Future Reflections Fall 1992, Vol. 11 No. 4



by Bonnie Simons

[PICTURE] Students enjoy the challenges of learning Braille and completing projects in Braille.

[PICTURE] Cooperative learning techniques, along with competitions, help sighted students learn the basics of Braille.

From the Editor: Sighted children are fascinated with Braille. Whenever my blind colleagues in the Federation or I have demonstrated Braille to groups of children—such as school classes, Cub Scouts, Brownie Scouts, and so forth—we can always guarantee, without fail, that the Braille will be a big hit. Many of us have often wondered if this natural curiosity and enthusiasm for Braille could be put to a better use. Of course, even one demonstration promotes a better understanding of blindness and a respect for blind persons, but couldn't more be done? Some high schools and colleges, for example, offer sign language courses to their students. Not only does this increase the number of hearing persons who can communicate with the deaf, but some of these students are undoubtedly inspired to go on to become professional interpreters for the deaf.

What would happen if groups of sighted children and youth had the same opportunity to learn Braille? Would some of them be inspired to go on and become professional or volunteer Braille transcribers? Would some of them become teachers of blind and visually impaired children? And even if they never used their Braille skills in a professional manner, wouldn't there be other kinds of positive results? Until recently, I could only speculate on what the benefits might be. I knew individual sighted children who learned Braille—my own sighted daughter, Anna, began to read and write grade I Braille when she was 5 (she is now 10)—but had never heard of a group of sighted children learning Braille. That changed last Spring when the following article appeared on my desk. I no longer had to speculate. Here was a woman teaching Braille to sighted children in an after-school Braille club, and the results, as she reports them, were every bit as good as, or better than, anything I had dreamed possible. I hope that Mrs. Simons's experience, as she describes it in this article, will inspire others as it inspired me.

This is a story about a good friend made because of Braille and how I came to be a better teacher through this friendship.

I first met Abigail Granger in Joan Kennedy's second-grade classroom at Kiva Elementary School in Scottsdale, Arizona. Abbe was a sweet, occasionally shy eight-year-old, with a sharp intellect and keen interest in language. Abbe loved learning. Her good humor, winning smile and outgoing manner all combined to make her a persuasive force. Abbe was a natural leader, one who would lead me into an experience I will never forget. In the space of one year, this young girl would have me committed body, soul, and pocketbook to teaching Braille to sighted students in first through sixth grades at our school. You will learn more about other people responsible for promoting and supporting this project through telling of this story. I believe that running this class, and letting it run me, has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career.

Abbe's second-grade teacher had created a remarkable learning environment for the extraordinary group of children assigned to her that year. I was there to help integrate my blind student into classroom activities, but it soon became evident that I would be working with other students as well. They were bright, sensitive, self-assured, and endlessly curious. The children watched in fascination as I worked with my student using a variety of Braille and tactile materials. They were spellbound by the Braille writer, and begged me to teach them how to write their names. Luckily, their teacher encouraged curiosity, allowing them to explore the tactile world with us. They thought they left this world behind in preschool when they exchanged clay, finger painting, button-and-snap books, and blocks for textbooks. When I brought in my play-dough maps and Braille storybooks with tactile illustrations of felt, buttons, and beads, I must have struck a homey chord in their second-grade hearts.

My clearest memory of the beginning of my interest in teaching Braille to sighted students was of a warm April afternoon, my Braille writer sitting on a picnic table outside the school cafeteria. Although I had planned to attend a teachers' meeting, Abbe persuaded me my presence there wasn't required. She showed me the Braille writer set up with paper in a sunny, comfortable place, and I was convinced. A gentle Arizona breeze easily lifted the heavy manila paper that was halfway out of the Braille writer. On the paper were the names of Abbe's family she had Brailled with my help. Next, Abbe wanted to learn how to Braille numbers and capital letters. I loved teaching Braille to blind children and remember thinking this would be a pleasurable way to end the day, tutoring students like Abbe in Braille. Abbe had quickly learned the basics of using a Braille writer and was also very interested in creating tactile designs using Braille dots. The Braille Wave was one of our favorites, originally tapped out by her four-year-old sister when she came to visit my resource room. It can be made by Brailling dots three, two, one, four, five, six across the page, creating a tactile wave.

Abbe persevered in her goal to learn everything about Braille that she knew about print. We designed an independent study in Braille with the encouragement of her classroom teacher. At the close of the school year, Abbe asked if she could continue studying Braille in third grade. I agreed, on the condition the plan was approved by her new teacher. That August, Abbe met me in the hall on the first day of school and introduced two friends who were interested in learning Braille. We decided it would be fun to have an after-school class for the three of them. That was the start of it all.

This weekly class of three students quickly grew into two classes of twelve students thanks to Abbe's publicity. The Kiva teachers and staff were extremely patient as our class struggled getting organized. Teachers invited me to their classes to speak about Braille. I developed cartoon storyboards that helped tell the story of Louis Braille, explaining the various systems blind people have used before and since the development of Braille. Students were fascinated by the knotted string and wooden letter alphabets, as well as the "talking" electronic Braille keyboard my sixth-grade student used to take notes in class. They stopped me in hallways to ask me when they could take Braille classes.

Classes soon turned into everyday, standing-room-only events. I begged and borrowed Braille writers for our newly named Braille Club. Soon we had twelve in my resource room. Students came in after school and during their lunch recess to learn Braille. Approximately 125 students have attended Braille classes over the past two years. I've bought a gross of notebooks for students to keep their papers and have watched in amazement as they have decorated them with fabric paints, creating delightful tactile pictures and designs.

Cooperative learning techniques were used to teach Braille. My blind Braille students became student teachers in the Braille club. They, of course, had separate Braille reading instruction and therefore came to Braille club with advanced skills. Even the younger blind student teachers (my youngest was Julie, age eight) could teach basic Braille reading and demonstrate the mechanics of using a Braillewriter. (Believe it or not, putting paper into a Braillewriter was one of the most difficult skills for the sighted club members to learn). Older student teachers, such as sixth-grader, Chris, would teach club members advanced Braille math and science notations as he learned them in his Braille class with me.

After students learned the basics, they were asked to come up with ideas for Braille projects. They have developed some extraordinary ones. They have worn blindfolds and tested each other to see how many Braille letters they can read with their fingers. They designed Braille alphabet cards for teachers to give students when reading about or discussing blindness. They wrote twin vision storybooks—wonderfully imaginative stories in print and Braille, made using ink stamp sets—for the teachers of primary age children to keep in their reading centers. They have copied tactile concept books designed for preschool blind children by a parent group in California, and donated them to our local preschool for blind children. A group of older students who are good artists has designed a dictionary of tactile pictures for Braille storybooks. They have also Brailled the children's menu for a local fast food restaurant. Lunch recess has become a time for students who have learned the basics to work on projects or bring their friends to teach them Braille.

Braille students love competitions, so children were frequently put in teams to compete against each other in Braille language games, and a translator's contest was designed to help students learn Braille contractions. This lively competition runs in four-week cycles. Students were given sentences containing unknown contractions and used the context of known letters and words in the sentence to guess them. Awards were presented to the winners in their classrooms so they could receive recognition before classmates. The principal has also given certificates of achievement in Braille at honors assemblies so outstanding successes can be acknowledged.

The first year of our Braille Club, before our school's winter holiday, it became evident that we needed financial support in order for the class to continue. I could no longer afford to buy supplies, so students were asked to come up with ideas on how to raise money. Many said their parents would be willing to pay a fee so they could take the class. We are fortunate to be part of a school community in which parents are interested in doing everything they can to help blind students feel that they belong. Children reflected their parents' beliefs when coming to Braille Club, learning to see beyond external differences when making and working with friends.

Students had good ideas for money-raising projects and a strong determination to follow through on them, so it was decided to try them first. To raise money, the children decided to create Braille notions to sell at the school's holiday boutique in December. They worked long hours after school and during lunch to produce Braille Christmas and Hanukkah cards decorated with tactile pictures of bears, bells, candles, and Menorahs. They made decorative magnets with names in Braille, and Braille bookmarks, and then set up a booth, advertising customized items students would Braille and decorate as a buyer wished. Our first day netted a surprising $78, enough money to continue Braille Club for the remainder of the school year. That spring, the Braille Club was featured in an article on mainstreaming in our local newspaper, and the school's parent group decided to fund us for the following year, alleviating what could have become a serious financial drain on my bank account, or more likely, the end of Braille Club.

At this point, there were as many as 25 students coming in during lunch recess, working on projects needing supervision. Students were working in teams to make the campus more accessible to blind people; one team put Braille number labels on campus doors, while another created a large tactile map of the campus. Abbe and her friends decided to put together a videotape to introduce new students to the Braille Club so I wouldn't have to spend time orienting them. The blind students, Abbe, and two other advanced sighted students became my student teachers, helping teach Braille basics.

I'm not able to relate all the activities and outcomes of our club here. What is shared are some of the moments that gave me the most pleasure in my Braille Club experience. In particular the uniquely positive effect Braille Club had on the integration of blind students at Kiva was unexpected and welcome. One day, a student left a sign on my door: "Braille is cool." I realized then how the school's attitude toward Braille—and vicariously toward the blind students who use Braille—had altered over the months. People on campus were no longer ignorant or shy of Braille but knowledgeable and interested. Students and teachers asked me questions about Braille and blindness with an ease that amazed me. People were talking more to the blind students, giving friendly greetings in the halls, stopping to talk. Blind students who had resisted Braille were now excited about learning it. Their Braille skills gave them status among their sighted peers. I began to notice a tremendous increase in confidence, assertiveness, and self-esteem in my blind Braille students.

In Braille club, the blind students were involved in everything. Because we were in a relaxed, cooperative learning situation, several interesting social interactions between blind and sighted students were observed. Misunderstandings, based on ignorance of either the sighted or blind student's perspective, were frequently able to be explained with regard to how the other was thinking or feeling. These explanations were accepted as help, not criticism, as they might have been in a different learning environment. We all began to understand one another better, and students developed satisfying friendships.

These positive effects became more evident to me when the mother of my youngest blind student mentioned that her child's new friend had described her by name only to her mother. It wasn't until she was invited to this friend's party that the mother learned her child's friend was blind. She was amazed her daughter hadn't told her this important fact. It didn't surprise me, because I had seen this difference between the children become unimportant as they got to know each other. In Braille Club, friendships are formed on the basis of common interests, not physical differences.

Over the past year, I have developed Braille learning modules that continue to be used, modified and supplemented as Braille Club continues. Each day, students come to me, interested in joining our club, and each day I say "yes" to their ideas. Students who come to Braille are as diverse as students in any classroom. They're interested in learning, achieving, laughing and belonging. Each is welcomed with an open mind and heart. They have given meaning to my work that didn't exist before, opening my eyes to the endless opportunities we have to learn from one another. Our endeavor couldn't have flourished as it did in another environment or under different conditions. So, I thank the teachers, the office and custodial staff, and the principal for the help and unconditional support they gave us. I thank our school parent group for their generosity in funding the club. Other groups, I know, would not have seen the benefits of this for their children. I also owe thanks to my superviso,r who gave me an itinerant caseload that didn't require I work many extra hours after school. This enabled me to sponsor Braille Club, which I believe is the most successful mainstreaming technique I have used in 18 years of teaching. I owe a heartfelt thanks to my friend Abbe, who, whether she becomes a Braille teacher or not, will always remain my friend. She was the original Braille wave in my life—a welcome, dynamic, tidal wave.

I hope this may encourage others interested in teaching Braille to sighted students to try such an endeavor. I recommend it highly as one of the most pleasurable and exhausting experiences of my life and would be happy to share materials and resources with other teachers. You can contact me at Kiva Elementary School, 6911 East McDonald Drive, Scottsdale, Arizona 85253. Just send it to the attention of "The Braille Teacher." It will reach me.