Braille Monitor                                                                    October 2006


Of Cables, Chasms, and the Classroom

by Norman D. Gardner

Norm Gardner

From the Editor: Dr. Norm Gardner is a longtime member of the National Federation of the Blind, and he has been a leader in every affiliate where he has lived. The following article illustrates the principle that the NFB's positive philosophy about blindness can help us all to grow if we are willing to allow it to work in us. This is what he says:

I recently participated in a group activity that required everyone to put on sleepshades and walk on a cable suspended between trees. Other cables were available for balance, and we were permitted to help each other stay on the cable. The objective was to progress along the course from tree to tree without falling off the main cable. At first it was somewhat challenging; but, as we got used to the way the cable moved in response to the weight of other people and learned the best way to use the balancing cables, it was not too hard. After all the main cable was only a foot or so off the ground, so even if we were to lose our balance as we moved from tree to tree, the solid ground was not far away.

Toward the end of the cable course, however, we were told that we should now be careful because the last span of the cable would be over a gully twenty feet wide and thirty feet deep to a tree on the other side of the gully. Even though I had not fallen off the cable since the beginning of the course, at that point I experienced a great deal of fear. Some in the group began to shake and to lose their balance. Some began to cry out and refused to continue. In truth there was no gully. Crossing that final span would be no more difficult than crossing the previous ones. The only difference was that we assumed that falling would be much more devastating. By simply continuing to use the techniques we had been using all along, we would be able to cross without any problem.

A similar thing has happened with respect to my recent loss of vision. I have been legally blind since early childhood. The doctors always told me that my vision would remain the same for the rest of my life, but they were wrong.

When I first met the NFB over thirty years ago, my life was way out of balance. I was ashamed of my blindness and doubtful of my abilities. The NFB's philosophy helped me achieve more stability and self-respect. I came to believe that it is respectable to be blind and that with proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to a mere nuisance.

I confess, though, that at times I relied a little too much on my partial vision. I depended on it like a crutch, just in case the philosophy didn't work in a specific instance and I were to fall off my psychological cable. That is, my vision still felt important to me in accomplishing many tasks each day. Gradually through the help and example of others and through attendance at our national conventions, I began to understand, intellectually at least, that even with no vision at all I might still be successful in my work.
Since 1974 I have taught college classes in corporate finance. The alternative techniques I used were simple and not very creative. I just wrote in large characters on the chalkboard. Since I was the closest one to the board, I could read the large letters and numbers with no problem. During my college years as a student, I used a small pair of binoculars to scan the blackboard. I was never able to read more than 40 percent of what was written there. Things were much better when I got to be the professor because I could now read everything on the board. But when I faced the possibility of losing the rest of my vision, I began to panic. I felt very much as I had when I imagined that I had a deep chasm to cross.

In spite of our excellent philosophy, I became quite discouraged. I envisioned a significant deterioration in the effectiveness of my lectures, since I would no longer be able to write on the chalkboard. In my teaching I have always made heavy use of numerical examples, diagrams, formulas, and illustrations. Without much optimism I began casting about for some alternative technique to enable me to continue teaching. I tried using overhead transparencies, but the painfully bright light from the projector made it impossible for me to stand anywhere near it.

After admitting that my lectures would soon become grossly ineffective without the ability to refer efficiently to numerical examples and illustrations, I began to consider using PowerPoint slides. In time I became convinced that by using PowerPoint slide presentations under the right conditions, I could be just as effective as I had been when I was able to write on the chalkboard.

My objective here is to share some of the specific ways I have used PowerPoint slides in the classroom in the hope that others might find it helpful. With the help of a student assistant, I have now prepared several hundred PowerPoint slides arranged by topic to accompany my corporate finance courses. I have attached to each slide a small sound byte of my own voice announcing the title or theme of each slide. This sound byte is activated when the slide comes to the screen. It confirms for me the fact that a new slide has actually appeared and also the subject matter of that slide. I have attached lecture notes to each slide, very much like an MS Word file for each slide. This file is never seen by the students, but it is available to me either before or during the class. In this file I write notes to myself spelling out in detail every aspect of the slide. I include all numbers and formulas from the slide and their relationship to each other. In this way I do not have to remember everything on each of hundreds of slides.

Prior to each lecture I review the notes attached to the slides I will be using during that class. In order to facilitate this review, I copied the lecture notes for each slide sequentially into a MS Word document and then copied that file to my documents folder on my computer, my note taker, and my BookPort. This allows me to choose the most efficient source from which to review my slide notes at the moment I wish to do so.

Here are a few other suggestions for preparing slides for the classroom:

1. Carefully choose and instruct the person who will assist you in preparing the slides. The first assistant I hired took the liberty of dressing up the slides with bright colors, various border patterns, pictures of flowers, and even little teddy bears that moved around on the screen doing the rhumba. I was further embarrassed when I also found spelling and other errors on the slides. Needless to say, I got another student assistant.

2. Limit the total number of slides. At first I found myself preparing slides containing outlines, paragraphs, lists, and even my own lecture notes. Then I noticed that the students engaged in little or no discussion during my lectures. They seemed always to be occupied with copying what was on the slides. I felt that I was succeeding only in transferring the material from my notes to the students' without the information's passing through the mind of either. It occurred to me that, if I were to make copies of the slides and give them to the students, they would not even need to come to class.

I have now decided I will not prepare or use slides containing material that I would not actually have written on the board during my lectures. In other words I have adopted the philosophy that the PowerPoint slides are simply an alternative to writing on the board, nothing more. This has kept the overall number of slides manageable and has permitted healthy classroom discussion.

3. Use multiple slides to build concepts one step at a time. Of course with PowerPoint utilities it is possible to have each successive step come flying onto the screen from first one direction and then another until all the steps are visible. This can be done on one slide. I do not do it that way. I prefer to maintain more control over the progress of the class discussion. During the construction of the slides, I begin with the basic illustration and include only the numbers necessary to illustrate the first step of the overall concept. I then copy this first slide to a second one so that I now have two identical slides. I then add the figures for the next step to this second slide, sometimes using a different color. When the second slide is as complete as I want it to be, I copy it to a third slide and then add the figures for the third step to it. In this way I can appropriately pause at each step during the lecture to discuss the concepts and check the students' understanding before I bring up the next slide with the next step.

From the point of view of the students, it appears that each additional step has simply been added to the original slide. It is not obvious to them that they are actually viewing a series of slides. In other words it appears just as it would if I were writing the whole thing on the chalkboard, adding the appropriate numbers and arriving at logical conclusions one step at a time.

4. Use a remote mouse. I use a remote mouse, which allows me to position myself wherever I wish to be in the classroom. Once the slide presentation has started, a simple push of a button on the remote mouse brings the next slide to the screen. When it appears, the students hear the sound byte of my own voice through the computer speakers, and I simply continue with my lecture.

When I lost the partial vision I have had all my life, I experienced many of the same fears and emotions that sighted people have when they lose their vision. In the beginning I did not do very well in applying the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind to my individual situation. After a brief period of panic, however, I began to put that philosophy to the test, and I can tell you it works.

At first, when I thought about going back into the classroom without being able to write on the chalkboard, I felt as I did when I thought about crossing the chasm on a cable. In the beginning it seemed impossible. Yet by following the same process that had helped me before, I found that the sustaining, rock-solid philosophy of the NFB and the good ideas from knowledgeable people who were reaching out to help all came together to bring me across the chasm and back into the classroom.

The truth is that, by taking a deep breath and continuing to apply the philosophy of the Federation, I found it really does not matter if the ground is one foot or thirty feet down. It doesn't really matter if I still have some vision or none at all. The philosophy is true. It works. By finding the appropriate alternative techniques, the blind can perform and continue to perform the requirements of their employment and be just as successful and competent as their sighted peers.