Teacher Jessica Erlich coaches Madeleine strategies to compensate for her low vision using the iPad.
By Stefanie Cloutier
A young girl sits in the empty fourth grade classroom, bent over her iPad. She is working diligently on math problems, reading them out loud to her instructor.
It is a typical morning in a typical elementary school classroom – except this girl, an 11-year -old named Madeleine who attends Roger Wellington Elementary School in Belmont, Massachusetts, has a significant visual impairment. And her instructor, Jessica Erlich, while well-versed in traditional academics, is trained specially as a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI).
Erlich is an itinerant teacher, one of 30 from Perkins School for the Blind who travel throughout New England to work with students from preschool through age 22. These teachers are often on the road five days a week, visiting public schools to provide customized academic support to children who are blind or visually impaired. They also teach skills necessary for students with blindness or visual impairment to promote their independence, such as meal preparation and the use of assistive technology.
Erlich provides specially designed instruction to give Madeleine access to the general education curriculum being learned by her fourth-grade peers with sight. To do this, she spends three mornings per week before school working with Madeleine on technology and independent living skills in preparation for Madeleine’s move to middle school next year.
TVI support is tailored to each student’s unique needs. In Madeleine’s case, she keeps up with her peers academically but needs one-on-one instruction for study basics and life skills. “These are skills that sighted children pick up by observation,” noted Erlich. The pair begins their day with breakfast at one of the desks. Madeleine practices spreading cream cheese on her bagel, part of her life skills learning. Then it’s over to the computer to check email.
“Last year we focused on typing,” said Erlich. “But Madeleine decided that the typing program was really boring, so we decided to do something functional, like email. Now she’s the best typist in the fourth grade.”
On the computer, special software magnifies the text to make it readable for Madeleine. They pull up the weather in Belmont and then San Diego and Erlich asks Madeleine to work out the difference between the two temperatures in her head.
Then they switch to the iPad to work on math and reading. The iPad is Madeleine’s favorite tool because it can make a book’s font size large enough for her to read. “I can download any book I want from Bookshare (a free e-book resource),” she said. Erlich also scans textbooks for Madeleine to access on the iPad.
For other reading material, from classroom handouts to homework assignments, Madeleine uses a video magnifier that sends an enlarged image to a computer monitor for viewing. She also has a portable magnifier, a dome-shaped glass prism that she glides over printed material. Erlich wants Madeleine to learn how be flexible and find reading solutions that work when she’s on her own. “We like to have a lot of options, because things don’t always go the way we expect,” she said.
On the iPad again, Madeleine opens a comic book she and Erlich created. She flips through pictures, finally pausing on one she had taken of Erlich during a lighthearted moment. She shows it to Erlich, smiling. “She might not admit it, but we have fun,” said Erlich.
When the bell that marks the official beginning of the school day rings and students trickle into class, Erlich stays for a short time to speak with the teacher and make sure Madeleine has everything she’ll need for class.
Madeleine’s mother, Jill Babcock, said the move to middle school will be challenging, with new classrooms and more crowded hallways. But having an itinerant teacher available to work with Madeleine makes the transition less daunting.
“Jess is teaching her about technology, making her independent,” said Babcock. “We are so fortunate to have Perkins right there.”