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Brain Basics: Heather Francis, MBE'14

As a special educator, Heather Francis came to the Ed School wanting to expand her knowledge base and learn how educators can better serve special needs students.

“I came to HGSE wanting to know more about the role of neuroscience in informing educational practices for students with special needs,” she says. “I was very interested in literacy and reading difficulties, and wanted to know more about how reading develops in the brain and what supports would best work for learners who were struggling with reading.”

Her research this year has focused on the language and literacy development of students at risk for special needs — especially those who are English language learners – and she plans to continue this research in the hope of developing better interventions.

While at the Ed School, Francis was very involved in the Mind, Brain, and Education Program (MBE), chairing the Brain Basics student group, organizing the Brain Awareness Week Youth Conference, and helping arrange the annual MBE conference of newly admitted students, current students, and alumni.

“Heather Francis has been a natural leader of the MBE cohort,” says Professor Kurt Fischer, faculty director of MBE. “Not only was she nominated repeatedly by her peers [for this award], but she was obviously the leader of the group.”

Upon learning that she had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for MBE, Francis answered some questions about her time at the Ed School and beyond.

What are your post-HGSE plans? This summer, I’ll be working as an ABLConnect Curriculum Fellow at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. After that, I hope to continue to pursue my questions as a researcher, and also apply what I’ve learned at HGSE to classroom practices.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School? [Assistant Professor] Gigi Luk has been an incredible mentor to me this year and has been so supportive during my experience at HGSE. I have spent the year working in her lab (the B.E.E. Lab) studying bilingualism and dyslexia, and Gigi has helped me to cultivate research skills while exploring my interests. Her course, H112: Cognitive Neuroscience and Education, helped me to explore the crucial roles that both brain development and experience play in human development.

Another course I loved was [Professor] Nonie Lesaux’s H811C: Connecting Literacy Assessment with Instructional Improvement: Response to Intervention in Practice. In Nonie’s course, we used case studies to consider the structures in place to support at-risk students in real schools. I learned about how data is currently being used to drive instruction, and what we may be missing when we’re collecting school-wide data from students. I walked away from the class feeling empowered to effect change at the classroom, school, or district level. It was the most practical class I took at HGSE.

How did you stay inspired throughout the year? The year goes by so quickly and there are always so many interesting events going on, it was easy for me to stay inspired! I think my classmates have kept me inspired throughout the year. They bring such interesting background experiences, perspectives, and insights to our conversations, and challenge my own thinking.

Any special study spots? I spend a lot of time studying in Gutman, but also love to sneak off campus to study at Algiers with friends. My favorite study spot would have to be at my apartment cuddled up with my Boston Terrier, Fig Newton.

What will you change in education and why? My goals for impacting the field of education are threefold. First, as a researcher, I want to learn more about the language and literacy development of English language learners and students at risk for reading difficulties or other special needs. Second, I want to use that research to develop better interventions and supports with the practitioners who work with these students. Third, I want to use my research to inform policy around early childhood and early intervention programs so that schools become more equitable and accessible for students from their first years of education.

For a full list of this year's recipients, visit:


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