Blind World Magazine

"It's been a real learning experience for everyone involved."

October 31, 2005.
Bismarck Tribune, North Dakota.

Enter classroom 112 at Century High School, and a young woman sits at a computer typing.

Student teacher Alexis Read is working on lesson plans, her face inches from the computer screen as she types.

"It's a blur. Icould do it on a computer because Iknow what it looks like,"she said.

Her vision is 20/400, making her legally blind, as a result of nerve damage.

"What you can see at 400 feet, I have to be at least 20 feet or closer," she said.

She's a student teacher for social studies teacher Brad Townsend. She attends Minot State University, where she works on her teacher's certification.

"It's been a real learning experience for everyone involved," Townsend said.

Read is his first student teacher. He knew of her being blind from the college and Read contacting him.

It's a profession she never thought she'd do, although she had plans for working with students. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. She intended to work for a college's disability support services.

But a teaching experience her last year at Concordia changed her mind. She worked with a 10-year-old girl who had low vision. She taught her academic and life skills, covering telling time to math and more.

She taught a vision-impaired child for two months without being a certified, trained teacher and enjoyed it, she said. Now she wants to teach visually-impaired children.

Townsend was a good fit for Read because he teaches all psychology classes at Century, and she needed three periods of psychology for her student teaching. Many schools only teach one period of psychology, Townsend said.

Now she's getting the experience she needs for her degree, and he's learning some new ideas for teaching his classes and managing a classroom, he said.

"Each chapter she used something from her schooling," he said.

She also had information about visual development that she covered during developmental psychology.

She also has classroom management ideas that are adapted to not being able to see what is happening, he said.

When she's nearly nose-to-screen with the computer, it can make some people wonder what she's doing teaching. Her family is supportive, although her mother once told her she wouldn't make a good teacher because of her personality, she said.

She found out her mother was right, that she prefers working one-on-one rather than speaking to large groups of students. But the other tasks that go along with teaching she can accomplish or adapt, contrary to what some colleagues may think.

Like many teachers, she doesn't write lectures on the board, but uses technology. She also doesn't normally sit so close to the computer screen, either. She has computer programs and hardware to make using the computer easier. Voice software reads documents to her, and a scanner with software will let her scan students' typed work so that she can have it read to her. She can grade students' work, although most of the written work is graded by her assistant. She can read handwritten work in short bursts.

"If you took it all away, I couldn't do this without it,"she said.

She also has a few classroom rules that are different or better enforced than some teachers. For example, no backpacks in the aisles, and students should say their names when called on in class.

"I have 75 to 80 kids. I can't keep track of that many voices," she said.

Then there are everyday things sighted people take for granted, such as visual cues. Sometimes people will say "over there" and point to something. She understands that people can see, but it's not something she can do. Instead, she likes specific directions.

It also affects the way she can teach. Townsend can ask students to raise their hands if they don't understand or to ask questions after talking about a topic. When she does, she doesn't get the same feedback.

"One thing I can't do is look at their face and judge understanding. It's very frustrating," she said.

She can't even see if students are raising their hands, she said. To help with that, she has a teaching assistant.

"She is kind of my eyes," she said.

Her assistant helps tell her when students have questions, but also when students might be done with group work, or if they have cell phones.

Read enforces the no cell phone policy. She heard a student's cell phone go off during a test, and was by that student's side waiting for the student to hand it over, she said.

Her students have adjusted to her being in the classroom.

"It was weird (at first) because Mr. Townsend introduced her and Ididn't know what to think,"sophomore Sam Golden said.

He noticed Read couldn't focus her eyes and it was hard to get used to, he said. With the rules she set up, it's not much different than having any other student teacher, he said.

Being around a person who is blind was a new experience for some of the students.

"I didn't know how to react," Katie Grenz said. "I was never the student of anyone with a challenge."

But she's trying to do what she can to make it easier for Read by making sure she always identifies herself when needed and is specific about directions.

It's hard when Read doesn't know if they are joking because she cannot see, she said. But Read is calm and helpful and can handle situations, Grenz said.

Read is used to different reactions to her blindness.

"When I was in high school, it was kind of a mixed bag," she said.

Some people think she can't hear because she can't see, so they speak louder or think she knows sign language. A common misconception is blind people having other senses that make up for the lack of sight. Read says it's not true.

"It's a huge misconception,"she said. "If you lose vision or hearing, you use your other senses better."

They don't improve from what they were, she said.

A teacher can help improve how a person uses their senses. She had the same vision teacher since she was 15 months old. The teacher had given her a red and white striped bag when she was in fourth grade, and her mother threw it out when she was 12. Read now has a similar bag that she brings to school every day to remind her of her teacher.

Read finds support in other places. She e-mails a blind teacher in Indiana almost daily for encouragement and support.

"She's my sounding board. She's been teaching 15 years and has no vision," she said.

This support also helps when she's dealing with colleagues who question her ability to teach.

When Read completes her student teaching, she will get a master's degree in special education so that she can be a vision teacher. Her student teaching at Century ends Nov. 18.

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