What if the whole world assumed that it is normal for blind kids to go to regular schools, do regular classwork, eat lunch in the cafeteria with other kids, play with friends at recess, and generally be held accountable for the same work and the same standards of behavior as their classmates? What if accommodations and services for blind kids with additional disabilities were planned for and provided as matter-of-factly as school lunches? What would a school day in the life of a blind kid look like if we lived in a world like that? I think it might look a lot like the day I spent shadowing Rachel Becker at the Orchard Elementary School in Frederick, Maryland, a couple of years ago.
But I get ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a little background. Rachel Becker is a bright and perky thirteen-year-old who lives in the bustling, thriving little city of Frederick about fifty miles northwest of Baltimore, Maryland. Rachel was a baby, newly diagnosed as blind, when I dropped by her home many years ago to deliver a slate and stylus and some NFB literature to her mom. Her parents, Dan and Danielle, are a solid middle-class family, typical in many ways, and not so typical in others. They grieved—a little bit—when they found out Rachel was blind, but they didn’t wallow in it. The Beckers quickly adopted the attitude that blindness is no excuse for lowered expectations. Although Rachel would do some things differently, mostly she was just like other kids.
From the beginning, the Beckers had critical supports in place. They had a strong National Federation of the Blind affiliate that provided blind role models/mentors, a parents group, resource information, and a practical philosophy about blindness. They had a caring community, a loyal extended family, and a school district that willingly adopted the Beckers can-do attitude. Another important support was a visual impairment program that was staffed with teachers well-trained in Braille, orientation and mobility, and other skills of blindness. The program also included qualified support staff: a Braille transcriber and an instructional assistant trained to provide Braille support. The education of a blind or visually impaired student requires a lot of advance planning, special (and often expensive) materials and equipment, ongoing training for personnel, careful monitoring, coordination, and constant vigilance. From day one, the relationship between the Beckers, the school, and the blindness professionals, was one based on mutual respect for the distinct roles of each and a common belief that, if they all did their jobs right and maintained high expectations, blindness did not need to limit Rachel.
Rachel hangs up her coat: the school day begins
Rachel uses the Braille Lite to write an essay.
Mrs. Banks stays in the background as Rachel prints out an assignment.
I know the answer! Rachel raises her arm while her homeroom teacher, Mrs. Birkholz, leads the class in a discussion.
And that brings us to the topic of this article. When Rachel Becker was in the fourth grade, I contacted the Becker family and asked if they could arrange for me to spend a day with her in school. My kids were all in college, and I wanted to stay in touch with the typical school scene. Besides, I was curious about what a school day looked like for a blind kid that, from all that I had observed, was fully included in her school, and was getting an education equal to her peers. And, of course, the experience had the makings of a good article.
The Beckers and the school were pleased to have me come, and so the necessary arrangements were made. The day of the shadowing, I arrived at Danielle’s home and she drove me to the Orchard Elementary School. I checked into the office, then was escorted to Rachel’s homeroom. There I met Rachel’s instructional assistant, Mrs. Lee Banks, and her homeroom teacher, Mrs. Birkholz. Later in the day I met Mr. Van Buskirk (or Mr. “Bill” as he is fondly called by his students), the teacher of the visually impaired/orientation and mobility instructor (TVI/O&M).
When I told the teachers that I wanted to write an article about Rachel’s school day, I was delighted to discover that Mrs. Banks, Rachel’s instructional assistant, had already written a narrative about Rachel’s school day only two months earlier. She wrote it, she said, as a progress report for the parents and other members of the IEP team. With the permission of Rachel’s parents, a rewritten version of that narrative follows my observations about Rachel’s school day
Like many elementary schools around the country, children in the Orchard Elementary School do not stay in one room with one teacher the entire school year. Although Rachel had a homeroom teacher with whom she began the day and with whom she had her key subjects of math and language arts, she, along with her classmates, left the homeroom for other subjects, or specials, as they were called,—art, music, gym, and computers. Even core subjects, such as science and social studies, were conducted in different classrooms by different teachers. The fourth grade had one or two recesses a day and ate lunch (option of hot or bag lunch from home) together in a large cafeteria. The day I shadowed Rachel she had reading and math classes in her homeroom with her primary teacher, Mrs. Birkholz, and left the homeroom for music, science, and an orientation and mobility lesson. (The class had social studies the first half of the year and science the second half. I happened to come on the day the subjects were switched, so I observed Rachel’s first day of science class with a new teacher).
Mrs. Banks, the instructional assistant, had a desk in the corner of the homeroom where she sat and did her work (interlining Rachel’s Braille work with print, transcribing materials from print to Braille, preparing tactile materials, and so forth), and from which she could observe Rachel and provide prompts and help when needed. Mrs. Banks was everything Danielle (Rachel’s mom) had said she was—friendly, efficient, and competent. But most importantly, she demonstrated excellent judgement in providing—or refraining from providing—assistance to Rachel. She knew just when to step in, and how to do it unobtrusively. It was obvious that Mrs. Banks was constantly assessing her actions against the goal of furthering Rachel’s independence. Also, there was never any doubt about who was in charge of Rachel’s education: it was the teacher in charge of that class, whatever class it happened to be.
Although Mrs. Banks went with Rachel when she made her class changes that day for music and science, Mrs. Banks never sat next to Rachel. If needed, she moved briefly next to or behind Rachel, gave the prompt, then moved back to her seat as soon as possible.
For example, in the music class, she moved forward and gave Rachel a quick tactile prompt on the correct way to hold her musical instrument, then moved back to her seat. In science class the teacher took total responsibility for providing verbal and tactile cues to Rachel. She also used Rachel as her assistant for the demonstrations and hands-on activities so that all aspects of the lesson were immediately accessible to Rachel. After the class, I talked briefly with the science teacher. She has never taught a blind student, but she had observed how other teachers had worked with Rachel and had, therefore, assumed that she was up to the task. And she was. Mrs. Banks gave Rachel only one prompt in this class. When the teacher told the students their homework assignment, Rachel needed a reminder to take out her electronic notetaker (a Braille Lite) and write it down.
At lunch, I walked with Rachel and the other kids to the cafeteria and picked up a sandwich. However, instead of staying with Rachel in the cafeteria, I chose to go to the teacher’s lounge with Mrs. Birkholz, Rachel’s homeroom teacher, and talk with her. I was astounded to learn about the amount of content covered in today’s elementary school curriculum, not to mention the brisk pace this requires. Among other consequences of the faster pace is that the children have less time and fewer opportunities within the school day to socialize.
Rachel’s lunch period was twenty minutes and the one recess she had on the day I shadowed her was about fifteen minutes (some days they have two recess periods)—far less time than children had when I was in school. I noticed that Rachel’s classmates tended to engage in a lot of eye contact and visual, non-verbal socializing during class time when the teacher was otherwise occupied. Smiles, frowns, gestures, mouthing words silently, passing notes, children have always engaged in these behaviors. However, I suspect that these activities make up a far larger percentage of the social time in school than ever before.
It’s no wonder that Rachel’s mother had expressed to me concerns about Rachel’s social opportunities at school. It wasn’t that Rachel was without friends, or that she wasn’t liked or accepted by her classmates, but there was an entire level of social communication of which she had limited knowledge and to which she had no access.
The desire for Rachel to make the most of her limited time for socialization at school required the Beckers to make a difficult choice: Rachel could take a sack lunch and be free to immediately sit down and chat with friends; she could buy a lunch and take time to learn to do it independently (which, since she is a slow eater, would eliminate any time for socializing); or she could buy a lunch, but have her instructional assistant pick up her food, carry the tray, and do everything for her.
Considering the Beckers expectations for Rachel, the last was not an option except for rare occasions. So, mostly Rachel took sack lunches.
Fortunately, through programs sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, such as KIDS Camp and youth retreats, Rachel has opportunities to develop and practice cafeteria and other daily living skills. Nevertheless, it was sobering for me to contemplate the obstacles the structure and pace of the modern school places in the way of social opportunities for blind kids.
After lunch, it was recess time. No special consideration was given to Rachel at recess. Using her cane, she left in a group with the other kids. She would occasionally call out to be sure she knew where the line was, and so stayed with the group. Once on the playground, one of her friends from another fourth grade class spotted her and came over to play. They quickly hooked up with two other girls and began a pretend game. One was the father, one the mother, one the little kid, and Rachel was the family “kitty.” Rachel squatted down on the ground, meowed for attention, and purred when petted by her family. Rachel and the girls found a place to stash her cane while they played the pretend game, then one of the girls walked with her to retrieve it when the bell rang and it was time to go back to class. Mr. Bill, Rachel’s TVI/O&M instructor, was one of the adult playground monitors, but he did not single Rachel out for any special attention or supervision.
Math was Rachel’s most difficult subject. Again, however, the regular classroom teacher took responsibility for Rachel’s instruction. When Rachel asked the teacher a question about what to fill in, the teacher asked her a series of questions to be sure she was on the right problem and that her Braille copy was complete. Through this interaction they discovered that Rachel did not have the correct paper. Only at this point did the classroom teacher involve Mrs. Banks in the discussion. With Mrs. Banks’ assistance, the proper paper was located and Rachel continued with the lesson along with her classmates. Because Rachel was struggling with a particular word problem, the teacher worked with her one-on-one while the other children went ahead and worked on their problems. Rachel used a Braillewriter and an abacus in her math class.
In all classes, the classroom teacher directly addressed Rachel, called on her for class discussion, and/or provided her with personalized instruction as was appropriate. They only addressed Mrs. Banks when they needed to discuss the transcribing of materials or scheduling issues. Rachel always used her cane. I do not recall a single time the aide, a teacher, or a classmate inappropriately grabbed her or that Rachel tried to take an arm and go sighted guide. Clearly, everyone assumed she could walk the halls, open and go through doors, find her seat in the class, hang-up her coat, find the trash can in the cafeteria, go to the bathroom, and so forth—all on her own. Any assistance was always appropriate, polite, and minimal,—occasional verbal directions, taps on a chair or table to provide a sound cue, or a light touch on the arm or shoulder.
Technology had already begun to play an important role in Rachel’s education. She had a Braillewriter in her homeroom on her desk and a computer printer was available at the back of the room for her use, too. When she arrived for the school day, she went to the printer, connected her electronic notetaker to it, and printed out an English assignment to turn in to the teacher. Later in the day, the language arts class sat on the floor around the teacher to read and analyze a piece of literature. Then, the class was given a short writing assignment to complete in class. Rachel chose to use her Braille Lite to compose her essay, and then independently went back to the printer and printed out a print copy to turn in to the teacher before the class ended. (There was one gap in the assistive technology available to Rachel. There had been delays in getting the appropriate talking software installed so Rachel could have independent access to a computer in school. Therefore, she was behind in getting the instruction she needed so she could independently use word processing to do assignments or learn how to access the Internet to do research and use email. I understand these needs were addressed in extended school year summer programming between her fourth and fifth grade years.)
Rachel was pulled out of part of the school day for an orientation and mobility lesson. We,—Mr. Bill, Mrs. Banks, Rachel, and I —hopped in a car and drove to a residential area for the lesson. (Mrs. Banks typically observes her mobility lessons and then reinforces certain skills and concepts throughout the week.) Rachel practiced locating and identifying landmarks such as post office boxes and crossing streets at intersections with and without stop signs. Mr. Bill gave Rachel time to explore, problem-solve, and correct her own mistakes.
At the end of the day, Rachel reviewed her homework assignments with Mrs. Banks to be sure she had them all, and picked up any Braille materials (worksheets, etc.) that Mrs. Banks had transcribed for her. She cleared off her desk and picked up her chair and rested it upside-down on her desk just like the other kids. She packed up her backpack, got her jacket out of her cubby, picked up her cane, and headed out for the bus when her group was released. Mrs. Banks and I followed her from a distance as she went down the hall, down some steps, down another hall, and finally out the side exit door. She headed for the area where her bus usually loaded, and listened for her bus driver to call out her name. A couple of classmates gave her a verbal prompt when she angled slightly off course, then she climbed on the bus, found her seat, and off they went!
After Rachel left, I sat down with Mrs. Banks and compared my observations with the ones she had made two months earlier. I liked the way she had included a time schedule for the day and brief descriptions of some of the class content and curriculum. Her account provides tangible evidence of the pace and level of expectations of a typical school day. It also gives us a glimpse into the effective management of a critical transition year for a blind student. (In this context, transition year refers to a year in which a student is required, by the nature of the schoolwork and the structure and complexity of the school day, to make a quantum leap in independent functioning. As a general rule, key transition points are from kindergarten to first grade, from fifth grade to middle school or from sixth grade to Junior High, and from middle school/junior high to high school.)
It was rewarding to see how much more independent and confident Rachel appeared to have become in the short time between our two observations. With Mrs. Bank’s permission, I have revised and edited her report for this article. Here it is:
Cane in hand, Rachel hustles down the corridor to her next class.
Rachel completes a mobility assignment; she locates a post office box and mails a letter.
Mr. "Bill" Van Buskirk and Rachel cross a street during a mobility lesson.
Rachel boards the bus at the end of her school day.
Observations from Lee Banks, Special Education Instructor Assistant
At 8:40 a.m. Rachel gets off bus 290 and walks into the school independently with her peers. The bus may stop in different places along the bus loop. If Rachel veers off, a student moves right in to guide her. If there is inclement weather, I meet her at the bus in case she needs help. Mostly, I stay back and observe. Even with ice and snow, Rachel comes down the steps and negotiates curbs cautiously but independently. I am right there, but do not let her know unless she needs help.
8:45 a.m.—Rachel arrives in the classroom. She takes off her coat, hangs it up, puts her lunchbox away, brings her backpack to me and unloads it, takes down her chair, prints out her schoolwork on the printer in the room, and sits down to do the journal question for that day. (Journaling is the current morning work.)
Instructional assistant, Lee Banks, at her desk in Rachel's home room.
9:00 a.m.—We have morning pledge to the flag, morning announcements, then back to work or silent reading. At 9:10 a.m., the children line up to go to specials.” Monday is our double specials day. Currently, music special consists of beginning note-reading and playing simple songs on the recorder.
Art class is going fine. Rachel was recently selected Artist of the Month. One of her pieces is on display in the mail-hallway, near the office. There are adequate adaptive materials in art:—clay, fabric, tissue paper, shapes, etc. Rachel does her artwork in a timely manner.
In gym class on Mondays and Fridays the kids are doing Magic Club:—a variety of ball-bouncing and catching activities. We have adapted ways for Rachel to do the activities, but I am still there to aid her as needed. Rachel has the class only once a week, on Fridays, because she has a mobility lesson on Mondays. However, she still gets to participate in the gym class curriculum of volleyball, archery, floor hockey, football, doing laps (she does three to the class’s five), and so forth. Rachel also does fine with exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, etc. Overall, she is average in keeping up with the other kids.
9:55 a.m.—Rachel is in social studies with Mrs. Birkholz until 11:10 a.m. The class changes teachers every six weeks. Rachel has had Mrs. Stambaugh and Mrs. Kueberth previously for this class. She will go to Mrs. Wing next for relative motion. The class is presently studying the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. They review many details and do lots of formulating and writing. Rachel seems to be very interested in history.
Math class is from 11:15 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. This is an up and down subject for Rachel. She has had difficulties with lines and graphing, although she has ample adaptive materials (Brailled sheets, manipulatives, stickers, etc). The class is now working on multiplication, and Rachel is more comfortable with this. She knows her times tables up to twelve. Although she understands the multiplication process, her biggest need is to stay focused so she can accurately transfer from reading the Braille problem, to calculating the problem on the abacus, to correctly putting the answer down on paper.
12:25 p.m.—The class lines up to go to lunch. Rachel knows her way around the hallways and the cafeteria just fine. However, Rachel does travel more slowly and that impacts other kids in the line behind her. She often needs someone to prompt her to move more quickly and catch up. Rachel brings her lunch from home most days so it is easier for her to get to a table, eat, and get around in the allotted time. The class lines up in the cafeteria to go to recess at 12:50 p.m.
1:15 p.m.—Recess is over and we’re back in the building. Except for Thursdays, this is language arts time from 1:15 until 2:30 p.m. (On Thursday the class has computer lab from 1:15 until 1:55 p.m. Rachel will attend computer lab more frequently once the technology specialist loads the JAWS speech program so she can use the computer independently.)
Language arts is a very busy, heavily concentrated time of the day. It focuses extensively on writing skills. Rachel is learning about: person position defended, construct meaning, critical responses, friendly letter, factual reports, etc. Rachel is learning to follow specific instructions specifically.” She needs to improve her capacity to focus, and to make better use of time (not argue or make excuses, combine trips within the room, etc.)
Rachel is treated fairly and the same as the rest of the students. Mrs. Birkholz does an excellent job of integrating Rachel into the class. She has the same expectations of her that she has for all the students. If Rachel legitimately needs more time, she gets it. (Plus, she can use study hall, extra recess, or work with Mr. Bill and myself.)
2:30 to 2:40 p.m.—The class packs up to be ready for the 3:00 p.m. afternoon recess, or for Reading Buddies on Fridays. (Packing up at 2:30-2:40 p.m. requires more prompts than usual. Rachel knows the day is ending.) In the spring and autumn, Rachel wants to get out, but in cold weather she likes to stay in and read. She also frequently stays in to do catch-up work.
3:25 p.m.—I review homework assignments one-on-one with Rachel. She still forgets one or two things daily. She is supposed to use her electronic notetaker (the Braille Lite) to write down her assignments, but she is resisting using it. She thinks she will remember. What she doesn’t realize is that other kids have to write down the assignments, too. Besides, her memory, as good as it is, can be inhibited by exceptionally busy days. We will just keep working on it. In between classes (recess, etc.), she gets her pep talks from me. The Braille Lite with the refreshable Braille display has been a terrific boost to her independence in the classroom. She types on it throughout the day.
3:40 p.m.—I walk her to the bus for a final chat about the busy day. (Some days her backpack is too heavy for her to lift, and I help with that.) Occasionally, one of her classmates will walk with her. She lines up with the other bus 290 riders and gets on the bus with a final farewell.
The biggest challenge Rachel has faced in fourth grade has been adjusting to a faster pace, getting her work done and moving on to the next item on the teacher’s agenda along with the rest of the students. In the first couple of months of school this year, Rachel struggled. She needed many prompts and a good bit of help to get through the day. But we are making progress. I have been able to dramatically reduce the number of prompts (by one-third) that I give to Rachel. She is still adjusting to my backing away, and she takes advantage of it sometimes, but I feel she is just testing me. It’s hard when she knows that I am in the room just five feet away from her. She has had a lot of help over the years and it is naturally difficult for a child to want to end that.
Rachel has much less one-on-one time with Mr. Bill [her TVI/O&M instructor] this year. Rachel was used to going off to the planning room for individual sessions with him. However, in fourth grade, all of the work (except for mobility training) is done right in the classroom. Mr. Bill comes in the morning on Mondays and Thursdays for mobility lessons, and in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Fridays for direct service instruction and teacher consultations. My role has also shifted. Although I am always nearby, I am extremely busy Brailling and preparing materials for Rachel’s classes so she will have everything she needs along with the other kids. I have less time to give her prompts and help her with work. This is good, because she is ready for it. She only needs to accept independence in doing her classwork as a positive thing in her day and not fear it. Of course, assistance is always available to Rachel if she is making a true effort and needs help.
From my point of view, I would like to see Rachel develop a sense of community in school. I would like for her to reach out more, and to understand that the other students have the same teachers, the same work, and the same problems she has. She isn’t the only one struggling to become more independent.
Traveling throughout the school has gone well with Rachel this year. She is adamant about being treated the same as the other students. She gets to class, lunch, and back to her classroom or out to recess very well on her own. I have lunch and recess monitoring duty and often help take classes out to the playground. Sometimes I leave with a group while Rachel and her class are still eating. She doesn’t need me around and finds her way out when she is finished just fine.
Rachel is an intelligent child and her grades are very good. As always, it is a pleasure (and a challenge) working with Rachel.
By the time this issue is published and you read this article, Rachel will be several weeks into eighth grade, her last year in middle school. As she matures, she continues to grow in independence. Providing the supports she needs and withdrawing the supports she no longer needs continues to be a challenge that the school district and the Beckers face, but they tackle it gladly and with commitment knowing it is the only way for Rachel to achieve age-appropriate independence. There have been setbacks. Last year, the school district lost their Braille transcriber and could not fill the position for months. But the school and the Beckers worked cooperatively to minimize the impact on Rachel’s education.
And that’s the key word:—cooperation. It is no accident that there is no mention of the IEP or the IEP process in this article. Rachel certainly has an IEP; and a well-written IEP is an extremely valuable educational tool. However, no matter how good the IEP is, it is no substitute for skilled teachers of the blind, appropriately trained support staff, or for good faith, high expectations, and mutual respect among those responsible for the education of blind and visually impaired students.