Future Reflections Volume 20, Number 1
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by Marlene Culpepper
Teacher of the Visually Impaired Columbus, Georgia
2000 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award Winner
Editor’s Note: Marlene Culpepper has all the trademark qualities of an exemplary teacher of blind children. She has high expectations for her students, excellent Braille and other blindness skills, and a positive philosophy about blindness. She is a creative and talented teacher, and she has initiative. Not willing for her students to settle for second-best, she goes beyond her job requirements to see to it that they, too, have equal opportunities for a quality education. To top it all, Marlene is also a capable speaker. Her enthusiasm and love for her work inspired everyone in the audience when she gave a presentation at the Annual Parents Seminar in Atlanta on July 1, 2000. Here is an edited version of that presentation:
Marlene Culpepper displays her 2000 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award plaque.
Good morning. I am honored to be here today to talk to you about the roles, rights, and responsibilities of those of us who serve blind children in our county. “It takes a village to raise a child.” I’m sure you’ve heard that before. In our case, it takes a concerted effort from parents, from the students themselves, from the teachers that work with the students, and from the administrators who provide the support, in order to put all the things together that are needed so that our children can become independent, capable adults. That is our goal in the Muskogee County, Georgia, school system. Our mission for the school system encompasses all of these things. Our mission statement is: “The Muskogee County School District is committed to the educational experiences that will enable each student to become a life long learner, enter the workforce with necessary work skills, and achieve academic and personal potential.” This is our goal for all of our children. In order to make that goal a reality for our children who have visual impairments, I have to fulfill certain responsibilities.
We—the teachers—have to strive to help our students become selfsufficient. We have to keep our expectations high and then constantly keep raising them as the children meet their goals. We have to collaborate. The regular education classroom teachers have to work diligently to provide me—the teacher of the visually impaired (TVI)—with the education plans and materials in advance so that we can set the stage for lessons that will include our students and will be meaningful to them. Oftentimes we don’t have to provide a person to assist our students directly if we do enough advance planning so we can provide adapted or modified materials with which they can learn independently. For example, our students receive Brailled report cards and Brailled grades and comments on their papers so that they can read and measure for themselves how they are doing and what they are achieving. In fact, anything that is provided in the classroom for the sighted children—board work, hand-outs, overhead projector slides, etc.—is also provided in Braille for our Braille users. Our teachers work hard to see that this happens.
We have found that a child will become better skilled with the use of the abacus, for example, if the regular education teacher and the TVI teacher work together to plan for repetition and constant use. A regular classroom teacher can encourage the child to use an abacus, for example, during math instruction on a daily basis. This applies to other skills, too.
The regular education teacher can help our blind students to utilize their canes with frequency. It is a requirement in our school that blind students do not leave the classrooms without their canes. The regular education teacher can provide descriptive language of an environment that is constantly changing. They can engage and include the visually impaired student by describing illustrations, by allowing the child with low vision to have preferential seating so that they can see some of the materials if they are able, by explaining routines and board work, by explaining overheads as they are using them, and by describing one-on-one to the blind child what other students are doing. Oftentimes, our children can miss out if we don’t make a concerted effort to let them know what’s going on. “What’s so funny?” “Why are the other children in class laughing?” And teachers can, very discretely and with a sensitive tone, let our children know when what they are doing is not appropriate in the class setting in order to help them function better within the group.
My role as the teacher of the visually impaired is constantly changing depending upon the needs of my students. In fact, I was a preschool teacher for years and when I first assumed this position my focus and my number one goal at the time was to learn, or relearn, all of the Braille skills that I had learned in college but had not utilized in years. That included getting to know the Nemeth Code and becoming familiar with teaching the abacus. Later, I had to learn all the commands that are necessary to utilize JAWS, and how to work a Braille ’n Speak adequately. With Heather, one of my current students, I’ve had the opportunity to learn Braille music. The children guide me as far as what it is that I need to be learning and doing as their needs change.
I have to observe what’s going on with my students in the regular class and throughout the school day and respond to their needs whether they be socialization needs, mobility needs, or needs for better or different planning and instruction. So my role is first to learn and then to teach.
My primary job responsibility is, of course, to teach the students the blindness skills that they will need to be successful. For example, I’ve had children who don’t appreciate reading, but we still require them to read. At our school we have a reading log that all parents must complete. All students have to read a certain number of minutes per day. When they make progress, we point out to them how their skills have improved and what they have achieved. We impose these expectations upon them so that, once they realize they can meet these goals, they will expect more of themselves.
Children need more than academic skills in order to be successful, so I also teach, for example, socialization skills and organizational skills. I discuss with them how to maintain and establish conversations with peers. I teach them how to manage all of their materials within a classroom; how to be accountable for homework, for class work, for planning the pace of projects, and for getting projects done; how to ask for help when it’s needed; and how to utilize a reader. All of these things are skills that I consider my responsibility to teach them before they graduate from high school. Hopefully, they will then be able to utilize these skills to live independently.
I also have the responsibility to work hard to keep the lines of communication open with parents and with other teachers. Oftentimes that involves hearing things we don’t necessarily want to hear, digesting it, and then reacting appropriately. For example, shortly after I first took my current job, a parent, Mrs. Jones, came to me, and she said something that I imagine was really hard for her to say. She said, “Marlene, there are mistakes in Heather’s Braille work. I don’t think there should be mistakes.” That was hard to hear. I was struggling to learn the Braille code and my paraprofessionals were struggling along with me. But we didn’t brush it off. As a result, we created a system of checks and balances. Even though we use computer software and a Braille embosser (printer) to produce our Braille work, nothing goes to the children unless it’s checked by a person other than the one who created it. This doesn’t eliminate all the mistakes that can possibly occur, but it does minimize them tremendously.
Heather Hammond (center) with her mother Donna Jones and NFB President
Dr. Marc Maurer at the 2000 convention. Heather is one of Mrs. Culpepper’s students, and her mother nominated Marlene for the Distinguished
My other role is to ask the “village” to help in the education of our blind students. I think that our children can become independent, self-sufficient, capable adults, but along the way we must have help from a lot of people to provide the materials that they need. So, one of the roles I have taken upon myself is to go out and present the community with our needs. When we started our mini-magnet visually impaired program in Columbus a few years ago, we realized that we didn’t have sufficient leisure reading material for our children. We had plenty of Braille writers and Braille paper. We had technology, but what we didn’t have were Braille storybooks in the library. At the time I was in the mentor-teacher program operated by the AFB (I needed a lot of mentoring, then. I didn’t know what I was doing, to be quite honest.) Anyway, I contacted my mentor teacher, who was in Florida, and I said, “I don’t have any library books. What do I do?” She said, “Well, look on the Internet. Find out in your community if there are any Braille books for you to utilize.” I did. Our public library had some Braille books that had been sitting around that some people didn’t even know were there. They sent those to us. She put me in contact with a group called the Temple Sisterhood Braille Transcribing Group. Those Braille transcribers told me that in between textbook production they had time to transcribe books for our program if I would send them the paper and tell them what titles I wanted.
Then one day I met a man from the Lion’s Club. He was selling brooms for the club outside Sam’s. I said, “What do you do for the children in our community?” He said, “Well, we don’t know any blind children in our community right now. Tell us more.” And I did. I explained our needs to them. I said, “We have children who are just learning to love reading, and they need books to read.” The club gave us four hundred dollars to buy paper. We sent that paper to the Temple Sisterhood Braille Transcribers, and they sent us books. The next year they said, “Was that enough? Would you like some more? I said, “Yes. We need more books.” This time we went to Seedlings and bought books.
We now have about four hundred Braille books in our school library. Our blind children can go to the library with their sighted peers and check out a new book every time they visit. That’s an incredible opportunity for our children. Not just to improve their reading abilities but also to develop their self-esteem. The books we selected are on the accelerated reader list because our school feels very strongly about the use of the accelerated reading program. Our children take accelerated readers tests. They utilize JAWS in order to do it. We buy and produce books that are within our test list so that we can measure their reading comprehension.
We have now tapped into some other sources for Braille books. We have been getting monthly free Braille books from the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults Free Braille Books Program. [Editor’s Note: The book series currently offered through this program are Nancy Drew®, The Nightmare Room, and the Little House Chapter Books.] We also get free Braille books from the Braille Institute program. They offer three books per child every four months. You choose from a catalog of different books everytime. Well, we have four Braille-using students, so we get three books per month per child or forty-eight books a year from the Braille Institute and three books every month in the year from the American Action Fund, which gives us thirty-six books from them. That’s a lot of books in one year—eighty-four—for free! They are fantastic titles. If you have not had the opportunity to visit their web sites or to contact them, please do so. [Editor’s Note: Contact the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults at 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, (410) 659-9314 ext. 361, <www.actionfund.org>. The Braille Institute can be contacted at 1-800-272-4553.]
We have received not only all of the books we need through help from the community but also donations of technology. We have written grants in order to provide our children with the Braille ’n Speaks that they need and district licenses for JAWS so they can have JAWS in their homes. The local Lion’s Club just donated computers to two of our children, and we have two children who received a thousand dollars each towards the purchase of a Braille embosser from the County’s Midnight Run. All of these things will help these children to develop their skills and their independence. To me that is imperative that they walk out of our school with the skills to produce independently their own work when they go to college and that they also have the materials with which to do it.
Which brings me to my final comments about the roles and responsibilities of a TVI. It is my job to instill in my students an attitude of self-sufficiency.
I have very high expectations of my students, and I hold them accountable for a whole lot, whether it be communication, keeping up with their work, showing initiative, or asking for help when it’s needed. I also feel it is my responsibility to open their eyes to what jobs and professions are available to them as adults. For that reason I read a lot to my children from Future Reflections and the Braille Monitor because I believe that this organization—the NFB—provides a tremendous number of examples of blind and visually impaired people who are successful, who are capable as professionals and as parents.
One of my students is a fourth grade honors student. He was sitting doing math with me one day, and he said, “You know, Ms. Culpepper, this school stuff just ain’t for me.” I said, “Well, if it isn’t for you, I want you to understand one thing. I’ve been your teacher since preschool, and I’ll be your teacher through high school. The day that I hear that you don’t have a job, that you have chosen to stay home and receive a disability check, that is the day that I will be at your door at eight o’clock in the morning. I will lay on the horn until you come out, and once you are out, I will drag you to the car, and I will take you to a job, and I will make sure that you show up for that job. I will not teach you for twelve years just to have you stay at home.”
I think that by making those expectations clear, he can re-evaluate his expectations for himself. I told this story to his mom, and she just laughed. She said, “That’s true. I appreciate what you said.” The attitude behind my student’s comment is not an attitude we need to develop in the fourth grade or any grade. School is for everybody no matter what their ability is. We can all learn. And, that, finally is my ultimate responsibility: to facilitate that learning for every one of my blind and visually impaired students.
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