Future Reflections Convention Report 2010
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by Laurel J. Hudson, PhD
From the Editor: On July 5, Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway had the honor of presenting the 2010 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award to Dr. Laurie Hudson. Stephanie praised Dr. Hudson for holding her blind students to the highest standards. As the recipient of this award, Dr. Hudson was given the opportunity to address the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Here is what she had to say.
I was attending the University of New Hampshire, majoring in psychology and taking courses in learning, perception, and motivation. I knew I wanted to do something in the education area, but I had no idea what it would look like for me. Then one winter morning during my senior year, I looked out the third-floor window of my college dormitory and watched one of my favorite psychology professors, Dr. Fred Jarvis, tapping his cane along the snowy sidewalk on the way to his office. This really captured my attention--how did his cane help him? As a blind person, how did he keep track of where he was? I asked him about it, and he told me about a federally funded masters degree program in something called "orientation and mobility" at Boston College. I was about to get married and move to Boston. I applied to BC, and I thought it was a done deal, but I wasn't accepted. I had done well at UNH, but the Boston College admissions office was wisely concerned that I didn't know the first thing about blindness. They thought that perhaps I was interested out of a spectator-like curiosity or an unhealthy need to be a helper. I was devastated, but I got myself an assistant teacher position at a place called the Boston Center for Blind Children. I got some experience and re-applied to BC. I got in this time, went through the program, and in 1973 became an orientation and mobility specialist (or, as BC uniquely coined the term, a "peripatologist.")
As I started my first O&M job in the 1970s, the state of Massachusetts was beginning to empty its institutions. The state had finally come to the conclusion that people with disabilities were better served in small residences and job sites in the community than in massive, crowded, impersonal institutions. A number of blind adolescents had been institutionalized. To help them make the transition to the outside world, the local Protestant Guild for the Blind started a program and hired me as one of two O&M specialists. What a shock for me, straight out of school, to realize that many of these young men and women, labeled as severely/profoundly mentally retarded, could readily learn Braille literacy, independent living skills, social skills, and mobility!
At the same time as this de-institutionalization was taking place, Massachusetts mandated some major changes in its education system. I remember being nervous as all get-out when someone from the Massachusetts Board of Education conducted an audit of our program, interviewing me about what we were doing in terms of mainstreaming (or inclusion). "Do you do any mainstreaming?" one of them asked. I had never heard of mainstreaming. Almost nobody had at that time. Streaming? Rivers? Fishing? Swimming? I blurted out some kind of ridiculous answer, as if I had been a student who had partied all night and was trying to bluff her way through an essay exam. Looking back, I wonder how those state administrators kept from chuckling. Anyway, within a few years, after Massachusetts had piloted mainstreaming and the IEP process through a state law called Chapter 766, the federal government adopted much the same process with a piece of legislation called IDEA, and we've never looked back.
After working at the Protestant Guild, I took up a variety of positions teaching mobility at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and in public school systems in the Boston area. I also started a family of my own. I liked to take courses in my field in the evenings as I was teaching, and in the process I became certified as a teacher of students with visual impairments and as a teacher of students with severe/profound disabilities. I took so many courses, in fact, that I realized I wasn't far from a PhD. For my dissertation, I individually assessed forty-eight incredibly helpful blind adults in order to compare some of the most common ways that we were measuring spatial cognition. The catchy name of my dissertation was, "Relationships among Five Measures of Survey Level Mental Representation of Space in the Visually Impaired." I think my doctoral committee members were the only people who ever read it through, and I'm not even so sure about them. My father got through the abstract, and my mother made it through the title.
My training and my experience have opened a lot of doors for me. Over and above my regular teaching in Massachusetts and since 2004 in Georgia, I've been able to teach courses to prepare teachers of the visually impaired and O&M specialists at Boston College, the University of Massachusetts, Florida State University, and the University of Arizona.
Over the years, I've done research on sonic devices with Lesley Kaye, on the developmental stages of blind infants with Kay Ferrell, and on verbal description with WGBH public television. My verbal description research led me to a project jointly sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind and the Described and Captioned Media Program, where I worked with David Dawson and a dozen other people to develop guidelines for verbal description of educational videos.
I've also had the opportunity to do international work through the Hilton-Perkins program. (As an aside, this is the Hilton of the Hilton Hotel chain. Conrad Hilton hadn't known anything about visual impairments/blindness until he read a book about Helen Keller. He was so inspired that he started a foundation that has funded ongoing support for deafblind services in over sixty countries.) Through Hilton-Perkins, I've taught teachers at schools for the blind in China and Vietnam for the past ten or twelve years. I'll be leading a mobility workshop in Ahmedabad, India, later this month.
Lastly, I had the opportunity to write a book called Classroom Collaboration, still in publication through Perkins School for the Blind. I wrote this book when I was working full-time in inclusive settings in the public schools. (I guess I finally learned what mainstreaming is!) Public school teachers, therapists, and paraprofessionals were so uncertain about what to do with a blind child in their classes that I wrote this book to give them some guidelines. The American Foundation for the Blind took one section, called "19 Ways to Step Back," for a free poster that it still distributes nationally. It's a narrow, vertical poster, printed in black and red on white, with a whole range of footprints, from dinosaurs' feet to running shoes to high heels, next to the nineteen steps. Let me take a minute to read some of the steps to you. They're all about independence, as I know we all are.
The first step is, "You're stepping back so your students can step forward and become independent. Keep this in mind." The second is, "Clock how long it actually takes for students to start zippers, pick up dropped papers, or find page numbers. What's a few more seconds in the grander scheme?" The third is, "Sit on your hands for a whole task while you practice giving verbal instead of touch cues. Hands off the hands." And now jump down to the nineteenth step, "Post a sign, 'Are there any other ways I could step back?'"
Teaching has indeed been a magnificent profession for me. But let me get to my students now. That's what it's all about.
Lesley was one of the adolescents released from an institution. He showed me, without a shadow of a doubt, way back during my first job ever in the 1970s, that blind people belong in the community and not in institutions.
Lauren. I began as her O&M instructor and TVI when she was three years old. I continued with her, one-to-one and five days a week, until she finished middle school. She moved with her family to California at that point. When she graduated from high school, her family sent me cross-country airline tickets and offered the use of their guest room so I could be the one to hand her her high school diploma.
Ali had cerebral palsy and used a walker. That determined girl learned to read Braille with her thumb when cerebral palsy prevented her from using the typical hand formation.
Rachel also struggled. Braille reversals got the best of her all through elementary school, but she finally got to the other side of them. For Rachel I wrote a poem about Nemeth numbers, “Zero, four, six and eight, sometimes it's hard to keep them straight.” For those who are familiar with the National Braille Press book, Just Enough to Know Better, Rachel is the little girl in the stories.
Pamela was a creature of habit. She found great security in having a "hot dog, no roll" for her lunch at a diner every single Wednesday for two years during our mobility lessons. But then she took a risk and went from security to adventure. Instead of her usual "hot dog, no roll," she sat down at the diner stool and asked for "just a spoonful of premium honey, nothing else."
Grace was endlessly entertained but also effectively educated when we pretended during O&M lessons that there were detours all along the routes in her elementary school. I used to jump ahead of her as she was walking familiar routes in her school. I'd pretend to be the maintenance man and say in my lowest possible voice, "Excuse me, little girl, I'm washing the floor right here. You'll have to go around another way." Rather than being terrified of getting lost, Grace would giggle at my pretend voice and then happily accept the challenge of this spatial problem solving.
Jack taught me everything I know about Braille notetakers when he was only seven years old.
Eli, a current student, had eighteen surgeries in the first eighteen months of his life. Whenever Eli seems willful during our lessons, I never mind too much. That willfulness is what kept him alive during all his medical complications.
In my reflections on my students over the years I need to include the adults I've taught. I've supervised and learned from literally dozens of student teachers. Sometimes I look over a roomful of TVIs in my home state and realize that I've supervised or worked alongside the majority of them. Then I shudder to think, "If I'm wrong, then they're all wrong."
Then there are the master teachers in schools for the blind in Asia. I've become close to a lot of them. I've taught them a little bit about what we've figured out in the United States. They've taught me a LOT about dedication and resourcefulness.
Now I get to Kendra. She and I have written so many experience books together, figured out so many paper jams together, and explored so many nooks and crannies of her school together! She wrote a paper this spring about why she likes Braille. I'd like to quote some of it to let you know more about my own values and philosophies.
She opened her essay by writing, "Braille helps me read." Those four words are why I've been teaching students with visual impairments for nearly forty years. Reading and writing are key to recreation, employment, and understanding the world. Braille literacy makes this happen for tactile/auditory readers.
Kendra is in a fully mainstreamed classroom at her public school near Atlanta, Georgia. Even as a first grader, she completes most of her assignments on an electronic notetaker, producing print copies by herself with just a little bit of help in attaching a cable. I introduced her preschool classmates to Braille, even when they were much too young to learn it. (One of them confided in me, "We don't really know Braille, you know, Dr. Hudson. We just enjoy the feel.") I'm so committed to making a Braille-rich environment for Kendra that I taught the Braille alphabet to her classroom teacher and to almost all of the sighted students in Room #207. Kendra wrote in her paper, "Rainey and Giselle learned Braille." They sure did! These two sighted girls took their spelling tests on extra Braillewriters in the room this year. They took class notes in Braille and they even exchanged private Braille notes full of first-grade gossip with Kendra.
Last year, Kendra's class played a "name the sound" game. They heard recordings of various sounds such as a rooster and a lawnmower and had to identify them. Then they heard a clinking sound, which was actually a typewriter, but they had probably never heard a typewriter--most people under twenty haven't. We teachers were ready to move on to the next sound, but lots of her classmates had shot up their hands. "It's a Braillewriter, it's a Braillewriter!" they shouted. They had never heard of a typewriter, but Braillewriters were part of their daily routine. That's just how it ought to be for sighted kids in school with blind students. I know Kendra thinks so, too, because she wrote, "I like what (Rainey and Gisele) write, because they are nice Braille writers."
Next, she wrote, "Doctor Hudson taught me Braille when I was little ... I was three when I first learned Braille. And now I know a lot more Braille. I am an expert at reading Braille!" This reflects another important philosophy for me. Early intervention is good for students and it's good for their families. Don't ask me to wait for readiness. The first word for one of my students when she was a baby was "Dada," and her second word was "Bay" for "Braille." Sighted babies are exposed to print on their hospital bracelets on the day they are born. Let's get Braille and accessible print out there from day one as well. Let's get children pushing a device, anything from a long cane to a wooden chair to a child-size hockey stick, as soon as they're moving from one place to another in any way. Rather than trying to wait for children to develop mature gait and confidence before introducing these tools, I use these tools as a way to build the confidence and movement skills.
Back to Kendra's paper. She wrote, "Doctor Hudson also taught me how to use the slate and stylus." Yes, I'm committed to introducing every realistic means for my students to read and write, whether they use a Braillewriter, an electronic notetaker, a personal computer, a slate and stylus, a handheld magnifier, a closed circuit television, a simple 20/20 marker, or any other literacy tool. Put it all on the table. If there's any question about print vs. Braille, then I enthusiastically introduce them both. If we teachers are intimidated by Braille or if we aren't convinced that it's worth the time to teach it, our students will pick up on our attitude and lose their own confidence and enthusiasm.
Kendra wrote, "There are lots of Braille books to read." At seven years of age, she has no idea of the shenanigans it sometimes takes to make a wide range of Braille books available to her. Through careful and persistent research on the part of her family, our state lending library for accessible materials, our regional assistive technology expert, and organizations like NFB, she indeed experiences that there are "lots of Braille books to read." She has every right to this expectation.
My enthusiasm has been contagious. Kendra wrote, "Braille is stupendous and splendid." I, myself, drool over crispy dots and elegant contractions. I'm pleased to see that I've passed on this passion to my students. Yes, Braille really is stupendous and splendid.
Kendra closed her essay by writing that "Doctor Hudson and I are both good Braille writers and we're also good Braille readers." I don't think she knows yet that she has already surpassed me in reading and writing Braille tactually. She doesn't know that her curiosity gets her so deep into computer setup menus that I need to be on the telephone with User Assistance in California for hours to reset her devices. But it's important to me that she has regarded me as a literacy model for these past five years, and it's important to me that she feels comfortable exploring the deeper menus of her devices without worrying too much at this point about getting back to the factory settings. Thank you for all you've taught me, Kendra.
Let me take a few minutes now to share my three favorite quotes about teaching. These quotes affirm me, they encourage me, and they drive a lot of my teaching.
1. "... We who are called to teach do so out of conviction that what we teach is important, that those whom we teach are precious, and that the reason why we teach reaches to the very core of our place and mission in the world." This quote is right at the top of my professional resume, and I took the name of this presentation from it, "We Who Are Called to Teach." I hadn't heard of the author, Robert Fong, but I found the quote in a little book published in 1996 about the spiritual faith of college professors. Let me break it down into its three parts.
"What we teach is important." I teach Braille literacy. I teach ways to do math non-visually. I teach orientation and mobility. I teach the use of sensory systems to help students with low vision and hearing loss, and I teach adaptive technology. When I see my students' fingers zipping confidently across lines of Braille, when I see my students setting and clearing beads on an abacus, when I see them adjusting the settings on a PC so they can access it more fully, when I see their canes finding every obstacle and down curb, when I see them using echolocation to walk ever so gracefully, then this quote resonates with me. It's clear that what I teach is important. As TVIs and O&M specialists, we never have to wonder whether our professional lives have meaning.
Next, Fong writes, "Those whom we teach are precious." When I think of Lesley, Ali, Lauren, Eli, and Kendra, the parade of students I've taught over the years, and when I think of their families and of all the general educators I've worked with in inclusive settings, when I think of all the teachers I've trained at the university level and all the people I've mentored in Asia, I'm again sure why I'm called to teach. These people under my tutelage are precious to me indeed.
Finally, Fong writes, "The reason we teach reaches to the very core of our place and mission in the world." I knew I was called to be a teacher by the time I was in high school. I joined an after-school club called Future Teachers of America and won a $500 university scholarship to study special education. Sometimes people wonder why I "waste" my PhD and three teaching credentials teaching three-year-olds instead of being a big-time administrator. My answer is that my professional place is to be a teacher, and with a PhD I have the theoretical knowledge and the strategies to teach in the very best way I can.
Here is the second quote. Again I'd like to give credit. I have no idea who Dr. Juan C. Sampen is, but I love what he writes. "Teaching consists of causing or allowing people to get into situations from which they cannot escape except by thinking." I like this quote because it drives a lot of my lessons, especially in mobility, in technology, and in my work with students with low vision.
The clearest examples are probably in mobility. Blind children in public schools and their surrounding neighborhoods don't get nearly enough opportunities to get lost. One step in the wrong direction and somebody is always tugging at them or saying, "Oops, no, it's that way!" One of my major roles as an O&M instructor is to keep people away when my students make a wrong turn, veer into a driveway, or overshoot a destination. My job is to give my students the chance to recognize that they're not where they think they are, to give them the chance to problem solve and find their destination, to give them the chance to find that drop-off with their canes so they experience "proof of protection" from their devices.
This quote drives my technology instruction, too. My students get little opportunity to experiment freely with technology without someone warning, "Oh, no, don't touch that key!" One of my roles in introducing technology is to allow my students to push that key, to get stuck in some drop-down menu they've never encountered before, so they can explore what's there and take some time to figure their way back to familiar settings.
Finally, this quote drives me as I help my students with low vision to figure out ways to access material. Maybe they'll lean forward so their eyes are closer to their material, or maybe they'll try using a magnifier, or maybe they'll try some other way. I'm sure not going to provide them large print automatically and deny them opportunities to problem solve.
One last quote. A professor named Marc Gold wrote a definition of people with mental retardation as "those people for whom we have not yet found a way to teach." I like to spin off this language for students with visual impairments. It's not necessarily true that a one-year-old child with a visual impairment and cerebral palsy can't walk. Maybe we just haven't found a way to motivate her enough yet. Maybe it's not that a blind second-grader can't enjoy a game of kickball, but that we just haven't brainstormed with her physical ed instructor enough to find the right auditory signals. It's not that a high school student can't take cellular biology, but that we haven't worked enough with his science teacher to decide on accommodations for microscopes. Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway wrote about this idea in the most recent issue of Future Reflections and I encourage you to read her article if you haven't already. It's called, "From a Statistician's Point of View."
Let me close today by returning to quotes from my students. This one is from Lauren, the student whose family flew me to California for her high school graduation. Like Kendra, Lauren wrote an essay about me. It was called "Advice Giver." She wrote, "If you didn't know what to say to a boy you wanted to go to a dance with and if your friends had the stupidest advice ever, you could just ask Doctor H. about it, though she's not a kid so she might not know about kid stuff but be 95 percent sure that she'd give you good advice."
Of course I've made my share of coulda-shoulda-wouldas in my teaching over the years, but my goal is to give my students, their families, and my colleagues good advice at least 95 percent of the time. There's nothing I want more for blind children than for them to become confident, capable, and independent men and women.
I heard a saying on public radio last week, "It takes a decade to become an overnight success." I consider receiving the Federation's Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award as the culmination of my four decades of teaching. So many people have acknowledged me and congratulated me, and I'm feeling so very affirmed. It's indescribably gratifying. Thank you again, so very much. And thank you all for your attention this afternoon.
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