Future Reflections Summer 2012
by Erin Jepsen
From the Editor: Erin Jepsen is a writer, researcher, and mother of four. For a while she taught music in the public schools. She stopped in order to homeschool her own offspring, picking up some special ed training and a Braille transcriber's certificate along the way. Her family, including several members with visual impairments, lives in Idaho, where they all enjoy hiking, swimming, reading, and roasting gourmet coffee. You can read her blog, A Number of Things, at <http://whistlererin.blogspot.com>.
As the parent of a blind child, and as someone with some training in special education, I've read my share of IEP goals. They usually read something like this: "Child shall recognize 160 out of 190 Braille contractions with 89 percent accuracy by April 30. Child shall read Braille text at a second-grade level, with 65 percent fluency and a minimum speed of 40 WPM for 80 percent of the trials."
Good grief! Are we educating children or programming robots?
I mean no offense toward special education teachers, many of whom receive little appreciation for doing a difficult job. It's just that the "system" boggles my mind sometimes. To take something as messy and organic as learning and stick it into a quantifiable little box seems more ludicrous than useful. Of course, we want to be able to measure progress; but to a parent, or worse, to a student, these numbers can seem like a bewildering mash of random statistics.
Take a hypothetical twelve-year-old boy, for example. He reads at a second-grade level, and seldom reads for fun. He sees well enough to read 16-point print, but his vision is such that doing so becomes a chore. Should this kid be taught Braille? Should he use a CCTV? What should his goals be? How specifically should his IEP language be worded? Ought the school to expect that he learn on grade level with his age-mates, or does his visual impairment exempt him from the educational standards to which his peers are held?
In my mind, these questions exhibit all kinds of problems by their very nature. This is a kid we're talking about! His disability doesn't turn him into a robot that needs to be weighed, measured, and quantified. He is a kid, first and foremost. Someday he will be an adult who likely will want to find a job, have a family, pursue hobbies, travel and live and dream.
If I wrote an IEP for this boy, I would write something like this: "Child shall be exposed to stories about dragons or baseball or surfing until he falls in love with stories and begins devouring them in whatever format he can get his hands on. Child will send 'secret code' messages in Braille to nerdy friends and will begin programming computers. Child will spend time in the fresh air getting exercise and not worrying so much about goals and numbers and statistics until he finds out that he is passionate about auto mechanics and is willing to learn the math necessary to calculate the weight of a car's engine. Child shall be expected to do the same chores as his siblings, take an appropriate amount of responsibility for his appearance and manners, and have the same freedom to explore his world and find his place in it as anyone else."
Get down the why we learn and the how--Braille, print, audio--will fall into place. Once the boy is excited about learning, give him as many hours of Braille and print and audio as you can squeeze into the day, and let him drink it in. But for goodness sake, don't start with "thou shalt learn 35 Braille contractions," or he never will!
Children can be pragmatic, and blind children are no different from any others. If reading is a lot of work, a smart child won't bother. Only when she discovers that a world of magic lies just beyond the print or Braille page will she suddenly decide that learning to read is a worthwhile activity. For some kids, audiobooks first awaken this magic. For others, the tactile enjoyment of Braille draws them in. Once kids find out that stories open the way to friends who live only in books, that through reading they can survive on a lonely island for years, sail on pirate ships, or live with Laura Ingalls on the wild prairies, listening to wolves howl and Pa play his fiddle, they beg to be allowed to read, rather than dragging their heels. When they discover that their passion to learn about orcas can be fed by enlarged font on a computer screen or by listening to audio-described documentaries, you will find they are suddenly captivated and will spend far more than the required twenty minutes reading. A simple iPad game can open the door to a lifelong love of geography and world travel.
Math, of course, presents a whole new set of challenges. For many children, blind or sighted, the interminable drudgery of timed drill sheets saps mathematical study of any possible success or enjoyment. As children, how many of us dreaded the worksheets that plopped onto our desks as the teacher started a stopwatch? Yet I've discovered a new world of math while homeschooling my kids. Did you know that nines are tricky and zeros are humorous? Did you know that if nobody tells kids that math is boring, they will do mental math on car trips? I've had to tell my son, "Stop doing math and get your coat on!"
Algebra begins to make sense when the numbers are weights on a balance, and X is a piece of tissue covering one side. Geometry ceases to be random lines in a book and becomes necessary when it's brought out to the wood shop. Calculus can be used to draw the shape of a water droplet where no droplet existed a moment before. Yet an IEP simply states, "Child shall add four-digit numbers with 75 percent accuracy 60 percent of the time." Did anyone ever notice that 75 percent accuracy won't build a birdhouse that stays together?
If your goal is to set the bar low enough that you can check off your box at the end of the day, are you actually educating a child? Did he learn today that a dogwood flower is a square, a petunia becomes a pentagram, but a lily is actually a hexagram? Even if he can't see the magic of a maple leaf, did he touch one? Did he count the contrasting stripes across the crosswalk today like my four-year-old daughter did? Has anyone ever told him that the hum from his computer monitor comes because it is set to 60 cycles instead of being set higher?
Fortunately, thousands of wild and creative teachers out there are problem solving in wonderful ways, such as building tactile maps out of M&Ms and licorice whips. There are dedicated teachers who will give a reluctant reader different books until they find the one that captures her imagination. There are parents, too, who spend hours gluing strips of fabric to board games to make them tactile, and argue with the employees at the science museum until their child can touch the skeleton that stands behind the DO NOT TOUCH sign. There are children who learn to program computers beyond any expectation, play "Legend of Zelda" although they have never seen the screen, or perfect their skateboarding technique. There are blind children who, when they are excused from learning graphing, get books and find websites and teach themselves how to do it.
As I teach my daughter, I don't want her to meet a goal of 75 percent, and that for only a fraction of the time. I want her to dive into life at 100 percent. She will learn to read because everyone in her family reads, and she'll understand what she reads because we'll talk about it together and read it together, just as I do with all the other children I have taught. She'll learn to run and swim and do math and climb trees, just as her sighted brothers and sisters do. And thankfully, she won't do it only 60 percent of the time!