Future Reflections Fall 1992, Vol. 11 No. 4
Editor's Note: The following article is by Barbara Carmen, and is reprinted from the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch newspaper. The original title is "Inspired teacher bringing light into dark world of her students."
A morning rain pelts against the windows in a classroom on Columbus's East Side where teacher Ellen Perry works to put the world at the fingertips of children.
Her tiny students cannot see her clearly. Some are blind; other see only fuzzy shapes, but they hear the singsong of her voice, prodding and praising. They study from Perry's homemade booksbooks that are drawing a march of teachers to her room at Leawood Elementary, 1677 South Hamilton Road.
The Columbus Public Schools' program is Ohio's only preschool devoted to children with serious vision problems. Teachers come from as far away as Great Britain to learn Perry's methods.
"My challenge is to get every child ready for school," said Perry, a teacher for 25 years. "Right now, I have a child who is 4 and isn't toilet trained."
Some of Perry's 13 students come from other central Ohio school districts. Most districts do not provide early starts for children with serious vision problems. That is about to change. This fall, the federal government is requiring school systems to provide preschool for all handicapped children starting at age 3.
Word is spreading that Perry's methods are the way to go. Most of her techniques don't come from an ivory tower. They begin in her basement. She has a room at home lined with boxes of tiny toys and everyday items she uses to illustrate her books. One book describes paper. Each sheet is different: newspaper, wax paper, corrugated paper, flocked wall paper, crepe paper.
Another volume teaches the concept of long and short: a long stick next to a short stick, a tall pipe cleaner stick figure beside a short one. She has made another book crammed with doll boots, children's sunglasses, and socks. That lesson is pairs.
"Sighted children can see so much in a picture or on TV and learn, but a vision-impaired child has to feel a toy train and put people inside it to understand," Perry said.
Even her classroom is designed to made her children feel good. Bulletin boards are covered with fuzzy lambs with yarn noses and button eyes. The children's artwork has sand in the paint, and clay items are sculpted using doll-shaped cookie cutters. Clay hair is made through a garlic press.
Perry's ideas spring from experience. Her late husband, a diabetic, awakened one morning blind in one eye. He quickly began losing his vision in the other. That inspired Perry, a high school vocal music teacher, to switch her sights.
"I thought that I would have an empathy, and I do," she said. "I understand when a child comes in and he's 3 years old, and he can't get his coat off by himself. I understand."
"Many times when you're in a hurry, you don't have time to coax and cajole."
Perry works with the parents as well as the child, said Cheryl Boley, a consultant for the visually handicapped with the special education department of Columbus schools. "She keeps data on all her studentskeeping track of them through 18 years," Boley said. "She's just a wonderfully devoted and creative teacher."
One day last week, two girls sprawled on a canary yellow carpet, piling blocks atop Doc the dwarf and Pinocchio. Melody Holloway, 5, sat near Perry and played "the spool game," matching textures of covered spools and giggling.
Perry picked up several stories Melody wrote on the classroom computer. She reads them with pride. "I've laughed and cried a lot over the years," Perry said. "Most of the times I've cried, though, it's been from a child's accomplishing something."