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Transformational learning for students who are visually impaired

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 What transpires when KPBSD hires a teacher who is blind for two students who are also blind, two aides, an itinerant vision teacher, and designates space for a vision room at a middle school? Magic and transformational learning. 

 

This magic is no illusion—it involves hard work, commitment, learning, technology, trust, independence, and interdependence. It could be illuminating for the 350 plus sighted students and nearly fifty employees at Kenai Middle School. It is illuminating, and I daresay magical, for everyone who spends time in the vision room. 

 

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Destiny studies a salmon with her CCTV  

Meet Destiny 

Destiny is in eighth grade, outgoing, and loves music. At school she is depicted as “our sunshine when she comes into the room.” Destiny explains that she can see a pinprick of light through her left eye and for a sighted person it’s “as if you poked a thumbtack through a piece of paper and looked through the hole.” She is one of two braille readers in the district, and uses a portable CCTV—closed circuit television—video magnifier to aid her learning. Destiny wants to be a singer or preschool teacher, and explains, “I love little kids.” In early 2011, while in seventh grade, she sang a solo of “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus at the end of the year graduation. Like many teens, her computer helps her access Facebook where she can learn what is happening and interact with her friends. 

 

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Maria and the VoiceNote braille device from first grade, and newer technology  

 Meet Maria 

Eleven years old, Maria is in sixth grade, witty, and like all of us, gets frustrated when technology fails or, in her word, “glitches.” She explains she does not have a pinhole of light like her classmate Destiny. She likes kittens, and one of her pet peeves is the misperceptions about blindness from some sighted people. For example, she says: “Only a kindergartner counts the steps they take—and they do that to see how well they can count.” Maria types on her APEX NoteTaker, and then shows me the Voice Note braille device she used in first grade, contrasting it to the improvements in the model she uses now. She says, “What used to be cutting edge technology is now a dinosaur, or a boat anchor.” Maria comprehends the speech rate from her software at a rate of fifteen from sixteen possible speeds. What sounds like fast forward gibberish to me makes sense to her. She giggles when I look at her and ask, “how can you understand that?!” Maria has a goal: “I want to find my way around school and to my classrooms. I don’t want to follow a grown-up—that’s a sign of being a baby.” 

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 Jordana, KMS vision teacher 

Meet Jordana 

Long dark hair, kindness emanating from her dark eyes, a welcoming smile, and flowers on her desk, Jordana moved to Soldotna, Alaska, as the school year began. And what a journey she has made to arrive here as a KPBSD teacher for two students who are visually-impaired braille-readers! Growing up in Ecuador as a sighted person, she “didn’t ever meet a blind person in my country,” and was already an adult when she lost her sight at age 21, after contracting Lupus. Jordana believes her strong-willed personality helped her “against all odds” when she arrived in the United States after winning a scholarship. She knew no one. A rehabilitation program in Minnesota helped her discover what she wanted to accomplish, increase mobility, confidence, and ultimately complete a Master of Arts degree. She continues to run an outreach ministry that offers week-long camps for children and youth with disabilities. Jordana reveals her commitment to educating her students, the value of developing their social skills, and the importance of learning to relate in friendship. A child learns to smile when she or he mirrors a mother’s smile. A baby born blind won’t easily learn this, or how to crawl when they see something and “go for it.” Jordana knows how important it is to begin to give her students responsibilities. She is creating and enabling the high school experience to become groundwork for future educational endeavors.  

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 Destiny and John, a KPBSD itinerant vision teacher 

 

Meet John and two ladies with special talents 

Then there’s John, the itinerant vision teacher who serves visually impaired students district-wide. He believes, “Blind kids need the mentorship of a blind adult.” The two special education aides who show up every day for Destiny and Maria have a “unique job” and needed to learn braille, orientation and mobility (O&M), and technology. John says, “We count on them to know this stuff.” Both Destiny and Maria will compete in the 12th annual Braille Challenge, a national reading and writing contest in braille for blind and visually impaired students. 

 

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Jordana 

Jordana offers gratitude to Principal Dosko and explains he often asks, “What do you need? What can we do?” As we talk she makes braille labels for two gold keys—one unlocks the school, the other her classroom. She continues to express appreciation for the accommodations being made, and offers an example describing how a ramp was moved several feet after a fire-drill when Principal Dosko noticed it was located in the middle of a wide set of stairs—and she couldn’t easily, or safely find it. The ramp was relocated to the far side of the steps, and an additional safety bar was added. Jordana smiles and says, “This is a good place to be. We represent a lot of work for people. KPBSD is a proactive group of professionals. We appreciate our administration getting us what we need, and trusting us to do what we do."  

 

 
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Braille watches 

I am intrigued by Jordana’s braille watch. Knowing what time it is helps us to orient our day. As a sighted person, I look at a clock, the light or darkness outdoors, my iPhone, or easily ask a friend or stranger who wears a watch, “Do you have the time?” A learning curve exists for each of us—in a fundamentally sighted world, we are still more similar than different. When we celebrate our humanness, and our differences, shadows and dark places begin to vanish, understanding grows, and we cultivate communities of learning and hope. This is transforming magic, a gift of education. 

 

Make a point to visit the Vision Room at Kenai Middle School, or ask yourself what you can do to reach out to a student in your community who is visually impaired. Magic may occur in your life, too. 

 

--Pegge Erkeneff, Communications Specialist, KPBSD, October 14, 2011

 

Links  

KPBSD Pupil Services     

National Braille Challenge  

State of Alaska Vision Impairment Eligibility  

 

 

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