Future Reflections Summer 2012
by Emily Gibbs
From the Editor: The NFB has a rich history of reaching out to blind youth and to parents of blind children. Now, through the NFB Jernigan Institute, the Federation is also reaching out to teachers. In this article Emily Gibbs describes an exciting new program, the Teacher Leader Seminar.
Because blindness is a low incidence disability, teachers of the blind often work in isolation. They face other professional challenges as well. Many have overwhelming caseloads, one teacher sometimes serving fifty students scattered over several districts or counties. Frequently teachers are not provided with the resources they need to educate blind students successfully.
The National Federation of the Blind is aware of these struggles, and it is committed to provide support and training to teachers of blind students. The NFB Teacher Leader Seminar was conceived to provide much-needed professional development for teachers of the blind and for other blindness professionals. During the last week in January, teachers flocked to Baltimore to participate in this brand-new program.
The agenda for the program was set through consultation with experts in the field of education. The Teacher Leader Seminar consisted of four tracks: science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM); access technology; multiply impaired students; and building blocks for successful itinerant teaching. Participants were free to stay within one track for the duration of the seminar or to participate in multiple tracks throughout the weekend. For example, a teacher might attend all three sessions in the track on multiply impaired students, or she/he could attend one session about STEAM, one about access technology, and one on itinerant teaching. The flexibility of the agenda afforded teachers the opportunity to attend sessions that most closely met their students' needs.
When teachers were not in track sessions, they had the chance to attend special breakout sessions. These sessions were designed to give teachers experiences that are unique to the NFB. Teachers had the opportunity to learn about NFB philosophy and the National Reading Media Assessment. Some toured the International Braille and Technology Center. Some even put on sleepshades and grilled steaks or used a chainsaw. Five breakout sessions took place concurrently, so there was always something interesting to be found.
An unusual feature of the 2012 Teacher Leader Seminar was the incorporation of social media into the program. Participants were encouraged to interact with one another and with the world outside through social media websites. One site used extensively was Twitter. Through 140-character "tweets," Twitter allows people to post status updates to the world. If you aren't "following," or connected with, a particular user, there is no way to read that user's communications. However, if the user includes a "hashtag," a word preceded by a number sign, users can search for that hashtag and enter the discussion.
The hashtag for the 2012 NFB Teacher Leader Seminar was #TLS12. Anyone who wanted to hear about the seminar could participate in the discussion by looking for that hashtag. Teachers posted tweets about what they were learning during track sessions and breakouts. They posted pictures of themselves traveling under sleepshades, grilling hamburgers, and using adaptive science tools. Teachers interviewed each other on video and uploaded the interviews to Twitter as well. Twitter enabled people to experience different sessions and see what others were doing. It was the ultimate solution to the age-old problem of wanting to be in two places at once.
All of the tweets from the seminar could be seen online and on an eight-foot screen in the northwest corner of Members Hall. The screen was updated constantly throughout the day. For those people who didn't bring a computer, the southwest corner of Members Hall was turned into a social media lounge. This area was set with café tables and chairs. Computers were available all day long so people could check email and send Twitter and Facebook updates, as well as access the TLS Forum.
The TLS Forum was an online bulletin board. It was accessible only to participants inside the building. The forum provided information about the building, about the NFB, and about Baltimore itself. On the Forum participants could find cab or bus information and learn about the offerings of nearby restaurants. This information was especially important for teachers who were not staying in the building and for people who went out to explore Baltimore on Saturday night.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the NFB Teacher Leader Seminar was the Unconference. An Unconference is unlike a traditional conference in every way. There is no agenda. The program is created and organized by the participants on the day it takes place. The people who are attending volunteer to run sessions and speak about topics of passionate interest or concern. Using the TLS Forum, people suggested topics throughout the first two days of sessions. Anything could be an Unconference idea. Some people suggested topics they were excited about and about which they knew enough to run a discussion. Others suggested topics about which they knew nothing but hoped to learn more. Anyone could run a session or suggest a topic, simply by posting it on the Forum.
On Sunday, for thirty minutes before the Unconference began, a town hall meeting was held to plan the schedule for the day. The schedule for the Unconference was decided by consensus of the entire group, based on suggestions posted on the Forum. Sessions were chosen quickly, and in every case someone happily volunteered to lead the discussion. The only rule of the day was the "Two Feet Rule." If you decided you weren't learning in a session or that it wasn't what you thought it would be, get up and walk out.
Unconference sessions covered a wide range of topics. Some, such as "Creative Braille Teaching Tools," consisted of one person talking to the group. In others, such as the session on accessible apps, the entire group shared ideas and information. There was even a philosophy discussion aptly called "Myths of the NFB." Participants were invited to discuss openly and honestly what they had heard about the NFB and what they had learned during the seminar.
At the end of the program we asked teachers to fill out an anonymous survey about their experiences. When asked if they felt that the conference expanded their professional learning network, 100 percent of the thirty-two responders said yes. When asked if they would recommend the conference to other teaching professionals, thirty-one of the thirty-two said that they would. One participant exclaimed, "I will definitely recommend this conference to other blindness professionals in future years. It is a great way to share ideas and learn from one another. It is also a good way to introduce people to the NFB's philosophy." Another replied, "My goal is to get all of my program to come next year." No matter what topic participants came to the conference hoping to learn about, 100 percent of responders agreed that they had learned more at the seminar.
According to the participants, the inaugural 2012 Teacher Leader Seminar was a huge success. People who attended the seminar offered positive feedback and insights for improvements in the future. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response, planning has already begun for the Teacher Leader Seminar of 2013. We hope to see you there!