Future Reflections          Fall 2007

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The Skills of Blindness: What Should Students Know and When Should They Know It?

by Lisa Wright

Lisa WrightEditor’s Note: The following article is a slightly edited version of a speech that was given at the 2006 convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland in Ocean City, Maryland. The topic Mrs. Wright was given was very broad and could have obviously taken up much more time than she had on the agenda. However, in the short time she had, Wright gave an informative overview with enough specifics to be of genuine help to parents and others in her audience. Although she makes many references to curriculum and test requirements that are specific to Maryland, even readers from other states will find this useful as points of comparison with their own state requirements. A former teacher of the visually impaired, Lisa Wright is employed as the statewide blind and visually impaired and low incidence specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education in partnership with the Maryland School for the Blind. For those who would like to contact her for more information about the education of blind children in Maryland, her e-mail address is <lwright@msde.state.md.us>; her office phone number is (410) 767-0812 and her fax number is (410) 333-8165. Here’s Lisa Wright:

When I began to think about this topic, I felt overwhelmed. Where do I begin? There are so many things that students need to learn throughout their school career. So, as an educator, I first thought about the purpose of education. Although this includes fostering development and imparting knowledge, the fundamental goal of education is to provide students with knowledge that they can transfer into the real world. In other words, the real purpose of education is to prepare students for life. It is about the knowledge we teach children in particular subjects, the formation of social skills, the growth in thinking and decision-making skills, and in building the capacity to lead a full and independent life.

The core curriculum is what we expect all children to know by the end of each grade level throughout their school career. This includes the traditional subjects of reading, writing, math, science, social studies, physical education, and fine arts. In Maryland, we have a document called the “Voluntary State Curriculum” which defines these skills in the core curriculum.

The National Agenda for Students with Visual Impairments also defines the need for instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum (see <www.tsbvi.edu/education/corecurric.htm>). These are the disability-specific skills--blindness skills--that children need to access the core curriculum, as well as the functional skills that prepare students for life. These skills need to be systematically taught to blind children. They are not all learned incidentally nor are they part of the core curriculum. They include ten areas:

Dr. Phil Hatlen, superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, states that providing both the core and expanded core curriculum together for students who are blind and visually impaired is essential to give students “the opportunity to be equal and the right to be different.”

I will discuss both the core and expanded core curriculum that blind students need to learn at important transition points in their school career.

The first important transition point is the beginning of a formal school program--kindergarten. Maryland has defined the skills that children need to have in order to be ready to learn. This is the definition the state of Maryland gives in the report, “Children Entering School Ready to Learn”:

“What is ‘ready to learn’? School readiness is the state of early development that enables a child to engage in and benefit from first grade learning.”

Maryland’s “Model for School Readiness” is a curriculum framework that defines early learning skills for what children should know by the end of kindergarten. Each kindergarten teacher in Maryland tracks student progress in the fall and spring to assess each student’s learning. When Maryland began tracking this data in 2002, 49 percent of children were ready to learn. Last year [2005] 60 percent of all children started kindergarten “ready to learn.”

Maryland’s data demonstrates that a young child’s learning before they enter formal education is an essential foundation for later school success, and children who attended formal early learning programs performed five percent higher than those that did not.

We all know that parents are a child’s first teacher and can greatly impact a child’s ability to be ready to learn. Parents of blind children need to be aware of the skills their children need and the resources available to them to foster this development.

Maryland’s kindergarten curriculum includes skills in seven areas: social and personal skills, language and literacy, social studies, math, science, the arts, and physical development and health. In each of these areas, blind and visually impaired children need to develop the same skills as other children, but notice how, as I discuss each of these seven areas, they also need structured learning and instruction in both core and expanded core curriculum in order to be “fully ready.”

Social/personal: This includes skills for independently completing school tasks, classroom jobs, and using classroom materials such as glue and scissors. Encouraging independence should be stressed at this time. For example, using verbal directions/prompts will facilitate independence much more than a hand-over-hand approach. Kindergarteners need social skills of interacting with other children, such as sharing, taking turns, and playing cooperatively. Experiences outside of the classroom--in the neighborhood and with community groups--helps children at this age establish friendships and fosters the growth of social skills.

Sighted children need to show understanding of print concepts. For blind and visually impaired children who will learn Braille, this translates into understanding the concept that Braille dots have and convey meaning. It also means the acquisition of book skills, such as knowing how to turn pages and track lines of Braille. Like other children, they also need beginning phonics skills, such as identifying rhyming words and beginning/ending sounds. They also need to demonstrate the ability to comprehend stories read to them, such as recalling details and the sequence of events in the story. By the end of kindergarten, children are expected to identify their own name and read simple words and sentences. They should be able to write the letters of the alphabet, and use invented spelling and some consonant and vowel sounds to write simple stories of several sentences. For the blind and visually impaired child to meet these expectations, early exposure to a Braille-rich environment, Braille books, Braille writing tools such as the Braillewriter and slate/stylus, and systematic Braille instruction are crucial.

Social studies: Children need to have a basic knowledge about communities, jobs, and rules. For blind and visually impaired kindergartners, early orientation and mobility instruction will help them achieve this knowledge as it exposes them to community environments and jobs. Also, exposure to tactile graphics and simple maps as part of this early community-based instruction lays the foundation for more complex map reading skills needed for later grades.

Math: Children are expected to have an understanding of number concepts. They should be able to count objects and identify numerals from 0-10. The Nemeth Braille code should be introduced at this time as kindergarten skills of numerals and combining sets is the foundation of later math skills. Kindergarteners also need to recognize shapes and patterns. For blind and visually impaired kindergartners, real objects should be used to lay the foundation, but tactile graphics introduced early will help transfer the concept of a three-dimensional shape/object to a two-dimensional graphic for later math understanding.

Science: Kindergartners begin to learn to use tools such as clocks, rulers, scales, thermometers, and calculators to measure time, weight, temperature, and size. Equivalent Braille and tactile tools and instruction in their use should be introduced to blind and visually impaired students at this time.

Arts: Blind students need to participate fully in all music and arts activities. Usually only small adaptations will be needed for full access to these activities.

Physical development and health: These include gross and fine motor skills. Children are expected to move around the classroom, building, and school playground independently. Obviously, orientation and mobility instruction is critical at this stage for student independence. If the student is using an adult or peer sighted guide at this time, the student will not have the opportunity to develop these skills and both the child and the school will develop undesirable habits and attitudes of dependency. Kindergarteners are expected to have independent self-care skills in toileting, washing hands, hanging up coats, and eating. Blind children should be afforded the opportunities to learn these skills as well.

These, then, are the kindergarten skills that lay the foundation for later academic, social, and functional life skills. Let’s move now to the higher levels and see what Maryland requires of students.

The Maryland “Voluntary State Curriculum” (VSC) refers to the skills students need at each grade level. The skills in the VSC go from pre-kindergarten to grade eight, and there is a VSC for math, English and language arts, science, social studies, health and PE, fine arts, and most recently, technology literacy. The Maryland State Department of Education is also currently drafting standards for career education.

Parents should be familiar with the VSC for the grade level of their children. It helps to provide a good measure of what their children should learn in school, the blindness skills needed, and how their children are progressing. IEP goals and objectives can be developed based upon where the student’s skills lie. Expectations of blind students within the VSC should be equal, but at times need to be different, to master these skills.

Here are highlights of some of the cumulative skills students need in the core curriculum, as well as some specific skills in the expanded core curriculum that blind students need to know by the end of eighth grade.

By the end of grade eight, students are expected to have mastered a great many math skills. These include mathematical computations, reading data displays, understanding geometric concepts, and knowledge of how to use math tools. In order to learn all of these skills, blind children need to learn to use adaptive tools and techniques for measuring, calculating, and constructing math problems. Braille students need to know all of the Nemeth code in order to effectively read and write math.

Eighth graders should be able to read grade-level vocabulary and texts with accuracy, speed, and comprehension. It is not acceptable that Braille readers should read slower than their peers. Current research in reading identifies strategies for improving reading fluency and speed, and these should be incorporated automatically in instruction for Braille readers. Slower reading doesn’t need to become a “given” just because a student reads Braille. Other strategies for good reading that are expected skills for this age group are even more critical for Braille readers. This includes the ability to utilize headings, subheadings, footnotes, and the skill of skimming to help gain meaning from text. Learning these skills are slightly different for Braille readers than print readers, and it is essential to have teachers with a strong knowledge base in Braille and reading to teach these skills.

The Maryland science curriculum will begin to have more of a focus in the future as the department of education will pilot our state assessment in science next spring for grades five and eight. Access to hands-on activities and experiments are crucial for blind students to learn the concepts in biology, physical and earth science, electricity, and energy. Instruction in tactile graphics is essential to interpret results of investigations in both graphics and data displays.

By the end of eighth grade, students have become much more independent and are maturing into young adults. They care about the way that they dress and have become quite independent in their sense of style. They socialize with friends, make their own snacks, and travel in their neighborhoods and at the mall independently. They should be doing chores at home, such as helping with laundry, cleaning, cooking, and other household tasks. Blind students should also be maturing and developing these skills of independence. Instruction and focus on the expanded core curriculum throughout the grades helps to ensure that blind students achieve these same milestones. They need the orientation and mobility skills to travel independently and hang out with friends to foster socialization. They need the technology skills to use computers and assistive technology devices for completing schoolwork and accessing the Internet. Equal expectations at home and at school and learning blindness techniques fosters independence, high self-esteem, and self-determination. Career education at this age should focus on thinking about strengths, interests, and awareness of careers and future education options.

At the high school level, Maryland’s focus on the curriculum is through the “Core Learning Goals.” Blind students need to continue to learn the academic skills in these core areas in order to pass the High School Assessments. But they also need the other skills and experiences that will help them prepare for adult life. Orientation and mobility should focus on advanced independent travel skills in a variety of environments and situations, and especially utilizing transportation systems. Independent living skills should focus on higher levels of independent cooking and personal management of clothing and money. Students need technology skills to access printed and electronic information, e-mail, instant messaging, and blogging. High school students need self-advocacy skills. This includes assuming responsibility for school and homework, decision-making, knowing about and advocating for the accommodations they need, and knowing how to access the resources available to them as adults. They need volunteer and/or work experiences to learn job skills and responsibility.

Parents and teachers working together on areas in the expanded core curriculum will give students the skills and opportunity to be equal and build their capacity for a future with a full and independent life.

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