American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: COVID and Beyond REMOTE TEACHING
by Jackie Anderson
From the Editor: Most Federationists know Jackie Anderson as a founder of the NFB BELL Academy®, a summer program that provides Braille enrichment to blind children throughout the US. Jackie has a deep conviction that families play a crucial role in the education of blind children, and this is especially true when students are taught remotely.
I began my career teaching second and third grades at the Chatsworth School, a multi-age magnet program in Baltimore County, Maryland. While I was at Chatsworth, I taught all subjects. For several years I taught gifted and talented math and reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the ten years I taught at Chatsworth.
In 2008 I helped start the first BELL Academy, a summer enrichment program for low-vision students to learn Braille. I had been battling with my school district to obtain Braille instruction for my daughter, Aunya, who is blind with some residual vision. Working with the children at BELL inspired me to make a career shift and become a teacher of blind students.
During that same summer, I applied to three master's degree programs to become a teacher of the visually impaired. In each interview I explained that I wanted to work directly with the families of my students throughout the education process. In my first two interviews I was told that, as a teacher, working with families would not be my responsibility. I was not accepted into either of those programs.
The response was very different when I interviewed at Louisiana Tech. Dr. Ruby Ryles was enthusiastic when I told her I wanted to involve my students' families. We both agreed that the teacher's job must extend beyond the limits of the classroom. The teacher of blind students needed to help families so that blind children could learn at home and in the community as well as in school. In the fall of 2008 I moved my family to Ruston, Louisiana, and began my studies at Louisiana Tech.
When I entered the master's program, I assumed I would return to Maryland and teach in Baltimore County. I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained to support those first BELL families that had inspired me and the other students who were not receiving appropriate instruction and services. During my last week of classes in July 2010, I received two emails from Dr. Elaine Thagart, the director of the low incidence program in Cobb County Schools, Georgia. Dr. Thagart invited me to interview for a position. I thanked her, but I told her I wasn't interested. She was not easily discouraged, however, and somehow she persuaded me to take the long bus ride to Georgia "just to talk." When I arrived she introduced me to the principal of the elementary school as "the new teacher."
Dr. Thagart wanted me to work in the new elementary resource program for blind students. The resource program at Russel Elementary would serve preschool and elementary age blind and low-vision students. The program would fully integrate the students into the school community. It was everything I could have hoped for. Two weeks after my graduation I moved my family again, this time to Georgia.
I worked under Dr. Thagart and her successor, Dr. Heidi Evans, and with a wonderful team of TBVIs (teachers of the blind and visually impaired) to develop the resource program at Russel. "The Dream Team" of four teachers of blind and visually impaired students worked collaboratively. Blind preschoolers participated in an inclusion program with other special-needs children. As the blind students entered elementary school, Braille was fully integrated into their school day.
I vividly remember the IEP meeting for a third-grader who was learning both print and Braille. She wasn't making progress with her Braille instruction, and some of the teachers recommended that we drop Braille altogether. After I listened to everyone's comments, I recommended that we increase the student's Braille instruction time. I pointed out that she shouldn't simply read Braille in the resource room; she should be using Braille all day in the general-education classroom as well. The student became a fluent Braille reader, and now she uses Braille in nearly every aspect of her life.
While I was teaching at Russel, I established Parents Connect. The group was open to parents of blind/low vision students from across the county. Once per month the group met to learn about different aspects of blindness and to share their experiences. Teachers were invited to listen or to present on parent-directed topics.
Sadly, the program we worked so hard to establish was dismantled. With the new shift in vision for the program, I found myself in situations that did not align with my core values as an educator. I knew that my responsibility to the needs of students would always come before loyalty to the school district. In October of 2018 I came to the realization that it was time for me to move on.
Prior to leaving my teaching position, I entered a doctoral program in inclusive education at Kennesaw State University. The knowledge I gained through my university learning and my teaching experiences helped me form a not-for-profit program called Let's ConnecTVI. Our program works with parents, students, and blind adults. Our parent program continues with the same model that was used with Parents Connect. We help parents support and build upon the skills their children are learning at school. We encourage parents to put on learning shades and learn to perform tasks such as chopping vegetables so they can better help their children understand what to do. Our adult service focuses on assessment and instruction in Braille, technology, and daily living skills. I also have consulted with health-care professionals to help them understand how to work with blind patients.
I was very aware that the shortage of teachers of the visually impaired is a serious problem in the education of blind students. Some school districts, especially those in rural areas, have turned to remote teaching as a solution. I felt very wary about teaching Braille remotely, but I finally decided to give it a try. I started with one student, and it worked extremely well. I added several more students, teaching them Braille, abacus, and Nemeth Code. Right now I'm teaching Braille to five students, and I'm also teaching JAWS and computer skills to several students in Illinois.
Although my experience has been positive overall, I need to emphasize that virtual learning is not for everyone. For blind and low-vision students, in-person learning will always be the ideal situation. Remote teaching works when a cohesive team can be established. Someone who is physically present with the student needs to provide support. That person might be a paraprofessional, a parent, a grandparent, or even an older sibling. It really does take a village!
When I teach remotely the support person needs to understand what the student is learning to do. They must be able to reinforce my instruction without being too controlling. The process doesn't work if the parent takes over. If the parent checks in at the beginning of the session and then disappears, that doesn't work, either. The support person's role is to reinforce, remediate, and expand upon the student's learning.
In the virtual setting an hour of instruction is the maximum; beyond that it's hard for a student to stay engaged. When the lesson is over, the support person must be able to follow up and reinforce what has been taught. As always, true learning continues beyond the classroom or Zoom session.
With beginning Braille readers, as with beginning print readers, the first goal is to get the child to fall in love with reading. The child will not become invested in learning unless the lesson is meaningful. All too often blind and low-vision kids are told they don't belong in the same learning spaces as their fully sighted classmates. They receive the message that the material their classmates are learning is not relevant to their lives.
When I teach Braille face-to-face I prefer to have the child wear learning shades. In virtual learning, though, learning shades aren't always the best option. Sometimes I have the child put the Braille book under the table or under their "Braille stage" to read. We can make a game of it: "Let's hide your book from Mom!" I got one child to read under the table for forty-five minutes! Another simple way to get kids to use their hands is to have the parent turn off the light. I find that parents embrace these strategies if I approach the process in a positive way.
Lessons are filled with the theme, "This is a part of my everyday life." Sometimes parents join in a good round of Braille hokey-pokey. A parent may be playing opposite their child in a Braille scavenger hunt. What about a birthday party? A student used his Braille and other nonvisual skills to plan and set up a birthday party for his sister. Positive outcome happens in virtual learning when there is mutual respect and understanding.
If the parents think Braille is mysterious and hard to learn, they're bound to send that unspoken message to the child. I encourage parents to learn the Braille code so they can reinforce the child's learning. Basic Braille really is not difficult! I have taught parents the Braille alphabet in thirty minutes. Did you know that you can learn the first fifty symbols just by learning the first ten?
In the long run, professionals are only present for a moment in the child's life. Parents are in it for the duration. I can't overestimate the importance they play in the development and learning success of their child.
When a child is learning Braille, parents need to be able to produce Braille materials at home. The teacher can't put Braille materials in the mail and expect the child to receive them in time for the next lesson. It may take up to two weeks for the materials to land in the family's mailbox.
In order to provide Braille materials in a timely manner, families need access to a Braille embosser. Three of the families I work with have Braille embossers at home. When the child wants to read something, the parent simply prints it out. Having immediate access to Braille is very powerful and motivating for the child who is learning to read! As educators, we are taught that progress in reading is impacted by leisure reading more than direct instruction. Braille readers should have access to Braille outside of mere instructional materials. School districts may object to providing a Braille embosser for use at home, but it's very important for children who are learning remotely. Procedure should not be the gatekeeper to Braille!
Technology is another area where blind and low-vision students often fall behind their sighted classmates. Too often I hear teachers claim that blind students shouldn't start learning to use a computer until middle school or high school. Meanwhile, their sighted peers have been learning to use technology since kindergarten and even preschool. Our blind kids need early instruction in technology just as sighted kids do, and technology can be taught remotely if need be.
Remote education will be with us for the long haul. It's not the ideal for every student, but with the necessary supports, it can be highly effective. Collaboration is the key.