by Barbara Pierce
From the Editor: Barbara Pierce needs little in the way of an introduction. She was the editor of this magazine for more than fifteen years, served as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio for many terms, and was incredibly active and innovative as our chairman of public relations before that job became demanding enough to require someone full-time. Here is what Barbara and her crew have to say about the BELL Program in Ohio:
Beginning July 15, Columbus was the site of a two-week program unlike anything ever tried in Ohio before. Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL), the NFB’s ten-day intensive introduction to Braille and much more, debuted in Ohio. For the most part blind Federationists organized and staffed the program.
Eric Duffy coordinated the entire effort and, thanks to the generosity of the Wright State University Research Institute, he was able to be on hand for almost every minute of the program. Debbie Baker was the lead teacher, and she planned the instruction and directed the staff of willing volunteers. Ohio was especially lucky because Maryanne Denning and Shelley McCoy, who are both gifted teachers of blind children in their own right, were also part of the staff. We had a couple of children who needed one-on-one supervision and instruction, so we were able to offer truly first-class staffing. In addition to six other blind volunteers, Carol Akers, co-president of the Parents of Blind Children Division in Ohio, was there every day, and her son Dustin made friends with all the children. Shelbi Hindel’s twelve-year-old daughter Aliyah was a steady volunteer with boundless energy and good temper. She was amazingly mature and helpful to us all.
Seven families signed up for the BELL program, though because of personal complications two of the children came for the first week only. The program was originally created and designed to help low-vision kids who were not getting the Braille they need during the school year, but we just couldn’t turn away young Braille readers who we know would benefit from the entire range of skills being taught and modeled in this program.
We were lucky to receive permission to conduct the program at the Glenmont School, which is now the headquarters for the Autism Association of Ohio. This was a wonderful place for us to work, and the staff could not have been more welcoming or helpful. We had the use of two good-size classrooms and the hallway and kitchens. The kitchens were useful for storing food and preparing lunch every day. Annette Lutz and Shelbi Hindel chiefly organized and prepared the food. This saved us a great deal of money and meant that the students and staff had very tasty meals every day.
The Ohio State School for the Blind (OSSB) jumped onto the BELL bandwagon as well by allowing five of the volunteers who needed housing to stay in one of the new cottages for the duration of the program. OSSB was only a few-minutes cab ride from the school, so the location was ideal.
The heart of the BELL Program, however, is the curriculum. Much of the time staff and students were encouraged to wear sleepshades so that the kids got used to paying attention to what their fingers, toes, and ears were telling them. Not surprisingly the children with some useable vision grumbled at being unable to see when the sleepshades were on, and the ones with no vision could not understand why we often insisted that they wear sleepshades. We spent a good bit of time finding the sleepshades and storing glasses before we could begin an activity. The most interesting part of the exercise, however, was their reaction every time they discovered that we were also wearing sleepshades. They were not at all used to having teachers who were blind. In fact one staff member overheard a child saying wonderingly to himself, “So teachers can be blind.” Again and again during the program the kids kept rediscovering that we were blind too.
We started each day by listing our bell ringers, that is, ringing our bells every time a child or staff member reported on something that he or she had done the day before that was worthy of pride. Some of the children did not like the sound of loud bells at the start of the program, but by the close they were all ringing their bells enthusiastically. We then sang two songs: “Ring my Bell,” which allowed us to ring bells throughout the song, and “The Braille Rap Song.” This is a clever rap song written and recorded by the American Printing House for the Blind that goes through the alphabet reviewing the Braille dot numbers of each letter. The kids loved dancing and shouting along with the song, and some mornings we paused the song at each letter and had the children take turns giving us the dot numbers and the whole-word Braille abbreviations for each letter.
We had learning centers at which kids could practice pouring, spreading cream cheese and peanut butter on bagels and bread, making party mix, and forming Fruit Loops, miniature marshmallows, and mini M&Ms into Braille letters. One day we made ice cream and each child and some staff members made cakes in a cup. These eatable projects were very popular. We learned to fold currency and sort coins. And we played various games which required reading and writing Braille letters.
The group activities included scavenger hunts of various kinds that pitted teams of children against each other. We tossed a Brailled beach ball back and forth, reading the letters and words stuck on the ball’s surface that we first touched; and we played Braille musical chairs, in which each child who found a chair had to read the Braille word taped to the back. We had a fine game, called odd ball, which required players to match pairs of balls of different sizes and textures. Through the two weeks we taught the kids strategies for identifying pairs of balls, and they improved amazingly at doing the job. Perhaps the most popular game was Braille Twister. We had giant Braille cells laid out on poster board, with each large Braille dot made of a different textured fabric. The caller gave instructions like left foot on dot 3, right foot on dot 4, left hand on dot 6, and right hand on dot 1. The result was lots of laughter and learning of Braille letters.
The game Stay out of My Bubble was also popular. The children wore Hula Hoops suspended from straps over their shoulders. Then they moved around, practicing courteously requesting that others “Please stay out of my bubble.” At the same time they were also learning how close they could get to other people without making them uncomfortable.
Jim Debus came one day and taught the students the rudiments of goalball and later introduced them to the cardinal directions.
Another day a fire crew brought a truck to the school and showed the children all the special fire protection clothing that firefighters wear. Then the kids got to crawl around the truck. One of the firefighters was a woman, which impressed students and staff alike. Another day a police officer came to talk about safety and introduce the children to the police car.
Eric Duffy has a wonderful way with children. On the first day of BELL he announced that he was King Eric and that everyone would have to follow his rules during BELL. This decree provided an ongoing source of jokes and teasing back and forth for the entire program. The children announced almost every day that he was fired and that they were taking over. Eric would respond by threatening to put them in jail. When volunteer Kaiti Shelton devised a set of words to the old camp song, “There’s a hole in your bucket,” the kids were delighted. Our version began, “There’s a crack in your crown, King Eric, King Eric,” and went downhill from there.
By the end of every day and certainly by the close of the program everyone was exhausted. But we were also thrilled to observe the changes in the youngsters. They still dropped their canes whenever possible and forgot where they were lying, but they were remembering that they should have them and even got better at using them. They developed strategies for assessing things tactilely. They began asking to use the slate and stylus and to take turns reading the Braille books that surrounded them. Our very quiet child had learned to speak up because his blind teachers didn’t notice his problems when he was silent. Our extravert began to learn that we were not impressed with her just because she was blind. The staff learned lots as well. We learned to work together as a team. Some of us discovered how much fun it is to read Braille books to children. We learned how to teach under sleepshades, and we rediscovered how much fun it is to play on the floor. A photo gallery of the BELL Program in Ohio appears on our website, <www.nfbohio.org>. Here are the comments of some of the staff:
Debbie Baker: We in the NFB of Ohio offer our gratitude to the generous anonymous donor who contributed $200 to each of the nineteen 2013 BELL programs to be used to purchase books from Seedlings Braille Books for Children. It was a delight to choose a variety of Braille and Braille-print books for our program from Seedlings. We sent goodie bags home with each student at the end of the program. These included two Seedlings books selected by each child; his or her long white cane, sleepshades, and Freedom Bell used daily to celebrate students’ successes; a slate and stylus; a Pop-A-Cell from the American Printing House for the Blind, with which students can practice forming Braille symbols; and various edible or craft projects completed during the program.
Students practiced learning the cardinal directions as well. Each worked with a blind adult partner to locate or to move toward the north, south, east, and west walls of the classroom in which we worked. Of course we used these same directional referents as we moved around inside the school. One morning we took students outside to locate the morning sun in order to find east. Then students applied cardinal directions as they traveled with their canes outside the school.
The students journaled at the close of each day. An adult partner helped with spelling and advice on sentence structure and correcting errors, and generally tried to protect the Perkins Braillers. This activity included writing thank-you notes to the firefighters who visited during the first week, to Jim Debus for his help with goalball and orientation and mobility, and to the school custodian, who cleaned up after us and answered our requests for general assistance.
Deborah Kendrick: What’s not to love when you combine children and Braille in one program created by the National Federation of the Blind? In other words, I knew when I first heard about BELL (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning) that I was eager to see it come to Ohio and eager to be a part of it. Of course what no one could know in advance was the shape and feel of our particular BELL program, since each program in each state takes on the personalities of the children and adults who come together in it.
The children were precious. From vibrant fashionista Mackenzie, age six, who announced emphatically when I shook her hand on the first day, “I’m the smartest kid here,” to dog-lover Aidan, age ten, who really worked hard to learn Braille and always had an adorably quirky smile in his voice.
Jayden and I bonded the first day, first around our hearing aids and next through a kind of secret understanding about what each of us could see. He saw a fair amount with his eyes, and I see nothing physically. Yet he caught on quickly through a game we played that I could see many things by using my other senses—and my brain. We practiced using clues like detectives to see without eyesight, and I do hope he is still practicing.
I learned about my fellow Federationists too. We’ve all known for years that Debbie Baker was a teacher, but seeing her in action was truly a treat. Our college students, Kaiti and Aleeha, suddenly seemed like full-blown professionals in their interactions with the kids. Somehow, almost magically, every adult fell into a designer niche—from preparing our lunch to directing games to reading stories—and it was simply a fabulous experience.
Naturally there were things we figured out that maybe we don’t need to do next year and others that we should expand. But our first Ohio BELL program was a huge success, and I personally wouldn’t miss the next one.
P.S. I am still waiting for my bell.
Carol Akers’s parent perspective: It was interesting to watch the families as they entered hesitantly on the first morning, probably wondering if they were doing the right thing by entrusting their blind children to strangers. After all, not only were these people strangers and in a building unfamiliar to the children, but, most of the people in the room were blind themselves. Parents were nervously trying to explain some of their children’s needs, their supplies, and the amount of assistance they required.
Fast forward two weeks. The children arrive on the final day, excited to be here. Parents are smiling, knowing their kids are happy to be a part of this experience, in which they are with their peers, playing games competitively, and sharing tasks with people who understand their desire to be included in everyday activities like making snacks, mixing up a cake in a cup, and knowing how to pour their own drinks. Parents are no longer hesitant to leave their children because they are now convinced that blind people are responsible and capable and that parents can have an honest, open dialog about their children with people who really understand the situation.
What a difference two weeks can make. We watched each child emerge and change as the kids expanded their knowledge of Braille through many games and types of exposure. Children of all abilities shared those opportunities, and each one was affected in a different way. Some children had had more exposure than others, but only through reading books. Little did they know how many other ways they could incorporate Braille into their lives.
Parents also began to see differences: they heard their children talk about each day’s activities, using their canes to discover sounds for a sound scavenger hunt, identifying the sounds they hear and learning more about them, an object scavenger hunt identifying items and objects that might obstruct their paths on any day and how to maneuver around them safely using their canes—all information useful in helping them become more independent. After all, isn’t that what most parents desire for their children but just aren’t sure how to accomplish?
Comments from families were positive. At the end a mini orientation and mobility lesson gave parents more insight into how their children perceive their environment when learning to navigate in and around it. I think they came away realizing that their blind children are capable of much more than they give them credit for. They can have high expectations for their children because with proper instruction their children are capable. They can have dreams of a bright future for their kids. And, most important, they don’t have to accept the limitations set by society for their blind children.
What a wonderful experience BELL was--successful in accomplishing what we set out to do by making a lasting impression on young lives through Braille and daily living skills and most of all sharing the NFB with them.
Shelbi Hindel: As we planned for the BELL Program, we knew that lunch preparation for such a large group (usually about twenty) would be challenging. The word “challenging” was replaced by “daunting” as soon as we learned that we would not have the use of a stove. But, as we always do in the National Federation of the Blind, we pulled together and made it work. Almost anyone responsible for the daily preparation of meals can relate to the feeling of “Oh no, what am I going to fix today? Nothing sounds good, or it is so close to what we’ve just been eating!”
Our effort to feed the masses was aided by a generous donation of food and drinks by the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission. One of the cafeterias operated by the Business Enterprise Program closed, and we were able to use the remaining inventory. We want to thank Kevin Miller and Mindy Duncan for making this very generous gift possible.
Annette Lutz had much of the responsibility for the lunch arrangements, but it was a true team effort. Barbara Pierce and my daughter Aliyah were also a tremendous help. I enjoyed working with them and getting to know them better. We all did things in slightly different ways, but we found that each of our techniques worked. In this case I would not say that there were too many cooks in the kitchen.
We all ate very well over the two weeks. I appreciate that no one complained and that the people I have not mentioned here helped out when they were asked or saw a need. Perhaps the most cheering part of this element of BELL was that every morning the children enquired with real enthusiasm, “What are we having for lunch?” And whether it was sloppy Joe, chicken and noodles, marzetti, hotdogs, or toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, they asked for seconds.
Marianne Denning: I volunteered to help at the BELL Program this summer and met wonderful children and volunteers. I made new friendships and learned more about the philosophy of the NFB. The children took on new challenges and loved to come to camp every morning. I received an email from one of the parents who said that his TVI noticed improvement in his cooperation in Braille. He will begin kindergarten this fall, so he is just beginning to use touch-and-learn Braille. His parents are thrilled with BELL. I love Braille, and I am always excited when children learn and love it too.
by Kaiti Shelton
Like many other children with partial vision, I began my academic career by pressing my face into a print book to read words in twenty-point font. I knew how to read basic words, but my nystagmus and limited field of vision made it difficult for my eyes to focus on the page long enough to read a word in one glance. I managed to go through kindergarten reading books in this way, with my teacher and parents thinking that large print was truly the least restrictive mode of reading. That changed when my perceptive first grade teacher intervened. She knew I was smart for my age and feared that reading print would only hold me back. She pushed for me to be re-tested, and this time Braille was shown to be the least-restrictive reading medium for me.
Although from that point on I was always given access to Braille materials, the first few years of Braille instruction were rough for both me and my teachers. At first I resisted learning Braille, doing everything I could to regain the print books that made me feel similar to my sighted classmates. I kicked and screamed on the way to Braille lessons, had meltdowns during spelling tests because I felt self-conscious about using the noisy Perkins Brailler, and once tried to break the Brailler so that I would have to use pencil and paper to write my work. I put up the best fight a six year old could, but somehow my teachers had more patience than I gave them credit for. Gradually I got over my insecurities and began to realize that I liked reading and I liked Braille. By third grade I was reading books at a sixth-grade level, and my mother and her Seedlings catalog could barely keep up with me. But I had to learn the importance of Braille and how enjoyable it could be the hard way.
I am truly glad that the students at the NFB BELL Program have the opportunity to learn Braille in fun and exciting ways which make them want to read and succeed from an early age. Braille Twister, Tasty Dots, and the other games and drills were exciting and interesting for students and adults alike. As a teacher it was also gratifying to see the students so enthusiastic about learning and their achievements. Overall the students made great strides throughout the program, and everyone had fun.
I also appreciated the lessons in nonvisual techniques and blindness etiquette. Games like Stay Out of My Bubble were great for teaching the students to address an issue of social interaction from a blindness perspective. The nonvisual technique lessons in pouring and cane travel under sleepshades were educational for the students, and each one made improvements. Perhaps the biggest lesson in blindness for them was to learn that successful, Braille-reading adults travel independently, teach, and have families and careers. One student said she didn’t know teachers could be blind, and it was good for her and the parents of the students to see successful role models in action.
Overall it was a very enjoyable two weeks, and I hope to participate again in the future. I had a lot of fun working with the students, and it was great to see them develop academically and socially.