Dream ... See ... Reach ... for the Stars

By Butler Knight, Ed.S., and Donni Davis-Perry, M.Ed
May/June 2012

Remember the sparkling glint of possibility you saw refracting off the fresh faces of your students in September?  Seven months of teasing out talent, developing and remediating skills, and measuring performance may very well have left you feeling weary and burdened by life in “gap land” (not-good-enough deficit mindset that focuses on student weaknesses as barriers to attaining targeted performance).  This is an invitation to take a vacation from gap land, rekindle the sparks of possibility, and discover the best of what you and your students are accomplishing through a journey of appreciative inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an organizational change process developed largely by David Cooperider at Case Western University, in which positive inquiry is used as the basis for learning and change.  Questions are designed to invite members of the organization to recall exceptionally positive moments and share them with one another.  These “interviews” capture the best of what each person brings to the organization and create a momentum for transformational change. The AI process is highly versatile, engaging teams to entire school divisions in a cycle of continuous learning and innovation. 

The following is an example of how one special education department employed the AI process to bring together general and special education teachers, staff, administration, students, and families to collaboratively develop a meaningful vision statement that altered their view of the past as well as the future.

The director of special education and federal programs in Mathews County Schools asked T/TAC William & Mary to assist her special education department in developing a vision statement , one of the requirements of the Southern Association of College and Schools (SACS) accreditation process.  T/TAC W&M typically employs AI, a strengths-based process. The director wanted her special education community to identify their strengths, tell each other stories about what was happening when they loved their work the most, and generate a list of wishes for what they wanted more of in the future ... to reach for the stars. Through this process, she hoped that her community would develop a vision that would redefine their collective work.

The process began with the special education teachers and administrators viewing the movie “Celebrate What’s Right with the World” by DeWitt Jones. The movie set the stage to look for, believe in, and see the positive around them.

The next step consisted of asking the educators to tell stories in response to the following four questions:

  1. Best Experience: Tell me about the best times that you had working within your organization.
  2. Values: What are the things you value deeply; specifically, the things you value about yourself, your work, and your organization?
  3. Core Factor or Value: What do you think is the core factor or value of your organization? What is it that, if it did not exist, would make your organization totally different than it currently is?
  4. Three Wishes: If you had three wishes for your organization, what would they be?

The resulting stories reflected the core values of their personal and professional lives, which reminded them of why they had chosen their careers in the first place. Their shared enthusiasm for teaching students with disabilities energized the room, and the air filled with loud voices and laughter. Colleagues recalled a student who was determined to become a certified nursing assistant, despite some intellectual and social limitations. General education science teachers and special education teachers had rallied together to help this student enter the nursing assistant program and to graduate as a Certified Nurse Aide. As one teacher put it, “Marcia brought out the best in all of us, and the world is a better place because of her.” 

Teachers from the high school described a tie-dye program in which students made and sold their handmade scarves as part of vocational instruction incorporating academic, social, communication, daily living, and transition goals. This story and others like it highlighted the strong partnerships existing between school and families in this small, rural community. Having recounted these stories, participants recommitted to their work with renewed vitality. 

Next, the educators discussed the common themes in their stories. The following is a sample of these themes:

  • Commitment to excellence (excellence in staff to help students develop their potential)
  • Passionate about what we do
  • Set expectations high
  • Student success!
  • Don’t make assumptions

Teachers decided to interview students about their best learning experiences so as to include their voices in the special education vision statement. Taking this idea further, it also seemed logical to partner with families and include their voices as well.

Ultimately, this process created the Mathews County special education department’s vision statement.  Dream … See … Reach became the title of the vision statement.

An unintended consequence of this process was discovering how one special education student, Dan, positively impacted the educators and community. A student with autism, Dan came to Mathews schools in 1994 from Long Island, New York.  The contrast in these two communities is dramatic. Long Island was rich in resources and services for students with disabilities.  Dan became the third student with autism to enter Mathews Schools in 1994.  The division rallied its resources and hired a highly committed and talented teacher with expertise in autism.  She scheduled monthly meetings with the parents of the children in her class to share resources and information, and to provide opportunities for the parents to do the same.  Dan’s presence created a ripple effect in the school community and eventually spilled over into the larger community.  Dan’s shock of black hair, head gently rocking from side to side, and contented smile captured children’s hearts and piqued their parents’ curiosity.  

As fate would have it, Dan’s father participated in the AI process. He listened to and joined the chorus of stories rich in the appreciative moments that Dan had brought into people’s lives.  His wishes that Dan would be accepted as a real person, would make a contribution to the community, and would teach others about children’s exceptionalities were granted in the exchange of these stories.  He heard how bedtime stories were punctuated by stories of Dan; how children competed to partner with Dan and serve as his advocate.  Parents gained insights into their children and developed an appreciation for the opportunities Dan created for their children to demonstrate kindness, patience, generosity, and friendship. That night Dan’s father learned that Dan had taught parents and community members things about themselves and created in them a curiosity for the experience of others that they would not have otherwise felt. 

The AI process unearthed the best of this small school division’s collective effort to truly make a difference in the lives of students with disabilities.  As the special education director later commented, “When we celebrated our genuine interests in helping every child succeed by capitalizing on each other’s strengths, there was no stopping us.  We are now selling our tie-dye scarves at the Bay School of the Arts, our Visitor Center, and through our latest community partnership called the Thrifty Spot, a student-operated thrift store where students serve as clerks and help manage the store.  Together with the help of Mathews High School building trades students, teachers, and community donations, the Thrifty Spot has emerged as a vocational opportunity where our students with disabilities continue to make meaningful contributions to our community.”

The experience of using the AI process provided an invitation for teachers, staff, students, and families to discover and celebrate the best of what brings people together. The vision statement below captures this collaborative work.


The Special Education Department of Mathews County Public Schools is committed to empowering students to become active participants in the communities in which they live by …

* Setting high expectations that foster a commitment to excellence

* Maximizing student potential regardless of exceptionality

* Creating collaborative relationships among school, family, and community

* Exploring vocational opportunities beyond the academic focus

* Embracing independence through self-advocacy

* Celebrating the achievements of our students


i Note: Support for the T/TAC was provided by a grant to The College of William and Mary from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). The opinions herein do not necessarily reflect those of the VDOE and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Authors’ Note:  Pseudonyms have been used to protect students’ anonymity.

If you would like additional information about using Appreciative Inquiry in your school or division, please contact Donni Davis-Perry at 757-221-6009 or by email, ddavisperry@wm.edu