Future Reflections  Winter/Spring 2007

(back) (contents) (next)


Converting Pail-Fillers to Fire-Lighters
The Active Learning Agenda

Keynote Address by
Barbara Cheadle, President
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
at the
North American Active Learning Convention
Oakland, California, February 3, 2005

Editor’s Note: A report on this conference entitled “It Only Takes a Spark to Get the Fire Roaring” was published in the Summer/Fall 2005, volume 24, number 2, issue of Future Reflections. Back issues in print or cassette tape are available free from the NFB Independence Market, (410) 659-9314, extension 2216. The article is also on the NFB Web site, <www.nfb.org>, under Publications, Future Reflections.

We are achieving freedom and independence in the only way that really counts--in rising self-respect, in growing self-confidence, and in the will and ability to make choices. Above all, independence means choices…
--Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, “The Nature of Independence,” July 6, 1993

Dr. Lilli Nielson and Barbara Cheadle at Dr. Nielson’s Active Learning Seminar. Barbara was an instant fan of Dr. Nielson’s approach to child development.Ask a hundred people--that’s about the number of people in this room, isn’t it?--for a definition of independence and you will get as many different variations as you have people. Independence is a slippery term. Everyone not only thinks they know what it is, but assumes that everyone else must view it the same way. But as soon as the term is put to the test in its particulars, consensus suddenly evaporates.

Take the teenage girl who has her new driver’s license and the keys to the family car. “A-ha,” she thinks, “now I can go where I want to go, when I want to go. Independence--at last!”

But then comes the first test of her definition of independence and, you guessed it, she discovers that her parents had a very different definition. Our very unhappy, very “grounded” teenager has plenty of time to consider the pitfalls of assuming she knows what independence means.

The definition of independence with which I opened my speech comes from a letter Dr. Kenneth Jernigan wrote to a group of blind rehabilitation students in Louisiana. Those of you who are in the blindness field will know of Dr. Jernigan, but there are others here who may not. Dr. Jernigan was, through the decades of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and most of the nineties until his death in 1998, the premier leader of the blindness movement in the United States. Blind himself, his writings, speeches, and leadership of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has forever changed how blindness is viewed in this country. But back to our discussion of independence.

Few populations have struggled as much to define independence as the blind and those professionals and agencies that serve children and adults with blindness and visual impairments. In this instance the students, after months of rigorous training in the use of the long white cane and full of the novice’s pride in their newfound freedom of movement, wrote a letter to Dr. Jernigan raising the question with him about whether blind people who traveled with sighted assistance (sighted guide)--such as they had seen him do at an NFB convention--were really independent. In response to this letter Dr. Jernigan took that slippery term, independence, and broke it down into these four elements: self-respect, self-confidence, the ability to choose, and the will to choose.

Today, I want to talk with you about that most fundamental element of independence: choices.

Let’s begin with why you chose to come to this convention. The organizers and hosts of this convention selected with extraordinary insight and wisdom the convention theme of Lighting the Fire: Igniting the North American Active Learning Agenda. The theme is based on the following quote from William Butler Yeats, “Education is not filling a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I believe you have come to this convention because you have chosen--perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously--to reject the pail-filling model of education and to throw your lot in with the fire-lighting proponents of education. You are a select group. Whether this is your first Active Learning workshop or your fifth; whether you are a parent, a early-childhood specialist, a teacher of the visually impaired, an occupational therapist, or one of those ubiquitous “others;” you are here because you yearn to ignite sparks that will catch fire and transform the lives of the children with whom you work or the child you parent. That’s what I believe, and that’s how I intend to relate with you throughout this convention: as colleagues in a movement to transform every pail-filler into a fire-lighter, and we will begin with ourselves. But we will not stop there. Please note that once the fire is lit within us, our purpose is to go on and ignite the North American Active Learning Agenda. Or, as it is more sedately described elsewhere in the agenda, “to plan the future of Active Learning.” But I’ll talk more about that later.

The Little Room in action. A child lies on the resonance board surrounded by stimuli, as a caregiver looks on without interfering.Let me tell you how it is that I came to be here today. On one level I am here because the leadership of the National Federation of the Blind--President Marc Maurer--and the leadership of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), of which I am the president and which is a division of the NFB--have determined that Active Learning is important. As leaders we have exercised our will and capacity to make choices and chosen to put our time and resources into supporting and promoting this convention. We have put our name on it as a sponsor; and our name and what it stands for, means a great deal to us.

But why me, and not another representative? I’m one of those people that belong in the “others” category. I am a parent of a blind son, but he does not have any additional disabilities. I have a teaching degree, but I have never taught in the classroom. And I’m not a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a counselor, or any other kind of direct service provider of children with blindness and additional disabilities.

But I am the president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and the editor of Future Reflections, the National Federation of the Blind Magazine for Parents and Teachers of Blind Children. As such, I have certain responsibilities to the members who elected me and to the 14,000 plus readers who seek information, guidance, and help. And, as you know, somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of those members and readers have children with additional disabilities. As our organization grew, and Future Reflections became more influential and widely read, more and more parents were asking me questions about what could be done for their multiply disabled children, and I didn’t have answers.

The National Federation of the Blind was founded on the premise that blind people have the capacity to make choices and determine their own destinies. Blind people need the same opportunities to learn, to try, and to succeed--or fail--just like everyone else. The Federation proclaims: It’s normal to be blind. It’s respectable to be blind. It’s okay to be blind. I once heard a blind member of the Federation put it this way, “There is no sighted world, there is just one world, and blind people belong in it.” Everything in me said that this must be true for blind and multiply disabled children, too--but parents needed practical answers and specific strategies. Could their child learn? And, if so, how?

It was with these unanswered questions in mind that over ten years ago I went to Dr. Jernigan and asked him to authorize NFB funds to send a representative to the Lilli Nielsen workshop in Michigan. You see I had read about the Little Room. I had even corresponded with Lilli and published an article about the Little Room and about her first conference in the United States. But I needed to know more. Maybe, just maybe, this Lilli person was onto something.

Dr. Jernigan didn’t need much explanation or persuasion about the importance of this venture. The question was, who should go? As much as I wanted to go myself, I was willing, if we could only send one person, that that person be a parent leader with a multiply disabled child or maybe a special education teacher. But Dr. Jernigan pointed out that if it was potentially this important, then I needed to go, for through my leadership roles I would have the most influence in spreading the information on a large scale. In the end, the NFB sent two of us--Loretta White, a special educator who is also the parent of a multiply disabled blind child, and me.

After the very first day of that conference, I knew that this Active Learning stuff was really big, really important. Everything Lilli said resonated with me. It connected with all that I had learned from the Federation about the right--the need--for blind people to do for themselves, to make their own choices. Just as the average blind child needed special tools and alternative techniques--such as the long white cane and Braille--to achieve self-determination and independence, so too did the blind, multiply disabled child need special materials and tools--such as the Lilli Nielsen Little Room and resonance board--in order to learn. But, as important as these tools and materials are, what was most important was the recognition that the foundation of learning for all children--blind or sighted, with or without additional disabilities--was self-initiated movement. And there can be little or no self-initiated movement without, you guessed it, choices.

What is the Little Room all about? It is about choices and self-initiated movement. The Little Room provides an environment that allows the multiply disabled blind baby or child to learn incidentally, spontaneously through his/her own self-directed movements. No one selects a toy or object and places it in the child’s hand. Instead, in the Little Room the child is surrounded with a rich array of carefully selected everyday objects and the slightest movement by the child will immediately put her/him in touch with them, and so begins the process of self-discovery, and the real learning--not training, not rote compliance to a prompt, but real learning--begins. It’s the child that makes the decision to reach out and investigate, and the child that carries through with that decision.

For me, the immediate and striking parallel between what happens in the Little Room for blind kids who are not yet mobile, and blind children who are ready physically and cognitively to walk and move about in the larger world, is the long white cane and the mobility approach developed by the NFB called Guided Discovery. As in the Little Room, the instructor using Guided Discovery does not spoon-feed or train the student in a memorized route, rather the blind student learns to explore the environment through his/her own initiative and self-directed movement. You can learn more about this approach from Joe Cutter’s workshop later in this convention.

The demonstrations of the Little Room and the effectiveness of the hands-off-the-hands strategy were so innately sensible, the stories and videos so dramatic and compelling, that I became, like many of you here today, an instant fan of Lilli’s and a staunch advocate of Active Learning. Most importantly, I came away with the firm conviction that in the essentials, the goals and purposes of the Active Learning agenda and those of the NFB and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children are harmonious and complimentary. In the years that followed my attendance at Lilli’s workshop, I have published articles about Active Learning principles in Future Reflections, conducted workshops at our national conventions in which we used and promoted Active Learning principles and materials, and recommended Active Learning principles and materials to parents and teachers from all over the country. In the NOPBC and the NFB, the principle of hands-off-the-hands struck an immediate and responsive chord with the blind members of the NFB. Lilli’s article about “Guiding Hands” is a key article in the early childhood packet we give out year after year to hundreds of parents of young blind or visually impaired children. The strategy of respecting the child’s autonomous use of their hands is so essential that it was specifically addressed in the training the NFB Jernigan Institute provided to the NASA employees last summer who participated in the Institutes’ Science Academy for blind youth.

Although I am not in the classroom and working daily with children, I do have opportunities from time to time to personally demonstrate Active Learning approaches--especially the approach of keeping your hands off the child’s hands. I always find this an awkward principle to explain, but an amazingly easy one to demonstrate. This principle too is all about self-initiated movement and therefore also about the will and the ability to make choices and about independence. One demonstration can be very dramatic, which is good. The more dramatic the more likely the parent and/or teacher will embrace and adopt Active Learning. Here is a very dramatic example about a little boy (I’ll call him Kenny) that I had the chance to meet not long ago.

It started with a phone call from a grandmother who was raising her blind, developmentally delayed grandson. She lived in the area and had heard about the Braille storybook program sponsored by our local Federation parents group. This was her first contact with the NFB, and she was eager to learn all she could. However, she explained that her grandson was not walking or talking and was considered mentally retarded. She often thought he could be doing more, but she didn’t know what to do and neither did those who were working with him in his educational program.

I urged her to come to the storybook hour and to bring her grandson. The program was as much an opportunity for families to network as it was for the kids to hear a story. It was also a good chance for her to see and interact with blind people of all ages--the children who come with their parents and the blind teens and adults who come to be “buddies” with the younger kids. (Blind role models are an important part of every program we conduct in the NFB for children and families.)

When they arrived, Kenny, who was small for his age, was scrunched up in one of those umbrella-type strollers. And what was so striking--and Lilli, you and others here will understand this--his hands were clenched into tight little fists right up by his ears; it was as if they were locked in place. And yet on his face was a look of interest, of engagement, perhaps even of curiosity. The grandmother was a little late so we didn’t have time to talk before our blind teen began to read the storybook. Each child had his/her personal copy of the print-Braille storybook and a blind mentor sitting with him/her. The mentor helped the child find and follow the Braille with their fingers and turn the pages at the right time. Of course, the grandmother wanted desperately for her little boy to participate like the other kids. She kept trying to tug his hands down to put them on the book, and the more she tugged, the more Kenny resisted, and finally he began to fuss. And I was thinking, “Oh, Lilli, I wish you were here!” Finally, I convinced the grandmother that it was okay for Kenny to sit and listen, and she stopped tugging on Kenny’s hands.

After the story was over I had, at the most, thirty minutes to talk with the grandmother while the other kids with their mentors and parents had their snack and started a craft. In my mind, I was asking myself, “What can I do that will have the biggest impact?” I didn’t have a Little Room or a resonance board, and I didn’t have Lilli looking over my shoulder. I finally decided to focus on the principle of hands-off-the-hands. But my real audience was Kenny. As I explained to the grandmother the importance of never guiding his hands, how there were other, better ways to encourage Kenny to reach out, I gently dangled and fluttered my fingers--like an object hanging from a Little Room--against Kenny’s head just above one of his clenched fists. It only took seconds for him to notice the touch, and soon his face was shining with curiosity and pleasure. I interspersed my conversation with comments to Kenny, “Oh, do you like that? Do you feel that? I wonder what it is!” Within moments, he unclenched his fist and his hand shot up to find and grip mine. I exclaimed in delight, and we started our game. He would grip and release, and find my fluttering fingers again. He was smiling and crowing in glee, and I was laughingly responding with encouragement and praise. Before we finished our game, Kenny gripped both my hands, stiffened his legs, heaved himself out of the stroller, and astonished us all--including him--by attempting to take a step. The grandmother was in tears. Never had he shown this much self-initiated action. Never had he voluntarily uncurled his fists to reach out for anything--but then again, never had he been “invited” to do so. He had always had things done to him, and never been given the choice and the opportunity to reach out and exercise self-initiated action.

In some ways, this is a wonderful story about the power of Active Learning. In another way, it is a sad one because I cannot tell you how Kenny is doing today. His grandmother contacted me a couple of times after that encounter, but then she dropped out of sight, so to speak.

But some parents stick with it, and I have followed them in their journey with Active Learning. One friend has a blind daughter with Asperger’s (autism), mild cerebral palsy, a hearing impairment, and a learning disability. This friend also has four other children with a range of various disabilities. The most involved is a girl I’ll call Amanda. Amanda is deaf, has profound mental retardation, and has extreme physical limitations. Although my friend used Active Learning principles with good results with her blind daughter, it has been most beneficial with her daughter Amanda. Amanda can feed herself and does so routinely--at home. She can take off her coat by herself--at home; and cooperatively helps others dress her as much as her physical limitations allow--at home. At her new school, it’s a different story. Although Amanda has these skills, and will do them in the context of an environment that respects her autonomy and her right to choose, the school wants her to perform these skills upon demand for their convenience: in other words, they want a trained, compliant student. And, as you might guess, Amanda is having none of it. Their demands and disrespect leave her only two choices: she can express her anger at their disrespect and refuse to comply, or she can submit. I am not picking on educators--I know there are Active Learning practitioners in this room who could tell the same story, simply flipping the role of parents and educators.

And that brings me back to our convention’s theme: “Lighting the Fire: Igniting the Flame of the North American Active Learning Agenda.” What will we choose to do--you and I--about the future of Active Learning in this country? What can we do to make it possible for your child or students--children like Kenny and Amanda--to have the benefits of Active Learning?

It is instructive, I think, to consider both the obstacles and assets in achieving that goal. It may come as no surprise to you when I say that there are forces and trends in our larger culture that are working against us. For example, I have read that the average child spends four-and-one-half-hours a day in front of the TV or in front of the computer screen. When they are active, it is in adult-dominated, highly structured, and organized activities such as soccer, ballet, gym class, swimming classes, basketball, and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with these activities, except that children also need a good deal of unstructured time or free play. That’s where and how spontaneous learning, self-reliance, problem-solving, and the capacity and will to make choices--that is, the development of independence--take place. At one time in our culture, children had plenty of opportunities even during the school week for unstructured free play--we called it recess. However, as more and more legislative requirements are pressuring schools to raise test scores--and punishing schools who do not meet certain standards--more and more schools have been cutting back on the amount of recess, many eliminating it entirely. The Atlanta, Georgia, school system led the way when it became the first (note, not the last and certainly not the only) large public school system to eliminate recess entirely throughout its system. Fortunately, there is a counter grassroots movement afoot. There is an association for the promotion of free play that began in Denmark, and three states in our country have passed legislation requiring that schools keep recess in the school schedule.

In one respect, the Active Learning agenda movement may help lead the country back to a healthier learning environment for all children. If so, this will not be the first time that an invention or program for the blind benefited the larger society.

But we also have assets, and those assets are more than enough to overcome the obstacles. This convention is proof of that. What are those assets? They are in us: our brains, our strength of purpose, our perseverance, and our capacity to work together collaboratively to achieve a common goal.

I think Dr. Marc Maurer expressed it best in his 1991 banquet address at the National Federation of the Blind convention. In talking about how ideas can change history, he said:

In a fireplace one log by itself, regardless of how big, will almost certainly fail to burn. There must be at least two. The flame from one is reflected by the other. The brightness and heat come from the space between the logs, the reflection of the flame.

As it is with flame, so it is with ideas. A new idea has only a limited time to take fire, to catch the imagination of the public and burn. And if the flame is to be reflected--the kindling point sustained--more than a single person is required. There must be two, five, ten--at least a handful--to build the heat and speed the process. Regardless of its merit, if an idea (once ignited) fails to reflect the flame of group interaction, its time will soon pass, and it will disappear into insignificance and be forgotten. Of course, an idea can be revived (many times, in fact, if the need is sufficiently urgent), but the process must always begin anew. And if the idea is to live and prosper--if it is to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people--all of the elements must be present: the idea, a leader, and at least a handful to reflect the flame.

The sponsor of this convention has set forth for us an ambitious agenda indeed. But we have the means to accomplish it. We have the idea--Active Learning. We have not just one leader in Lilli Nielsen, but we have at this convention many leaders of Active Learning. And there are many more than a handful of us in this room and around the world to reflect the flame. It is our responsibility and obligation--whether it be as a parent to our child, a teacher to our students, or as a part of all those “others” who care about children and learning--it is our responsibility to reflect the flame of Active Learning. Thank you.

More information about the educational approaches and equipment developed by Dr. Lilli Nielsen is available from:

LilliWorks Active Learning Foundation
1815 Encinal Avenue
Alameda, California 94501
Phone: (510) 814-9111; Fax: (510) 814-3941

Vision Associates
2109 US Highway 90 West Suite 170 #312
Lake City, Florida 32055
Phone: (407) 352-1200; Fax: (386) 752-7839

(back) (contents) (next)