by Melissa Riccobono
One of the most rewarding things I do on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind is to help in leading our Blind Parent Initiative. The National Federation of the Blind has created a website, http://www.blindparents.org which we hope will be the place all parents who are blind will go when they are looking for information on any aspect of parenting as a blind person. If you have not done so already, please check out this site. It has little content right now, but we want to build it into so much more! To do this, we need your help and feedback. Included on the blindparents.org website are bonus episodes three and four of The Nations’ Blind Podcast. In these episodes, I once again interviewed Serena Harris and Laura Koler, a first grade and pre-k teacher at Patterson Park Public Charter School in Baltimore. In these interviews we discussed the techniques Laura and Serena use in order to communicate with all parents to insure they are able to be active participants in their children’s education. We also discuss what techniques these teachers use in order to meet the needs of parents who happen to be blind—President Riccobono and myself. Parents who are blind can and should be active participants in their children’s education. This is absolutely possible with a little forethought, some teacher cooperation, and low and high tech solutions.
I have structured this article a bit differently than my last interview article. In this article, I tried to capture some of the conversational back and forth that took place between the teachers and me in the actual interview, especially the conversations surrounding the various apps the teachers use to disseminate information. Again, I have added some words in brackets for clarification, and I have also paraphrased in some instances to save space. To listen to these interviews in their entirety, search for bonus episodes three and four of the Nations’ Blind Podcast.
Melissa Riccobono: What techniques do you use in order to communicate with the parents of all students in your class?
Serena Harris: I use ClassDojo, http://www.classdojo.com, which is an app to send class messages and pictures.
Melissa Riccobono: I was pleasantly surprised. There are some apps that are great, but not great for a blind person to use. So, when I got the note that said you were going to use ClassDojo, I thought, oh, this could be excellent, or this could be a nightmare. I think there was a little bump in the road as far as actually signing up; there was a button that wasn’t labeled correctly. But once I was signed up and signed in, it’s been wonderful. It’s been really nice to get the messages and pictures.
Serena Harris: I also use email a lot. We have a class website where we try to list current events and a copy of the homework for the week. I give out my phone number to parents as well.
Melissa Riccobono: The first grade team also uses something called Permission Click, http://www.permissionclick.com. This has been really helpful. It’s the first time as a blind mom that I have been able to read and sign a permission slip [in the same way as all of the other parents.] I have gotten permission slips emailed to me before, and the school has been great about letting me sign them electronically, but Permission Click has just been such a seamless process. I think it helps [you and your team] as well, right?
Serena Harris: I love Permission Click because it’s less paper. We give the same link out to all first grade families, so it’s very easy to get accurate counts for the number of students attending each field trip. It’s also an easy thing [for a parent] to complete even the day of the trip. Everything’s easily accessible [even when we are on the trip], and we keep track of emergency contacts, allergies, etc. for each child.
Laura Koler: In general, I send notes home in folders that are on paper. We send updates, permission slips, newsletters… Usually every day there is something that needs to be looked at or signed. I also use an app called Remind, http://www.remind.com. It’s a free app that lets teachers send text messages, photos, and announcements to anyone in your class. I really love that tool because it allows me to communicate with parents without giving out a personal phone number. It lets me send updates about field trips, special dress up days, report cards, etc. So I do both paper messaging and electronic messaging.
Melissa Riccobono: The remind app was actually very easy [for me as a blind parent] to set up and use. It has been wonderful to get reminders as text messages on my phone.
What things have you done in order to make sure Mark and I, as parents who happen to be blind, have access to information?
Serena Harris: I have definitely tried to have the office send home things, [such as progress reports and report cards] electronically to you.
Melissa Riccobono: The office is still working on that, but thank you for trying! I appreciate that.
Serena Harris: I send spelling words home [via email.]
Melissa Riccobono: Another thing you have done is allowed me to report on what homework activities Oriana completes via email instead of insisting that I fill out the paper homework log sheet each week. This has been a very easy solution for both of us, and it proves that sometimes solutions that are not complicated are very workable for both the parent and the teacher.
Laura Koler: I email you copies of all of the papers I send home in folders every day. It’s really not an extra step for me because I already have the majority of the documents electronically. With email being as widespread as it is, no parent should feel as if it is a burden on a teacher to send an email [with information or documents.] And, if [a teacher] ever forgets to email something, please don’t feel bad about reminding him or her that you need the information. Most teachers will not be upset about getting a reminder.
Melissa Riccobono: The other thing that you do really well is to send emails letting me know what papers are coming home in Elizabeth’s folder that you do not have access to electronically. This is extremely helpful because it lets me know to be on the lookout for these things so I can handle them in another way [have a person read them to me, use an app on my phone to read them, etc.] I think in some ways having this constant communication is an advantage to me as a blind parent. I feel as if I have a connection with all of the teachers my kids have had because I have had to communicate with all of them in a slightly more personal way in order to make sure Mark and I are getting all of the information we need to be as involved as we can in our children’s education.
What advice would you have for parents who are blind? Are there things these parents can do to help teachers communicate with them?
Serena Harris: Parents should definitely let the teacher know the best way to contact them—email or phone—and the best times they can be reached [via phone.]
Laura Koler: At the beginning of the year, schedule a conference and talk about the best ways to communicate.
Melissa Riccobono: Are there other ways parents who are blind might be able to get involved in their children’s classrooms, understanding, of course, that this will vary slightly school to school?
Serena Harris: I always encourage parents to come and volunteer in their kid’s classroom. Parents might sit and read with a group of students or have students read to them. I know one thing I have been excited about, both when Austin was in my class and now this year that Oriana is in my class, is the fact that you have been very open about speaking to the kids about being blind. This helped establish a relationship between you and me, but, more important, it helped increase the children’s understanding of blindness. Kids are curious. They have questions. They might never have met anyone who is blind before. Explaining what being blind means and the tools you use is great to increase their understanding, but it was also great for me since I didn’t know anyone who was blind before either. Your visit definitely made things more comfortable.
Laura Koler: I think coming in to be a guest reader is a great way to meet the other students in the classroom. Kids love to have other people besides their teacher read to them. [My class] was fascinated watching you read Braille. I think it’s a great way for them to meet new people and see another way of reading. I think most teachers are open to having parents come in to their classroom to share unique things the students would not be exposed to ordinarily.
Melissa Riccobono: I think there are instances when parents who are blind are worried about creating extra work for teachers or worried about asking too much of teachers who might already be over worked. How would you respond to these types of concerns?
Serena Harris: I guess I don’t think of anything as being extra work because it’s establishing that relationship that will help support the student. I feel that any materials that can be sent home to further explain something or give the parent a better understanding of how their child is doing in class [will only be beneficial for both the parent and child.] That’s what teachers should do. I create progress reports [and other materials] for all of the kids in my class, so getting these things to you and Mark is not extra work. But even if it was, my first priority is always what’s in the best interest of the child, and if a parent needs more resources or information to better support their child, then I’m just happy to do that.
Laura Koler: Part of the territory of being an early childhood teacher is having constant communication with parents. The parents of all the kids I teach want to know what’s going on [in the classroom] and how their children are learning. I don’t think any parent should feel bad about wanting to be in communication. I love when parents want to talk back and forth because it’s the teacher, the school, and the home who are working together to help each child grow and learn. None of us can do this alone; we have to be a team. I think being in constant communication only makes that relationship stronger and will only benefit the child. To be very honest, I would rather have a parent who wanted to talk with me every day than a parent who is very difficult to reach.
Melissa Riccobono: Do you have any advice for other classroom teachers who are working with parents who are blind?
Serena Harris: I would say, ask. Ask the parent, “What can I do to better support you? What can I do to help you better support your child? What kind of information do you need from me, and what would be the best format to give you that information?”
Melissa Riccobono: It’s not bad to ask. How else are you going to know? I think sometimes teachers might be worried about asking because they want to be politically correct. [So they wonder] do I ask? Do I not? I think it’s always better to ask, as long as you are asking in a respectful way. I think it is definitely up to the parent as well. Parents should feel free to reach out to the teachers. I recognize however, that although I am very comfortable with this type of reaching out, other parents who are blind might not be as comfortable, so teachers need to open the lines of communication as well.
Laura Koler: Always talk to the parents. I know you and I had a very long parent teacher conference, and that was great. That’s when I learned the most. If we could have had that meeting more toward the beginning of the year, that would have been helpful.
Melissa Riccobono: What would you say to a parent who is blind about what to do when a teacher forgets to give necessary information? Should the parent “bother” the teacher to get what he or she needs?
Serena Harris: Definitely! Things happen. You set reminders and make lists, but things still happen. Teachers forget things or overlook things.
Melissa Riccobono: Is there anything else about working with parents who are blind that you would like to share?
Serena Harris: I think it is very important to have a conversation about how the child is doing in class and how the child feels about coming to school. A child might tell his or her parents things he or she is scared to tell the teacher—not because the teacher is mean and scary, but because the child is simply more comfortable communicating with a parent. I think it is important for teachers to make sure the child is getting all of the support needed and that things are not slipping through the cracks simply because a parent is blind and might not have seen a paper come home in a folder.
Obviously these are very caring teachers who are extremely willing to provide information and support to all of the families with whom they work. Communication with teachers goes a very long way, but it only works if a teacher is reachable and willing to engage in this type of back and forth communication. Not all teachers are as willing to do this. If you have stories about how you have had success getting information from more difficult teachers, I would love to receive them. Or, if you have other techniques you use to get involved in your child’s classroom, learn what is going on in the classroom, or get information from the school about your child’s progress, I would love for you to share them. As parents who are blind, we all need as many tools in our toolbox as possible, and what you have to share might very well help someone else. Please email me at [email protected] with your own school experiences. Also, if you are having a difficult time communicating with your child’s teacher or school, the National Federation of the Blind would be pleased to help you if we can. Please email me at the address above, or call me at (410) 659-9314, extension 2466. I will certainly not have all of the answers, but the National Federation of the Blind is a fantastic network, and I will be pleased to connect you with other parents who can help you navigate educational waters.