Future Reflections Summer 2010
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by Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway
From the Editor: Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway serves as president of the Georgia Parents of Blind Children (GPBC). She is a frequent contributor to Future Reflections, and readers have been following the story of her daughter, Kendra, for several years. Here is the newest installment of Kendra's adventures.
Some of you may be familiar with the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park. In Junie B., First Grader (at last!), the main character joins a new class where she has a new teacher, new friends, and new adventures. My daughter, Kendra, had a similar experience when she enrolled in a new elementary school.
The move from kindergarten to first grade is a big step for many children. It can be a scary time of changes and transitions, yet it can also be an incredibly exciting experience. I would like to share some of the things that worked well in my daughter's class and to point out some of the things that didn't work out so well. I hope our story will help teachers and parents plan together for a first-grade year that is both exciting and productive.
Kendra attended pre-kindergarten and kindergarten at a school that served children with disabilities and typical children in integrated, co-taught classrooms. When it came time to choose an elementary school, we knew we wanted to find one that followed a similar model. Kendra's first-grade class was co-taught by a general education teacher and a special education teacher. In addition, a paraprofessional was always in the room. We had stressed at the IEP meeting that we did not want Kendra to have a one-on-one aide. The para's top priorities were to help emboss Kendra's work on the classroom embosser, to assist Kendra with transitions from one activity to another, and to provide her with verbal descriptions or assistance as needed. However, she was also available to help the other children in the class.
Preparing the Physical Environment
Much of the preparation for Kendra's first-grade year took place while she was still in kindergarten. Once the IEP team agreed upon Kendra's placement, her TVI, Dr. Laurie Hudson, met with the first-grade teachers to share information and order textbooks. In addition, I provided the teachers with a binder of information and resources. Once a week in the spring prior to her enrollment, Kendra visited the new school for an orientation and mobility lesson. This was an excellent way for her to learn the layout of the school. It also gave her an opportunity to meet many of the teachers and several students as she and her O&M instructor explored the halls. Familiarity with the building and the teachers helped reduce some of the anxiety associated with starting at a new school.
One of the first-grade teachers already knew uncontracted Braille, and she expressed an interest in having Kendra in her class the following year. During the summer preceding first grade, that teacher placed Braille labels in several locations in the classroom. She also purchased some adapted materials so they would be available as soon as school started.
The classroom contained all of the equipment Kendra needed. She used a Perkins Brailler and a BrailleNote in class. A Tiger Embosser and laser printer were available to produce her homework assignments in Braille and to print out her work in print for the teachers to grade. By the end of the school year, Kendra could plug her BrailleNote into the printer and print her assignments by herself with only occasional verbal prompting. A Cranmer abacus, Braille ruler, and Braille clock were available for math lessons. She also used various manipulatives such as the Wheatley Picture Maker, a Velcro-based product from the American Printing House for the Blind. Each volume of her Braille textbooks and workbooks was labeled by volume number, Braille pages, and print pages along the spine. The books were stored in an empty classroom until a particular volume was needed. Since dozens of Braille volumes were equivalent to some of the single-volume print books, we faced the challenge of making sure the correct volume came home for the day's homework assignment.
Although several students with low vision had attended the school, Kendra was the school's first totally blind student. We knew there was going to be a bit of a learning curve involved as we educated people and acquired materials. The school library, for example, did not have any Braille books at the start of the year. I volunteered to loan the school some books from our own collection and provided information about borrowing books at no charge from the Georgia Library for Accessible Services (GLASS). After sitting in on part of Kendra's IEP meeting at the start of the year, the school principal authorized the purchase of additional Braille library books. Twice a year, the school holds a Book Fair where the students can choose and purchase their own books. Kendra's teacher ordered a few Braille books so Kendra and some of the sighted students who were interested in Braille would have some on the shelf to choose from as well.
Before school began, a paper sign with the room number in Braille was added next to the doorway of each classroom. As one might imagine, those signs did not hold up well in a busy elementary school. The school has plans to add permanent Braille numbers, at Kendra's height, to all of the rooms.
Extracurricular Activities and Field Trips
During the course of the year, the first-grade classes went on several field trips. In the first semester the class attended a musical, Junie B. Jones, at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. An audio describer, trained by an organization called Arts for All, was available to Kendra through a system with earphones. The Fox Theater employs a full-time staff member as Director of Patrons with Special Needs. Kendra's special-education teacher contacted that person in advance to arrange for the audio description. Having that service made a huge difference in Kendra's enjoyment of the performance. The class also went to the planetarium at the Fernbank Science Center to see a show about the sun. The paraprofessional gave Kendra a verbal description of the show. In addition, the Fernbank Science Center provided a few "in-house" field trips on topics such as primates and snakes.
Kendra has always been very involved in extracurricular activities. As a first grader, she participated in swim lessons, dance classes, Brownie Girl Scouts, yoga lessons, an after-school program for blind and visually impaired children, and a chess club. For chess the biggest adaptation we needed to make was to purchase a tactile chess board and pieces. Kendra has already told us she would like to join the computer club next year.
Friendships and Peer Assistance
Kendra's birthday falls in September, at the start of the school year. In the past, we have always invited the entire class to her birthday party as a way to break the ice for students and parents. In first grade, Kendra decided she would rather have a smaller party with just a few girlfriends. We arranged for a yoga instructor to come to the house and lead the girls in a class. They loved it, and I loved knowing that Kendra was old enough to choose good friends and to select an activity she enjoyed. We still make an effort to schedule play dates with her friends so that they have a chance to socialize outside of school hours.
Kendra's TVI is a strong proponent of independence in her students. Sighted children and adults are inclined to be overly helpful to a blind student. To guard against this tendency, Dr. Hudson taught five rules of orientation and mobility to Kendra's classmates. Once a student mastered these rules, he/she was considered a "certified guide." Certified guides could provide assistance as needed in the halls and classroom and on the playground. The rules included proper etiquette such as using two names when speaking ("Hi, it's ..."), and having the blind person hold the arm of the guide rather than being pulled along. These rules were posted on the classroom wall. Having "certified guides" was one of those things that worked better in theory than in reality. The truth is that few of Kendra's peers learned to be reliable guides. Even after a year, Kendra was still shaky on her mental map of the classroom. She used her cane in the hallways and to travel to and from the playground, but she did not use it in the classroom.
Braille for Everyone!
If I had to point to one thing that made the first-grade experience a success, it would be the involvement of the entire class, teachers as well as students, in learning Braille. Every child in the class was exposed to Braille. Some learned it so well that they became "certified Braillers." A certified Brailler was allowed to:
1. Take spelling tests in Braille
2. Help other students with Braille
3. Transcribe Braille for the class
4. Write notes in Braille
Prior to the start of the school year, only the special-education teacher had knowledge of uncontracted Braille. By the end of the year, the special-education teacher was working on learning whole-word contractions, the general-education teacher was learning numerals 0 through 9 so she could find page numbers, and the para was learning to use a chart to write uncontracted Braille. The students were taught that Braille could be fun. For example, the teacher might say, "Everyone whose name begins with dots 1-3-4 line up at the door." I observed the class on a few occasions and there were always children vying to use the Perkins Brailler.
Having sighted friends who can read and write Braille means a great deal to Kendra. She has written stories and essays about her friends and about how they are such good Braille writers (her words). At a play date at our house, I heard Kendra and her friend laughing hysterically in Kendra's room. The two of them were collaboratively using the BrailleNote to write a nonsense story. Even if nothing else had gone right in first grade, that moment would have made the year a success.
Kendra's class celebrated Louis Braille's birthday with a party. They had a cake with the words "Happy Birthday" written in Braille with icing. The students made a snack called "Braille and Print Party Mix." Here's the recipe:
2 cups pretzel sticks
1 cup Alpha Bits Cereal
1 cup Dots candy
1 cup cheese crackers
Blend together. The pretzels represent pencils or styluses, the cereal represents print letters, the candy represents Braille dots, and the crackers represent paper.
The students also spread Graham crackers with frosting and used M&M’s to write their initials in the frosting. The teacher read the class a book about Louis Braille's life and Dr. Hudson prepared a poster about him for the celebration.
First Grade Recap
For the most part, Kendra's first-grade year was a very successful one. I saw a great deal of personal growth in Kendra in addition to her academic achievement. Prior to first grade, Kendra would never have sat through a performance at the theater or made it through a school assembly without crying over the noise. In first grade she did both. At the Career Day assembly Kendra was so interested in the para's verbal description that she asked to visit with the puppets after the show. The Young Audiences artist was very impressed by her interest and sent her home with a CD of the performance. Prior to first grade, Kendra lived on Ramen noodles and chicken nuggets. In first grade she started buying lunch in the school cafeteria, and I was astounded at the foods she was willing to try (turnip greens, anyone?). Before first grade, the thought of participating on a field trip would have had Kendra in tears. In first grade she not only participated in the Reading Roundup and Field Day, she actually enjoyed them.
We are still working out some issues with the school system, but we understand that education is a process. We've handled things as they've come up, always keeping in mind that there is a certain seven-year-old who is counting on her teachers and parents to make her educational experience the best it can be.
I would like to thank the 2009-2010 members of "Team Kendra," in alphabetical order: Dr. Laurel Hudson (TVI/O&M), Ms. Donica Johnson (general education teacher), Ms. Katrina Lowrey (TVI), Ms. Lynn Storck (paraprofessional), and Ms. Janel Stover (special education teacher).
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