Future Reflections        Summer 2012

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The 2012 NFB LAW Program: Modeling Best Practices for Incorporating Technology in the Learning Environment

by Emily Gibbs and Natalie Shaheen

The entire LAW Program stands on the steps of the Capitol.From the Editor: The LAW Program (Leadership and Advocacy in Washington) is one of the many exciting initiatives for blind youth sponsored by the NFB Jernigan Institute (NFBJI). In this article LAW coordinators Emily Gibbs and Natalie Shaheen explain how technology played an integral part in the program in 2012.

Today technology is everywhere, including the classroom. Educators all over the world harness the power of technology as a learning tool. Perhaps a kindergartener in a large city school has never visited a farm, but during a unit on farms he can communicate with real farmers in the Midwest through Skype, VoiceThread, blogs, and social media. Technology is a wonderful tool for providing authentic learning experiences.

Unfortunately, as far too many blind students can attest, much of the technology in today's classrooms is inaccessible. It is illegal for schools to use inaccessible technology, but few educators are familiar with the regulations. We must continue to educate the general population about the vital importance of nonvisual access.

The educators at the Jernigan Institute appreciate the power of technology as a learning tool. At the NFBJI, however, we will not use a technology that is inaccessible. We know it is possible to use accessible technology for any classroom activity a teacher can devise, and it isn't hard.

Callie Marshall, Jaden Messner, Beth Rouse, Dezman Jackson, and Alex Anderson are shown here with Congressman Dave Loebsack.The curriculum for this year's NFB LAW Program incorporated a great deal of technology. Technology allowed each student to work independently at his or her own pace. Learning became more self-directed, and it could take place almost anywhere, at any time. Students were so excited that they spent some of their free time on learning projects. By sharing how we incorporated accessible technology into the LAW Program, we hope to encourage other educators to make their classrooms fully accessible.

The 2012 LAW program was held at the Jernigan Institute in Baltimore from April 13 to 18. Twenty-three blind middle-school students attended, coming from fifteen states. Each student came to the program with a chaperone, most often a parent. Six blind adult mentors--David Bouchard, Dezman Jackson, Ryan Strunk, Briley Pollard, Brooke Sexton, and Karen Anderson--served as role models and helped with instruction in the classroom. Parent mentors Jim Beyer and Carlton Anne Cook Walker facilitated a workshop for the parents and other chaperones. The workshop focused on ways for parents and teachers to ensure blind children's success.

One-on-One Technology

During the program, each child had access to a mobile device as a vehicle for learning. iPads and iPod Touches were available. The devices were pre-loaded with accessible apps that the students might find useful.

The first lesson of the program involved the NFB Oral History Project. After listening to segments of interviews with famous Federationists, the students were divided into pairs. Students used iPods to record the oral history interviews they conducted with one another. The interviews are now part of the NFB Oral History Project. These young people officially have contributed to the history of the organization.

The students spent Sunday learning about the legislative process and the history of the blindness civil rights movement. They would need this information to be successful during the rest of the program. The day started with students poring over primary source materials from the NFB archives to discover the Federation's constitution at work. Some read the minutes from the founding meeting that took place in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1940. Some examined antique Braillewriters or listened to "A Lefthanded Dissertation," a speech by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. All of the materials were available for the students to examine in the classroom. Staff of the Jacobus tenBroek Library were on hand to provide any additional information students wanted as they studied the plethora of artifacts. As in previous years, paper Braille and large print versions of the text of all primary sources were provided. This year we also offered the content as an iBook that the students could read on their iOS devices, giving them another way to access the curriculum.

Briley Pollard teaches Seema Khowaja to use an iPod. This hybrid content delivery model, providing hardcopy and electronic materials simultaneously, was also employed later in the day, when students learned about the work of the Federation in getting jobs for blind people. To kick off the "We Want to Work" lesson, students examined primary sources related to the Randolph-Shepard Act, civil service employment for the blind, and the NFB's efforts to improve working conditions for blind workers in sheltered shops. The students gained a firm understanding of the NFB's extensive work in improving employment opportunities for the blind.

Grounded by this sense of history, the students engaged in several activities that taught them about the fair wages issue. The young people experienced the simulation of a sheltered workshop where they were required to bundle popsicle sticks. The students were split into two groups, "disabled" and "nondisabled." The "disabled" students were paid based on a piecework rate, while their "nondisabled" peers were paid minimum wage--two M&Ms a minute. The students were appalled by the inequality in payment methods demonstrated through this activity.

By the end of the day, the students were fired up to help ensure that all people with disabilities earn at least minimum wage. On Tuesday they would have an opportunity to contribute to the effort by talking about fair wages with their members of Congress. First, however, they needed a firm understanding of both sides of the issue. They examined totally accessible webpages created by the NFB's Governmental Affairs team. These pages presented the fair wages issue from pro and con perspectives. At the end of this fast-paced two-hour lesson, the students had the information they needed to go to Capitol Hill!

Our building contains a great deal of history that is important for an understanding of our movement. A lesson on Sunday morning drew on the vast knowledge of John Cheadle, director of facilities at the Jernigan Institute. Before the program Mr. Cheadle recorded nine audio clips that impart stories and facts about different parts of the building. These audio clips were incorporated into a self-guided tour including the dining room, fourth-floor conference room, harbor area, Harbor Room, lunch room, auditorium, Members Hall, the atrium, and the tenBroek Library. The students moved from one location to the next in the order that suited them. At each location they used an accessible app on their iOS devices to scan a posted tactile QR code, which was also labeled in Braille. Once scanned, the QR code played the audio clip for that part of the building. In addition to the QR code, the students had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Cheadle in person about the building and the blind driver car.

The audio QR codes were not the only ones used in this program. More than seventy QR codes were posted all over the Harbor area. Instead of linking to an audio file, each of these QR codes contained embedded text. When students scanned any of these QR codes, they were shown facts about the NFB Jernigan Institute, the nation's capital, and leaders in the Federation. (Did you know that the capital of the United States has been located in eight different cities? Or that the walls and floor of the atrium of the NFB Jernigan Institute are lined with 1,486 Italian porcelain tiles?) These facts were the answers to trivia questions that were asked on the bus trips to and from Washington, DC, during the program.

LAW Program Highlights

In addition to having lessons at the NFBJI, the students spent a good deal of time in Washington, DC. On Saturday, students and chaperones toured the monuments on the Mall and explored other nearby attractions. The students spent Monday morning at the U.S. Capitol, where they toured the House floor, an opportunity afforded to very few visitors.

The group spent Monday afternoon at a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. The stujents observed Mazen Basrawi, a blind lawyer, as he conducted a live plea hearing. Mazen Basrawi currently serves as counsel to the assistant attorney general, Civil Rights Division. After the hearing he spoke to the students about his job and how he does his work as a blind person.

Tuesday was the most exciting day of all. Each student had a meeting with one of his or her members of Congress or someone from the congressional staff. The students spoke with their representatives about fair wages for workers with disabilities. The students gained confidence and advocacy skills by facilitating these meetings. How many middle-school students go to the Hill and run a meeting with a member of Congress about a piece of legislation? Ours did, and they did it well!

The lessons that comprise the NFB LAW Program are easy to replicate, and they make good stand-alone activities for youth programs. If you are facilitating a youth program for your affiliate, or if you think of other ways you can use the lessons developed for the LAW Program, please contact Emily Gibbs (egibbs@nfb.org) or (410) 659-9314, extension 2407. We will be happy to share lesson plans and all the materials needed to make the lessons a success.

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