Future Reflections                                                                                Convention Report 2004

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Braille Is Fun!!!

by Jan Zollinger
2004 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children

Jan Zollinger poses with her award
Jan Zollinger poses with her award.

Editor’s Note: The highlight of the 2004 NOPBC Annual Meeting was a dynamic presentation by Idaho teacher, Jan Zollinger, the 2004 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children award winner.  The speech was not recorded, but Mrs. Zollinger suggested that we edit and print her award application letter since she used it as the outline for her presentation. So I did, and here it is:

I am very honored that Larry Streeter, Idaho President of the National Federation of the Blind, nominated me for the 2004 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. I have taught many blind children for the past twenty-eight years in the state of Idaho. I am also the Director of, and Braille Instructor for, the Paraprofessional Program. This program teaches parents, teachers, and teacher aides in Idaho how to work with and train blind children. We have trained over 250 teachers and teacher aides from all over the state. Every year, when I start my Braille classes, I always begin with saying “Braille is Fun!” I am enthusiastic about Braille and have a passion for teaching it to anyone who wants to learn.

Thirty years ago I was sitting in a sociology classroom at Brigham Young University (BYU) waiting for class to begin.  I was nervous because this was the first day of the new semester and I knew that there would be over 500 students in the class. The professor stood up and announced that there was a blind student in the class, and asked if anyone would volunteer to read the textbook to him for the semester.  Anyone who was interested was to meet him after class. I remember sitting in the class with a strong desire to volunteer. After class, I met with the professor and was introduced to Jerry. Arrangements were made, and I became Jerry’s reader for the semester. I had never met a blind person and didn’t know how to be a reader, so I started to ask questions. I wanted to be a good reader. The more questions I asked, the more interested I became in learning about Jerry and blindness. I was intrigued with Jerry’s Braille machine and was fascinated when he read the tiny brown dots in his books. I wanted to learn more. I had a wonderful learning experience that semester and felt fortunate for the opportunity to be a reader.

Jerry was a member of the National Federation of the Blind. I had never heard of this organization and had no idea what they were about. Little did I know at that time what an influence for good the National Federation of the Blind would have in my future.

One afternoon while I was reading to Jerry, he told me that I would be a very good teacher of the blind. It had never occurred to me, but the more I thought about this the more determined I became to be one.  I asked Jerry where I needed to go to be trained. I was happy to learn that BYU had an education program to teach the visually impaired.  I changed my major and started down my career path. I met Ruth Craig, who started my formal blind education. Ruth was also my Braille instructor at BYU. She loved Braille and helped nourish the love of Braille in me, also.  I will be forever thankful to her for the knowledge she gave me. I am especially thankful for that one decision I made thirty years earlier in my Sociology class. This path has brought me much joy and happiness throughout my life.

I started teaching at the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind in the residential program. I taught in the elementary classroom for two years and then was asked to start the first blind infant outreach program in this region.  The outreach program took me to the homes of many young blind children. I loved working with the babies and preschoolers. Early in my home teaching, I read a phrase in an article published in Future Reflections by Barbara Cheadle. It was only three simple sentences, but it completely reflected what I believed about blindness. Here is that quote:

“The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information which exists. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance.”

[Editor’s note: This quote originated from a banquet speech written and delivered by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. The phrase, or variations of it, is used extensively in Federation literature to articulate the NFB’s approach to blindness.]

I heard Barbara speak in Boise at different meetings since they lived in the state of Idaho before moving east.  I respect Barbara’s views on many issues and think she has great insights.  Many times I would xerox articles that she had written in the “Future Reflections” magazine and give them to parents. I wanted to make sure that my parents had information and the proper training they needed to raise their young blind children. I wanted to help reduce the level of blindness to a physical nuisance to as many children as possible. I am thankful to John and Barbara Cheadle for helping educate not only their son, Chaz, but also many other children throughout the world through their experiences and articles.

As Barbara’s son Chaz grew, she wrote and published many articles that helped my parents along the way. I remember a special article she published about the sights and smells of Christmas. It was an inspiring article that I used every year at Christmas time to help parents make the most of using the Christmas senses. I always felt hope for the future and a positive attitude in reading the articles in Future Reflections.

Years went by, I was given the opportunity to work with older blind students. I had worked with younger blind children for so many years that I was behind in my knowledge of the technology world. I was frantically trying to learn this new technology when I ran across an article in the Braille Monitor about a one-week training in Baltimore, Maryland. The training was located at the NFB International Braille and Technology Center. I requested to go to this training and my request was granted, so off I went to Baltimore to learn. I learned how to use everything from an electronic notetaker (the Braille n’ Speak), to setting up a Braille station. I met Curtis Chong, who was very helpful in giving me the training I needed to help my students back in Idaho. This was a very positive experience because I met many wonderful blind people who taught me so much. I appreciate all the kindnesses and patience they showed during our training. I came back to Idaho ready to share what I had learned.

Nine years ago, I went back to school to get my master’s degree from Lesley University. I loved getting my master’s degree! It renewed my spirit, expanded my horizons, and truly transformed my career. I have always been a creative person. I think this is one of the reasons I love working with the blind so much. Every day I am given a new challenge on how to teach a skill or a concept so that a blind student will understand. I find that this creativity helps me in many situations, from creating a tactile graphic to using movement to teach a concept.

While working on my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, I created something that would help me teach Braille. I wanted a way to visually teach the Braille code to adults and children with vision, so I created “The Living Braille Cell.” Adults and children alike love to be a Braille dot! I find that people learn the Braille code faster when they can see, say, and “do” the alphabet. Let me tell you how to form “The Living Braille Cell”: First you need six individual people and six big, colored cardboard dots large enough for a person to stand on. I put the six big colored dots on the floor in the Braille formation. Each person stands on dots 1 thru 6, all facing the same way. As a group, we all say “a, Dot 1,” and then the person standing on Dot 1 (the “a”), bends down at the knees and comes up. Then altogether the group says “b,” and Dots 1 and 2 bend down together, then pop up. You can go through the entire alphabet in this manner, popping up and down using your physical bodies as the dots. My Braille classes like timing themselves to see how fast they can make all the letters in the alphabet. Adults and children both enjoy learning the alphabet this way. It is also a great team builder. Students understand and remember the letters better when they are coupled with movement. This is a powerful tool and works well in learning the Braille alphabet letters.

My classes are so much fun! I use movement, music, poetry, art, drama, storytelling, etcetera, in them. Kids love to learn through the arts, and I love to teach through the arts.

The last several years I have started many Braille clubs throughout the state. If I have even one Braille student at a school, I give the student the option of having a Braille club after school. Some of my students choose to pick their friends to come and learn Braille. I always allow the student I am teaching to help in the teaching of the Braille clubs. In Braille Club, my students feel they have a special talent, not a handicap. Sometimes the Braille Club is extended to anyone in the school who would like to learn. It has been interesting and a pleasure to watch my blind students’ self-esteem grow as sighted peers choose to learn Braille.

Most students think Braille is so cool. They have a fun time in the club, and relationships are formed with the blind students. It is a win-win situation. I have taught Braille clubs in elementary schools, junior highs, and high schools. They have all been wonderful experiences that I will always treasure.

Last fall I had the opportunity to attend a Transition Workshop in Boise, Idaho. Larry Streeter, Idaho President of the National

Federation of the Blind hosted a weekend training on Transitions. This was an excellent training program that helped teachers, parents, and students. Students learned how to successfully conduct their own IEP meetings. This past year I have been able to watch many of my students grow and mature and conduct their own IEP meetings. They all felt a real sense of accomplishment in doing this, and want to continue this in future meetings.

At the Transitions program, I met Michael Hingson and his dog, both of whom escaped from the World Trade towers on 9/11 and survived. I was fascinated with his story and learned much from his presentation. I met many other blind individuals that weekend who inspired me to be a better teacher. I learned that I needed to get more of my students involved with blind individuals. My students need to have more good role models in their lives. They need to meet successful blind individuals.

My philosophy about teaching Braille has changed through the years. When I first started teaching I did not think that low vision students needed to learn Braille. I have since learned that Braille is essential for the blind child and the low vision student. Low vision students who can’t read print efficiently for long periods of time can benefit from the Braille option. I believe that low vision students need to be taught Braille so they will have another option when reading becomes difficult. “Options” is a critical word when talking about the low vision student. Braille is an option, a tool for learning, and is a means of relieving severe eyestrain. It also improves self-esteem. I try to give all my students as many options as I can so they will be successful in life.

Many low vision students refuse to learn Braille. They do not think they need it. It is hard for them to look down the road and think about the future. I try to get students to think about their lives in the future. What will their vision be like at age twenty, thirty, or fifty? We must be realistic and talk about the options and seriously consider Braille. In the state of Idaho it is mandatory to talk about Braille as an option in the IEP process.

I am a very hands-on traditional teacher. I believe that teaching the slate and stylus is not out of style. It is a critical skill that must be taught. I want my students to be successful in whatever they choose to do in life. I teach them that using the slate and stylus will make them more independent and successful. It can help make their lives so much easier.

I currently teach thirty-five students: four totally blind students, twenty-one low vision students, and ten multi-handicapped children. All are important to me. It seems I never have enough time to teach everything I would like to. This is the frustrating part of my job. Our caseloads are too large and the teacher shortage has made our jobs difficult. Throughout the years of my teaching and extraordinary experiences, I can’t help but feel that I am a very ordinary teacher. I love my students and want them to be as independent and successful as possible. I want them to be prepared for the future and to be happy in their lives.

I am thankful to the National Federation of the Blind for the help they have provided me throughout my teaching career. I have grown through the years and am still learning daily from students, parents, and other teachers. I have a positive attitude in teaching the blind and teaching Braille because “Braille is Fun!!!”

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