Future Reflections          Convention Report 2007

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Braille Readers Always Ignite Learning and Living for Everyone

by Sister Margaret Fleming


Sister MegEditor’s Note: Every convention parents eagerly look forward to hearing remarks from that year’s NFB Distinguished Educator of Blind Children award winner. Here is an edited expansion of that address given by the 2007 winner, Sister Meg Fleming, on Saturday, June 30. Sister Meg’s expanded remarks are prefaced by a transcription of the introduction from Barbara Cheadle, president of the NOPBC:

Barbara Cheadle: Our next presenter is the 2007 recipient of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award, Sister Margaret Fleming. Sister Meg is principal of the St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments. She has taught for more than thirty-five years, eleven of them as a teacher of the visually impaired in which she taught Braille, access technology, daily living skills, and cane travel. She now draws on all that experience to direct the Roman Catholic Church’s only school for blind children in Philadelphia. This is the job that she has held since 1995. She is dedicated, enthusiastic, convinced of the capacity of blind children to lead normal lives, and therefore holds her children and her teachers to high levels of expectations. Her professional honors and responsibilities are many. She is an adjunct faculty member of Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) from 1993 to the present time. Dr. Missy Garbor from PCO is here--Missy, did you want to stand and say, “Hi,” and wave?--here to see Sister Meg get her award. She is a recipient of the Elinor Long Pennsylvania Distinguished Educator of the Year Award for the Visually Impaired in 1992; the American Cardinal’s Award sponsored by Catholic University, 2003; the Pennsylvania Lynch Award, 2003; the recognition award given by the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind; and, she is president-elect of the Pendale Chapter of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, 2007. Her award comes with a $1,000 prize, an expense-paid trip to this convention, and the responsibility and honor of addressing us here today. She will also make herself available to meet and talk informally with parents throughout the convention. Here is Sister Meg:

Sister Meg: Thank you. Sounds like a eulogy, doesn’t it? Scary. Maybe I better leave now [laughter].

I am really honored to be addressing you this morning at your annual national convention. It has been my privilege to be part of the blind community for many years. I want to publicly thank the Pennsylvania Keystone Division of the National Federation. They have been an active part of St. Lucy Day School for many, many years and I appreciate their support. This time last year, they were scrubbing the new school--Jim Antonacci [the president of the NFB of Pennsylvania] and Lynn [the vice president], too, were down on hands and knees scrubbing toilets.

It’s a privilege for me to be here. As I look out at you, I know I am preaching to the choir. You are here because you want so much for our children. You are a gift. Any single one of you could be sitting in this chair and giving this talk. I really believe that from my whole heart. Parents in my mind come first always. You know your children more than any teacher, any principal--anybody. You are number one, and you can’t forget that. I try never to forget it.

Barbara told you a little bit about St. Lucy’s Day School, but let me tell you more. Saint Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments (SLDS) was founded in 1955 because parents wanted a Catholic neighborhood day school where their children could learn the four “R’s” just like their brothers and sisters, and still be included in the mainstream setting. I was in first grade when SLDS opened. Blind students from St. Lucy’s were in my classroom from the beginning, so I always knew that the “Lucy Kids” could do it all. Our school is one of the buildings on a campus of a neighborhood parish. Our sisters run that elementary school and SLDS is an active part of that school. So, we have always worked hand in hand with the regular parish elementary school. It’s like the best of both worlds for the students and the teachers. I often tell folks that over these 55 years we have watched the educational pendulum swing between no inclusion and full inclusion. Throughout it all, SLDS has stayed the course and prepared students to be independent in any setting they choose.

The wisdom of St. Lucy’s is that we have followed the blessed middle path. We’re not perfect, but we’re good. We make sure the children can advocate for themselves. They know what they need to know so that they can be independent, and so that they don’t need somebody beside them every minute. It helps that we have instant contact with their regular teacher. Now that everybody has cell phones, somebody from the regular school will call me or Sister Elaine and say, “The Braille printer is not working.” Well, we don’t have to wait a week. We can walk over there and fix the printer. But back to my address. You have a title for my speech in your agenda, but the real topic for this talk could be labeled Braille Readers Always Ignite Learning and Living for Everyone--B.R.A.I.L.L.E.

My topic includes a call for you as parents to understand that intensive Braille instruction is needed by children who are blind/visually impaired in order to excel in the mainstream setting. In the elementary school years, our children need to be fluent in Braille. They need to be just like their siblings, and that means that they need to be able to read and write. They also need to know that we have the same expectations of them as we have for their sighted peers. I’ll talk more about that later. The goal is to keep our children’s emotional, academic, and spiritual needs uppermost in our minds.

Let’s ask ourselves the question, “What do our children need to succeed?”
We know they need to study all the elements of what is often called the core curriculum--these are not unlike the subjects you and I studied in school. Didn’t we learn math, social studies, science, language arts, art, music, and health when we went to school? Students in the twenty-first century still study these subjects and more. (You will notice, of course, that computers were not in our core curriculum--that’s a change.)

Students who are blind/visually impaired have needs that go beyond the core curriculum, thus the development of the term Expanded Core Curriculum as articulated by the loose coalition of professionals and organizations called The National Agenda. How many of you know about the Expanded Core Curriculum? Just clap. [Clapping.] Good. Thank you. Sometimes I think it’s a big secret in school districts. According to the National Agenda, the following list of topics is all part of the Expanded Core Curriculum.

Number one on that list is communication skills, which to me means literacy. If literacy is mastered then access to the regular core curriculum is a given. Phil Hatland from the Texas School for the Blind said at a conference I attended years ago that we should have an open mind about what we consider literacy. He says that literacy includes Braille, print, tapes, CDs, switches--all sorts of media. That may be right, but in my mind kids need to be able to read first--they need to be able to do Braille. Everything else can be a backup. Of course, there are kids who maybe won’t need Braille, or won’t be able to learn Braille the way we would hope they could learn, so we always have a global approach.

Second, orientation and mobility is a must and our students need intensive training in the early years so they can be independent in the educational setting. Not long ago a young man graduated from St. Lucy’s and headed for his neighborhood high school. By the way, a lot of our kids leave before high school. They go back into their neighborhood schools as soon as they can advocate for themselves, their Braille skills are good enough, and they don’t need somebody with them all the time. But back to my story. The neighborhood district wanted him to have an aide to go with him from class to class, but he didn’t want it. They wanted him to ride a special school bus. He didn’t want it. What he did want was orientation to the high school--which is one of the biggest schools in the Philly area--before school started in September. And he got it. They did put an aide with him for a little while, but not for long. He demonstrated to them that he didn’t need it. The capacity and confidence to make these kinds of decisions did not suddenly appear in this young man when he turned fourteen. When this young man was a little kid at St. Lucy’s, I used to tease him and tell him he would get lost in a paper bag. How did he get from that stage to the confident young teen capable of advocating for himself, and making it stick? We provided “age appropriate” orientation and mobility training, and we had the courage to let go. There is wisdom in letting your children explore their environment just like their sighted brothers and sisters.

It is never too early to let go--never easy, but never too early. I saw all of you parents do that just five minutes ago. You let your children go down the hall to other meeting rooms in the care of strangers. It was great that we were first introduced to these people--Angela Wolf, Gail Wagner, Melissa Riccobono, and all the others--but it’s still hard, isn’t it? Are you wondering what’s happening? Are you thinking, “Will they understand my child? Will they give my child enough help?” But you did it. You had the courage to let go. So again, I’m preaching to the choir.

Over the years parents have said to me, “I want more for my child than I had.” I’m sure that my mom said the same thing. My response over the years has turned into a thoughtful one. Here is what I have come to believe: If you want more for your child, you must do less for your child. Yes, you heard me. You have to do less. Be there for them yet demand independence. Have the same expectations for your child who is blind as you do for the child that can see. Do you remember what your keynote speaker, Lisamaria Martinez, talked about earlier this morning? Her parents did a whole lot, but they knew how to also do less. They knew how and when to step back and let her live her own life and make her own choices.

And that brings me to topic number three. Independent living skills are another part of the expanded core curriculum. This covers a lifetime of issues. Our teachers designed an at-home program for the parents of our students ages preschool to fifteen. This program is a twenty-four page developmental list of activities that are age-appropriate. The program is designed to help parents help their children do what needs to be done “on their own.” When our parents walk in the door, they get this at-home program. It’s simple, but parents need it, especially if the blind child is their only child or the first child.

Here’s an example. Several years ago, we had a little guy come to our preschool. His mom and dad carried him into the school. This is preschool and the little guy is three years old, but he didn’t walk--he had never walked. There was nothing wrong with his legs, but he was an only child and his parents had always carried him everywhere; he was jolly and happy as long as you carried him.

I told Poppy, “Put him down.”

“But, he’ll cry,” the dad said.

“He’s three. He’s going to cry,” I said. “What are you going to do when he’s sixteen and you’re seventy? Are you still going to carry him?”

The parents put him down, and he did cry nearly the entire year and a half in preschool, but he doesn’t cry anymore, and he walks.

It is important for kids to do things on their own. One of our six-year-old students walked into the office one day. He had just come out of the bathroom, and his belt and pants were undone, and he stood there and he said, “Mrs. Johnson, (the secretary) would you fix my pants?”

I came out of the office just then and said, “How are you doing?”

He said, “Oh, I’ll show you how I can fix my pants myself.” True story. [Laughter]

Number four on our list is social interaction. Yes, social interaction needs to be taught. One young man in our school is so skilled he could get the wall to talk to him. Another little guy is content to sit and wait for the world to come to him, and there are lots of little people in the middle. We need to teach all of them how to engage in conversation. How do you know who is in the room? What are ways that you can initiate a conversation? What do you need to know about body language and its importance to your peers?

And children need to know what to do when they are teased, ignored, or bullied. This is not common in our school--we are a typical, structured Catholic elementary school--but some things do slip by. You are your child’s safe haven and he or she needs to be able to come home to you and tell you what happened. Bullying, of course, has to be stopped. But all children are teased at some time, and you have to teach your kids the skills to deal with it. So, you need to know when you have to run up to the school and deal with it, and when you should give your child advice and encouragement, but stay out of it and let him or her deal with it.

Number five on our list is recreation and leisure. We are all so different. What is recreation for one may be torture for another. I love to read, that’s recreation for me. But my sister likes to go and do things--no sitting around for her. The key is exposure. Students need a wide variety of experiences with different recreation and leisure activities so that they can discover what re-creates them, what gives them “life.” If the only leisure experience a blind child has ever had is listening to a CD player, then what else can they choose to do if that’s the only thing they know? So, you have to help your kids get more experiences so that they can have choices.

Number six is career education, another piece of the expanded core curriculum. This year we took our sixth through eighth grade students to a special career day sponsored by the Pennsylvania Blindness and Visual Services. The day was designed for high school students, so there were parts that were very boring for them. The presentations about SSI and health benefits went over their heads. What did make an impression was the frightening statistic that seven out of ten blind/visually persons are either unemployed or underemployed. We took ten students to this career day. They came back and said, “Does this mean that seven of us will not have jobs?” These are bright, energetic kids and they don’t want to be a part of that statistic.

And I said, “No, that’s not what it has to mean.” I talked to them about doing the best that they can now, about valuing their education, about getting a summer or part-time job just like their 16-year-old sighted brother; I talked to them about working harder--they are never too young to hear that they have to work harder. I reminded them of the blind adults that talked to them at the Career Fair. Many of them were St. Lucy’s graduates, and they had jobs; they went to work every day. Yes, there were a few adults there who did not have jobs, but they had not given up; they were at the fair to learn what they could do.

The next expanded core topic is visual efficiency skills. You know how important those are. We know that our students with partial vision/low vision need to use all their senses to access the world around them.

Last and number eight on our list is technology. Today, every student needs to be able to access the World Wide Web of information--no exceptions, every student. Think about the development of technology in the last fifty or so years: Television. I remember when we got our first TV; it was 1955. Transistor radios, eight-track tapes, (remember those?), computers, flash drives, cell phones, text messaging, and iPods. Braille technology has come a long way, too. I started teaching at St. Lucy’s in 1982, and in 1984 we got our first Cranmer Modified Perkins Braillewriter. Up until then I Brailled every night until 10:00 p.m. so the kids would have their Braille materials the next day for their regular classrooms. When we got the Cranmer, I jumped up and down for joy. After that, I was only scanning and editing until ten o’clock every night.

All of our kids at St. Lucy’s get electronic notetakers--BrailleNotes--when their Braille skills are really, really good. That’s usually by third grade; their Braille skills are pretty good by then. Have you ever seen the BrailleNote manual? I told a sixth grader, Michael, “If you can just look at that manual, and figure out how to connect to the Internet, I’ll take you to lunch.” I said that at 9:00 a.m. one morning. At 10:30 a.m. he asked me, “Where are we going for lunch?”

I could talk forever, but I’m going to bring my speech to an end now. Where do we go from here? We want our children to be able to advocate for themselves. We want them to be independent. We want them to know their own unique strengths and their own unique weaknesses. We want them to make choices. We want them to have a career that they love. You notice each time I started with “we” want. But the truth is what we really want is for our kids themselves to say, “I want to advocate for myself. I want to be independent. I want to walk to that podium myself. I want to know my own unique strengths, my own unique weaknesses. I want to make choices, and I want a career I can love.”

So how do we provide an atmosphere where our children can learn and live their fullest potential? My answer--be sure they can read! In my mind, the one umbrella word that can make this happen is literacy. Being able to read opens us to so many life-giving experiences. It is never too early to label everything in your home for your baby or toddler. Instill a love for reading by reading to them. If your child can read in the mode that best suits them, he or she can tackle the regular education curriculum.

The most difficult part for Braille students is time. Students need daily contact with a qualified Braille teacher; one who knows Braille inside and out. Braille needs to be a part of every subject, every day, until the students are good enough to do it by themselves. It’s a must. I believe in literacy. In every skill, we need the ability to read. (I need to qualify my strong emphasis on Braille literacy. SLDS’ students are all cognitively able to have Braille as their primary tool for reading.)

Every skill our children need is enhanced by their ability to read. Consider the skills needed for orientation and mobility. Could you move and travel safely if you were not literate? You “read” your cane; you “read” the presence of a curb; you “read” the sound of traffic. And you literally read a tactile map.

And what about the expanded core curriculum topics I discussed today--career education, independent living skills, etc. How do we address them? The old saying that it takes a village to raise a child comes to mind. I believe our students deserve and have a right to a qualified teacher who can address these issues. Can we envision the local school districts sharing the responsibility with a school for the blind? Can we envision our students spending time between different programs, depending on different needs?

The goal is to keep our children’s emotional, academic, and spiritual needs uppermost in our minds, and who knows better what our children need than do you, the parents, and hopefully--in partnership with you--your principals and teachers. So let’s ask ourselves the question that is not new to any of us: What do our children need to succeed in the 21st Century? Thank you.

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