Future Reflections         Winter 2011

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One Summer, Five States, and Six BELLs

by Natalie Shaheen and Jackie Otwell

A blind elementary student wearing sleepshades uses tacks to mark the Braille page he is reading.From the Editor: During Louis Braille's bicentennial celebration in 2009 the National Federation of the Blind pledged to double the number of Braille readers in the United States by 2015. The NFB BELL Program is part of the Federation's multifaceted effort to bring Braille literacy to a new generation of blind children.

In the summer of 2008 a group of children in Maryland took part in the first Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) Program sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind. BELL is an intensive two-week program for low-vision children between the ages of four and eight. The program introduces children to Braille through a variety of engaging activities. It was developed by members of NFB's Maryland affiliate who recognized the need for young children with low vision to be exposed to Braille as a viable reading method. The teachers and mentors who led the program in Maryland developed a curriculum that evolved and improved through its use in later BELL Programs.

Adopted by the NFB Jernigan Institute in 2009, the BELL Program doubled in size, involving children in Maryland and Georgia. In 2010 the program grew threefold. It was held at six sites in five states and reached sixty children altogether.

Preparation for the 2010 BELL Programs began months in advance. During the winter representatives from each of the five sponsoring states attended a seminar at the NFB Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. Less experienced "BELL ringers" teamed with veterans to develop plans for funding, transportation, food, and facilities. Educators working in the field and at the Jernigan Institute presented the NFB BELL curriculum. These teachers aren't the chalkboard-addicted lecturers sometimes encountered in school. They believe in showing their students that learning is fun. Seminarians learned about the curriculum by participating in the lessons they would eventually teach their BELL pupils. They put on a skit, tried out games involving Braille, and played goalball.

Filled with enthusiasm after the seminar, attendees returned to their home states to plan their respective programs. Each state coordinator organized a team of affiliate members to lay the groundwork. Members of each state's BELL team took part in monthly meetings via conference call with Natalie Shaheen (a member of the Jernigan Institute Education Team) and Jackie Otwell (NFB BELL core teacher). During these sessions the BELL teams discussed their progress and brainstormed about ways to meet challenges.

Jackie Otwell and the NFB of Utah team launched the first 2010 NFB BELL Program from June 14 through June 25. The Monday after the close of the NFB national convention, BELL Programs kicked off in Houston and Atlanta. Jackie joined the NFB of Texas team to help facilitate the Houston program. The NFB of Georgia team, made up of veteran BELL ringers, ran its Atlanta program without the support of a core teacher. The Houston and Atlanta programs wrapped up on July 23. Jackie then traveled to assist members of the NFB of Virginia with their BELL Program, which ran from July 26 through August 6. The last two programs ran from August 2 through August 13 in Maryland and Savannah, Georgia. Again Maryland and Georgia worked without the assistance of a core teacher, since both were experienced in running BELL Programs.

The 2010 NFB BELL programs were spiced with memorable moments. The younger children learned to scribble using the Perkins Brailler. They built finger strength and tactile discrimination skills by working with Play-Doh and arts and crafts materials. Older children played games that involved forming Braille letters with ping-pong balls in muffin pans or egg cartons. Kids played Braille board games and threw Braille dice.

Nothing is more exciting than executing a program for children. Nothing is more fun than watching children grow! The NFB Jernigan Institute will facilitate the NFB BELL Program again in 2011, and it plans to have three new sponsoring states. Each of the new states will have the support of a core teacher to facilitate its program, just as Utah, Texas, and Virginia did in 2010. To learn more about the 2011 NFB BELL Programs, contact Natalie Shaheen at [email protected]  or (410) 659-9314, ext. 2293. You can also learn more by visiting <www.nfb.org/nfb/Bell_Program_2009.asp>.

If your state isn't ready to sponsor a BELL Program in 2011, you may still find the curriculum valuable as you plan other Braille-related activities. You can obtain an electronic version of the BELL curriculum by contacting Natalie Shaheen.

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