Take a listen to this interview with Casey Robertson for the highlights from the 2013 Getting in Touch with Literacy conference.
CORBB O’CONNOR: Well good morning; this is Corbb O’Connor with the Institute on blindness and our blog on blindness. And I’m on the line with Casey Robertson who’s a teacher of blind students in Mississippi; she’s also an instructor at the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. And this week she’s been at the Getting in Touch with Literacy conference in Rhode Island, talking about the education of, and teaching of literacy for students who are blind or have low vision. So Casey, good morning.
CASEY ROBERTSON: Good morning, thank you for havin’ me.
CO: So before we get into you know, how the conference has been overall, been hearing that there’s some hot debate this morning, or maybe not so much debate, but some hot conversation, when it comes to the, reading media assessments for kids who are blind or have low vision. I’m wondering if you could summarize for us sort of what the presenters there were trying to portray as being a, a good solution before we get into maybe some of your reactions to it.
CR: Okay. I think the presenters, they were presenting about the Position Paper by AER, and how that we address the National Reading Media Assessment and other assessments to decide whether students are print readers or braille readers, or dual media. And their solution to it is their Position Paper on AER that states that there should be a multitude of assessments completed by low vision assessment centers, by learning media assessments, and… assessments by the teacher of the blind student. And… they think that… this would solve the problem of students being preferred different… preferred different reading medias that may not be suited for them. And they consider that the IDEA, states that braille is the default, that, that language needs to be added to say that not only braille, but also low technology devices, low assistive devices, and things, other things should be added to the bill.
CO: Interesting. So their solution that they’re proposing then is this multitude of assessments. That sounds, and, and from your experience, sounds time consuming for a teacher of blind students who’s already stretched pretty thin.
CR: Yes, it is time consuming. But we also have to keep in mind that every child is different, and every child may need different assessments. I do agree with their position on a, um… low vision assessment, but, but I do not think the clinician at the low vision assessment center should be the one that decides on print or braille or dual media.
CO: And it would be the role maybe of that person to provide the, the data, the numbers, the measurements, but not so much the, how that’s going to impact the student functionally in the classroom.
CR: Correct. (‘Kay) It, um… that would just be a small piece of the data that was used to decide whether a child, which reading media they have.
CO: Now tell me about the, the NRMA, the National Reading Media Assessment that you helped to develop. It sounds like, from what I’ve been hearing, the presenters this morning aren’t big fans.
CR: They are not big fans of the National Reading Media Assessment. And their… their decision backing that was that, quoting the presenters, that, it—deciding if a child needs print, braille or dual media, was a lot messier process. It took a lot more components than a simple Likert Scale. And the National Reading Media Assessment is set up on a Likert Scale, but it has been proven to be valid and reliable, with 3 years of consistent data collection backing the, backing the research method. I do believe that the Likert Scale can tell whether a child needs print, braille, or dual media, but I also believe that it’s just one tool in a me—in a huge toolbox that teachers have to decide what is appropriate for that child. There are instances, such as with a mu—multi handicapped child that has, has no use of her hands. She might not can see the print, so it would come out that she was a braille reader, but obviously, an educated person will have to decide that she cannot access the braille, so that she needs to go to a different option of learning, such as auditor or low vision devices. So, the Likert Scale is very powerful, but as an educator you have to decide if it’s the one single tool you use, or if it’s just a tool in the toolbox that you have to use.
CO: And I think what people forget is, um, that, the NRMA isn’t just a, um, a tool to prove that every kid who’s legally blind or who is going to be legally blind later on is gonna need braille. I remember you tellin’ me you’ve that, and had it come out that students should have large print, or should have dual media, and students should have braille. So you’ve, you’ve worked with all 3.
CR: Exactly. I’ve had students that I just thought would be a braille reader, and then when I did the NRMA, they came out to be a dual media, and that’s what I went with. I started instruction in braille, and they kept their large print. I have had students that came out to be just a large print reader, that they did not need the braille. And the important thing is to follow up with what the assessment says, and then if you don’t feel that… it is accurate, continue with other assessments. But I have conducted, uh… learning media assessments and functional vision assessments, and the NRMA on a child, and they come out exactly the same. It would tell whether the child needed braille, print, or both. So it’s a very accurate tool to use to decide. I think the misconception is that it is biased, and it will always come out to be braille. But knowing that it’s on a research protocol, it has been developed and it is reliable and valid, that is just a misconception; it does not always come out to be braille.
CO: What are some of the other tools, other than the NRMA, that you use with your students in determining the, the reading medium that’s gonna be most beneficial for them for the long term?
CR: I always look at their low vision assessment from the low vision center, and I use some tools out of Texas School for the Blind for learning media assessments.
CO: And, and that sounds like that’s a, a process for teachers of blind students that’s, you may do that assessment, you know, once every 3 years as you’re required to, but at the same time, it’s something that you are… implementing throughout the year, throwing an assessment in here or there to make sure that you’re on track with where you think you should be.
CR: Yes. Assessment, the assessment process with blind students and low vision students is very fluid; it never ends. It’s a comprehensive, ongoing project that the teacher has. You never just assess one time and then wait 3 years to assess again. I’m always looking and assessing my students to make sure they’re in the correct medium, if their vision has changed, and if they need something else. The good thing about the NRMA, it is a quick, fast tool that does not take very much time on behalf of the teacher of blind students, that can be used at multiple times during the year if the vision changes. If the student has problems with their vision, you can use the NRMA, and it’s a quick tool to let you know if you stay on the right path, or if you need other assessments to continue.
CO: And we’ve posted on our blog at pdrib.com/blog, a breakdown of, of how long that assessment takes, and, and on average, we found it’s about an hour, maybe a few minutes more than an hour for the entire process, and that includes time spent by the teachers and the parents in, in the evaluation to create that, that finalized metric from, or the overall metric I should say for the assessment.
CR: Yes. It, it takes no more than an hour, and it’s a good tool to keep ongoing data. It’s a, it’s a nice place to store data that you can come back and look at later and compare as, as time passes in, to see if the student’s vision has changed, or if the reading media has changed. It’s a very good assessment if the child changes school districts, or you pass the student on to a new TVI. It’s a very… a very quick tool that has a lot a data on it.
CO: And the… and, and I guess the final question for you about this morning’s program, before we sort of switch gears and talk about the rest of the conference, it sounds like the presenters this morning aren’t necessarily advocating one tool, but it just sounds like they are saying that our particular tool, the National Reading Media Assessment, isn’t the one to be using. Is, is—did they suggest any alternatives, or provide any rationale for alternatives?
CR: Yes. We, during the session they listed a, um… list of resources. It was mot of the learning media assessments that are already on the market, and that te—that teachers are already using. And you’re right, they were suggestions of… a matrix of assessments, which is very good, and it’s what good professionals should do, is use the knowledge they have to decide what instruments are best for the individual students that they’re using. Because every student is different, every student learns different, and, the… idea that they have, of using a multitude of instruments, is a wonderful process; they just did not feel that the National Reading Media Assessment standing alone could decide a child’s… reading media.
CO: Sounds like we can all agree on that.
CO: If we, if we switch gears and talk a little about the, the rest a the conference, I heard a lot of really positive talk about yesterday’s… keynote about numeracy versus teaching math. Can you give us a quick snapshot of, of what we missed by not being in Rhode Island yesterday?
CR: Oh you missed a lifetime of knowledge not bein’ able to hear Derek Smith from the University of Alabama yesterday. He was fabulous; talking about real life situations of where kids need numeracy instead of math. In schools today even with the common core, there’s a huge focus on the study of numbers, but not how numbers work, or the importance of numbers. One example he used was no school districts hardly offer a statistics course, and in real life we use percentages, we use… decimal points every day. If you go buy something that’s 70% off, especially this time of year when it’s Christmastime, how do you figure what will the cost be at 70% off? And we are graduating students that have no idea how to figure out what will the price be if it’s 70% off. And that’s numeracy versus learning that… ½ + ½ = X. That is more, the numeracy is more important than the study of numbers in real life. He also talked about our, the state of the retail market and the housing market in our, in our nation today. Why did it happen? Some was bad choices, but some was just the fact that people could not understand when they’re buying a house that is 100% over their income, that they would not be able to afford it later on. So numeracy is huge. And it’s the literacy of numeracy, teaching these kids how to use numbers. And math is one of the areas that we lack so much in our low vision students. Because lots a times if we have a braille student, they’re reading braille, they’re reading literary braille, but they’re doing math in large print, because either the teacher hasn’t taught them Nemeth, either the, the teacher is scared to teach them Nemeth, or they think that they can’t understand Nemeth. And… the math skills of our blind students and our low vision students are really lacking, even more than that of their sighted peers.
CO: And I saw yesterday Adam Wilson on Twitter had a great response. He said that you have big data everywhere in our, in our economy today, and a com—corporations are looking for that. And if we can graduate blind students who can interpret and understand that big data, now we have a whole new career opportunity for our students than we did when they were just understanding algebra and math as a separate concept than something that would be practical for them later on.
CR: Exactly. It would open up a whole new world to our blind students. You know, we limit them in their pos—professions anyway, just because of low expectations, and the thought that blind people can’t achieve goals that their sighted peers can. But if we can teach them numeracy, and we can teach them to understand and take a big data sample and interpret that, then we’ve opened up a whole new world for them. You have big data in medical trials; you have big data in everyday living; just about everywhere you look. Marketing, banking, all the options there. If we can teach them to pick that data set up, and be able to interpret the numeracy in it, then it opens up a whole new world.
CO: And if we, if we go back a little bit farther in, further in time, Wednesday was all about the Unified English Braille, and, and what that was gonna be like. And more than—sounds like there was more than just going over the changes to the code. You said that was a very powerful day for you.
CR: Wednesday was an awesome day in blindness education. (Laugh) the—Frances Mary Deandre, and Kay Holbrook and Darlene Bogart; there were several instructors there throughout the day that helped us understand the new UEB code and how it’s not so different. As educators we feared that we were gonna encounter so many changes that it was gonna be overwhelming, and we were not gonna be able to learn the new UEB. After Wednesday, we realized it’s a much easier code, and it’s gonna be easier to teach our students. And the decision that they made about which contractions to take away and how to add new things to it was fabulous. There was a reason for every change that they made, and it’s gonna work so much smoothly for our students. We got hands on practice with braille writers to walk through the new changes, and then… on Wednesday afternoon, all the professional prep programs across the nation met to find out how will we implement the new UEB. When will we start teaching our college students or teachers of blind students the new UEB code instead of the, the current code? So it was a fabulous day for, we—for educators. We learned that we’re on the, we’re on the iceberg, the tip of the iceberg, and we are the stewards of this new UEB code We are the ones that will decide when it goes into implementation as far, implementation as far as teaching our college students. And we plan to start that by next summer.
CO: What kind of resources do you as a teacher of blind students need to get your students ready for the updated code that’s gonna be implemented by Louis Braille’s birthday in 2016?
CR: As a teacher of elementary students and high school students, we will need resources. We will need their textbooks, we will need… um… materials to teach them and update them on the new UEB code. Um… Building on Patterns; that is a great program that a lot a teachers use. They are working on, working, reworking that, that series into new UEB. So when it is published in the next year, it will have the new UEB code in it. As far as teaching college students, the Ashcroft book which is a book that many, many universities use to teach college students, is bein’ updated and will be released in April, so that we will have that to teach our students. The good thing about Wednesday was they gave us so much information, and there is so many resources on BANA website, the Braille Authority of North America website, that as a… personal prep program, we can go ahead and start making our own materials and looking at how we will teach this to our college students.
CO: That’s wonderful. And I wanna end with one idea I saw and get your, your thoughts on it. When you have a student who is learning braille, or maybe they’re dual media and they’re looking at the braille, it sounds like there was, there’s some talk that I’m not quite understanding, but something about a stuffed animal is gonna help to keep your students feeling the braille instead of looking at it. Were you there for that conversation?
CR: I was there. That was Ann Spitz and she was a fabulous presenter. And as a teacher of low vision students, we always have that problem. They might have enough vision that they can lean down and look at the dots, but you’re focused on their nonvisual skills. So wonderful that idea that one of her assistants came up with was, you have a board in front of the child, like a plain whiteboard, or wipe-off board, and you can attach their favorite stuffed animal to it. And then they’re reading to the stuffed animal. So they’re having to make eye contact with the stuffed animal; so then they’re focusin’ their hands on the braille as they read to their favorite stuffed animal.
CO: Absolutely hysterical. Something about reading to your teacher of blind students isn’t quite as exciting I guess as looking as your favorite teddy bear.
CR: No. Sometimes I just don’t think we’re as loveable as that teddy bear. (Laugh)
CO: (Laughs) Well Casey, we thank you very much for givin’ this update from the, the Getting in Touch with Literacy Conference in Rhode Island. And, we… sounds like a lot of great learning going on, and some great ideas flowing among everybody. So thanks for joining us today.
CR: Thank you.
CO: And for more on blindness and braille and cane travel, you can visit our blog at pdrib.com/blog. I’m Corbb O’Connor with the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. Thanks for listening.
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