Braille Monitor                                                 January 2011

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One Summer, Fifty Blind Children, Five States, and Six BELLs

by Natalie Shaheen and Jackie Otwell

Jacob Sorenson of Utah plays a Braille game in which he identifies character differences by marking them with push pins.From the Editor: Since our primary goal is to change the lives of blind people for the better, it makes sense to become involved with them as early as possible and to model and teach the skills necessary for living full and productive lives. The article that follows describes one of the successful programs sponsored by the NFB Jernigan Institute, the way it has grown, and the way it can be expanded. Here is what Natalie Shaheen of the Jernigan Institute Education Team and Jackie Otwell, BELL core teacher, have to say about the BELL program:

In 2008 the Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) program--an intense two-week program that introduced low-vision children to Braille through engaging activities--reached children in Maryland after members of the affiliate identified a need and developed the program. In 2009, after being adopted by the NFB Jernigan Institute, the NFB BELL Program doubled in size, improving the lives of children in Georgia and Maryland. This year the program grew by another three states. The 2010 NFB BELL Program was held at six sites in five states and reached fifty blind children.

The excitement of the NFB BELL Program is not limited to the summer. Members of the five affiliates who hosted NFB BELL Programs this year have been ringing BELLs since the first of the year. Representatives from each state attended a seminar at the NFB Jernigan Institute last winter to learn more about facilitating a successful NFB BELL program. To come to a better understanding of the logistical aspects of running a children’s program, less experienced BELL ringers teamed with veterans to develop plans for funding, transportation, food, and facilities. Educators working in the field and at the NFB Jernigan Institute presented the NFB BELL curriculum to participants. These teachers aren’t the chalkboard-addicted lecturers you may have encountered in school; they believe learning is fun and like to showcase that to their students. Seminar attendees learned about the curriculum by participating in the lessons they would eventually teach their BELL students. The seminarians put on a fabulous rendition of the “Captain Whozit Saves the Day” skit, participated in beach ball Braille, and even played a few games of goalball.

After a successful seminar everyone returned home to continue planning for state programs. Coordinators organized affiliate members who could help plan and facilitate the program. Members of each state’s BELL team had monthly conference call meetings with Natalie Shaheen (member of the NFBJI Education Team) and Jackie Otwell (NFB BELL core teacher) to discuss progress and to brainstorm about how to overcome challenges.

Planning and organizing programs for children is exciting, but nothing is more fun than executing them and watching the children grow. On June 14, 2010, the first batch of youth began their journey into the exhilarating and engaging world of Braille offered in the NFB BELL Program. Jackie Otwell and the NFB of Utah team facilitated this first 2010 NFB BELL Program, which ran through June 25. The Monday after the NFB national convention NFB BELL Programs kicked off in Atlanta, Georgia, and Houston, Texas. Jackie Otwell joined the NFB of Texas team to help facilitate its program. Being veteran BELL ringers, the NFB of Georgia team ran its program without the support of a core teacher. Jackie Otwell traveled to Virginia to assist members of the NFB of Virginia with their program. The last two programs ran from August 2 to August 13 in Maryland and Savannah, Georgia. These states ran their programs without the assistance of a core teacher since they already had BELL Program experience.

There are many memorable moments from the 2010 NFB BELL Program that span the country. A program tradition is to have a birthday party for Louis Braille. One of the teachers in the Utah program asked who was turning two-hundred and one this year, and one of the younger students exclaimed, “It’s your birthday?” Robert, who traveled from Virginia Beach to Arlington to be in the Program, rang his bell loud and clear. Before this program he was not a cane user, but by the end of the program volunteers spotted him using his cane at the grocery store and when touring DC with his mom. This is a prime example of how the positive and upbeat nature of the lessons in the NFB BELL Program become irresistibly attractive to students exposed to the alternative techniques of blindness while having fun with teachers and students who are positive.

The NFB Jernigan Institute will be facilitating the NFB BELL Program again in 2011. We are looking for three new states to host the program. They will have the support of a core teacher in running their programs in the summer of 2011, just as Utah, Texas, and Virginia did this year.

To learn more about the 2011 NFB BELL Program, contact Natalie Shaheen by email at <nshaheen@nfb.org> or call her at (410) 659-9314, extension 2293. You may also wish to visit <www.nfb.org/BELL> to learn more about the program. If your state isn’t quite ready to host an NFB BELL Program, you may find the program curriculum useful in planning other Braille-related activities. Contact Natalie Shaheen to request an electronic copy.

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