Future Reflections                                                                                                           Fall 2004

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The California School for the Blind and the Unique Joy of Braille Literacy

by Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, Superintendent & Mary Willows, Teacher of the Blind

Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, Superintendent, and Mary Willows, teacher, California School for the Blind.
Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, Superintendent, and Mary Willows, teacher, California School for the Blind

Editor’s Note: It has been decades since schools for the blind dominated the education of blind and visually impaired students in this country. However, despite the decline in the numbers of children they serve directly, the schools continue to exert a powerful influence in the education of blind children. This is so even if the level of the programs, services, or expectations in a particular school is mediocre or worse. Local schools, administrators, and teachers look to their state school for the blind as a model for programming and as a source of information and outreach services. It behooves us—meaning parents, educators, and blind alumni—therefore, to develop some means of evaluating these specialized schools. However, it is hard to put our emotions into perspective when assessing a school with which we have some familiarity. Our personal experiences—good or bad—with a school may or may not be part of a larger pattern. No school is perfect, and even the very best of schools may be the wrong placement for a particular child at a particular point in his or her education. That said, I decided it would be useful to solicit articles about schools that—from the NFB consumer perspective—demonstrate some highly desirable qualities. I was delighted, therefore, when Dr. Wittenstein and Mary Willows came through with the following piece that highlights two qualities that are especially high in my book: Braille literacy and consumer partnerships. Here is, beginning with a note about the authors, a description of the California School for the Blind:

About the authors:

Dr. Stuart Wittenstein is in his ninth year as superintendent of the California School for the Blind (CSB). A strong advocate for Braille literacy, Dr. Wittenstein was the Braille teacher at the Texas School for the Blind. He also taught the Braille and Nemeth Code courses in the teacher preparation programs of Hunter College and Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York State. He has written and presented on the issue of teachers’ attitudes towards Braille. In 1997, the National Federation of the Blind of California (NFBC) commended Dr. Wittenstein for his emphasis on Braille literacy at the California School for the Blind.

Mary Willows is a classroom teacher at the California School for the Blind. Mrs. Willows is a long time leader in the National Federation of the Blind. She has served as president of the National Organization of Blind Educators and received the “Educator of the Year Award” in 2002. Mrs. Willows has taught students with various skill levels including those who are working toward re-entry back into the home school district. Recently, Mrs. Willows has been teaching students who will use Braille in ways that are more functional.

History: CSB and NFB

The California School for the Blind has a long tradition of promoting the use of Braille. As Federationists know, CSB is the home of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Newell Perry taught math there in the 20’s. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek was one of his students. Braille was taught to all students attending CSB in those days. Dr. Perry emphasized the need for good skills. He knew from personal experience how important literacy was for the blind. He knew that Braille had made the difference in so many lives. With Braille, one could go on to higher education and ultimately a job. Without it, opportunities for the blind were very limited.

Today, CSB continues to improve opportunities for students.

Celebrating Braille: Unique Joy

“The teaching of Braille reading and writing is one of the unique joys in the careers of teachers of blind children.” (Wittenstein in a 2003 lecture at San Francisco State University)

The California School for the Blind (CSB) in Fremont is a state special school of the California Department of Education. Its 25-acre campus is a state of the art facility for educating children who are blind or visually impaired, including those with additional disabilities. Since CSB serves the entire state of California, the school also includes a residential option for students who live too far away to commute on a daily basis.

Students enrolled at the California School for the Blind participate in a wide range of educational programs aimed at intensive work on the expanded core curriculum for children who are blind, emphasizing Braille reading and writing, orientation and mobility, assistive technology, career education, adapted physical education, music, art, recreation and leisure, independent living, and functional academics. A small number of high school students attend Fremont Unified High School for part of the day. Some students attend Ohlone Community College.

CSB is proud of its commitment to Braille literacy and hosts such special events and programs as:

Braille Connection Days: This is a weeklong celebration of Braille that invites community members, blind children, blind adults, blindness educators, and rehabilitation professionals to come together to examine how Braille is used by blind citizens at work, in school, and in their communities. A past highlight of this event was the traveling museum exhibit “Hands-on Reading and Writing” from the American Printing House for the Blind. For more information about these traveling exhibits go to: <http://www.aph.org/museum/handson.html>.

Braille Bee: An exciting contest created by CSB Braille specialist Ann Gelles, this activity provides Braille reading students an opportunity to test their skills with one another. Braille reading guest judges are an important component of this contest. These blind members of the community serve as role models and speak with students about the impact of Braille literacy on their lives.

Braille Readers Are Leaders: CSB has participated many years in this annual NFB-sponsored reading contest. Either Mrs. Willows or Ms. Gelles enrolls all of the Braille readers. Students are able to chart their improvement from year to year. At a pizza party held in their honor, contestants receive special certificates and prizes for their participation. Dr. Wittenstein congratulates the students on their accomplishments. The participation in this national reading contest is always a source of pride for students and staff.

Who Wants to Be a Braille Millionaire: Modeled after the TV game show, this end-of-year activity provides much fun and competition for students. Elements of the show that are in the CSB version include features like “Ask the Audience” and “Phone a Friend.” Braille specialist Ms. Gelles moderates the game show, and students call on each other and staff members as “phone a friends.” They often call on Dr. Wittenstein because of his background as a Braille reading teacher.

Braille Is Beautiful at CSB: This year, the NFB of California provided parents in the San Francisco Bay Area with an opportunity to learn Braille for free. On September 11, the “Braille Is Beautiful” workshop was held at CSB. Parents were invited to attend this full day hands-on workshop to learn Braille and network with other parents as well as NFBC leaders. Nancy Burns, President of the National Federation of the Blind of California and her husband, Don, attended, met parents, and shared their support and experience.

The Lucky Touch Braille Fortune Cookie Company: This student-operated business combines the theme of local color (San Francisco’s Chinatown) and Braille literacy. The student board of directors markets the cookies, Brailles the fortunes, and keeps the books. Braille fortune cookies with both standard and customized fortunes have been purchased by teachers, parents, blind persons, and agencies throughout the U.S. If you were one of the lucky people who found a California affiliate member at the NFB national convention you may have seen them. We hope to see the “Lucky Touch” fortune cookies again next year. For more information, contact faculty advisor: Judith Lesner at (510) 794-3800, ext. 300, or <jlesner@csb-cde.ca.gov>.

Mrs. Willows’ Classroom

To get a more personal take on the school program at CSB, one should visit the classroom of Mrs. Mary Willows. Mrs. Willows’ students are blind and also have other learning disabilities. Her students are working on the skills that may one day enable them to live independent lives. Mrs. Willows incorporates Braille into everything her students do. When the students enter her classroom, they find Brailled card pockets with each student’s name written in Braille on the outside of the pockets. They search through a stack of Brailled three by five cards until they find the card that bears their name. Then they locate the pocket and slip the card inside. This is how students take responsibility for the attendance each day. This way, students learn not only how to identify their own name, but also learn to read their classmates names as well. Braille is everywhere in Mrs. Willows’ classroom; over the hooks where students hang their canes and jackets; on each desk so they can locate their own desk; on the phone directory so students can take responsibility for their schedule and make phone calls to staff themselves; even on the boxes of tea which Mrs. Willows shares with her students during breaks.

Visitors are always welcome in Mrs. Willows’ class to see what students are learning. At each visit, one finds Braille on even more surfaces and objects. This past year, Mrs.

Willows began using garden-based learning. In the garden, every plant is labeled in print and Braille so that students can locate a favorite plant for watering. Mrs. Willows’ class is a good place for students to learn and grow and become literate.

Collaboration with the Organized Blind

The California School for the Blind administration and teachers have benefited greatly from collaboration with the organized blind. Dr. Wittenstein feels very strongly that the organized blind are great advocates for the school, and wonderful role models for the students. CSB’s Community Advisory Committee (CAC) is chaired by the former President of the California affiliate of the Parents of Blind Children Division, Donna Sexton. Jim Willows, a past president of the NFB of California, also serves on that committee as do blind members of the community affiliated with other organizations and agencies. Educational practice at CSB is greatly informed by the experiences and input of blind community members.

Dr. Wittenstein has spoken at one NFB national convention (2003) and is a frequent speaker at NFB state conventions, both in California and elsewhere. Last spring, he was a featured speaker at the Utah state convention. In his talks he emphasizes the activities a school can implement to foster Braille literacy and positive attitudes towards Braille. He also prepares parents for the intricacies of the IEP process and informs them of the legal justification for learning media assessments and Braille instruction.

In the most recent example of collaboration between NFB and CSB, NFB of

California President Nancy Burns and Dr. Wittenstein served on the California Department of Education Task Force that wrote the first state standards in Braille Reading and Writing. This Task Force was a direct result of legislation sponsored by NFBC. It is hoped that these standards will be a model for other states to use in the development of strong educational standards for Braille reading and writing. The final report and recommendations for implementing this Braille bill are available online at: <http://www.cde.ca.gov/ sp/se/as/ab2326.asp>. This exciting development is the direct result of partnerships between educators and the organized blind.

For more information regarding these collaborations, as well as CSB’s other school programs, please check CSB’s Web site at:<http://www.csb-cde.ca.gov/>. And feel free to email questions or comments to: Stuart Wittenstein, Superintendent at: <Swittenstein@csb-cde.ca.gov>.

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