Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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Blind Girl’s Teacher Wins Inclusion Award:
She Gave Blind Student Chance to Belong

by Cindy Kranz

Reprinted from The Cincinnati Enquirer, February 12, 2002.

Erin English felt uncomfortable around blind people. She never knew what to say or how much help to offer—until she met Emily Pennington. When Mercer Elementary’s assistant principal asked first-grade teachers who wanted to teach little Emily, who is blind, it was Mrs. English who volunteered.

“I didn’t want to be the one to say, “I don’t want her. It’s too much work,” recalled Mrs. English, who has taught 18 years in the Forest Hills School District.

She adapted classroom materials for Emily, made sure daily lessons were translated into Braille, and painted maps with puffy paint so Emily could feel them. When the class studied worms, Mrs. English brought in worms so Emily and all the kids could touch them. “I may not have done that if it wasn’t for Emily,” the 42-year-old Anderson Township woman said.

For her efforts, Mrs. English will receive an Inclusion Network Leadership Award for Educational Inclusion tonight at the Hyatt Regency downtown. The Inclusion Network is a volunteer group committed to ensuring that people with disabilities are included in all aspects of community life. Mrs. English was nervous at first. “How do you teach a child who can’t see? If you can’t read Braille, how are you going to help her?”

The summer before Emily started, in 2000, Mrs. English attended a workshop and read everything she could about teaching blind students. She found a teacher’s aide who could prepare Emily’s lessons in Braille. Although Mrs. English didn’t learn Braille, she could read Emily’s name and understood the concept. “I got the underlying idea of Braille, so if Emily was making mistakes, I could figure out why she was making them,” she said. Some adaptations were simple, such as being more specific with directions. Instead of telling students to gather “over there,” she’d tell them to sit in a circle on the carpet. When reading a book, she’d describe the pictures.

Mrs. English is a great teacher because she always planned ahead, said Emily, now a 7-year-old second-grader. “She made sure I had my things Brailled out for me to read.”

By the end of first grade, Emily was reading at a fourth-grade level. Kids wanted to sit next to her so she could help them spell. “Not once did I ever feel sorry for Emily,” Mrs. English said. “She’s smarter than most people. She’s got a charming personality. She’s got a loving family. She’s very gifted musically. The only thing is she can’t see.”

Teaching Emily proved to be a learning experience for Mrs. English. “I learned having an inclusive child in the classroom makes the classroom a better place,” Mrs. English said. “It teaches children by experience, not by lecturing or preaching. People with special needs aren’t any different. They still want to be included and be part of things.”

Emily’s parents, Tim and DeeAnn Pennington of Newtown, nominated Mrs. English for the Inclusion Award. One thing that impressed them was her perseverance in getting equipment Emily needed. Mrs. English persuaded the district to spend about $2,000 on a Braille ’n Speak, a machine that allows Emily to write, then prints her work for the teacher on a regular printer. It can also be hooked up to a Braille embosser so it prints in Braille for Emily to read. The Penningtons often compared notes about teachers with parents of other blind children, in Cincinnati and at a national conference. “They would say, ‘You are the luckiest person on earth.’ Early on, I didn’t know that I was,” Mr. Pennington said. “You think this is what every teacher does. It’s not.”

In turn, Mrs. English praised Emily’s parents for letting her do the best she could. “They were incredible,” she said. “They did not expect me to give her any more time than any other child. They wanted me to treat her like any other typical first-grader. They were never critical of my limitations.” One day, Mr. Pennington asked Mrs. English why she volunteered to teach Emily. He recalled her words: “If I’m a teacher, I’ve got to teach all kids. I’ll find out what kind of a teacher I am.”

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