Future Reflections Fall 2000, Vol. 19 No. 4

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That the Sighted May See

Anecdotes of a Service Learning Project, Spring ‘97

by Susan M. Falcone
Loch Raven High School, Baltimore, Maryland

Editor’s Note: Beginning in 1993 the state of Maryland began to phase in a graduation requirement that all students in Maryland complete 75 hours of service. The state called it Service Learning—not volunteering, not community-service—for a very specific reason. One of the goals of the requirement is to help students see the connection between their academic subjects and effective community action. Students begin by identifying problems in the community, they discuss and research possible solutions, and finally they implement a service project. The students then evaluate, discuss, and reflect on the service project. The expectation is that this experiential learning process will help students learn about social issues first-hand and demonstrate to them how ordinary citizens can make a difference.

Needless to say, this requirement meant that nonprofit organizations had a huge new pool of potential volunteers. But it also meant potential confusion and misunderstanding. The new requirements were not about putting in volunteer hours mindlessly stuffing envelopes—there had to be evidence of learning. So, for three years the Maryland Department of Education provided training, guidance, and grant money to selected nonprofits and asked them to restructure, or create new volunteer service opportunities that met the organization’s goals and also met students’ requirements for a quality service learning experience. These programs were to become models for other nonprofits and schools.

The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland (NFB/MD) was accepted as one of the original group of nonprofits for training and completed all three years in the program. And that’s how the NFB/MD came to develop the Braille Games Service Learning Project. As a result of this service learning project (which continues today) well over 600 sighted students in the Maryland schools produced hundreds of decks of UNO and playing cards in Braille for the NFB to distribute. Most importantly, these students learned that blind people are normal, that Braille is neat and fun, and that literacy is as important to the blind as it is to the sighted.

But the students did not always begin the project with enthusiasm and a desire to learn. The NFB/MD was often asked to bring the project to students who had waited till the last half of their senior year to squeeze in their 75 hours of service learning. Needless to say, such students were not exactly highly motivated or service-minded. In the following article, Susan Falcone, a national award-winning high school teacher in Baltimore County, Maryland, describes what happened with just such a class:

Mary Kuforiji shows a student how to insert a card into the slate.
Mary Kuforiji (left) shows a student how to insert a card into the slate

If ever there was ever a group of students who have made a 180-degree change, it was my 1997 class of 30 recalcitrants. They entered a service learning class the spring semester of their senior year growling at having to take a course to earn 75 hours of service as a graduation requirement. Their deep-seated anger was aimed at “conscripted service,” and they spat that anger out at anyone and everyone associated with the concept of Service Learning. They were a challenge to the best of teachers, and there were days after they left class when I literally cried from exhaustion. Their anger became mine. And then a miracle happened. In walked Mary Kuforiji, a blind member of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland.

Good miracles take time and good miracles leave the deepest impressions. I believe I observed a good miracle that spring as 30 recalcitrants evolved, developed pride, and grew beyond their own expectations and beliefs.

Before Mary arrived, I developed a few lessons to sensitize them to being blind. We discussed the many causes of blindness, and each student completed five stations where they were asked to perform a simple daily task as a blind person. Many students came away convinced that to be blind is one of the most horrible things that can happen to a person. A few of them emphatically declared, “I could never be blind. I’d rather die.” This was not exactly, needless to say, the outcome I had wanted.

The first visit by Mary was tenuous to say the least. The class felt very uncomfortable with her in the room. Mary never flinched even though I know she overheard many of their rude remarks. Their copious questions were answered honestly and openly. She did not become defensive, which she could easily have been, given the nature of the questions and how they were phrased. The next day, they told me they never wanted Mrs. Kuforiji to come back and whined, “Why do we have to do this project?” “We want to do something else.” They growled a good deal that day. I quietly explained that Mary would come once a week to help us with this project. When their whining added the new twist of, “ Why can’t you just teach us, then?” I threw up my hands in exasperation. The growling continued to be part of our daily routine.

I don’t remember when the growling stopped. It was gradual and had to do with two insights: a newly learned skill (Brailling) and a new understanding about being blind. I think the first real change came when they asked Mary to read Braille.

She took out a children’s book and read quickly with expression. They were very surprised, but some suggested, “Eh, she’s just memorized that book.” It was suggested that she be given something to read that they had Brailled. So, they gave her a practice sheet one of the students had done as he attempted to learn the Braille alphabet. Of course, she read it easily, stopping to acknowledge what the student had done well, picking up every mistake made, and laughing when she came to his nick-name at the bottom.

In turn, as she read, the class, almost as a single body, stood and moved toward Mary to watch her read. Their amazed expressions signaled the opening of closed minds. Some sat down at Mary’s table; others went back to Brailling. Now the discussion was about how in the world she read Braille that easily as each of them tried to repeat what they had seen her do. Their Brailling developed a new attitude; one of serious purpose, as did their conversations about being blind.

Quiet competition developed and students gave each other support and encouragement—something I had never seen happen in this class before. They knew who the expert Braillers were and used them to check their work. The class continued to work on three projects simultaneously so that the Brailling would not become too tedious for their short attention spans. I began to look forward to that class. In itself, that was a miracle.

Along the way as Mary and I instructed the students in how to use the card slates, Mary had emphasized—and I had reemphasized—the rule: “Never Braille more than one UNO card at a time.” We had one holdout. He was a true doubting Thomas eager to finish his assignment of cards. His purpose was to finish what he had “assigned” to himself so that he could sit and do nothing. One day, as the class was busy Brailling and Mary was checking cards that had been completed, she spoke above their voices to say, “Someone has been Brailling these cards two or three at a time.” Thirty heads snapped to attention. They looked at me. I shrugged in my own astonished way and said, “She told us she could tell the difference.” Our doubting Thomas’ face was a mix of disbelief and guilt. The class razzed him as he sat in great discomfort.

Out of defense, he asked how she could tell. She explained that they were more difficult to read and that it hurt her fingers to read them. She also explained again that her primary concern—which had prompted the rule in the first place—was the cost of replacing the card slate if it was damaged. Mary and the class had a good laugh together, the rule was reemphasized in a positive way, and she moved on. At that point, our doubting Thomas became a believer. He looked down, removed two cards from his card slate, and reinserted only one card. And so, we Brailled about 28 decks of UNO cards for the National Federation of the Blind.

The last day of class was also Mary’s last visit. This time students sat easily with Mary around a table, talking, and handing her cards to check. The day’s agenda was to finish correcting cards, award the students a certificate, and to reflect in some manner about the experience. In preparation for the ending, I had Brailled a sheet of school letterhead with the school name, the date, and a brief thank you message. As the students worked, we passed the thank you letter around for each student to Braille his/her name.

Toward the end of the period, we presented Mary with the gift and thank you letter. As she began to read, “Loch Raven High School,” the students moved toward her table, “May 21, 1997,” and a circle of adolescent bodies surrounded Mary. When she read my name, the students looked at me and smiled. But it wasn’t until she began to read their names that the good miracle revealed itself. “Carl Albert,” quiet in the room. “Rich Balker,” pride. “Sheena Kamerron,” a pat on Mary’s back and a high five to a friend. Each name she read was another miracle. Mary, blind volunteer, had helped the sighted see. The class, made up mostly of tough adolescent guys and even tougher girls, left amid hugs of goodbye and the general consensus that, “I hate to admit it, but this was fun.”

Do I dare believe that the word “fun” finally became for these students another word for “learning?”

Editor’s Note: Since this was a grant project, students were asked to fill out evaluation forms. The responses were tabulated and used to refine and improve the project. Here are examples of some of the comments students—some from the class above and some from other classes—made on the evaluation forms. To the question, “The best part of the program was,” students said:

* Learning to Braille things.

* Learning about Braille.

* Learning the lifestyles of the blind.

* Having chat sessions with Mrs. Kuforiji. I liked hearing about her daily life and interactions with different people.

* Learning to Braille.

* Visiting the National Federation of the Blind. [Some classes took a field trip to the NFB headquarters at the National Center for the Blind as part of the service learning project experience.]

Next, students were asked to “List two things that impress you most about blindness or blind persons.”  Here are some of the responses to that question:

* Their ability to read Braille so fast and be able to function without seeing.

* Blind people can take care of their children as well as a person who isn’t blind.

* Blind people have a system of dealing with their money.

* That their disability in no way hinders them from daily life routines.

* I was surprised that they didn’t see just black.

* How fast she can read.

* Her bravery to come into this class.

In one or more of the years between 1995 and 2000, the following schools in Maryland participated in the Braille Games Service Learning Project: Catonsville Middle School, Loch Raven High School, Western High School, Lake Clifton High School, Woodlawn High School, and Randallstown High School. Boy Scout troop #361 of Howard County and students in the CHOICE Middle School Program also participated in the project.

The NFB volunteers who assisted with the project include: Mary Kuforiji, Bernice Lowder, Tom Ley, Mary Nichols, Sharon Maneki, Marie Cobb, Jude Lincicome, Kimberly Dodd, Tresha Farabee, and Peggy Chong. Two of the volunteers, Mary Kuforiji and Bernice Lowder, have been with the project since the beginning and continue to be the backbone of the program.

 

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