The Braille Monitor November, 2003
The Learning Curve
by Marnie Utz
During the service component of the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum, Brandon and Stephany, Davis Drive sixth-graders, Braille a deck of UNO playing cards that will be given to a blind child.
From the Editor: January, Braille Literacy Month, is just around the corner. In the July 2003 issue, we reprinted a news article about the experience the sixth grade at the Davis Drive Middle School in Cary, North Carolina, had when they used the NFB's Braille Is Beautiful curriculum. Here is Marnie Utz, the teacher who initiated the program talking about the experience from her point of view:
"Braille-O!" Kassandra shouted across the room. The sixth-grader from Davis Drive Middle School (DDMS) in Cary, North Carolina, stood beside her chair, eyes wide with excitement, as students in adjacent desks cleared their cards with chagrin. On this day my enrichment class was engaged in a test of knowledge--not the usual multiplication tables or countries and capitals, but Braille letters. Braille-O was just one wonderful activity in the Braille Is Beautiful program created by the National Federation of the Blind.
I first read about the Braille Is Beautiful program in a pamphlet that appeared in my box in the office, along with a dozen other catalogues and flyers about new teacher resources. The color pamphlet caught my eye, and after reading it, I couldn't contain my enthusiasm. I spoke with my colleagues immediately, and we wrote to our school PTA for funding. Although the funding to purchase the basic curriculum came through expeditiously, we had to scramble to acquire all the extra equipment and materials we needed for our 130 students: more slates, more styluses, and more Braille paper. Eventually we managed it, however, and my colleagues, the students, and I began our two-month journey into the world of the visually impaired.
Although the lesson plans included in the program were thorough and creative, we teachers had a lot to learn. At first the students participated in activities such as creating skits in order to dispel myths about the visually impaired and designing posters depicting the lives of Helen Keller, Ray Charles, and Jacobus tenBroek. Around the third week of the program, the curriculum--with precise instructions and vivid diagrams--introduced Braille letters and numbers.
My teammates (Marcella Cox, Jon Corcoran, and Mary Swedbergand) and I would sit down at our weekly meetings and practice making Braille letters and numbers together before attempting to model the procedure for the students. We enjoyed learning to write Braille ourselves, and I remember the common question, "How do people do this so fast?" arising as we spent ten minutes punching in our first names using the slate. Invariably we would take the paper out of the slate, turn it over, laugh, and realize that once again the letters of our names were backwards. Surprisingly, after wiggling in their seats with excitement as the slates and styluses were passed around, the students picked up the concept immediately and surpassed our expectations and skills within two days.
The students' reaction to the entire experience was incredible. Not one student refused to work or even seemed uninterested. During lunch and break times various kids asked to use the Braille materials to write notes to their friends, label a textbook, or number their lockers in Braille. As a team we had introduced several enrichment programs to the students, but this one was by far the most intriguing to our adolescents.
Having taught sixth grade for a while, I felt that the students needed a way to connect what they were learning with real life. So my colleagues and I established a relationship with the Governor Morehead School for the Blind (GMS) in Raleigh, about twenty minutes away. The principal, Keri Loheimer, was thrilled with the idea of an exchange, consulted her faculty, and together we designed a visiting day. I am grateful to them and to James Benton of the Governor Morehead School outreach program for their eagerness to make this program a success.
Because of the large number of students from Davis Drive, we visited GMS in shifts. On each visit the students broke into small groups and participated in four activities led by the faculty, staff, and students of GMS. At any one time students could be seen in mobility training walking blindfolded in the texture garden with a cane; touring the on-site museum, which housed photos from the 1800's when the school was founded; typing on the computer using the JAWS program; or playing a game of goal ball in the gym. After the sessions had ended, the DDMS students joined the GMS students for lunch in the dining room.
Likewise the GMS students visited DDMS for a day of trivia games, Braille UNO, and a party. On both visits the students were able to connect personally. They talked, laughed, and found those things common to all twelve-year-olds: pizza and the opposite sex. Even a few phone numbers were exchanged.
We also had the opportunity to meet a representative from the National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina. Hazel Staley came to the school and spent time with our students talking about Braille and observing what we had accomplished.
Needless to say, the Braille Is Beautiful program was a complete success; I would recommend it highly to any teacher. It is unlikely that my students will forget the experience and the new friends they made. Thank you to the NFB for making it all happen.