by Emily Gibbs and Natalie Shaheen
From the Editor: Natalie Shaheen, director of education, and Emily Gibbs, education program specialist at the Jernigan Institute, teamed up to conduct and write about the 2012 LAW (Leadership and Advocacy in Washington, D.C.) Program. This innovative endeavor serves students ages twelve to sixteen or who are in grades six to nine. Young people from throughout the country learn about the National Federation of the Blind and its role in enhancing opportunities for the blind by helping to shape the laws of our land. Program participants, each accompanied by a parent or teacher, travel to the National Center for the Blind and the nation’s capital to learn about blindness and to visit members of Congress and others who exercise the levers of power. Here is what Emily and Natalie have to say about this year’s innovative four-day experience:
In the twenty-first century, technology is everywhere, including the classroom. Educators all over the world harness the power of technology as a learning tool. Kindergarteners in large metropolitan schools who are learning about farms (something they’ve likely never experienced firsthand) communicate with real live farmers in the Midwest through technologies like Skype, VoiceThread, blogs, and social media. When teachers can’t take the students to a farm, using technology as a tool for providing authentic learning experiences is a perfect solution.
Unfortunately—as far too many blind students can attest—much of the technology used in the classroom is not accessible. It’s illegal to use inaccessible technology in schools, but clearly most educators are not familiar with the regulations that mandate accessible technology. We must continue to educate the general public about the vital importance of accessibility.
The educators at the NFB Jernigan Institute appreciate the power of technology as a learning tool as much as do other educators. The difference is that at the NFBJI we do not use a technology unless it is accessible because we know it is easy to do anything a teacher wants to do with technology in the classroom and make it totally accessible. This year’s NFB LAW Program curriculum incorporated a great deal of technology, which allowed students to work independently and at a pace that was best for them. With technology at their fingertips learning was more self-directed and could happen almost anywhere or anytime. Not surprisingly, students were so excited about what they were learning that they actually spent some of their free time learning through using technology. We hope that, by sharing the way we incorporated fully accessible technology in the curriculum of the NFB LAW Program, we can encourage other educators to make their classrooms fully accessible.
The LAW Program was a one-to-one program, meaning that every child had access to a mobile device to use as a vehicle for learning while they were in Baltimore. iPads and iPod touches were available to the students. The devices were preloaded with accessible apps that the students might find useful during the program.
The first lesson dealt with the NFB Oral History Project. After listening to segments of interviews with famous Federationists, the students were divided into groups of two. They used iPods to record the oral history interviews they conducted with each other. The students’ interviews are now part of the NFB Oral History Project; these young people have officially contributed to the history of the organization.
Sunday the students spent all day learning about the history of the blindness civil rights movement and the legislative process, information they would need to be successful during the rest of the program. The day started with students poring over primary sources from the NFB archives to discover the Federation’s constitution at work. They read the minutes of the founding meeting in Wilkes-Barre in 1940, examined antique Braille writers, and listened to “A Left Handed Dissertation,” a speech by Dr. Jernigan. All of the primary sources were available for the students to examine in the classroom, and staff of the Jacobus tenBroek Library were on hand to provide any additional information students wanted as they studied the plethora of artifacts. As in previous years, to facilitate students’ independent exploration of the archival material, hardcopy Braille and large-print copies of the texts of all primary sources were provided. This year we were also able to offer the content as an iBook, which the students could read on their iOS devices, giving the students one more way to access the curriculum in an accessible format. We capitalized on the hybrid-content-delivery model of providing hard copy and electronic materials simultaneously in a lesson later in the day when students learned about the work of the Federation in getting blind people jobs.
To kick off the “We Want to Work” lesson, students examined primary sources about the Randolph-Sheppard Act, Civil Service employment for the blind, and the NFB’s efforts to improve working conditions for blind workers in sheltered shops. A firm understanding of the NFB’s extensive work in improving employment for the blind in-hand, the students took part in several activities in which they learned about the fair wages issue. The young people participated in a simulation of a sheltered workshop in which they were required to bundle popsicle sticks. They were split into two groups, “disabled” and “nondisabled.” The disabled students were paid based on a piece rate, and their nondisabled peers were paid minimum wage—two M&Ms a minute. Students were appalled at the inequality in payment methods in this activity.
By the end the students were fired up to help ensure that all people with disabilities earn at least minimum wage. Tuesday students had an opportunity to contribute to the effort by meeting with their members of Congress and talking about fair wages. But first they needed to have a firm understanding of both sides of the issue, which they acquired by examining webpages (totally accessible) created by the governmental affairs team that presented the pro and con sides of the fair wages issue. At the end of this fast-paced two-hour lesson, students had all the information they needed to go to the Hill.
Our building contains a great deal of history important in understanding our movement. One lesson Sunday morning capitalized on the knowledge of our property possessed by Mr. John Cheadle, executive director of program facilities at the NFB Jernigan Institute. Before the program Mr. Cheadle recorded nine audio clips that included stories and facts about various parts of the building: dining room, fourth floor conference room, Harbor area, Harbor Room, lunch room, auditorium, Members Hall, the atrium, and the tenBroek Library. This audio was used to facilitate a student-directed building tour. Students moved from one location to the next in whatever order suited them. At each location they used an accessible app on their iOS devices to scan a posted tactile QR code, which was also labeled in Braille. A quick response (QR) code is a barcode in which a lot of information can be imbedded. Once scanned, the QR code played the audio clip for that part of the building. In addition to the self-guided QR code tour, students had the opportunity to talk to the real live Mr. Cheadle about the building and the blind drivable car.
These nine audio QR codes were not the only ones used in this program. Actually over seventy QR codes were posted all over the Harbor area. Instead of linking to an audio file, these codes contained embedded text. When a student scanned any QR code, facts about the NFB Jernigan Institute, the nation’s capital, and Federation leaders appeared. For instance, did you know that eight different cities have been the United States capital? Or that the NFB Jernigan Institute’s atrium has 1,486 Italian porcelain tiles lining the walls and floor? The Law Program students did! These facts were the answers to trivia questions that were asked on the bus trips to and from Washington, D.C., during the program.
The program took place April thirteen to eighteen. This year we had twenty-three students from fifteen states. Students came to the program with a chaperone, most often a parent. Six blind adult mentors—David Bouchard, Dezman Jackson, Ryan Strunk, Briley Pollard, Brook Sexton, and Karen Anderson--acted as role models for students and augmented instruction in the classroom. Parent mentors Jim Byer and Carlton Anne Cook Walker facilitated a workshop for the parents and other chaperones about how to ensure their blind children’s success.
In addition to the lessons that took place at the NFBJI, students spent a good deal of time in Washington, D.C. On Saturday the students and chaperones spent the day touring the monuments on the Mall and the other nearby attractions. They spent Monday morning at the U.S. Capitol, touring the House floor, an opportunity afforded very few people. The group spent Monday afternoon at a Federal Court House in Alexandria, Virginia. Students observed Mazen Basrawi, a blind lawyer who is currently counsel to the assistant attorney general (Civil Rights Division), conduct a live plea hearing. Afterwards Mazen spoke with the students about his job and how he does it as a blind person.
Tuesday was the most exciting day of all. Each student had a meeting with his or her member of Congress or staffer. The students spoke with their members about fair wages. They gained great confidence and advocacy skills through leading these meetings. How many middle school students go to the Hill and run a meeting with a member of Congress about a piece of legislation? Our students did, and they did it well.
The lessons in the NFB LAW Program curriculum are easy to replicate and make good standalone activities for youth programs. If you are facilitating a youth program for your affiliate (or if you think of some other way you could use these resources) and would be interested in using the lessons, please contact Emily Gibbs, <email@example.com>or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2407. We will be happy to pass along lesson plans and the materials needed to make the lessons a success.