From the Editor: Here are two articles written about the BELL Program in Pennsylvania. One is told from the perspective of the BELL coordinator and the other from the perspective of a public school teacher. Michelle McManus is a member of the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania and the president of the Happy Valley Chapter. She has a master’s degree in the education of blind children and currently works for Penn State University to improve accessibility. Monitor readers will remember Harriet Go, who appeared in the August-September issue when she received the Blind Educator of the Year Award at the national convention. Here’s what they had to say about this summer’s BELL Program in Pennsylvania:
by Michelle McManus
I began my journey to BELL on Valentine’s Day, when I was asked to coordinate Pennsylvania’s BELL program. I’ve been a certified teacher of the blind for many years but hadn’t actually had the opportunity to teach blind children. My experience working with children has been through Girl Scouts and in daycare settings.
I had a great team of volunteers throughout the process, including our lead teacher, Harriet Go, the National Federation of the Blind 2013 Blind Educator of the Year, and James Antonacci, the NFB of Pennsylvania state president. I wasn't entirely sure how all aspects of the program were going to fit together, but having good volunteers to work with gave me more confidence.
We held our program for two weeks in July in Center City, Philadelphia, at the Library for the Blind. When the children arrived on the first day, they seemed excited for the chance to come—probably most had never been to a summer camp before. They ranged in ages from five to fifteen, and many already knew one another because they attend school together in the Philadelphia area.
Planning was fairly simple—it was just a matter of making selections of activities to try out using the curriculum. Once we spent some time with the children, we got a better sense of which activities would work best for our group. Most were group-oriented, though some lessons were independent. Categories included nonvisual techniques, Braille reading, and travel skills. One of their favorite games was Braille baseball. The kids were divided into two teams. They’d take turns reading questions aloud for their own team to answer—they were “at bat.” A wrong answer was an “out.” A correct answer was a “hit,” and three in a row would make a “run.” They wanted to play longer than time allowed.
A valuable part of the camp was that it gave kids the chance to learn things they don’t in school—the practicalities of everyday life, like passing items to others at the lunch table and navigating on their own. For example, one child, about six years old, asked what a grate was when we walked over it on the sidewalk during a field trip to the Free Library of Philadelphia. They all asked a lot of questions, and it was fun showing them new skills.
Overall, the program was terrific and we already have ideas for ways to improve it for next year. We were blessed to have many pairs of helping hands, and it was a little challenging to keep everyone organized and useful. Still, we were really glad to have them. Those two weeks were fun and educational for all involved. It was exciting to watch kids learn new ideas and techniques. The best feeling for me was when all of the children said that they definitely want to return next year. Keep ringing those bells!
by Harriet Go
This past July the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania held its first-ever Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) Program. This program, which was designed by the National Federation of Maryland in 2008, has rapidly spread to NFB affiliates throughout the country with the aim of providing intensive Braille instruction to blind and visually impaired children who are not receiving adequate Braille education during the regular school year. As a means to tackle the Braille literacy crisis in America, in which 90 percent of all blind children do not read Braille, the BELL Program helps to promote Braille literacy experiences through fun and engaging activities.
This year we had seven students participate in the two-week-long program. Lessons focused on developing skills in reading Braille, writing Braille, using nonvisual techniques, and travel with a long white cane. In between, students learned to prepare sandwiches and snacks, took field trips to the local library and a local Braille production facility, were exposed to competent blind role models, and engaged in discussions geared toward building a positive philosophy about blindness.
Students came to the program with different levels of Braille experience, from those who were able to read contracted Braille to those who were just beginning to learn the alphabet, but each student learned something new. One of the highlights every day was something called BELL ringers. In this activity, students took turns to share with the rest of the group something they felt they did successfully. Then each student rang his or her own bell to celebrate their achievement. On the last day parents of the BELL students attended a parent seminar at our affiliate headquarters to learn about how they can help their children to continue strengthening Braille literacy skills once BELL was complete. After that each student had the opportunity to say what the BELL program had meant to them during the closing activities. After awards were handed out, pictures were taken, and students received Braille books to take home, everyone rang their bells in unison for the final time. The ringing of the bells symbolizes all that the students had accomplished during the program, and it was quite clear that the inaugural year for the BELL program in Pennsylvania was a huge success.