Future Reflections         Summer 2009

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My Canadian Education Experience

by Ana Gschwend

From the Editor: Parents sometimes struggle to decide whether to mainstream a blind child or have her educated in a special class or residential school. In this article sixteen-year-old Ana Gschwend describes her experience in a program of full inclusion in Manitoba, Canada.

On July 3, 2001, my mother and I moved to Manitoba, a prairie province in central Canada. For six years prior to our move, we had lived in Virginia, where I went through preschool and four years of elementary school. For two of those years, I was taught by a well-known teacher of the blind and visually impaired. She is also an author, and has written many books on teaching Braille to blind and visually impaired children. I was placed in a classroom with other blind and visually impaired children. Kids from several grades were all taught in the same room.

This article is not about my experience in the States. I want to share my experience of attending school in Canada, in a very different school system where the teachers were not as familiar with blind and visually impaired children. My experiences were mostly good ones. My teachers had a genuine interest in learning to adapt their teaching techniques to meet my needs. They treated me the same way they treated the other kids. I received good services from the Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired of the Manitoba Department of Education.

On July 13, 2001, I received a visit from a lady from the Special Services Branch of the Manitoba Department of Education. The Special Services Branch works with children who are blind or visually impaired. The lady was my mobility instructor, and for the next five years she was my vision consultant as well. She made sure that I had all of the resources and materials I needed for my classes. On that first visit she arrived with a welcoming and cheerful attitude, a bag of chocolate-chip muffins, and a tape recorder. I would use the tape recorder for listening to books on tape, as well as recording things on my own. Right away my instructor, who I'll call Mrs. M., took me for a walk to familiarize me with my new neighborhood. She encouraged me to walk independently using my cane, just as I had done in the States when I went out on mobility lessons.

That visit didn't last long. At the time I was mostly interested in the tape recorder. I started to record books that I planned on sending to people I knew. A week later, Mrs. M. brought me my very own Perkins Brailler. She happened to pop by our home while we were out, and left it at our back door. That night I sat down at our kitchen table and wrote a long letter to a friend, telling him of my time here so far. Also I was provided with a raised-line drawing kit and a small box of tactile materials that I could use for doing crafts projects or making pictures.

Unlike the schools in my county in Virginia, the Manitoba schools started classes at the end of August. Before my first day of school, Mrs. M. and I did some mobility inside the building so I could get more familiar with the layout. On the 29th of August I met my teachers and the aide who would be with me that year. The next day I started the fourth grade.

That year the other kids were learning how to handwrite in cursive script instead of printing. By my own choice I started learning to write my name both in print and in cursive. I used my raised-line drawing kit to learn the shapes and formation of the letters. I looked forward to handwriting time, as I enjoyed sharpening my print-writing skills. My aide helped me along the way until I got it right. When the kids did art projects, I did the same things using tactile materials. At recess, on field trips, in music class, and in gym, I did whatever the other kids were doing. If what they were doing was very visual I would do something close to it in a non-visual way, as I am totally blind.

In the fourth grade here there are no proficiency tests. The kids do have tests once in a while though, and I got tested just as much as they did. I managed to get good marks that year, and got along with my teachers and my aide.

Grade five, on the other hand, was a little different. The teacher had designed her curriculum to fit visual learners. Suddenly, so I am told, she had to adapt it a little in order to include me in the class. One of the periods we had -- which I loved -- was art study. We'd have a film about a famous artist, such as Pablo Picasso or Vincent Van Gogh, and would do a task related to his life. Sometimes I was able to participate fully in that class, which lasted for only half an hour. When the task was something very visual that I couldn't do I made good use of my time. It gave me a chance to practice handwriting with my aide's guidance, using my raised-line drawing kit.

I did most of the things the kids in the fifth grade did, and did pretty well in all areas of my schooling that year. My teacher was nice and easy-going, and worked well with me. My sixth-grade year was a little rockier though.

My sixth-grade teacher was very opinionated and really had all of her students work on thinking outside the box, including me. A different thing about her was that she included me in all the art classes. She gave me a final mark of 86% (or an A). She said that she thought I deserved it and that she wasn't just giving that mark to me; I'd earned it -- I still remember those affirming words to this day. That year, I was on the school’s honor roll, and even received a medal for my skills in music class. Once again, I was included in everything, even the school musical, “Treasure Island.”  I was a narrator and a chorister (a singer in the choir), and I had a blast.

My junior-high years were relatively smooth ones. I was not sucked in by the peer pressure to wear cosmetics, date, etc. I believed, and still do, that schoolwork should be one's big priority -- not the enhancement of one's physical appearance (unless it's absolutely necessary) or the development of an intimate relationship with another person. For grades seven, eight, and nine, I was on the honor roll. I received awards for my skills in band class, where I played the clarinet.

One thing I discovered almost as soon as we arrived in Canada was that all students were expected to learn French, beginning in the fourth grade. Luckily my aide knew Braille and knew all of the accent symbols used in French, so she was able to Braille my French worksheets. I took French for four years. In sixth grade I even won an award in a French poetry contest. I recited a poem out loud, from memory. It took a lot of practice. I enjoyed listening to the French songs that our teacher played. I liked to learn new words such as the names of animals, things in the forest, and common foods. I learned to carry on a basic conversation in French.

Now I am in the eleventh grade, and I will enter the twelfth grade this fall. During my high school years, I have made high marks, and have taken courses in psychology, sociology, foods and nutrition (sometimes we still call it home economics, or home ec), and choir. I hope to take the advanced psychology course offered by my school, which could give me a credit towards university. I enjoy school, and I never skip, unlike so many other kids who clearly do not have school at the top of their priority list. Thanks to my talking computer, I am able to email my assignments to my teachers and receive feedback on them. My teachers are very willing to adapt things for me or to give me their feedback in alternative ways instead of writing it by hand in print.

As you can see, there are some differences between my education here and my education in the States. For all of my schooling here in Canada, I have been mainstreamed. I was never put into a separate classroom; that's not how the school system works here. They're big proponents of inclusion, not exclusion. But whether you're being educated in the US, Canada, or anywhere else, be sure to make the right choices that will work for you, so you can aim for success and succeed at whatever you do.

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