'American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention 2019      NOPBC BOARD MEETING

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A House with Many Rooms

by Adrienne Shoemaker

Holding her plaque, Adrienne Shoemaker stands with one of her students, Abby Duffy.From the Editor: The recipient of the 2019 Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award from the National Federation of the Blind is Adrienne Shoemaker, a teacher of blind students from New Hampshire. As she presented this year’s prize, award committee chair Carla McQuillan explained, "Adrienne Shoemaker has been teaching for ten years, and she is currently the only teacher of blind students in the Hawthorne High School system. In addition to her teaching, she has helped develop a program for teachers of blind students, and she has taught the Braille courses that are part of that curriculum. She has served as a liaison between the Massachusetts Department of Rehabilitation and the University of Massachusetts Northeast Center for Vision Education, recruiting candidates to become teachers of blind students. In 2014 she was one of ten teachers chosen by the National Federation of the Blind to be part of our STEM2U program. Her willingness to go above and beyond has made her an excellent candidate for this year's Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award."

As this year's award recipient, Adrienne Shoemaker had the opportunity to speak at the annual board meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. In this presentation she relates her history as a teacher and summarizes the philosophy that shapes her work with her students.

I am honored and humbled to be speaking to you as the National Federation of the Blind Distinguished Educator for 2019. While the students are my favorite members of the IEP team, they are followed closely by their parents. I understand the passion, commitment, and dedication that you have for your children. As parents we want the best for our children, and we work tirelessly to ensure that they are getting what they need.

Becoming a Teacher

Teaching is both my profession and my passion. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher. My mom was a teacher, and when I was a teenager I taught scuba lessons. I discovered there is no better feeling than watching a child grasp a skill and knowing that I had some part in that.

Through my summer job I learned that teachers have to instill trust. They have to develop rapport with their students. They have to be creative; if one strategy doesn't work, they have to find another one. They have to believe in their students and celebrate their successes. I wanted teaching to be my career.

I obtained my undergraduate degree in elementary and special education and started teaching right after graduation. My first job was as an elementary school teacher. I loved it! I loved being in the classroom. I loved the challenge of reaching my twenty-five students. I worked until my first child was born, and then I became a stay-at-home mom.

During my seven years at home I had two more children and ran an in-home day-care facility. I knew I would return to teaching once my children were in school, and I had the goal of obtaining my master's degree during my years at home. I had no idea what I wanted to study for my master's, but I knew that I needed and wanted the degree. 

A Brand-new Discovery

Through a mom who needed summer childcare for her children I learned about the role of the teacher of the blind and visually impaired (TVI). As we got to know each other over the phone, she told me about her job, and she spoke highly of the profession. She told me about a master's degree program to become a teacher of students who are blind or have low vision.

As soon as we hung up the phone, I jumped on the computer and started looking into the program. The coursework looked incredibly interesting, and the program was online, which was extremely helpful, since I had three children under the age of five!

Until that evening I didn't know the job of a TVI even existed! Though I was fully certified as an elementary and special education teacher, I had never been exposed to this unique field in any of my undergraduate courses. In school I had never been in a class with a blind or low-vision peer, and I didn't know personally any blind or low-vision adults. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the program and the course descriptions. I gathered my transcripts, wrote my essay, and filled out the application.

I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program, and enthusiastically I jumped into the first class. During the introductory class we were assigned to interview a blind or low-vision adult. I was connected to a woman who was a wife and mother and who worked outside the home. I drove to her house and conducted the interview at her kitchen table.

Positive Encounters

Before this interview occurred, I don't recall having any preconceived ideas about what someone who is blind could or could not do. But I remember sitting at the table and hanging onto every word as the woman described how she performed everyday tasks. She shared information about the technology she used at work and at home to access printed information. She talked about the transportation she used to get to work and run errands. She shared how she cared for her children and performed all of the household duties that moms do when running a home and raising kids. She was confident and capable, and she was living a successful life.

During another course early in my training to become a TVI, I had the honor of being in a class with a peer who was blind. During the face-to-face sessions I watched as she used her cane to navigate the building and classroom. I saw her read material from her refreshable Braille display as her presentation was projected onto a screen at the front of the room. She was incredibly knowledgeable and had a magnetic personality.

At the end of one of the classes, she asked if anyone could give her a ride to the train station. She had looked at the schedule on her own, and she just needed a ride so she could catch the train home. I drove her to the station, and she got out of the car. I asked if she needed any help, but of course she didn't. As I drove away I was struck by her level of independence and skills.

Here was another early exposure to a blind person who was successful and independent. It reinforced my image of what people are capable of doing without sight. The answer was "Everything!" These two women had all of the skills they needed to live full and successful lives. Both women were proficient Braille readers. They had solid orientation and mobility skills. They used assistive technology. They were employed, had great social skills, and lived independently. They were strong role models to me for the skills that I would want my future students to achieve.

I became a certified teacher of students with visual impairments in 2010, and I became a TVI in the public school district in the city where I live. I love my job and the relationships I have formed through my work with students, families, educators, and related-service providers. In this job, learning and professional development can never stop. There is so much to learn in order to stay on top and to be the best I can be for my students and their parents. In my quest to learn as much as I can about the field, I also obtained my orientation and mobility certification this past school year.

I'd like to share with you today some of my guiding beliefs at this point in my career.

Role Models and Mentors

Find role models and mentors. We all need people to look up to who are accomplishing the things we want to accomplish. We need to see examples of success and to understand the tools and skills needed to get to that point. These role models have the roadmap, and I trust their advice to make our journey a little bit smoother. Here are some examples of mentorship for teachers and students:

Default to Yes!

When our blind children ask if they can do something, they need to hear the message that they absolutely can. We need to nurture their constructive ideas and build their self-esteem. After saying yes, we as teachers and parents can brainstorm for ideas about how to make something happen. Our own limitations in understanding how something can work for someone who is blind should not hold our children back. We need to instill the idea that the possibilities are endless and that the expectations for independence and success are within reach.

As a mom I know the reservations and fears we sometimes have for our children. We want to shelter them; we want to keep them close and safe. But we know it is important to let them try new things without us, things that are outside our own comfort zone. Children need to have experiences with adversity so they are forced to problem solve. Only then can they truly learn to be independent.

Remember those role models and mentors from Point Number One? We know that blind people are competitive swimmers, skiers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and teachers. The list goes on and on. They may approach tasks differently from someone who has sight, but they are doing it.

Educate and Share

We are all educators. An educator is defined as a person who teaches people. We need to share that "yes, they can do it" attitude with every new person who comes in contact with our children. It needs to be known that, given accessible materials and the necessary skills, our students can work alongside their sighted peers and achieve greatness. Our children need to be included. They need to be active participants. They need to be held accountable, and they will thrive.

Your child may be the first blind person an administrator, teacher, or service provider has ever met. Together we need to educate them. We need to explain how our students will access classwork and emphasize the importance of making sure that classroom materials are available in accessible formats and at the same time as the rest of the class receives them.

You will gain wonderful information at the NOPBC conference and the NFB convention this week! I encourage you to go back and share it with your child's TVI, O&M instructor, and school team. Share resources. Share articles. Share books. If you find some new information or a book that you are passionate about, share it. The needs of our students are highly varied, and we strive to stay on top of it all. It is daunting and exhilarating to try to gain as much knowledge as possible while working with blind and low-vision students.

Years ago I was thrilled when the parent of one of my students lent me the books Making It Work: Educating the Blind and Visually Impaired Student in the Regular School and Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade, both by Carol Castellano. (I had no idea I would be sitting at the same table with Carol today!) Through this parent I also learned about the National Reading Media Assessment, which was developed by the NFB. I now use this tool as part of my functional vision evaluation process. When you learn about opportunities and resources, please share that information with your child's teachers.

In 2010 I had the pleasure of being selected as one of ten teachers to attend the STEM2U weekend at the NFB in Maryland. It was through a parent that I learned about this amazing opportunity. I encourage you to send an email, copy the link to an article or website, recommend a book. All of these acts help foster the parent-teacher relationship.

Empower the Student

At the start of every school year, beginning in elementary school, I involve my students in a presentation to their classes about the long white cane, Braille, and any technology that the students may be using in class. It is important that students learn from an early age to talk about their blindness and the tools they use. In the early years I do a lot of the talking and explaining to team members about what is needed. I share information about how they will access the curriculum. I explain about the tools and the technology they use. I talk about where they should sit in the classroom and their need for extra space for their materials. As my students get older, they handle more and more of the presentation of information. The student writes introductory emails, creates slide-show presentations, and holds meetings with new teachers. These presentations help teachers understand how to make the curriculum accessible and what teaching strategies will be most effective to meet the student's needs. It also starts to establish the relationship between the student and the classroom teacher. There is something very powerful about students directly telling a teacher about their needs and explaining how they will access and complete their classwork.

I also involve my students in the IEP process. Together we go through the components of the IEP, including present levels, accommodations, and modifications. We reveal what's currently there, what is no longer needed, and what should be added. The first year I reviewed an IEP with one of my students, we had a moment that completely validated involving a student with the IEP process. As we went through the list of accommodations, we arrived at the accommodation, "need for preferential seating." My student responded, "I don't think I need that one anymore!" We both laughed, and I agreed that we should take it out. The student needs to be part of the process.

Skills

The last thing on my list is skills. I often hear the phrase, "adding tools to the toolbox." It's a concept that I use myself to make sure that our students have plenty of tools to draw upon.

I don't know about the rest of you, but my toolbox at home is a little bit messy. Tools are thrown in with no real order. Eventually I can find what I need, but the box isn't neatly organized. Today I want to share another way to create a mental picture of the blindness skills our students need to accumulate. 

Furnishings and Decorations

Picture a house. The house is built on a foundation. The foundation is solid. It's composed of high expectations and encouragement from parents and educators. The house has nine rooms, and each of these rooms is an area of blindness skills. These skills are often referred to as the Expanded Core Curriculum. A blind child needs specific instruction in these skills. Instead of walking through the house and visiting the kitchen, bathroom, living room, and office, we're going to walk through and rename the rooms.

In our house we'll have an orientation and mobility skills room, a social interaction skills room, and an independent living skills room. There will be rooms for recreation and leisure, sensory efficiency, assistive technology, self-determination, and compensatory skills—that's where you learn Braille.

As we walk through the house, the rooms are all there, but the walls are bare, and there are few furnishings. However, you can start to envision how the house could look once you begin to decorate. For example, the compensatory skills room is a nice-sized room with tons of potential. You can envision it filled with furnishings and decorations of concept development, organizational skills, strategies for getting access to printed material, listening and speaking skills, study skills, and Braille reading and writing. Other decorations and furnishings will be added to complete the room.

Next there's the orientation and mobility skills room. You'll want to furnish it with sensory skills, navigational skills, and mobility skills so that our children are able to move safely, efficiently, and as independently as possible.

Next we'll enter the self-determination skills room. This room, much like the kitchen, is where you're going to spend a lot of time. The room is essential for developing confidence. You have ideas for furnishing with goal setting, problem solving, making choices, creating action plans, advocacy, self- management, and accessing resources.

The other rooms are just as wonderful. There is so much potential in this house! Over the years the rooms will fill up with furnishings and decorations of skills. We can all add to these rooms. Our goal is that, by graduation, each of the rooms in this house will be well furnished and decorated, and our students will be ready for the next chapter of their lives.

In closing, I again want to thank the National Federation of the Blind and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children for the recognition of this award and the opportunity to speak to you today. Please remember that you are the expert on your child. You are attending this conference for your child. You are part of the NOPBC because you are passionate about your child. Please share what you are learning this week. 

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