What’s Buzzing with the National Federation of the Blind?
Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time for the smell of new pencils, books, and crayons; for the feel of a full new backpack or the stiffness of brand-new jeans. Time for the sounds of a bus pulling up at a bus stop or of kids shouting on a playground; for the taste of cafeteria food or birthday treat cupcakes. In other words, it’s back-to-school time once again!
One of my favorite parts of my involvement in the National Federation of the Blind is my work with parents and teachers of all blind children—but particularly young blind children. I love helping to brainstorm about ways to adapt activities, the importance of diverse experiences, and the necessity of having a child who is blind learn how to do things for himself. This year, the first-grade teachers at my children’s school have asked me to talk with them about how to support two blind students in the first grade. Although one of these teachers has taught both of my blind daughters, the other teachers have had no experience teaching a child who is blind. And, unlike my daughters, one of the students in first grade this year is totally blind, a distinction which seems important to the teachers, if not as important to me.
While preparing for this presentation, I began to think about the most important thing I wanted to get across to these teachers and the thing I wish I could get across to all teachers. I truly wish and think our education system would be better if all students were taught as if they were blind students.
Ok, I can hear the yells of protest already! “You want all students to be taught Braille? Don’t you know so few blind students are being taught Braille? Don’t you know how hard some of us have to fight to get our children basic services such as cane travel?” I hear you. Moreover, I unfortunately know firsthand how Braille is not being taught and the struggles for services that exist. (Although, if all children were taught these skills, then I would hope this would not be so much the case!) I guess what I wish most for blind, as well as sighted, children is for ALL children to be encouraged to use ALL of their senses.
All children, particularly young children, learn more about their world when all of their senses are engaged. Yet, very early on, we begin to teach children not to touch. For blind children, obviously, this is the wrong approach, but I would argue it is the wrong approach for sighted children as well. Think what a wonderful world it would be if classrooms were places where children were encouraged to explore objects in a variety of ways and talk to one another about their observations. This would help blind children learn that it is good to use their hands to explore. This is a skill, like all others, blind children need to learn. It would also help sighted children learn to use their senses to explore all of the different characteristics of objects around them. As an added bonus, sighted children would gain vocabulary and unique experiences while sharing how things look, what color they are, and how they feel. (Sometimes, an object might look beautiful because of its paint; but that same paint can make it feel rough and not as nice to touch.) These experiences will give all children practice describing things they see but that cannot be touched. This way of exploration and sharing would help students who are blind not feel different from their peers. Especially, if their peers are being encouraged to explore objects in the same ways they do. Instead of “Only Johnny gets to touch this because he needs to see it with his hands,” wouldn’t a nicer message be “Let’s let Johnny touch this first, but then let’s pass it around so everyone can explore this object with his or her hands”?
The following article from Future Reflections talks about ways we can help blind children learn to explore things with their hands. This is an incredibly important skill, and one I sadly see lacking in many older children I teach. They have very little concept of how to systematically explore objects, talk about their characteristics, and are often hesitant to even reach out and touch an object when invited to do so, for fear they will harm the object in some way. I hope you will find this article informative and that you will share it with your child’s teachers. I would also encourage you to work on tactile exploration with your child at home. After all, children are supposed to be “little scientists” as they learn about the world. Blind children should be no different.
Regular readers of The Bee know we generally share tips in three areas: Braille reading and writing; movement, exploration, and cane travel; and cooking, household chores, and arts & crafts. In this issue however, we are going to focus on three areas that might not get as much attention in your child’s school day. These are the areas of art, music, and physical education. If these classes are being taught in your child’s school for all children, your child has every right to participate fully in these classes alongside his sighted peers. This can be accomplished with just a little support and education from you and/or your child’s teacher of blind students to the teacher of art, music, or physical education.
If art class is offered at your child’s school, it is vital that she is able to participate fully. If there are skills in art all children are being encouraged to learn and practice, even if many of these children will never become world famous artists, your child should be expected to learn and practice these same skills. Here are suggestions about helping to ensure art is accessible to your child.
Meet with the art teacher yourself or ask your child’s teacher of blind students to meet with the art teacher. Discuss what skills the children will be working on in art this year and how you can make these skills into projects that are accessible to your child.
Make sure your child’s art teacher knows about resources such as the Sensational Blackboard, the inTACT Sketchpad, and screen boards.
Talk to the art teacher about breaking down the drawing of objects into basic shapes and ways to help your child learn to draw these basic shapes. For example, a snowman is just three different sized circles stacked on top of one another from largest to smallest. A cat’s head is just a circle with triangles (or perhaps ovals) for ears, a small circle for an eye, and so on. Some art teachers might already be teaching drawing to all children in this way.
Make sure the art teacher has discussions with older blind children about the very basics of perspective. For example, when something is far away, it looks smaller. Or, if a person’s head is turned when a picture is taken, you might only see one side of his face in that picture, so sometimes people or animals are drawn that way.
Whenever possible, give your child’s art teacher and classroom teacher as many tactile illustrations as possible. The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults has just released a new book, Pedro and the Octopus. This is a fantastic resource for students and teachers—a fun, engaging story, with print, Braille, tactile pictures, and even a teachers’ guide to help blind students learn to explore the pictures. Learn more about this book at https://actionfund.org/pedroandtheoctopus. Ask your child’s teacher of blind students for other resources for tactile picture books and standalone tactile illustrations of everyday objects to be used in art and the classroom.
What needs to be adapted in music, you might ask? After all, isn’t music a universal language? Don’t all blind children and adults love and excel in music? There are blind people that love and excel in music, but certainly not all blind children and adults do. There are often many visual concepts taught in music classes in schools across the country. Here are a few to consider:
For young children, movements and dancing to music and songs are taught frequently in music class. Young blind children should be taught to do hand motions and dance steps that go along with the songs they are taught. The music teacher could allow your child to hold her hands so she can feel the different motions. The music teacher could also explain the motions using directions such as left, right, up, down, large, and small. This might be a good use of a paraprofessional as well. An extra adult could sit with your child while songs and dances are taught and work one-on-one with your child until she feels comfortable doing the dance or motions on her own.
Words to songs: If words to songs are communicated in music books in print or displayed on a screen, chalkboard, or chart at the front of the room, your blind child should have access to the same words in Braille or large print. Even if she is not reading yet, she needs the exposure to written words just as her classmates do.
Older children in music class are given basic lessons about the shape of the different music notes and the letter value of each note depending on where it is located on the music staff. Your child should gain a basic understanding of Braille music, but it is also important for her to know the shapes of print music notes and how a print music staff feels. Making these images tactile is very easy. Use puff paint or glue to outline the notes or create the lines of a staff. You can also cut out notes and clef signs from cardboard and put Velcro on them so they can be stuck to the music staff in various places. In fact, this type of approach might be fun for all of the students in the class.
Blind students should be taught that a conductor uses his hands to cue instrumentalists and singers when to start, how to keep time, and when to get louder or softer. Even if all students are not taught about the movements involved in conducting, this would be a wonderful thing for the music teacher to go over privately with your child. A paraprofessional or teacher of blind students could also cover these movements. Your child does not need to be an expert conductor, but she has the right to know what the music teacher is doing in front of the class.
Sometimes children are given the opportunity to explore and try out a variety of instruments in music class. This should be a hands-on experience for everyone, but make sure your child is given clear verbal instructions about how to hold the instrument, is allowed to examine it thoroughly, and is given the opportunity ask questions. Hand-over-hand can be used to help your child position a violin under her chin, hold drumsticks correctly, or place her fingers in the proper place on piano keys.
Physical education might seem the most daunting for teachers and administrators to teach a blind student. How will a blind child keep from getting hurt during gym class? How will he play all of the games? There are so many extra things for him to learn. Should we teach him Braille during gym class instead? (Of course, the answer to that question is “NO!”)
Gym may be a place to consider having a paraprofessional work with your child. I rarely had a paraprofessional with me during school, but gym and art were two classes I found having an adult with me very helpful. My paraprofessional held my hand while I ran so I did not run into other children during chasing games. She helped me work on the proper way to throw a ball overhand and hold a football, and she tapped on the basketball hoop, so I knew where to aim my ball. She also helped make sure I was positioned correctly when stretching different muscle groups. The best part was, for activities I could do on my own, she just sat on the sidelines. Once I had the knack of jumping rope, she was not with me when I jumped. During our rope-climbing and gymnastics units, I don’t think she came to the gym at all. These were units I could do with no problem just by listening to the instructions the teacher was giving to every student.
Make sure your child’s physical education teacher has resources such as balls that make noise; large, brightly colored balls; bases that beep; and more.
Have a conversation on the skills every child is expected to practice and work on ways to make sure your child has the opportunity to practice these same skills.
If your child is cautious about moving his body, make sure this is addressed in his IEP. Blind children need to gain confidence and experience with the ways their body can move through space. Skipping, hopping, running, jumping, galloping, leaping, dribbling a ball, throwing and catching a ball, climbing, and tumbling are all skills all children should experience. If your child is struggling in one of these areas, perhaps physical or occupational therapy should be considered so your child can catch up to his peers.
Some schools offer adapted gym classes for students with disabilities. These classes can be wonderful, or they can be (sadly) boring. I had some wonderful adapted gym class experiences. These classes were smaller, and the teacher was able to work one-on-one with everyone to teach us different skills. We had many of the same units our sighted peers worked on in gym class—they were just taught a little differently. Unfortunately, I also had adapted gym classes that were much more boring. Classes where all we did for four weeks was play kicker every day. Yes, I like kicker as much as the next person, but every day. Yuck! If you are considering adapted gym class for your child, talk with the teacher and even observe a class or two to make sure this will be a fun, high quality experience for your child. Make sure it will help your child engage in meaningful physical activity, have fun, and learn skills he can use in other areas of life. (Think of the park, playground, or playing a sport in the school or on a community team.)
Not sure how to teach a certain skill? Is your child asking about how he might play a specific sport? Reach out to the National Federation of the Blind Sports and Recreation Division for networking with sports enthusiasts who happen to be blind.
President: Jessica Beecham
1224 North Nevada Avenue, Apt. 1
Colorado Springs, CO 80903
Mailing List: nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/sportsandrec_nfbnet.org
In the next issue of The Bee, we will address the subject of school in more detail. We will focus on computer skills, library time, before and after school care, and indoor and outdoor recess.
In closing, here is one more resource you might find helpful. It is an article from the Braille Monitor called Teachers Talk: What It’s Really Like to Teach a Blind Student. This might be an informative article to share with your child’s new teachers. We hope your child has a fun, engaging, happy, and fantastic school year, full of rich and diverse learning experiences of all kinds.