Monday, September 28, 2015

Seeing Things Differently

Turn a blind eye. See the forest for the trees. Love at first sight. I never realized how many English phrases refer to vision, until we enrolled a student at my school with a significant visual impairment. I want to respect the privacy of this student, so I will be deliberately vague about him/her. I realized early on that what I knew about accommodations and modifications did not or could not apply to this situation - I was out of my league. The great news was that the classroom teacher and I were not alone. The Vision Department of our school board sent a Special Needs Educational Assistant, a Vision Itinerant teacher, and an Orientation and Mobility teacher.

I have learned so much from these experts that I wanted to share some of it here on my blog. What I really love about our conversations is that I don't get the feeling that they are lecturing me or that I'm wasting their time with my questions, despite the fact that they have a very full schedule, with over 40 students to assist and teach. They graciously agreed, not only to mentioning them but to even letting me post a photograph!

L-R, Ellen, me, Cathy

Instructional Considerations and Strategies

When Cathy, the Orientation and Mobility Specialist came in before school started, I was eager to milk her for as many ideas and suggestions as possible. She wisely doled out her knowledge in small chunks, so that I wouldn't become overwhelmed with information. For instance, in the first week, she gave reasonable suggestions for improving my supply bins: reprinting the signs with high-contrast clear printing as well as attaching the actual physical object held in the bins to the front near the signs for a tactile reinforcement. This was useful for the sighted children as well.

I teach a lot of subjects that rely heavily on visual input and I was concerned about how to alter my typical teaching patterns so that our new student would get the most out of the lessons I provided. I think I may have squealed a bit too loudly when Cathy introduced me to the existence of coloured hot glue gun sticks. She taught me how to create a raised border on the edges of a paper so that students could interact with, write or colour on paper.

I noticed that the class library books now have Braille additions, thanks to Ellen, one of the Central Vision teachers. As the teacher-librarian, I am keen to investigate further to discover how easily we can do this for books in our school library collection.

Mistakes are part of learning, and I make a lot of them. I tried to modify a task (a version of the Tribes activity, "Where Do I Stand?") using the cord covers usually meant to stop wires from becoming tripping hazards. It didn't go as well as I would have hoped, and I was lucky enough to find both Ellen and Cathy in the teacher workroom the same day I taught that lesson. I explained what I had attempted to do and what the result was; they praised my effort and had several recommendations that I could try next time (like an initial border and a "back border" so that students wouldn't crowd around the former and unintentionally block the student with the visual impairment).

We had a team "meeting" this past week to clarify our roles and find consistency in our approaches. I took copious notes and will try my best to apply what I learned from the conversation. For instance, prior to this meeting, I thought having the SNA (special needs assistant) describe the pictures in a book while I was reading it would help - but too many voices makes it hard to focus. If the teacher reading the book can take a moment to describe the picture to the whole class, the student with the visual impairment will be more likely to stay focused on the single voice at the front of the class. Other ideas that were important for me to remember are:
  • to be mindful of my language and my use of endearments, because if I am using them for the blind student only (or even other subgroups of students), I might be creating barriers
  • to provide verbal prompts discreetly, to maintain the student's dignity and independence
  • to use the same terminology for techniques the student is being taught 
  • to identify myself by name to the student when I approach so I am recognizable
  • to be specific when I speak and avoid using vague words like "here" or "there"
I began the post with a reference to sight-related terms. Ellen and Cathy reassured us that we didn't need to be afraid to use words like "look", "see" and "watch", because they are common terms and not offensive to use with students who are blind, who know what you mean. Thanks to Cathy and Ellen, I am seeing things differently and am grateful for all their wisdom and support.

(Note: this is not a classroom blog. It is a personal blog reflecting on my professional practice. Updates will continue during Phase 3 of the Ontario public elementary teachers work-to-rule action. I support ETFO, my union.)

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