Future Reflections Winter 2011
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by Sheila Amato, EdD
From the Editor: Dr. Sheila Amato is a longtime teacher of blind and visually impaired students. In addition, she has instructed future TVIs in Braille and other critical skills. This article is based on a presentation she delivered at the 2010 National Federation of the Blind convention in Dallas, Texas.
One week ago today I retired from my day teaching position, after serving for thirty-eight years as a teacher of children who are deaf, deafblind, and blind. I had the most wonderful students and parents in the world, and my students achieved outstanding success in many areas.
I should have been able to retire with the laurels of success upon my feted shoulders. Instead, I retired with much concern for the quality of the future education of my students. Whoever comes aboard as their teacher in September will walk into a position where, among other tasks, he or she will have to transcribe trigonometry, honors Italian, and chemistry into Braille for my blind student who is a high school junior. Such challenges will face that teacher every day.
When Mark Riccobono invited me to speak on a panel about the education of blind students, I was intrigued. When he asked me to focus on innovations that are needed in the preparation of teachers of blind students and what we still need to learn, I was in! However, I have to admit to a level of discomfort as I sit here before you on a panel with the title, "The Failure of the Education System in Meeting the Needs of the Blind." As a teacher, I do not want my career and my efforts to be thought of as a failure. But after some intense discussion with Mark and others I have come to realize that this is not a reflection on any one teacher, but on the system as a whole. I'm here because I believe that the challenges we face together and the solutions that we can develop have the potential to build an education system that will prepare future teachers to meet the needs of our blind students.
Teacher Education and the Braille Literacy Crisis
In July 1989, more than twenty years ago, Dr. Susan Spungin spoke before a national convention of the blind in Denver, Colorado. She provided her perspectives on why we have increased numbers of illiterate blind people. I will deal with only some of these reasons today, those that involve teacher competence and teacher training in Braille, my areas of passionate interest and involvement.
In 1989 Dr. Spungin said that university training programs for teachers of visually handicapped students had given lip service to teaching Braille, and over the years had graduated Braille instructors who were less than proficient. In the 1990s most university programs required only one Braille course, and 20 percent of them did not even touch the Nemeth Code for Braille mathematics. Today most programs require two and even three Braille courses. In addition to the literary code, programs now incorporate Nemeth Code, Braille music, foreign language codes, and computer code, as well as methods and strategies for teaching reading and writing by using Braille and Braille-related assistive technology.
A research study has recently been completed that gathers data on how university instructors teach Braille to future teachers. The results of this study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. I eagerly await this data.
AER, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind, has just formed a work group to discuss the establishment of national standards for university Braille courses. This work group will convene in two weeks at the biannual AER convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of the topics to be discussed by this work group is the National Certification in Literary Braille Competency Test. I have been involved in the test development process through all its iterations over the past two decades. This test is a solid assessment tool to measure the Braille transcription skills of the minimally qualified candidate for entry-level teaching. I am hopeful that discussion will involve the potential for endorsement of this test at the university level, and that creative solutions to work out administrative issues between all parties will be developed. We should not allow our university students to take their place as teachers in the classrooms of our children without meeting these standards.
Dr. Spungin also talked about the existing service delivery model in the schools serving blind children. She described how, through the concept of least restrictive environment founded in Public Law 94-142, these models favor itinerant teaching consult services. Because of large caseloads and geographic regions served, this model limits the time teachers spend with their students. While sighted students learn literacy skills throughout the day, blind children learn Braille perhaps two or three or five hours a week. Their teachers often spend more time in travel than in direct instruction.
When I was teaching a university Braille course in one of the Midwestern states, the mother of a blind son took one of my classes designed for teachers. I asked her why she was taking a course on Braille. She told me that she and her family lived on three generations of family farmland in a very rural area. She was not willing to send her six-year-old son several hundred miles away from home to the state school for the blind. The itinerant teacher of the blind could only get to her son's school twice a month, and then only when the Cessna plane that brought her to the school was not being used for crop spraying. If this child was going to learn Braille, it was up to his mother to teach him.
The shortage of teachers for students who are blind or visually impaired is a real crisis today. Approximately forty university-level programs in the United States are training teachers. Collectively these programs graduate about 250 new TVIs per year, in a field where we are currently five thousand TVIs short of filling the existing need. Some states do not have a teacher training program, while others have two or three within close proximity.
Another question of time is the duration of the course. Is the fourteen- or fifteen-week time frame of the university semester too short for students to gain true competence in Braille? The majority of our regular education teachers are themselves educated in a print-rich environment, yet we're expecting our future teachers who are learning Braille to become highly qualified with less than four months of instruction. Instead of positive attitudes and love of Braille, some of my students leave with frustration and distaste due to the speed with which they have had to proceed through their lessons. Will these future teachers advocate for their students to use Braille if they themselves have not had a rewarding experience while learning the Braille system?
Some of my students simply did not pass the course. Last year I had a 40 percent failure rate. While we're in desperate need of more teachers, enabling less than qualified individuals to enter the field as teachers of our blind students is not the answer!
Online Braille Instruction
One solution to the lack of access to teacher training programs is online Braille education. When I taught online Braille courses I experienced the freedom of realizing that the world is the true classroom, that learning is not bound by four walls and one instructor. As the world becomes their classroom, students begin to add valuable members of the field to their personal and professional networks. Guest speakers can be integral parts of online courses; they help build community as they share their expertise via discussion boards. My students have had the benefit of learning from and being able to contact Dr. Abraham Nemeth, creator of the Nemeth Braille code for math, to ask questions. He is always delighted to speak with them about his life's work. Thank you, Dr. Nemeth!
The online model allows educators to reach students in diverse geographic areas without the need for travel. Although the online model is designed to allow flexibility and to eliminate the cost and time required to travel to a classroom, many graduate students still juggle jobs, family, and other courses. Time management skills, organization, and self-discipline are prerequisites to studying Braille online. On several occasions I have said to a student, "Perhaps this is not the best time in your life for you to be taking this challenging course."
The online method of instruction poses challenges in demonstrating or observing mechanics such as the skill of proper hand position on a Perkins Brailler. In the same way that technology cannot replace Braille, online Braille simulation software cannot replace the experience of pressing keys while learning to use a Braillewriter. Online Braille instructors need to be able to provide opportunities for students to learn and demonstrate their proficiency with Braille software and the Perkins Brailler without face-to-face interaction. This is yet another way in which we can collaborate to make such learning opportunities available.
Last but not least, a comment on the accessibility of online instruction. Full and independent access for university students who are blind or visually impaired is not yet assured in the online Braille courses I teach. Inaccessibility is often due to limitations in computer hardware and software and sometimes to lack of owner/operator skills.
Tools for the Toolbox
Two hundred years after the birth of Louis Braille, I'm teaching a new generation of university students that has grown up to view technological gadgets as extensions of their bodies. These students are captivated by multitasking. They talk, listen, and text in a synchronized, natural manner. They have instant access to communication and they have come to expect that the world will join them in philosophy and practice. The educational model so familiar to most instructors in preparing teachers in the field of visual impairment has changed, and these shifting paradigms in education have led educators to identify new challenges and search for solutions.
In conclusion, I would like to share with you a brief story that I wrote in honor of my grandfather, a carpenter, and my aunt, a retired TVI who was my first Braille teacher.
To build a house, a carpenter has many tools at his or her disposal. Although the hammer is a very common tool, it comes in various shapes and sizes and weights, and with varying prices. While it is a tool that is relatively easy to use, a carpenter cannot build a house with a hammer alone. So the carpenter starts to assemble tools for his/her toolbox. He or she can purchase or borrow tools. Some are given as gifts. There are always new tools coming out on the market. To avoid getting left behind or getting a reputation for being obsolete or incompetent, the carpenter has to be aware of all the newfangled gadgets and technologies that are out there. He or she needs to learn to use all of these tools, either by going to a trade school or a program or by being an apprentice or by working collaboratively with more experienced carpenters. The carpenter learns to measure twice and cut once, because accuracy is critically important in the trade. He/she may never need to use all of the tools in the toolbox, but the carpenter has the choice of which tool to use. Unless the carpenter has learned how to use all of the tools available, valuable equipment will lie untouched at the bottom of the toolbox and he/she will never achieve his or her potential.
Not knowing how to use all of these tools could be okay as well. It depends on what the carpenter wants to build. If she/he wants to build a small bench, then a saw and a hammer might suffice. If she/he dreams of building a castle, the carpenter has to be competent using all of the tools that are available.How do the tools and skills of a carpenter relate to the teaching of Braille? Teachers need to teach skills and strategies so that their students will have choices in their educational and vocational careers. Some students will learn uncontracted Braille and use it to label their CDs. Some will learn contracted Braille, go to college, and earn challenging degrees. Some students will surpass us in their knowledge of technology and will become our teachers and mentors. It's all about choice, and about having the skills and knowledge to make the correct choices. We, as teachers and teacher trainers, must ensure that the choice belongs to our students, and is not determined by our failure to teach the skills they need to learn.
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