I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent two weeks this summer teaching Braille to blind and low vision children. It was a program sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland and is a program of the NFB Jernigan Institute. To learn more about this program, view a list of other states which have Bell programs, or learn how you can help in starting a BELL program in your state, please visit http://www.nfb.org/bell-program.
BELL stands for Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning. The program is designed to help introduce Braille to children who are not receiving Braille instruction in school for various reasons but should be. The program aims to help introduce participants to some of the basics of Braille, show them the value of learning and using Braille, and demonstrate how learning Braille can be fun. Of course, these children are not going to come out of the program knowing the whole Braille code or being proficient readers as the program is only two weeks long, but they should come away feeling excited and eager to continue learning Braille, and with a few letters or Braille contractions under their belts.
The program also incorporates other important elements for its participants such as meeting other blind or low vision children, meeting blind adult role models, and learning a variety of nonvisual techniques.
This was my second year helping with the program as a teacher. I really enjoy the opportunity to work with these children. As a teacher, it is exciting to see these children come into the program, most with some resistance to learning Braille—they are afraid it will be hard, don’t think they need it because they can still see some print, or because they are afraid of being different than their peers—and see them leave feeling excited about Braille, and with a renewed interest in literacy.
Our program this year had nine children from age’s four to eleven. Each morning and afternoon of the program, we had “Bell Ringer” time. This was a time when the children could share something exciting they learned or a task they did for the first time independently. After sharing, the child would get to ring a large bell we kept in the classroom. It was always interesting to hear what some of the children shared as their bell ringers. So, in keeping with this practice, I thought I would share some of the bell ringers I observed from this year’s program.
Of the nine children who participated, six of them had at least some knowledge of Braille—some letters of the alphabet mainly—which they had started learning in school(Yes, the program is designed for students who are not getting Braille instruction, but we included some students who were getting minimal instruction which is still inadequate). But three of our participants didn’t know any Braille at all. By the end of the two weeks, two of the children had learned letters “A” through “M ” ( at least the dots that make up the letters or the shape of the pattern. They will still need some practice on recognizing some of the letters tactually on paper). . The third child was a five-year-old girl who was adopted from China and who is making up a lot of ground developmentally as result of some poor circumstances and quality of life she had while an orphan in China. She was more of a pre-reader and still learning how to say her ABC’s and to grasp the concept of letters, so we worked a lot with her on saying her alphabet and learning the sounds letters make—building on what she already knew. By the end of the program, she seemed to be doing much better with saying the letters and their sounds and could recognize the letters “A” and “B”in Braille.
All of the children showed progress, whether it was just learning a set of new contractions, their numbers, or improving the way they tracked with their hands. It was exciting as a teacher to see them making progress in such a short amount of time. I even had my own bell ringer moments when I made some breakthroughs with two students who were a bit more challenging for me to instruct. A good teacher is someone who is able to teach to the needs and abilities of the student. I was teaching these two children, but they weren’t catching on to what I was teaching. It wasn’t that the strategies I was using were not good ones, or that they were in capable of learning, it just meant that I wasn’t teaching in a way that worked for them. The challenge for me was figuring out what strategies worked for them. So, after a few days of trying different things, I figured out some techniques that really opened up their learning for the rest of the program. I could see the wheels turning in their minds and knew they were finally “getting it.” It’s one of the most exciting and rewarding moments as a teacher when you see those connections taking place because you figured out what worked best for that student.
One of the other great aspects of this program is the piece for parents. On the last day of the program, the parents of the participants attend a seminar wherein they learn about ways they can help continue the efforts of this program at home. Parents learn how to advocate for sufficient Braille instruction in their child’s IEP, how they can help with Braille instruction at home, and what it means to set high expectations and promote age appropriate behavior for their children. About a week after the program, I received a phone call from one of the girls in the program. This girl is eight years old and has a bit of a flair for the dramatics. IN her most exasperating tone, she informed me that her mother had made her make her own bed that morning! It even took her two hours to do so! She seemed a little taken back when I didn’t protest and insist on speaking to her mother to help correct this grievous mistake, but finally relented that maybe it was okay that she was learning to do it herself, even though she insists that she will not need to learn this or any other household skill as she is going to hire a maid when she grows up. I was glad to see the bell ringers were still coming and look forward to hearing many more.
In closing, I just want to encourage any of the parents or teachers out there who may be sitting on the fence about Braille for their child to take the plunge and begin Braille instruction. Often children with some residual vision, or those classified as low vision are not encouraged to learn Braille because they can see print. However, as one of these kids, I know the challenges that come with trying to read large print only—it’s not the most effective for speed, especially if you are using a magnifier or a CCTV; it’s straining on the eyes, you are inclined to headaches after long periods of reading, and using print becomes more and more difficult in one’s educational career as the print gets smaller and the texts get longer, just to list a few reasons. It’s also not a great idea to rely completely on audio methods either, just like you as a sighted person wouldn’t use audio only in place of print. I know the value of Braille and of being a dual reader. I’ll spare you all my Braille advocacy soap box for the time being, but encourage you again to consider Braille instruction for your low vision child even if they still can read some print. In the long run it will prove to be a good decision for them if they’ll stick with it.