Future Reflections Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille
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by Jolene C. Wallace
Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from a research paper that Jolene Wallace, a 25-year-plus veteran teacher from Montana, wrote a couple of years ago for a class at Stephen F. Austin State University where she was pursuing a master’s degree as a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI). For the research project, she used the NFB’s Braille Is Beautiful curriculum. I talked to Ms. Wallace when she called the NFB office to order the materials. Intrigued by her research proposal (and excited that she wanted to use Braille Is Beautiful), I asked her if she would share her results with us, and she did. Her paper is very timely for this issue, and also because we are launching a new look for the Braille Is Beautiful program with updated resources and better-than-ever pricing for diverse budgets. A description of the program with information about prices and how to order it follows this article on page xx. Here, now, is what Ms. Wallace has to say about the value of teaching the Braille code to sighted students:
Sharing the Braille Code with Sighted Children:
Key to Dispelling Misconceptions about the Blind in Elementary Classrooms
Many elementary classroom teachers after reading stories about blind people such as Helen Keller and Louis Braille in their reading books, have students simulate what it is like to be blind by wearing a blindfold while attempting to walk or eat. This kind of activity results in pity or sympathy for a blind or visually impaired classmate and only reinforces the many misconceptions about the ability of the blind and visually impaired to live and learn. Additionally, it instills fear about losing vision. The purpose of this study was to identify misconceptions and knowledge about the blind in third, fourth, and fifth graders before and after a series of five lessons on the Braille code. The students were shown a video from the National Federation of the Blind’s curriculum Braille Is Beautiful, given instruction on the Braille code, and the use of a slate and stylus. They also read excerpts from two books about real blind people. Following the five sessions all classrooms showed a positive attitude change about what blind people can do, and an overwhelming interest to continue learning and practicing the Braille code.
As a result of IDEA and changing philosophies about how best to educate children with special needs and challenges, public schools have an increasingly varied population of students. Students with different cultures, socioeconomics, abilities, and challenges are all present in most classrooms. Even the publishers have started putting stories about people with disabilities and people who have overcome challenges and difficulties into their reading curriculums. The blind have not been left out. After all, there are some amazing historical people to write about; Helen Keller and Louis Braille are inspiring and familiar examples.
In the Macmillan McGraw Hill Reading 2005 series used in the school where I teach, the fourth grade basal reader has a story called “Mom’s Best Friend,” by Sally Hobart Alexander about the loss of her guide dog. The fifth grade reading curriculum has a supplementary book about Helen Keller to go along with the story about Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic runner. Both stories are well done, inspiring, and illustrate that vision loss does not prevent a person from being a productive and fully functioning member of our society. However, the teacher-designed activities following each of those stories are not always as positive and inspiring.
In one common and popular activity, teachers have students simulate what it is like to be blind with a blindfold. Some teachers call the activity a ‘trust walk.’ Wearing blindfolds, the newly blind student is paired with a ‘sighted’ peer on the playground and encouraged to explore the halls and playground without the tools and training given to successful blind and visually impaired people. The artificially-blind student is told to trust that their newly appointed sighted guide will not walk them into a door (or worse). This not only enforces the common misconception that blind children and adults need the sighted to navigate their way through the world, but puts the students in an unsafe situation.
One teacher, with a blind student in her fourth grade class, displayed pictures that her class painted while under a blindfold and had them write essays about what they would miss if they were blind. The paintings looked sad and the essays painted a dark and even sadder picture of loss and loneliness as the students contemplated a life without vision. Had these essays been shared with the blind student in that classroom, and did she share the feelings of loss and loneliness? Did the paintings have any meaning to the blind student? For the sighted students it only confirmed the misconception that loss of sight could result in loss of creative expression.
All of these teachers are experienced and kind-hearted. These activities were designed and conducted with the best of intentions: to experience blindness and develop empathy or understanding. Unfortunately, activities like these do not allow students to truthfully experience blindness. The positive message presented in the literature the students read is forgotten as the teacher-designed activities confirm the misconception that a world without vision is as confusing and dismal as the paintings and essays displayed outside that fourth grade classroom. David Kappan (1994) writes “It is reasonable to presume that teachers who have been involved in these activities may frequently have a tendency to expect less of their blind students.” Teacher expectations and attitudes regarding the blind are unavoidably and inevitably passed on to their students, resulting in fear, pity, and a distorted image of the blind and their varied abilities.
Misconceptions and Expectations
In numerous education studies--those done not only with the general education population but also with learning disabled students, disadvantaged students, and minority students--the number one predictor of success is high teacher expectations. That is just as true for blind and visually impaired students.(Madrigal, Spring 2005) Misconceptions held about vision impairments by even the most well-intentioned teachers and administrators can severely limit expectations, opportunities, and experiences for blind students. Misconceptions and low expectations affect every aspect of their education from deciding if they should attend a residential versus neighborhood school, if they should learn Braille or not, need the help of a paraprofessional, should use a cane, be excused for recess early, or even have an escort to the bathroom. The educational decisions that are considered for sighted students, such as enrichment classes and screening for inclusion in gifted and talented programs, are rarely discussed with parents of blind and visually impaired students. There is no right or simple answer for many of the educational debates over the education of our visually impaired students. “What blind children lack is not access to services, but access to high expectations.” (Schroeder, 2004)
Unfortunately, low expectations and misconceptions are passed on to the blind student’s peers as well. Blind or low vision students are not included in a classmate’s birthday adventure or sleepover, for fear it might be dangerous or uncomfortable. Visually impaired students may be excluded from art, library, or movie presentations because it has been decided that, without vision, they wouldn’t benefit from the lesson. They miss out on the gossip with friends because a para is assigned to keep them safe. Classmates may have been told to be careful around the ‘blind kid’ in the hall, lunchroom, and playground, thus resulting in isolation. Blind students who rely on Braille don’t have a shared literacy with their peers. They may have a different or older version of a textbook, recreational reading is limited to what can be found in Braille or in audio versions, they miss the opportunity to write notes that are passed under desks out of sight of the teacher. The result is the continuance of low expectations from not only teachers, but now the child’s peers as well. The misconceptions that may have lead to the low expectations are now passed on to a new generation.
Blindness is a low incidence disability. Consequently, many people don’t know anyone who is blind or has a vision impairment. Most of us have not been in class with a blind student nor had a blind coworker. Misconceptions about the blind are present in movies, books, stories, and gossip. They are based on ignorance or presumption and are often generalized to include the entire blind and visually impaired population. It is important to identify common misconceptions, dispute or correct those if possible, and brainstorm ‘what if.’ Some misconceptions may seem silly or obvious when stated; others require more thought, research, or experience. Activities seemingly dependent on vision--skiing, mountain climbing, and hunting--have all been proven possible. Following are some commonly reported misconceptions and statements compiled from writings of blind children, blind adults, and from parents of blind children. Some may seem silly and others may challenge your own ideas about blindness. Consider these statements:
If you can see colors or light or anything, then you are not blind.
Blind people have better hearing than sighted people.
Blind people will feel bad if you use words such as look and see.
Blind people cannot live alone, unless they have a dog to help.
All blind children need special schools, special classrooms, special buses, paras, etc.
It is too costly to educate blind children in the public schools.
Braille should not be taught if there is any useable vision.
Blind people need to accept their limitations.
Blind people get depressed easily.
Blindness is: a punishment, a blessing, a lesson that must be learned…
If they can read, they don’t need that white cane.
Teaching Braille to Sighted Students
Elementary age students, with hope, imagination, and the high expectations of the young are often the first to explore ways to overcome the challenges faced by vision impaired students. The fascination with Braille that is almost universal (especially with children) can be a beginning step in establishing respect and allowing a way to share literacy. Teaching sighted students Braille in the classroom is one way to establish the foundation that vision impaired children and adults can share the same interests and participate in the same activities as their sighted peers. It provides a way to identify and address misconceptions that the students may have about vision impairments. For the vision impaired student in the class, it can offer a chance to take a leadership role, practice social skills, and answer questions that classmates may have about him or her in a safe and comfortable environment. With the support of the child’s parent or TVI, it is an easy, nonjudgmental way to educate the classroom teacher as well.
Consider my dream of the ideal elementary classroom for a blind student. I imagine two Braillers on the counter along with a box of slates and styli not just for my blind student to use, but for the class to use as well. I see a large wall chart on the wall for sighted children to use to ‘decode’ the Braille code. I can imagine the teacher reminding students who wish to study their spelling for the week during free time that they can use Braille to practice the words if they wish. I see a note in Braille being passed hand to hand to my blind student telling her to meet her friends at the swing. When it is one of the VI student’s turn to be ‘student of the week’ the teacher tells the students they will need to write a short sentence in Braille telling my student what they like about her. When it is math time, and my blind student is whispering with her friends, the boy next to her quietly turns her Braille book to the correct page, because he can read the page number in Braille. This is how I imagine that with a little effort and instruction, Braille could be more than a novelty, but a shared mode of literacy. The sighted students would know just enough to allow the Braille reading student a way to share literacy with them.
The Braille Is Beautiful Curriculum
The Braille Is Beautiful curriculum, is a project of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). It is designed as an introduction to Braille for sighted fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classrooms. The authors of the curriculum have allowed for a great deal of flexibility in using the curriculum. Full use of the curriculum is estimated to take anywhere from six hours and forty minutes to nine hours and twenty minutes. It could be done in two weeks or extended over the school year.
[NOTE: A current description of the Braille Is Beautiful program and a list of the materials that come in it follows this article on page xx.]
I used portions of the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum to teach a series of five lessons on the Braille code, while at the same time introducing information about blindness, famous blind people, and compensatory tools and skills used by blind and low vision people.
Nine classes from a Missoula, Montana, elementary school in grades three, four, and five participated in a series of five lessons on the Braille code. There were a total of 205 participants of which 110 were boys and 95 were girls. Only one of the participants, a fourth grade girl, was visually impaired and had any Braille training.
Each of the nine participating classes was given five lessons on the Braille code over a period of four weeks. Some classes had three lessons in one week while others two lessons in one week. The lessons took place in the class’s homeroom with the classroom teacher present for the majority of the lesson. Each lesson lasted about forty-five minutes and started with a story and discussion lasting about ten to fifteen minutes and was followed by a brief lesson and demonstration about the Braille code. The last fifteen to twenty minutes were spent decoding Braille words and phrases and producing Braille using a slate and stylus.
The class was given a pre-test from the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum that asked them to answer true or false questions about blindness. After the pre-test was collected, the class was asked to brainstorm what they thought about being blind. Their answers were recorded on large chart paper. The class was then shown the movie Jake and the Secret Code from the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum. Following the movie we reviewed and talked about what we had recorded on the chart paper. I passed around some Braille books, including a program from the Rose Parade in Braille, some slates and styli, and explained that I would be back to teach them the Braille code in a couple of days.
Upon arriving I gave each student a folder in which to keep the information on Braille that they would be getting during the next four lessons. I also passed out a word printed in SimBraille on the computer (Appendix 1) and asked the class if they could read it or if a blind person could read it. We talked about SimBraille versus embossed Braille. The class was asked if Braille was a code or a language. Following a brief discussion on codes versus languages, the NFB Braille alphabet cards were passed out to each student. They were told to use the card as the ‘decoder’ or key to decode the word that they had been given. If they decoded it correctly they discovered it said, Braille. In their folders was an information sheet about Louis Braille from the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum to follow along with as I told the story of Louis Braille. After the story, I shared some basic rules and language about the code, beginning with how the Braille cell could be described. Looking at a Braille cell I explained that the dots could be numbered to describe which dots in the cell needed to be raised to form a letter. The first side has 1, 2, and 3 and the second side had 4, 5, and 6. So the letter ‘b’ could be described as ‘dots 1 and 2.’
I also talked about describing the cell as first side: top, middle, bottom, and second side: top, middle, bottom. Using that method, describing the cell for letter ‘b’ would be ‘first side: top and middle.’ I also explained that all letters are formed with embossed dots in position 1 or 4 (or both), so when looking at the symbol for the letter c, they knew it would have to be made with dots 1 and 4, not dots 2 and 5. I also introduced the number sign and explained that numbers could be made with the letter symbols a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, and j, but they needed to have the number symbol in front of it.
Before leaving, I gave three assignments. The first was to paste the SimBraille word on the cover of their folder. Second they were to use the sheet with the large empty Braille cells to color the dots to form the Braille shapes that would spell out their name and glue that to the front of the folder. And finally to construct their own Braille ‘decoder’ for all the alphabet letters and the numbers using the worksheet from Braille Is Beautiful. They were told that it was important that they think about how Braille letter shapes are constructed. Think about what dots were on the first side, what dots were on the second side, and the position (top, middle, bottom), rather than trying to tie it visually to the printed letter or thinking about it as opposite to another shape. This would help when we began to use a slate and stylus in lesson three.
By my third visit all of the students were anxious to start producing their own Braille. I began again with a SimBraille sheet for them to decode. This sheet had the names Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller on it. Handing out the information sheets on Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, I told them about Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller, and a little bit about the history of Braille in America and about BANA--the Braille Authority of North America. I demonstrated the Perkins Brailler and demonstrated the slate and stylus, reminding them that they needed to really think about how the Braille shape was made using the ‘first side, second side, top, middle, bottom’ language. Slates, styli, and Braille paper were passed out and they were given free rein to play and practice. After fifteen to twenty minutes of practice, the slates and styli were collected and The Get the Idea Student Instruction Book from the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum was distributed along with a packet of worksheets from the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum for them to decode until I returned for the next lesson.
I began lesson 4 by reading a beautifully illustrated book called Looking out for Sarah.(Lang, 2001) Based on a real Sarah--Sarah Gregory Smith--who along with her guide dog, Perry, walked from Boston to New York. Following the story we discussed what a guide dog did and how to tell if the dog was working. We also talked about how even though Sarah was blind, she still kept her job as a musician, dancer, and volunteer cook and was able to participate in other activities such as sports. Continuing on with the Braille lesson, I introduced how individual letter shapes in the Braille code can stand for certain words, such as k for knowledge and b for be. I also introduced some punctuation and the capital letter sign. The slates, styli, and paper were passed out and the students were again given the opportunity to practice what they had learned and to work on another packet of SimBrailled words and phrases from the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum.
Our final lesson began with the book, Do You Remember the Color Blue. (Alexander, 2000). The fourth graders had read a story in the basal reader called Mom’s Best Friend, by the same author, Sally Hobart Alexander, so both the fourth and fifth graders were interested in seeing this book. I showed all groups the pages with pictures of ‘helpful tools’ (p. 20 Alexander, 2000) and we discussed how the Braille watch and other tools worked. We also brainstormed what other new kinds of technology could be adapted for blind and low vision users. I allowed each class to pick a chapter from her book to learn more about. Chapters include topics such as: How did you meet your husband when you couldn’t see him? Is it hard to be a blind parent? How do you read and write? and, Do you remember the color blue? A discussion followed about what visually impaired people could do, what tools and adaptations would they need, and the role of the white cane. For the Braille code lesson, I talked more about contractions (short ways to write words) and why it was necessary. I gave each student a copy of a sheet with common contractions on it to keep as a reference and a workbook from the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum. The students were allowed to use the slate and stylus, take turns on the Perkins Brailler, or decode the Braille books I brought with me. I left two post-tests with each teacher to be given later and returned to me.
Measuring Attitudes and Misconceptions before and after Instruction
Before showing the video or beginning instruction, I measured attitudes and misconceptions in two ways. The first was a simple true or false pre-test of attitudes and knowledge about blindness included in the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum. The test had twenty-four questions on it that measured knowledge about Braille, knowledge about blindness, and misconceptions and attitudes about blind people. I read each question and asked them to mark true or false.
After collecting each test, I then put up a sheet of chart paper and asked the students to tell me what they thought blindness was and how it would affect the way they lived. I recorded the responses on the chart paper. Many of the same responses were given in each of the classes.
Using the responses during this first discussion, I wrote my own short post test based on the responses I had recorded. My test consisted of ten true or false questions and four short answer questions.
After the fifth lesson, I asked the classroom teachers to give the Braille Is Beautiful post test to the class and return it to me. (I asked the teachers to give the test so that they would have the chance to read and think about each statement.)
Looking at the Braille Is Beautiful pre-test and post test, when all grades are combined, the overall change in knowledge and attitudes about Braille and blindness following the lessons on Braille was 23 percent. Students in both the third and fourth grades scored a difference of 18 percent. Fifth graders had the greatest percentage of change in attitude and knowledge at 32 percent. The curriculum was written for fourth through sixth grades, so that might account for the fifth grade scores being higher. They had a longer attention span and better language skills.
My post test was based on misconceptions that the students themselves had revealed in our opening discussion. Again, the fifth grade scored more answers in the correct range. The percentages for third and fourth graders were higher than on the first test, but my test was shorter and I had attempted to use simpler language than on the Braille Is Beautiful test.
On both tests and in discussions with the students it was apparent that they had increased their knowledge about Braille and blindness, but it was also just as apparent that some attitudes about blind people can’t be easily changed, even in children. Many of the students in our time together expressed that although some blind people might be able to live by themselves or participate in sports such as skiing, they didn’t think it was a good idea for most blind people.
This study was simple and elementary in design and achieved predictable results. What needs to be investigated further is will the students retain the knowledge and score the same in six months or a year? What will they do with the knowledge when meeting a visually impaired classmate? If the Braille lessons had been given throughout the semester or entire year, what would the results have been? And most importantly for the blind student, would this type of curriculum result in more natural social experiences for the blind student? After Braille exposure, instruction, and free access to Braille reading and writing materials, would the kind of shared literacy I imagined in my ideal classroom start to emerge?
The Immeasurable Results
Both post test measures showed positive changes in knowledge about blindness and in attitudes towards blind and visually impaired people. I was surprised and a little disappointed that the percentages weren’t higher. However, the overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm that I experienced from almost all of the students that participated was unexpected and heart warming.
During the month that I spent going into the participating classrooms, my resource room was filled with students coming in to practice Braille, asking to borrow a slate and stylus, or to try and read the Braille books. During our parent/teacher conferences, I set up a table with the Perkins Brailler, slate and stylus, Braille books, and other materials that we had been using. Many of the students dragged parents down to show them what they were learning and as a result I had to start taking orders from students and parents who wanted to buy slates and styli for home. Students dropped off notes for me that they had written in Braille and asked me to read them. I have one on my desk that says, “I love Braille, thanks for teaching it to me.”
During one of the last lessons in a third grade class, a little girl politely raised her hand and asked me, “Why would we want to learn Braille?” I stopped for a moment trying to think how to reply. I hadn’t told any of the students that I was doing this for a paper as part of my training as a TVI. During the first lesson, I had introduced myself as the resource room teacher (which many of them already knew). I talked a little about how people learn in different ways and that it was my job to make sure kids at our school got special help or a special place to go to learn if they needed it. I shared that I was learning how to teach kids that had vision problems and wanted to share Braille with them. I had somehow missed giving them a reason about why they would want to know Braille.
Her classmates viewed her question as somewhat rude and rushed to my defense before I could give my answer. They had some typical answers, like “What if you go blind?” or “What if your mom or grandma is blind?” There were some dramatic scenarios, like using Braille on the wall to find your way out of a burning building. But there were some very thoughtful answers as well.
One girl said, “I think I would like to teach Braille to kids, and if you hadn’t taught me, I’d never know about Braille.” Another said it would help her make friends with blind people if she knew Braille. One boy said he would like to invent a slate and stylus you didn’t have to go backwards on to make it easier. Another boy said that maybe it could still be used for ‘night writing’ in the war, remembering the movie and our talk about Louis Braille. I finally got to give my answer. I simply said I think it is important to know a little bit about a lot of things in our world so that we can make it a better world for all of us.
I hope and believe that the little bit of Braille these sighted students learned will help them as they think about the careers they choose, the people they meet, and will make our world a little bit better as a result.
Alexander, S. H. 2000. Do you remember the color blue? New York, New York: Viking Penquin Group.
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