Future Reflections                                                               Convention Report 2005

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Saturday School: A Holistic Approach To Educating Children with Visual Impairments

by Merry-Noel Chamberlain, 2005 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children

Merry-Noel Chamberlain
Merry-Noel Chamberlain

Editor’s Note: The Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award bestows both honor and responsibilities upon the deserving recipient. In addition to the $1,000 check, beautiful plaque, and all-expenses paid trip to the NFB convention, the award winner is asked to make a major
presentation before the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children Annual Meeting. This year, NOPBC members had the pleasure of hearing from the dynamic and innovative 2005 award winner—a teacher from the Corn State—Merry-Noel Chamberlain. Here is an edited and expanded version of Chamberlain’s address in which she describes her philosophy and a special program, Saturday School, that embodies her approach to the education of blind children:
Several years ago, I encountered my first blind person. (It wasn’t me. At that time in my life, I still had what I thought was pretty good vision.) I was a waitress at a popular restaurant that offered live entertainment by an organist who happened to be blind. Each evening that the organist worked, her mother brought her to the restaurant and walked her over to the organ. When it was her break time, one of the waitresses walked her to an empty table where she had her dinner. When she was done, someone walked her back to the organ where she completed her shift, and than she waited for her mother to return and take her home.

Eight years passed before our lives crossed paths again. By that time, I had completed my bachelor’s degree and was teaching independent living skills in a rehabilitation program for the blind. I met her again because her mother had passed away and she was forced, at the age of forty-something, to finally learn how to live on her own. Because this woman had been totally dependent on her mother, she didn’t know how to go to the mall, purchase a pair of socks, eat at the food court, or mark her own clothes. She didn’t know how to go grocery shopping, cook, use a microwave, or wash her own hair. In doing all these things for her, the mother probably thought she was helping her daughter, but in the end she only hindered her independence.
I tell you this story because I know that you are here today because you want your child to grow up to be independent and not like this woman. It also reminds me each day of what I want my students to avoid. This is why I have such high expectations for my
students, and it is why I try to educate my students’ parents of their rights and responsibilities as parents of blind children. Parents have the right to be educated about blindness and the alternative skills necessary for independence. Parents have the right to ask questions. Parents have the right to demand that instruction in specific blindness skills be provided to their child, and that such instruction be sufficient for success. Parents also have the responsibility to learn Braille.

Let me repeat that. Parents have the responsibility to learn Braille. You see, ladies and gentlemen, parents are children’s first role models and if a parent is not learning Braille, the child is not going to see the significance of learning Braille either. When parents know Braille, they are able to assist their children with their homework, write a list of chores, transcribe birthday cards, and leave telephone messages. In addition, the parent understands and relates when a child makes a Braille comment. For example, one mother told me that when her child was helping her cook breakfast, the daughter felt four eggs together in the egg carton and said, “Look mom, I found a g!” Another student touched a few mosquito bites on the side of his temple and said he felt the letter l. And later, when asked if the l was still there, the child shook his head and said, “Nope, now it’s a b.”

Four years ago, when I was first employed with Des Moines public schools, I felt that it was imperative to find a way for the parents of my students to learn these skills of blindness and to have an opportunity to share and learn from each other. I also wanted my students to be able to interact with their blind peers, to receive extra tutoring in Braille, and to get instruction in the independent living skills that I could not cover during regular school hours. Social interaction among students who are blind is invaluable, but it is not available to my students because, in my school district, teachers of blind students are not allowed to transport students outside the school grounds.

When I brought this problem to Mr. Allen Harris, Director of the Iowa Department for the Blind, he told me about Saturday School, a program he and his wife Joy Harris had established in Michigan before they moved to Iowa. Mr. Harris gave me permission to use space at the Iowa Department for the Blind to hold Saturday School once a month for my students’ families. Joy Harris and I, along with several other blind members of the Federation in the area, volunteer once a month to educate parents and their children about blindness. Sometimes teachers, paraprofessionals, and other interested individuals attend as well.

Saturday School offers a holistic approach to the education of children who are blind. You may have heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In the case of a child with visual impairments, it is critical that the village has expertise in the alternative skills of blindness. As a teacher, I know that if I provide the proper guidance about blindness skills to parents, they will, in turn, be able to provide guidance to their child, the classroom teachers, and others in the child’s life. With the parent’s assistance at home, success for the student at school is greater.

Typically, the Des Moines Saturday School consists of parents meeting in one room while the children with visual impairments (and their sighted siblings) meet in another room. The parents receive lessons in Braille, cane travel, creating tactual graphics, adapting games, etc. We also invite speakers to the meetings. The children interact with positive blind role models while they work on techniques of daily living skills (such as tying shoes), get extra lessons in Braille, do crafts, listen to stories read by volunteers who are blind, or play typical childhood games such as Red Light-Green Light (with modifications as needed, of course). One highlight of Saturday School is our annual Christmas party. We have a visit from a blind Santa. He reads the gift tags in Braille, and calls each child up individually to receive his or her gift.

Other special activities at Saturday School have included visits to the zoo, picnics with the local NFB chapter, and participation in the annual Fishing Social sponsored by the Lions Club of St. Charles, Iowa. At least two families have also attended the national
convention of the NFB.

It is important to note that the parents of Saturday School met with the Lions Club members prior to the first Fishing Social four years ago to educate them about blindness. All too often individuals who are new to working with blind children have the pity-the-poor-little-blind-kid syndrome, and the parents didn’t want this experience to be an example of that syndrome. The training was a success, and the Lions Club has become a part of our “village.” The children look forward to the Fishing Social each year, and so do the Lions Club members. They enjoy returning as volunteers year after year to watch the children grow in independence. This past year, we had thirty-five Saturday School participants attend the Fishing Social. The children are so excited when they catch their first fish and explore it tactually. Actually, I can’t tell you who is more excited, the child or the Lions Club member!

Saturday School also provides parents a chance to find out more about me. I am frequently asked about my personal and professional experience. On average, I have about twenty-three students with visual impairments from ages six to eighteen. Some of these students also have additional physical and/or mental disabilities. When I receive a new referral, I assess the child’s visual impairment and immediate academic needs. I particularly look at the long-term visual prognosis because of the importance of Braille instruction for students who have a degenerative visual condition.

For a very young child, I begin instruction in alphabet or uncontracted Braille. As the child’s finger dexterity improves, I introduce the Perkins Brailler. Once this is mastered, and if the child has the physical ability to do so, I focus on writing Braille with the slate and stylus. As the child progresses in Braille reading, I begin to introduce Braille contractions. And all the while they are building their knowledge in Braille reading and writing, I am also following the regular classroom agenda.

I follow the same procedure for older students who are new to my roster, but at a faster pace. In the beginning, Braille instruction is provided to the student daily—regardless of age. I use a variety of “tools” (muffin pans, key chains, small containers: anything I can find to represent a cell, even a Christmas ornament that a parent discovered one year) to represent the Braille cell. I collect a variety of fun items to place in the cell to create the Braille letters, such as finger puppets, pencil top erasers, barrettes, pom-poms, marbles, small game pieces, etc. I always bring new items with different textures and weights each week and I let the student choose which ones he or she wants to use for that lesson. This helps maintain the student’s interest in the lesson. I start with a large tactual cell and decrease the size periodically as the child’s Braille skills increase. Eventually, we move to actual Braille on paper.

There has been a time or two when I’ve suggested large print, tape recorders, or magnification devices for my students. In such cases, it was when the student was either in a temporary condition such as undergoing the occlusion treatment for Amblyopia, or it was an older student with some remaining vision, who was new to the district and was in need of learning Braille. In the latter, the student used these accommodations to keep up in school work as he increased his Braille skills.

I have learned never to underestimate the abilities of my students. One of my students was placed in a preschool classroom for children with severe and profound disabilities. This student has had many illnesses and his many physical limitations include very limited mobility in his left hand. Fourteen months ago, I introduced him to Braille. I learned almost from the beginning that this little guy was more in tune than people gave him credit for. For the first two weeks of his instruction, he was introduced to the term cell, the letters a, b, and c. Then, I was unable to see him for over a month due to winter break, illness, and a family move. I thought I would need to go back to the beginning and start all over again when classes resumed, but he surprised me because he remembered everything! Now, this little seven-year-old has mastered the entire Braille alphabet, the capital sign, the number sign, and he understands those concepts. He is able to write the alphabet, numbers, his full name, and the word “mom” with a Perkins Unibraller (a device for individuals who only have the use of one hand). At his last Individual Education Plan (IEP), he was transferred into a regular kindergarten classroom; something that, I believe, would not have happened had he not been introduced to Braille. Now, he automatically strives to use his weaker left hand on the UniBrailler, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he will be using a regular Perkins Brailler soon. This student was one of our Saturday School speakers. My goal was to inspire parents to learn Braille. Once they saw all that this little boy had accomplished, they would realize that they, too, could learn Braille.

Very young students who may be dual readers need to have the opportunity to learn both print and Braille. Such Braille instruction needs be provided as soon as possible and daily. Students who have physical limitations may find print writing frustrating and therefore academic growth may be delayed. However, with the young student I just mentioned, his love for Braille and the ease he has in
creating it, has enhanced his academic growth. Currently, this student struggles to write his first name in print but he can create words on the Perkins UniBrailler with ease. Actually, given the spelling, this young boy can write anything in uncontracted Braille. When he gets older and print becomes smaller, Braille might be his only efficient option. Should this be the case, he will be ahead of the game, so to speak, because he will not need to go back to pick up Braille skills. His actions indicate that he may have already decided that Braille is his medium of choice. Just the other day, his mother told me that when they were in the elevator, he asked people to move aside so that he could “get to his Braille.” In addition, by his choice, he brings his own personal storybooks to school to be transcribed into Braille. By learning it early, Braille has become a part of him and he now has a better opportunity to master the skill completely. Because he learned Braille quickly, he was able to prove to everyone that he has a higher cognitive ability that surpasses his physical limitations.

The use of the slate and stylus: I can’t express how vital it is to maintain skills with the slate and stylus throughout one’s educational experience and beyond. One can not depend on computer technology 100 percent of the time. More importantly, there are several tasks that are better done with the slate and stylus. One of my students, who graduated this year, gave me great joy as I watched her emerge and grow in her independence, acceptance of her blindness, and in her use of the slate and stylus. She became my student four years ago when she was a freshman. When I first met her, I asked her to jot down my name and phone number so she could get in touch with me later. However, she did not have a slate and stylus with her, and when I tried to lend her mine, I discovered that she did not have the skill to use it. So, in the past four years, I’ve worked with her to build her slate and stylus skills. We have races with the sentences provided in “The Slate Book: A Guide to the Slate and Stylus,” written by Jennifer Dunnam and published by the National Federation of the Blind. Last year, I gave her an APH Braille date planner, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see her reach in her backpack and pull out her slate and stylus to jot down names and phone numbers. I was even more impressed when she reached back in her backpack and pulled out some dymo tape to make plastic stick-on labels for the planner. Last semester she assisted me in doing a full-day presentation to middle school students, and she used her slate and stylus to write the students’ names on cards for them to take home. I am full of pride and joy at her progress, and sad at losing her as a student.

Sometimes, I am asked for my opinion about the use of live readers (people who read aloud to the blind student). At the middle school level, I provide an opportunity for my students to experience using live readers but not as their everyday primary medium. I also have my students read the article, “Care and Feeding of Readers,” by Peggy Pinder Elliott (Braille Monitor, Volume 36, Number 5, May 1993). When my students reach high school, I provide opportunities for them to experience using live readers more often. In addition, when they are seniors, I order each one a textbook in cassette format in the subject area in which the student is most comfortable. By doing so, the student can begin to develop skills in reading and taking notes from a cassette. (This will enhance college preparations as textbooks are normally not provided in Braille in college.) This is also when I revisit my student’s handwriting skills. We work on handwriting as an independent living skill for check writing; leaving print notes for roommates, parents, or friends; signatures;
or jotting down those last minute pop-quiz multiple choice answers.

Technology: I encourage parents to learn about the technology that is necessary for their child’s academic success. I begin teaching my students the computer key-stroke commands with Job Access With Speech (JAWS) as soon as possible—at least by second grade. In addition, students need to be introduced to an electronic notetaker soon after uncontracted Braille is introduced.

Electronic notetakers need to include a refreshable Braille display. Electronic notetakers without refreshable Braille requires students to handle a double intake of auditory information: the instructor and the synthesized voice from the notetaking device. This can hinder the student in receiving important classroom instruction. Refreshable Braille allows the student to focus on the instructor and maintain his or her personal class notes at the same time. Refreshable Braille also offers instant editing feedback, which is essential for beginning Braille readers.

In addition to the early introduction of Braille, I believe the long white cane needs to be introduced to the child as soon as possible and the younger, the better. That way, the cane has a better chance of becoming a part of the child’s everyday life. I hold National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) and I am a graduate of the Louisiana Tech orientation and mobility master’s degree program. So, I encourage independence and the use of the cane.

Expectations: I encourage parents to place the same high expectations on their children who are blind as they do their children who are sighted. I also do the same, and my students meet those expectations. For example, another student who presented at Saturday School, that I am particularly proud of, is a young man who just finished his Freshman year of high school. He is in a wheelchair and has limited physical abilities with his right hand and functions below grade level. Three years ago when he became my student, he was barely reading one-sided double-spaced Braille. Now the young man reads interpoint Braille, uses Nemeth, and is able to complete pre-algebra equations on the Perkins. He knows his way around the BrailleNote with ease and wants to become a computer technologist when he graduates from high school. He has read all the Harry Potter books in Braille whereas before he was reading primarily with the cassette. His mother informed me that she has had to set her alarm clock to midnight to make sure that her son isn’t
reading Braille well into the night.

Nemeth—a Braille code for math symbols—is an instruction area that is often overlooked and underutilized. Introduction of Nemeth needs to coincide with the introduction of the print math symbols. For example, when younger students are learning addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, then the same math symbols in Braille (the Nemeth code symbols) need to be introduced to the blind student as well. When the older student is introduced to fractions in the classroom, the Nemeth fraction code needs to be introduced slightly in advance. Nemeth skills will increase as the student’s mathematical skills increase.

Observing growth in my students has truly been one of the many, many reasons I became a teacher. Throughout my experience, I have learned that I need to fight for the rights of my students so they are not left behind. Aside from teaching the expanded core curriculum to my students, I strive to educate those who work with my students to have and hold high expectations. I teach by example, and sometimes it takes time and patience to cure “pity-the-poor-little-blind-kid” syndrome, while other times I have to be blunt and aggressive because above all, the student always comes first. It helps when the parents are on the same page in their expertise in the alternative skills of blindness.

Today I would like to encourage you, the parents of blind children, to create a Saturday School in your neighborhood. It enables you, the parent or guardian, to be aware of your rights and responsibilities as parents of blind children. It allows you to pass on your knowledge to new parents who are desperately seeking that which you have learned. Because, ladies and gentlemen, education is something that can never be taken away from you or your child. You have the power to create the village to help raise your child. Together, you and your village can help insure that your child has a successful future.

As a blind individual, I am proud to be a teacher of blind children because I feel I am a positive role model for my students. It is such a wonderful honor for me to receive this award today. To be able to touch the lives of my students; to enhance their abilities in the skills of blindness, such as Braille and computer technology; and to enrich their lives through instruction and shared experiences makes this the best career in the world for me.

Thank you so very much.

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