Future Reflections                                                                                Convention Report 2004

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COGS: Our Trip to the NFB Convention

by Dr. Matt Maurer

Introduction

Dr. Matt Maurer
Dr. Matt Maurer

Six student members of the school-sponsored COGS technology club and two teachers, Al Lovati and Debbie Squire, joined me in attending the National Federation of the Blind 2004 Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Al Lovati is a technology teacher and the ISB technology coordinator from the Indiana School for the Blind. Debbie Squire teaches high school math. I am a professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, and I volunteer at the school. Of the students, four were female and two were male. The ages ranged from twelve to seventeen. Each student had to write and submit three essays to attend this trip and each student had a responsibility to speak to some group at the convention. For some students the task of writing the essays and the idea of speaking was relatively simple, and for others it represented a significant stretch.

Our time in Atlanta was relatively evenly split between attending the Convention and non-convention activities. Our non-convention activities included shopping, dining, visiting the zoo, taking advantage of hotel amenities, and exploring the city.

What We Did

We arrived on Monday night. After checking into the hotel, the students were introduced to three leaders of the NFB before we even left the lobby. This was typical of what happened throughout the convention. The students and teachers met many of the NFB leadership. On Tuesday morning, four students spoke at the Parent’s Division meeting about their experience as blind teens. We all attended the Braille Carnival. In the afternoon we explored the city a bit, checking out the underground mall and the Coke exhibit building nearby. In the evening we attended the rookie round-up at the convention.

Wednesday was our planned “play day.” We took the subway and a bus out to the zoo. Later in the day, one student (a boy) came back to the convention with me and the rest of the group took the subway to a more distant mall to shop. At the convention, the student and I attended the mock trial and the student division meeting.

Thursday morning we visited the exhibit area in the morning. In the afternoon the students were first on the agenda to present to the computer science division. I asked the students to stay through the next presentation, which was a highly technical presentation on the next major operating system release from Microsoft. The presentation was technically over my head, and way over the students’ heads. They reported that it was boring, and completely incomprehensible. To quote one girl, “Oh my gosh!!! I didn’t understand one thing he said.” I impressed upon them that their role in attending was to learn how the business of the organization was conducted, not to understand the technical information from Microsoft. After that conversation, the students reported that they learned a lot about how the blind are treated and how the NFB does things, and why. After leaving the computer science meeting, we visited the exhibit area a bit longer. At 4:00 pm a male member of the Student Division had a short “mentor” meeting with our two male students. Later in the evening we ordered pizza for the our students and four college students joined them for dinner at about 5:00 and stayed with them until 6:45 at which time we went to the play put on by the Louisiana Center.

On Friday we attended the general sessions all day and went out for a nice dinner in the evening. We left early on Saturday morning for home.

Results on the Students

The entire experience was noticeably powerful for the students. The simple act of flying from Indianapolis to Atlanta, and the dining experiences were good practice for several of the students. Two students had never flown before and only two of the students seemed fully comfortable and confident in a nice restaurant. The city exploration was also useful. Two students reported that they had never ridden a city bus and only one had ever been on a subway. Each child had a daily maximum of $40 for food and they had to maintain a record of their food expenses. This was useful to point out that going down the block to McDonalds is very different from eating in the hotel restaurant. The students got that message after the very first day.

Of the six students, one was totally blind and the remaining five had varying levels of vision. Only the one youth brought a cane. Mrs. Cheadle talked with the students a couple of times and as a result each of them did take a cane offered to them from the parent’s division cane bank. Once they had them, they carried and used them. Especially in the convention meetings, they seemed to want to have a cane, since almost everyone had one.

The speaking opportunities for the students were very beneficial. Each of the students reported being nervous about it, yet each one came through and did what was expected. At least one student surprised himself with what he could do in this arena. I judged the speaking experiences to be invaluable experience for each of the students.

The pizza party we arranged was extremely positive. In fact, we had intended to end it sooner to allow time for our students to get ready to attend the play, but as we overheard what the college students were saying to our students, we let the session run as long as we could. There were positive messages and challenges from the college students and our students were strongly engaged with them.

The chance meetings with various NFB leaders were extremely powerful. One chance meeting and conversation was particularly powerful and begs retelling. After we checked into the hotel and before we even left the lobby, we ran across Dr. Z and a couple of other NFB leaders. An hour or so earlier, one of the students had mentioned that she thought the airport was inaccessible because the TV monitors with flight information were too high for her to read. I asked her to mention this to Dr. Z and she did. Dr. Z’s response was that the NFB believes that in some cases the blind need to change and not the world. She said that it is pretty hard to change airports and that it is not that hard to ask for help. This was a good message for the students and this conversation was discussed in more detail later. My point here is that the many chance meetings with NFB leadership and short yet powerful conversations can have surprisingly strong results.

We required the students to attend part of one of the divisions meetings. This allowed the students to experience the NFB’s work first hand. The students got a lot out of that, but much of it needed guided reflection. I believe that if the students simply attended the meeting, they would have walked away and said, “how weird.” With a short debriefing meeting in the hallway afterwards, we helped the students see the issues that were in play and the importance of those issues. The meeting was only the set-up for their learning, and the hallway conversation was when the learning actually occurred.

When asked what parts of the convention they liked best, the students all mentioned Dr. Marc Maurer’s report. The totally blind student, who was the youngest of the group at 12 years old, said that she didn’t know all those things were going on. At the time she said she felt something but couldn’t put it into words. On the way home, while eating lunch in Chicago she piped up and said, “I know what I felt. I felt confident that I could do anything that I wanted to try.” Other favorites ranged across all the various activities, including the mentor conversations, the play, the exhibit area, and the woman who spoke from the Small Business Administration. When asked what they liked least they all said the same thing—they didn’t like having to sit for a long time, like for the roll call of the states. Some of the students also mentioned the session with the Microsoft representative.

All the students talked with enthusiasm about attending next year. They suggested getting very involved with the Braille carnival and they suggested talking to other committees like the education committee. They also thought they could be volunteers, helping people find rooms and things.

My final thought is that the outcome of our trip to the NFB 2004 convention was ultimately so valuable to the students that I believe it is critical that this opportunity become available to a wider group of students from residential schools throughout the country.

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