by Melissa Riccobono
From the Editor: Melissa Riccobono has one of the most demanding jobs there is in the National Federation of the Blind. She is the wife of our President, the mother of three children, a primary mover in our effort to sponsor programs for blind parents, and the cohost of our Nation’s Blind Podcast. Recently she went to a teachers’ meeting, one which she called, and her request was that two teachers who have worked with Oriana and Elizabeth be interviewed to determine how they found teaching a blind student. The interviews she conducted were featured in several podcasts, and Melissa has transcribed and rearranged materials so that they may be enjoyed in written form. Here is the first in what we hope will be several articles from her on the subjects of parenting and teaching:
Imagine yourself as a teacher in a public school. Perhaps you are a relatively new teacher, or perhaps you are a more experienced teacher. As you prepare for the start of a new school year, you learn you will have a student who is blind in your classroom. What if you have no or limited knowledge of blindness? What are your fears? What are your questions? And what will you learn from your blind student if you take on the challenge of teaching her with an open mind, high expectations, and a positive attitude?
Serena Harris and Laura Koler are teachers. They work at Patterson Park Public Charter School in Baltimore, Maryland. Serena teaches first grade, and Laura teaches pre-K. Laura is a relatively new teacher, while Serena has been teaching for well over a decade. Besides the obvious—both being teachers and both teaching at the same school—Serena and Laura have something else in common. They both taught students who happen to be blind during the 2016-17 school year. Serena taught my daughter Oriana, and Laura taught my daughter Elizabeth.
This past April, I had the opportunity to sit down with both Serena and Laura to interview them for bonus episodes of the Nation’s Blind Podcast. I knew teachers often have questions when they find out they are going to teach students who are blind, and I thought both ladies would have some great information and insights to share. I was certainly correct. And, what I love best about both interviews is the fact that Serena and Laura, without being coached by me in any way, and without consulting with one another about what they were going to say, came to the same conclusions. Yes, they had questions and concerns in the beginning. Yes, having a blind student in their classroom changed some of the ways they taught all of their students. But, both Serena and Laura came to see advantages for all of their students when they changed their teaching to accommodate Oriana’s and Elizabeth’s needs.
Below are major portions of the interviews I conducted with Serena and Laura for the Nation’s Blind Podcast. I have quoted them directly whenever possible. I have put some words in brackets to add clarity to their comments, and I have paraphrased some of what they said in order to save space. If you’d like to hear both interviews in their entirety, search for bonus episode one and two of the Nation’s Blind Podcast.
Melissa Riccobono: Think back to the beginning of the school year when you found out you were going to have a student with a visual impairment in your class. What concerns, if any, did you have? What things did you do initially to address these concerns?
Laura Koler: I remember my first thought was that I didn’t know anything about Braille, and I thought, oh my goodness, how am I going to teach Elizabeth if I don’t know anything about Braille. I also worried about the layout and size of my classroom. We have a tiny space for twenty-three kids, there’s a lot of furniture, it’s very divided, and it’s a bit like a maze. So I worried that it might be difficult to navigate. I also worried that a lot of my instruction is very visual. In pre-k classrooms they say “Have a print-rich environment. Have pictures everywhere.” There’s a lot of emphasis on visual instruction at a young age. When I read books to the class, I have them make predictions based on the pictures they see. When we go to the park for science, I ask lots of “what do you see” questions. So I had a lot of thoughts about how I could adjust my teaching to have it not be so visually based.
Serena Harris: I was very concerned because I had never had a blind student in my class before. I didn’t know what accommodations or supports to give her. I was concerned with how she would fit in with the rest of the students in class. Another concern I had was what types of accommodations I would need to make for her so that she could learn and not feel singled out or different.
Melissa Riccobono: What things did you do initially to address these concerns?
Laura Koler: I was really lucky that I have a teammate who taught Elizabeth’s older sister Oriana in the past. So I was able to go to her for some guidance about what she had done. Also, I was very lucky to meet both you and Mark at the family picnic before the school year started. It was great to be able to talk with both of you before the year began to see if there was anything I needed to change in my classroom.
Serena Harris: I talked to Oriana’s kindergarten teacher and asked her advice on strategies that she used in kindergarten that I could carry on to first grade. I also spoke with the two teachers [one teacher of blind students and one paraprofessional] who support Oriana in class about how we could work together to support Oriana.
Melissa Riccobono: Now that you have taught a blind student for almost an entire school year, what things have been easier than you expected?
Laura Koler: I realized I did not have to adjust my teaching as much as I thought I would. I was already doing things along with the visual presentations, and I just had to become more conscious of doing them all the time. For example, giving a verbal description of any visual I present. If I’m showing the front cover of a book, I discuss in detail what I see on the cover, and this kind of think aloud is great for my whole class, not just Elizabeth. The class gets to see me describe the details I see. That helps them build their vocabulary and helps them dive deeper into a book as well. At the beginning of the year, I modeled how to do this describing, but now toward the end of the year [Elizabeth’s classmates] have taken over this role. It’s great because sometimes they see things that I didn’t even notice. They are definitely more purposeful about how they look at illustrations in a book because of how much I’ve modeled [described] what I see.
In addition to describing visuals, I’ve also purposely tried to do hands-on tactile experiences. We learn a lot about what [print] letters and numbers look like, and how they are written. So this year we have done a lot of Play-Doh tracing and worked with Wikki Stix on top [of the print] so there’s a tactile component along with the visual. I know this benefits Elizabeth, but it also benefits the whole class. All the different ways you can introduce information helps kids build stronger connections, and they learn more.
Serena Harris: One of the things that has been easier than I expected, and I guess it’s a strength of our school, is that many of the students were already familiar with Oriana. They knew she had special circumstances, and they were willing to help her. So I didn’t have to worry about children teasing her or her being isolated. Oriana’s teacher of blind students also helped guide me on what I could do to support Oriana in class. It was a lot easier to help Oriana integrate Braille writing and reading into her class work than I thought it would be. It was also helpful learning from her O&M teacher; this helped me understand more about Oriana’s particular blindness and things that I could do such as dimming the lights [to help her eyes be more comfortable]. Speaking with her O&M teacher also helped me understand the importance of making sure Oriana always has her cane with her.
Melissa Riccobono: Are there any things which are still difficult for you while teaching Oriana/Elizabeth due to their blindness only?
Laura Koler: The only time when things are a little difficult is during our message time. I try to write my print as largely as I can, but sometimes it’s still too small for Elizabeth, even though she sits at the front of the room. So this is an opportunity for her to come up closer [to the board] to look for letters and words that she knows.
Serena Harris: It takes a lot of planning to make sure I have all of Oriana’s materials she needs in Braille so she can access them. This actually makes me a better teacher because I am overly planned. But I really needed to be organized. This is not so much a difficulty, but it definitely was a challenge for me to become more organized.
Melissa Riccobono: Has anything surprised you about having a student who is blind?
Laura Koler: Elizabeth learns just like any other student. I just had to be more purposeful in what I was doing in the classroom. I didn’t have to make any drastic changes to my instruction. I had to think, “When I’m doing this lesson, is it really going to reach all of my kids?” Also, this isn’t so much a surprise, but my class really cares about one another and looks out for one another. They care about and look out for Elizabeth too. So if she leaves her cane somewhere, someone will bring it to her. Having Elizabeth has also helped me stay more organized. Needing to have Elizabeth’s homework Brailled helps me prepare homework in a more timely fashion.
Serena Harris: What’s surprised me is that the other kids are really excited about having Oriana in class. They want to learn Braille too. I can see them identifying things in our community that are Braille as well. It’s definitely been a great learning experience for the entire class, as they are more aware of how blind people navigate through our world.
Melissa Riccobono: What techniques, if any, have you developed this year while teaching Oriana/Elizabeth that have enhanced your teaching in general? Or, what techniques were you using already which have worked especially well for teaching Oriana/Elizabeth?
Laura Koler: I am lucky because in early childhood instruction it is very whole body. So my suggestion for other teachers who teach older grades would be to look to some of those early childhood ways of teaching, where you do things by looking, moving your body, touching things, and interacting with them. I think all of those strategies have really been useful.
Serena Harris: I have realized not to just make my lessons visual. I have incorporated arts and crafts and more music and sound. I realized a lot of the things I was doing were very visually based. Making sure I can appeal to all learning modalities has been good for all of the kids. We sit in class with the lights off a lot to help with Oriana’s eyes, but I realized that it’s good for all of the kids because the overhead light is really bright. I’ve noticed that with more breaks, more types of movement in the class, that I have fewer kids who complain about having headaches or being tired. Originally I was doing these things specifically for Oriana, but they are benefiting other students as well. These are things I am definitely going to continue in my class.
Melissa Riccobono: What resources, if any, have you found helpful?
Laura Koler: Talking to you and Mark at the beginning of the year was a great resource. I was also fortunate to have Elizabeth’s IEP meeting at the beginning of the year. Meeting with that team early gave me a lot of strategies and helped explain the accommodations in Elizabeth’s IEP. Also our class got to go to the National Federation of the Blind at the beginning of the school year, and that was an amazing experience. And, before the trip, you came and amazed my class by reading Pete the Cat in Braille, and you shared your dog, which was a great learning experience for the kids. This helped Elizabeth gain confidence in the classroom because she saw that her peers liked and were interested in what she was going to be doing to learn. These experiences have helped all of the kids gain knowledge about people who are different from them, which is what we try to teach them. I would definitely recommend that other teachers visit the National Federation of the Blind either by themselves or with their students because it is a great resource.
Melissa Riccobono: What information do you wish you had earlier in the year, or what information are you still seeking?
Laura Koler: At the beginning of the year, I knew that Elizabeth had a visual impairment, but I didn’t have the details about what her eye condition was. I wish I had asked more questions, but I don’t think I knew then the questions to ask. Learning about how she adjusts to light has been really helpful and is something I wish I had known at the beginning of the year. I also wish I had known more about proper cane technique. Since the professional development [on proper cane use] I’ve been able to reinforce her cane use more, and I can see her becoming more confident as she uses it.
Serena Harris: I wish I had known more at the beginning of the year about how to incorporate Braille reading and writing [more seamlessly into the classroom.] At the same time, I wonder if that’s something I just had to learn on the job as I got to know Oriana better. I wish I had access to resources before [the first day of school.] It would have been helpful to know what resources were available to work with so I could have planned lessons with those resources in mind, instead of getting them later in the year. I wish there would have been a simple list of accommodations and supports for Oriana so I could have looked at the list and checked off all of the things I was doing to help her. This would have helped me feel that I wasn’t putting together this little box of tricks on the go. For next year, I am compiling a list of things that have worked well [for Oriana] so I can give it to the second grade teachers.
Melissa Riccobono: What advice do you have for a regular education teacher who will have a blind student in his or her classroom?
Laura Koler: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you take the time to talk with the family and the IEP team to get as many details as you can that can help you. Using resources that are given to you can really help in the classroom.
Serena Harris: It’s not scary; I thought it would be scary. Speak with the parents, speak with the child, and speak with the other teachers who will also be working with the student so you are forming a team that is working together. Be aware that children need to touch things, hear things, to add to their learning experience.
Melissa Riccobono: What advice do you have for parents of blind children? Are there things parents can do to help support a teacher and his or her child in school?
Laura Koler: I think on the initial IEP parents should make sure to request enough consultation time between a teacher of blind students and the classroom teacher. Elizabeth’s teacher of blind students and I try to meet in order to consult, but she and I have different schedules, so our free time does not always match. If consultation time is down on paper, then it has to happen.
Serena Harris: Parents should establish a relationship with the teacher. Open lines of communication make everything easier.
Melissa Riccobono: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Serena Harris: The thing that’s been most helpful for me has been forming a team with everyone who works with Oriana so that we are all speaking the same language. If I see something [Oriana is struggling with] in small reading group, and her teacher of blind students is seeing it too, we can talk about what we can do to help Oriana get past this. These conversations have only happened because we work well together.