Michael Dunn knew about “special needs” long before he began his career in education. His dad couldn’t hear. Family members learned to cope with that on their own. They had to; they lived in a rural Canadian town far from health services.

First as a school teacher and then a researcher, Michael turned his focus to written words. The associate professor at WSU Vancouver, part of the College of Education’s special education program faculty, studies ways to help kids — with or without an obvious disability — who struggle with writing. He shared his expertise last week at the first graduate seminar supported by the Wilma Kamerrer Special Needs and Special Education Endowment.

WSU Associate Professor Michael Dunn
Michael Dunn

“Writing can be so taxing on students that they have little mental energy left for composing,” Michael said at the Pullman event.

His solution is a three-step teaching method in which students are asked to draw a picture that tells a story. Then they’re told to think about the story. Only then do they actually write the story down.

That approach syncs with Michael’s interest in response to intervention, or RTI. In a nutshell, RTI means not giving up on a student who is struggling. It involves screening for problems, providing help, and monitoring to make sure the student progresses.

“It’s not the traditional ‘wait to fail’ approach, where a student gets to grade three and only then do you decide what kind of help he needs,” said Michael, who is certified to teach RTI methods.

RTI can be expensive. It takes time and the involvement of specialists. But there are things teachers can do on their own to help students, and that’s part of what Michael discussed at the seminar. Soaking up his advice were master’s and doctoral students, including ones who will take their knowledge back to communities as far away as Ghana and Saudi Arabia.

The seminar also featured a presentation by Connie Beecher, a recent WSU doctoral graduate who gave advice on how to communicate research and scholarship agendas.

Sisterly support for education

Kamerrer sisters Wilma and Helen in Italy, 1958
Kamerrer sisters Wilma and Helen in Italy, 1958

The Wilma Kamerrer Special Needs and Special Education Endowment, like so much philanthropy, has roots in a personal connection.

Wilma was a farm girl born on the Palouse in 1927. She grew up to be the first female president of the Seattle First Bank branch in Pullman, according to Kate Kamerrer, who is married to Wilma’s nephew and is director of accounting at WSU Facilities Operations.

Wilma, who never married, died of cancer in 1981. Both she and her sister Helen Kamerrer Schmidt, a high school home economics teacher, were big supporters of education in general and WSU in particular.

It was through the estate of WSU alumna Helen – who also died of cancer – that an endowment was established in Wilma’s name. The endowment originally helped support Camp Roger Larson, a camp for children with disabilities that was run for many years by the College of Education. It was founded by Larson, a physical education faculty member.

“The Kamerrer family was friends with the Larson family, and Wilma lived just down the street from Roger and his wife,” Kate recalled. “As a result of their friendship, both Helen and Wilma supported Camp Roger Larson before they died and with their estates.”

Another reason for the sisters’ interest in the camp at Lake Coeur d’Alene was their passion for outdoor adventure. Helen and Wilma travelled, fished, camped, and skied extensively throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.

“We have some great slides of their various trips (several large tubs full in fact) and other fun ‘artifacts’ including skis, tackle boxes, ice skates, and other vintage camping gear.” Kate said.