by Emily Gibbs
From the Editor: Any teacher will tell you that January is usually the hardest month of teaching. It is long, dark, and in most places cold. So, when the education staff of the NFB Jernigan Institute decided to conduct a weekend seminar for teachers of blind students, they settled on late January as the best time to provide participants with a shot in the arm. The idea was obviously a great success. Here is Jernigan Institute staffer Emily Gibbs’s report of the event:
Throughout the country teachers of the blind are often isolated in their schools because blindness is a low-incidence disability. In addition to this isolation, teachers of blind students face various other professional challenges. They have overwhelming caseloads, with one teacher sometimes serving fifty or more students in several districts or counties. Teachers are frequently not provided the resources they need to educate their students successfully. The National Federation of the Blind recognizes these teachers’ struggles and stands ready to support them and provide needed training. The NFB Teacher Leader Seminar was conceived to provide this much needed professional development for teachers of the blind and other blindness professionals. During the last week of January teachers flocked to Baltimore to participate in this brand new program.
The agenda was established with the consultation of experts in the field of education. Planners decided that the Teacher Leader Seminar should consist of four tracks: science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM); access technology; multiply impaired students; and building blocks for successful itinerant teaching. These four tracks offered focused discussions on the topic. Participants could choose to stay within one track for the entire seminar or participate in several tracks throughout the weekend. For example, based on the needs of the individual teacher, participants might attend all three sessions in the multiply impaired students track or attend one session about STEAM and the next about access technology. The flexibility of the agenda allowed teachers to attend the seminars that most closely met their students’ needs.
When teachers were not attending track sessions, they were attending special breakout sessions created by experts in their fields to give them experiences unique to the NFB. They learned about NFB philosophy and the National Reading Media Assessment. They toured the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. Some even used a chainsaw, grilled a steak, or traveled, among many other things—all under sleepshades,. Five breakout sessions were scheduled concurrently, so one could always find an interesting and engaging session.
One feature of the 2012 NFB Teacher Leader Seminar was the way we incorporated social media. Participants were encouraged to communicate with each other using several social media websites on their computers and mobile devices. We used the Twitter website extensively. Twitter uses 140-character messages (tweets) to post status updates to the world. If you aren’t following--connected with--a given user, there is no way for you to see that user’s communications. However, if you include a hashtag, a word with a # sign in front of it, other users can search for that hashtag and read the tweets of all the people discussing that subject.
For example, at the 2012 NFB Teacher Leader Seminar our hashtag was “#TLS12.” Using this hashtag, everyone who wanted to hear about the seminar could participate in the discussion. Teachers used Twitter to post tweets about what they were learning during track sessions and breakouts. They posted pictures of themselves and the new people they had met traveling under sleepshades, grilling, and using adaptive science tools. Teachers interviewed each other on video and uploaded those conversations to Twitter as well. This was a way for people to experience different sessions and keep track of what others were doing. It was the ultimate solution to the age old problem of being unable to be in two places at once.
All of the tweets could be read online or viewed on an eight-foot-tall screen in the northwest corner of Members Hall that constantly updated during the day. For those who didn’t bring a computer, the southwest corner of Members Hall was transformed into a social media lounge. The area was set with café tables and chairs. Here computers were available all day long for people to use to check email and update Twitter and Facebook, as well as access the TLS Forum.
The forum was an online bulletin board accessible only to participants inside the building. It contained information about the building and about Baltimore itself. The forum was where you could find cab or bus information, the names of nearby restaurants, and other information about the NFB and Baltimore. This information was especially important for teachers who weren’t staying in the building and for people who went out on the town to explore Baltimore on Saturday night.
One unique aspect of the NFB Teacher Leader Seminar was the Unconference, an event unlike a traditional conference in every way. It has no agenda. An Unconference is created and organized the day it happens by the participants. The people who attend are the ones who volunteer to run sessions and speak about things they are passionate about.
To organize the unconference, we depended on the TLS Forum. People suggested topics on the forum throughout the first two days. Unconference ideas could be anything. People were encouraged to suggest topics they were excited about and knew enough to run a discussion about as well as topics about which they knew nothing but hoped to learn more. Anyone could run a session or suggest a topic simply by posting it on the forum.
For thirty minutes before the Unconference began on Sunday morning, we conducted a town hall meeting to decide the schedule for the day. The agenda was agreed by consensus of the entire group and was based on suggestions posted on the forum. Sessions were chosen quickly, and in every case someone happily volunteered to lead the discussion. The only rule for the day was the two-feet rule. If you weren’t learning in a session or it wasn’t what you expected it to be, you could walk out.
Unconference sessions covered a wide range of topics. Some sessions, such as “Creative Braille-Teaching Tools,” were led by one person who talked to the group. Others were conducted by the entire group discussing one topic, such as the accessible app session. During this time there was even a philosophy discussion aptly described as “Myths of the NFB.” Participants were invited to discuss honestly what they had heard about the NFB and what they had learned during the seminar.
We asked teachers to fill out an anonymous survey about their experiences. The teachers themselves said it best. When asked if they felt that this conference had expanded their professional learning network, all thirty-two responders said yes. When asked if they would recommend this conference to other teachers, thirty-one of thirty-two people said that they would. One participant exclaimed, “I will definitely recommend this conference to other blindness professionals in future years. It is a great way to share ideas and learn from one another. It is also a good way to introduce people to the NFB's philosophy.” Another responded, “My goal is to get all of my program to come next year.” No matter what topic participants came to the conference hoping to learn about, they all agreed that they had learned a lot about the topic at this seminar.
According to the participants themselves, the inaugural 2012 Teacher Leader Seminar was a huge success. The people who attended offered positive feedback as well as insights and suggestions for the future. Because of the overwhelmingly positive response, planning has already begun for the 2013 Teacher Leader Seminar. We hope to see lots of teachers there.