physical connection again.

My husband is older. COVID could hurt any of us in unknown and possibly irreversible ways, but statistically it's most likely to affect him. As a blind, African American older man, would hospitals de-prioritize him if they reach capacity? I try not to think about that.

For almost all my children's friends, school is still a thing. They either check in virtually or go masked and in-person. I worried that virtual school would not be terribly accessible for me to keep up with as a parent-teacher, and in-person, though it's daily tempting me with my pre-K student, seemed too risky for us. So, I'm homeschooling. From March to June, I would say I was crisis-schooling rather than real homeschoolingyear 0 or the pilot yearor maybe unschooling? But now that it's November and year 1 is solidly under way, I'm starting to own the title of homeschooling a little bit, though I second guess my own abilities daily.

Karuna's school is still life. We work on Montessori concepts when we can. She rides a tricycle around the house. She stacks and nests and chatters to her dolls. She makes us pretend coffee and works a little on pouring water to practice drinking. Each day she learns a new concept. Yesterday it was pocket. She loves going for a walk and insists on wearing a mask, even as the boys hope they don't have to wear them.

Noor's school is puzzles and books and magnetic letters. Weeks ago, I ordered sandpaper letters for him to trace to help him with his writing. I still haven't received them. And I still haven't figured out the best method to evaluate his writing, especially in real time. Noor and I have also delved into the world of imagination. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs inhabit a very earthquake-prone castle. The unicorns resent that they've moved onto their land. Oh, and Rapunzel also lives there.

Langston, my fourth grader, needs the most school time/structure. Since the beginning of the pandemic, birds and butterflies have captured his fancy completely, along with animals in general, so his science units are a lot more biological than the fourth grade common core standards. Otherwise, we do stick to them for math and social studies, as he has recently completed a unit on the Lenape tribe, who once lived in New Jersey, and is working on some math review and bar graphing. His proudest moment of homeschooling came when he presented virtually to a group of second graders in Elmhurst, Queens, about the life cycle and wonders of the monarch butterfly, complete with live butterflies he had raised himself. All of those butterflies are far away nowwe hope they are traveling safely and have found a colony to hid among. We hope they will return in spring, but we decided after some thought not to risk damaging their wings by tagging them. He swears he hates fictionhow can he be related to me? So, I do my best to introduce it in a casual way as a read-aloud at night. We've started covering kid poetry every week or so during a laid-back ritual I read about in the homeschool community called Poetry Teatime. I think he enjoys citrus tea the most, but I hope the poetry sinks in.

Remember when I said I question my homeschooling ability daily? Each day, something goes wrong. One siblings gets jealous of my attention to another; my time with them is often not even, and whoever gets less time usually realizes this. Sometimes kids don't want to learn when it's time to learn. Sometimes we debate about what they should be learning, and sometimes I even lose those debates. My daughter is still too young to be part of most of the arguments, but my boys have their fair share. They can even argue over two identical ballsone for each of themabout which of them should get which identical ball, because they swear once bounces higher than the other.

And yet...pre-pandemic, my older son would have often completely ditched my younger one to hang out with friends or by himself. The pandemic has given them the realization that for better or worse, they have each other. They still argue, but they also realize how important they are to each other's play. When my older son hangs out with his friend from down the block, they almost always want his younger brother to join in.

Before I know it, the morning is over. It's time for work. Our supervisor has given us the flexibility to work in the afternoons and be with our children in the mornings. As she put it, this is a very unusual and difficult year, and we should at least remember some moments of enjoyment with our children. And I do. In the afternoon, I'm fortunate that my husband is with them, but while he's great at keeping the physicality of the house movingfood, laundry, cleaninghe's not the educator in our family. His own school experience was difficultI've talked about that a bit in the novel I've written, Outside Myselfso I can tell him a few things, but really the kids' school day has ended. Sometimes they are outside; other times they are captivated by a screen. Pre-pandemic the extra screen time would have filled me with helpless fury, but now it's something I can't fight, thought I won't deny that I regret how many principles have caved during this time. My company is already more than accommodating of my bizarre split schedule. I will do my best, in return, not to let our College Success students down.

I mentor students as well. Sometimes virtual learning can be incredibly difficult for them, while at other times, it makes them feel freer. One student has trouble following along. Another student told me that her social anxiety actually diminished when she met people from home.

Dinner and then evening. The boys get along the best in the evening, but they're also craziest. They chase each other, play hide-and-seek, and, despite my best efforts, sometimes end up using the furniture as a gym. Bedtime is the climax of all of this, as I tell them for what I feel must be the six thousandth time that they need to brush their teeth NOW. But, even though those few minutes of putting off the inevitable are brutal for me, soon enough, we're reading, and then they are asleep.

Nighttime. I've accomplished some of what I wanted to do. My kids have theoretically learned something new, and I've cleared my work to-do list. I always have the nagging feeling I've forgotten somethingit's a condition of motherhood, and after almost a decade, you'd think I'd be used to this feelingbut the pandemic has caused it to swell into a roar in my brain.

I stay up for a few hours after the kids are asleep. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I catch up on work, sometimes I complete the online shopping obligations. Sometimes I try to learn a little more about homeschooling, to gather a new suggestion I can try tomorrow. Sometimes I reach out to friends via WhatsApp, where it's easy to record messages, or email, my equivalent to the handwritten letter. I read novels per my original calling as an English major, but I find myself drawn to rereading rather than investing in any new characters. Sometimes I spend too much time "doomscrolling" which, for those who are unfamiliar, is "the act of consuming an endless procession of negative online news, to the detriment of the scroller's mental wellness," per Wikipedia. Death holds a new kind of terror this year. I have been eerily lucky that no one I know has gotten sick and died. But even the thought of the death of a book character fills me with dread. New books will be a resolution for 2021. For now, all of life is so tenuous, even though in many ways, the days are so similar that you could almost call them Groundhog Days, that I need my reading to be predictable.

Someone without children asked me how time is passing for me these days. I've learned about the difference between Kairos and Chronos, which is especially obvious when you have a toddler. Kairos is typically the reason each moment can seem eternal, but then Chronos gives you the ability to look back and think, "Wow, that flew!" For me, the primary difference between this time perception now and pre-pandemic is that I don't have many "Chronos" thoughts. Or maybe my Kairos and Chronos have gotten mixed up. The moments fly, but the days spread out behind and before me like untrodden snow. I don't really think, "That went so quickly" because it didn't. In many ways, time has slowed way down. I'm primarily with my husband and children with occasional respite visits with my mother, who is also quarantining. Seeing someone from the outside world, even our neighbors down the block, fills me with a bizarre feeling of, "How did you get here?"

I wonder what hanging out with good friends from far away will feel like when it finally happens again. Will I want to hold them and not let go, or will I sit there in complete awe that I'm physically with this person again, or will I talk and talk and talk? Do my kids feel this way too, or have their brains more malleably adapted to the new normal? Only time will tell!

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