Kate Fraser started her 45 year career at Perkins in 1975 in the Home Personal Management Department. Before coming to Perkins, Fraser worked at the Carroll Center for the Blind with adults who are visually impaired. During her tenure at Perkins, she worked as the department head in Home Personal Management Department, an Individual Living Specialist in the Community Services Program, and finally as a Science Teacher. As a science teacher, she has enjoyed teaching Perkins students about the world around them, especially chemistry and biology. She is pictured here announcing the award recipients at the 2017 Science Fair, one of her favorite events. In 2006, she and Jen Nagarah developed Accessible Science, a website for teachers to share their science curriculum activities and ideas for students who are blind or visually impaired with other educators around the world. She is also the author of Science Literacy, published in 2016 by Perkins Publications. Fraser retired in June 2022.
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This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on August 17, 2022, by Susanna Coit. The audio and transcript are provided unedited.
This oral history transcript may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind. For permission please contact [email protected].
Fraser, Kate. “Kate Fraser oral history interview conducted by Susanna Coit,” 2022-08-17, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG176-2022-07, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Susanna Coit (Coit): Today is August 17, 2022. This is Susanna Coit. I’m here with Kate Fraser. We’re conducting this interview virtually on Google Meet because of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions. Kate, are you OK with me recording this conversation?
Kate Fraser (Fraser): Yes I am.
Coit: OK. So to get started, how long have you been at Perkins and what year did you come?
Fraser: I’ve worked at Perkins for 46 years. And I believe I started in September of 1975.
Coit: And what positions have you held?
Fraser: Several different ones. I started off working in the Home Personal Management Department in Keller-Sullivan. Became the Home Personal Management Department head back when we had department heads. And then I went on to become what was called an Independent Living Specialist working in our — what at the time was called Community Services Program working with people who were transitioning into group homes and apartments.
And that lasted for quite a while, both of those jobs. And then they needed a science teacher, and the head of Human Resources at the time, John Donahue, knew that I was certified as a science teacher. So he wondered if I was interested in having a new job, and that’s what I did for the remainder of my career at Perkins, was to teach science and become involved in creating accessible science activities and lessons for students and mentoring teachers.
Coit: So how did you first come to Perkins? What brought you to Perkins?
Fraser: Well, my late husband, John Fraser, who worked at the Commission for the Blind at the time, was good friends with Kevin Lessard who was the Director or Assistant Director at that point in time. And Kevin mentioned to John that there was an opening for a Home Personal Management teacher.
And I was working at Carroll Center in Newton with adults at the time, and the position sounded attractive because it involved working with both adults and teenagers. So I applied.
Coit: And it turned out — turned out well.
Fraser: Turned out very well, yes. It was a good match.
Coit: So what was Perkins like when you first arrived?
Fraser: The campus was beautiful, that was the first thing I noticed, and large, and the facilities in Keller-Sullivan were lovely. The population was actually quite similar to the population now, although people don’t think it was. I think that there has been some changes, but we had different departments, as I mentioned, where there was an English department, there was a Home Personal Management Department, History Department.
But there were also a number of special programs happening. At the time that I came onto campus, there were two model group homes on campus in Bridgman Cottage and in Tompkins Cottage. Shortly after that, we converted the Northeast Building into apartments to train people in independent living.
It was much smaller staff. We didn’t have teaching assistants at that time. And we had residential staff and we had teaching staff. And we basically did everything. So it was a great place to work. And people — and I think it still is, but it was a great place to work.
It was much bigger than Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, so that was a bit of an adjustment for me. But aside from that, the transition was pretty smooth.
Coit: And what do you think have been some of the biggest or most important changes at Perkins?
Fraser: Ooh, lots of changes, both positive and negative. The addition of technology. That time when I came, technology was pretty much nonexistent, and I felt like Perkins was a little bit slow to provide us as — to going into the ’80s and into the ’90s, that it was a very slow rollout for technology both for the staff and for the students.
The Grousbeck Center for Students and Technology was a huge landmark and a huge attribute that was added to Perkins in a lot of good ways. I was hoping at the time that we could move the science activities over there, but that didn’t happen.
So I think — I’ve seen just so many changes. The involvement more in the community and providing community services, then pulling back on those and becoming more campus-based. And the focus has changed over the years to — in the beginning and I think in the field itself, that the focus of study has changed in a number of ways. That now we serve — we’ve always served students with Cortical/Cerebral Visual Impairment, but now it’s become more of a focus.
There’s — it was a lot in the beginning, of focus on independent living skills development and that made a lot of progress. I was hoping to see more emphasis on STEM education and developing our science resources, and I hope that might still continue in the future.
Coit: And so what’s one – or a couple of the most memorable events or experiences from your early years at Perkins?
Fraser: My early years at Perkins. Let’s see. So many memorable ones. I think the opening of the Northeast Building to have apartments and the fact that we were working with young adults from 18 to 26 years of age and had funding to do that and that we were doing some remarkable vocational training for people.
There were a lot of vocational training options, and that we saw people getting jobs in the community at various levels, that was very exciting to work with people from the Commission for the Blind and to get people involved in the community and to be helping people to transition into the community, into group homes, and to apartments.
And I really liked my involvement with that. It was a lot of work, but that was one of my fondest memories, is some of those things happening. Our collaboration with the Arsenal Apartments was certainly memorable.
And so those were the early — the very early days. Our work as a team at Keller-Sullivan was also memorable. And that we — I thought we provided some very good instruction, developed some programming, the early versions of the adult living program that still continues now.
Coit: What was the collaboration with the Arsenal Apartments?
Fraser: So when the Watertown Housing Authority was building those apartments right on Arsenal Street and they approached Perkins asking if Perkins would like to have a few apartments set aside for us to use to have students live when they graduated from Perkins. And most of that negotiation happened beyond me, but I was asked if I would be interested in working with the students that now we’re adults and were living there. And that worked out very well.
So a lot of work because we had to spend a lot of time working with the manager of those apartments who really wasn’t experienced in working with people who were blind and deaf-blind, and were not — she was not familiar with working with younger people as opposed to elders.
But it was really an adventure to integrate the students into the Watertown community and help them learn about using all the facilities and the services that were here in Watertown. And a number of those people that we transitioned way back when are still living there.
Coit: Oh wow.
Fraser: Yeah. And Perkins is no longer involved in providing services for them, but it was amazing that those people were able to continue and to live independently and to work for all these years. I’m going back now probably very early in my career, 35 to 40 years ago that that happened.
Coit: Wow. That’s really interesting. So how did you transition to teaching science?
Fraser: OK. Well, I had gone part-time teaching being an Independent Living Skills specialist and doing that job. And I — that’s because my children were young and I’d spent a few years working part-time. And I needed to go back to full-time which the Human Resources Department at the time knew.
So people were looking for ways for me to be employed full-time and had patched together a few things for me, which was really nice. Perkins always is very supportive of family.
And when that — because I was so interested in science and had continued to do a lot of science-related activities in the community and with my children and kept up my certification, I had, in fact, done a lot of science things with a Girl Scout troop of Secondary students that I ran on campus on weekends. And I’d done a lot of work with nature and the outdoors related to the nature on the Perkins campus. So people knew that was an interest of mine.
So basically I had faded out of my involvement in what was happening off-campus. There were also — I didn’t mention earlier, but another thing happened during that time period about 40 years ago is we worked with also the Watertown Housing Authority and we had the opportunity to have two group homes on Green Street in Watertown Square across from the park there. And I was working with those two group homes.
So as that went on, there was going to be a change where those group homes were no longer going to be under Perkins’ management. So I needed a job, and since I loved science so much, it pretty much I dived in feet first and just took on a full caseload of students in that September of that year, and the rest is history.
I was able to develop a lot of collaborations. I already knew a lot of people in the field of science. So I called on all those resources to help me. And I worked with some other very nice science teachers at the time. Sally Stuckey, of course, who was a science and math teacher, and another woman, Moonset Yu was another science teacher at the time. And I worked with both of them for my first year or so teaching science.
And also — blocking out her name, but another teacher who had taught science — she was a teacher who left and whose position I filled. Her name may come back to me later.
[Additional information from Kate Fraser: The teacher’s name is Paula Huffman. She has kept in touch over the years!]
Coit: Of course. So how has teaching science changed in the time since you started teaching? And what year did you start teaching science? Do you remember?
Fraser: I don’t remember. It was–
Fraser: I really don’t. It was in the ’90s.
Coit: OK. So how has — how has teaching science changed since then?
Fraser: Well, for once — for one thing, the access to technology for our students made a huge difference. And the other thing that happened was during that time period, at first, science was not tested. So the curriculum was rather casual and not really maybe as rigorous it could be for students who were more academic.
But when the MCAS became — science MCAS became a required test for graduation, then people sat up and paid attention, and we were able to apply for a number of grants to get some science equipment, and supplies that were sorely needed.
We didn’t have a real science lab — not real science lab. But it was better. We could get tables with grant money, and I worked with the grants office to apply for several grants, and we were able to bring in money to buy a lot more science supplies and multi-sensory materials to teach science.
Coit: And did you have a favorite unit or topic to teach?
Fraser: Biology is my favorite, followed by chemistry.
Coit: And can you talk a little bit about the tools or the assistive technology that you use when you’re teaching?
Fraser: It varies considerably, but there are a lot of multi-sensory teaching tools out there that– many of which were used in regular public school teaching that were great. I don’t have any here. I’d like to be able to show you, but since we’re not being filmed, I can’t there.
[Additional information from Kate Fraser: One of my favorite activities is having students build molecules out of a kid that is completely hands on and accessible to everyone, Molymod.]
I have so many favorites. And as time went along, the American Printing House for the Blind came up with some improved products that were so useful. Also in the very beginning, things were rather meager.
We had some thermoformed tactile graphics which were fine if somebody — they were just all one color on that tan thermoformed paper. If students were very good tactually they could feel them and maybe get what they were. But now the printing of graphics has improved dramatically and APH made available a number of really helpful resources.
One that I particularly liked happened to be for chemistry, but chemistry is an integral part of biology also. So I remember how many years ago now it was published, but after I’d been teaching for a while and we would have to do things like adapt the entire periodic table to make it tactual and things like that.
A number of years ago, APH came out with something — it was called Azer’s Periodic Table Study Kit, and it was all — you could create your own periodic table, everything was tactual and multi-sensory, and it was one of my favorite tools for a long time.
And another thing that I really liked was some models that were used — hands-on models that were used for building three-dimensional chemical formulas and molecules — not really formulas, but molecules. But a lot of times I invented things or created things that seemed to work. And that worked well with our population.
Very often within a class, I’d have fairly — I liked larger classes. So I would tend to have large, for Perkins classes, like eight students. And I would create things that worked for each of those eight students and do the most multi-sensory teaching opportunities for each of those.
I think — one of the things I liked doing the most, and sadly right now it’s not being followed up, is back in 2006 to 2007 before e-Learning started, we — another teacher and I, Jen Nagarah, created an Accessible Science microsite on the Perkins website. This is, again, a year or two before e-Learning started, I think.
And that site was interactive in that people could reach out to us and they could ask us questions and see what we had posted. So what we did on this website was post activities that were multi-sensory, and we included pictures and step-by-step instructions for doing all of those activities.
And it was an instant hit. I mean, we heard from people all over the country and all over the world who got back to us saying, “oh, we love this activity. We have an activity we like, would you want to put our activity be posted on this website?” And there was a great interchange of ideas and I met a lot of people that way.
So that was the best, I think. I really liked that idea of reaching out and Perkins reaching out and being able to get other people excited about teaching science in a multi-sensory way. So that was fairly — I think that was one of the things that I really liked the best. And all of those activities that we posted on the website we’d done with our students.
Coit: So they were tried and true?
Fraser: Tried and true. Right. And then other people from other — I had a teacher who was teaching in the United Kingdom at a school there for the blind, and she said some of her ideas which we shared on the website. I heard from people in Taiwan who ran a summer camp for students who are visually impaired in science. It was actually run at a run by a professor of physics at a university there, a teacher’s college. And he trained science teachers.
[Additional information from Kate Fraser: I visited Taiwan twice to work with students and teachers there!]
I had a lot of opportunities opened up for me. Early on in the early 2000s, one of the things that happened that was really exciting for me and for my students was beginning to get to know scientists who were visually impaired. And because of that website and because of going to conferences, both in the field of blindness and in the field of science, I got to meet scientists who were blind.
Among the first two people that I met were Dr. Amy Bower at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and that collaboration continues to this day. We had student field trips to Woods Hole, and Amy connected me to other scientists at Woods Hole who had different areas of expertise because they cover everything in the physical sciences, the biological sciences, marine science.
In fact, we have still people coming and meeting with our students and working with our students both virtual virtually and in-person from some of those early collaborations, and Amy started a website called Ocean Insight which published a lot of the things that she did as a blind physical oceanographer.
Another person that I met early on was a young man who at the time was just getting his doctorate degree, and his name is Cary Supalo. And he is a chemist, a blind chemist. And he worked with Vernier software and hardware company– they’ve now changed their name, I’ve just found out today, to Vernier Teaching Resources or Science Resources, something like that.
But it was a company that, again, in technology, one of the ways that scientists collect data is using sensors and probes that accurately measure things that students learn about, such as temperature and pH and salinity and things related to the Earth.
And those sensors were not accessible unless somebody had some quite a bit of useful vision so. Dr. Cary Supalo, in the process of earning his doctorate, worked with Vernier to create software that would make these the hardware that went into the sensors be able to speak. And they’re now on their second version of that and we were there — as soon as we could in the beginning and have that equipment for our students to use.
And I think that’s been one of the more exciting things, is being able for our students to use technology to do science, to report on science, to learn about science and all the STEM fields that are out there.
Coit: So what have been some of the most difficult or challenging aspects of your work?
Fraser: Not having the equipment and resources that were needed, and not having a larger group of people at Perkins who understood science. I unfortunately found that some people who are — not just at Perkins, but in other places really had an unhappy experience in their own science education.
And so they didn’t really understand the value of science and how much it can inform people’s lives and how much you can help people to be an informed consumer in their adult life and how science really connects to daily living in a lot of ways, which is interesting because that’s what I did, is that I started out doing the daily living but had studied science and consumer economics in college.
That people just didn’t really understand. And that’s been rather frustrating. That it wasn’t a subject to take to get through high school. That it was a subject to take to get through life. And to have people see that within that field of STEM education, you integrate everything. I mean, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math that just is beginning to be an understood concept right now at Perkins. And that’s too bad, but it’s improving.
Coit: Yeah. That’s an great attitude toward science. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that is what it is.
Fraser: Yeah. It’s learning about your world. And I think that what helped me create the passion that I have for this is that our students very often do not know much about their world when I meet them. That their experiences have been limited, their curiosity about the world may have been stunted because people would say, “no, don’t touch,” or “be careful,” or “no, you can’t do that.”
And to open the world for them in a way to have them use all their senses to be able to make observations and all of those things is so important. It’s so much fun at whatever level the student is at. It’s all about meeting the student where they’re at and doing an assessment and figuring out what they already know so that you can meet them where they’re at.
I mean, I’ve worked with students who — the biggest thrill for me and that student was when the student understood cause and effect, some of those big concepts in science of which there are so many, one of them is cause and effect. If you push the truck, it will move. And that — and the difference between pushing and pulling.
With another student maybe at the other end of the spectrum, it may be a student who’s able to use their technology to collect data, create graphics, translate those graphics into tactile graphics on their own. Or to have a student go on to college. But at whatever level it is, it’s worth the – it’s worth the work to put into it.
I was never one of those teachers who left as soon as I could at the end of the day because I truly — I really loved teaching, I really enjoy working with students.
Coit: And so you worked in this secondary program. So what ages–
Fraser: Primarily. OK, in the beginning at Perkins, there was less of a division. I worked in the very beginning with students in the Secondary. We had a program called Special Programs that Cynthia Essex ran. I worked with students in Special Programs. I worked with students that would be now called Secondary. I worked with students from, what, the Deafblind Program.
I worked — students tended to have classes together, both in the Home Personal Management Department and when I was working — teaching in science, I very often would have students come from the Deafblind Program and be in my class. I have pictures of that going way back. But primarily. And then with what was called the Adult Living Program.
Fraser: -Services Programs. So I worked with a large age range.
Coit: So what have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Fraser: Oh. Seeing students develop a love of science and a curiosity about the world, and helping them develop hobbies and interests, whether it’s that they realize that maybe they could water plants at their group home or that in their earlier days learning to operate the washer and dryer, and you’re going shopping, being able to do those kinds of things back when I was doing Home Personal Management.
And now seeing students just get excited about coming to class and “what are we going to do today” and “what are we going to learn about?” A very rewarding thing that happened this year was — I don’t want to get choked up about this part, but one of — many of my students have gone on to college.
One of my students who I had a few years back, three, six years back now, went on to college and she graduated this past May with magna cum laude from Curry College with a major in biology and a minor in music.
Coit: That’s fantastic.
Fraser: And she sent me a note and videos from her graduation, and the note said, “thank you, Kate, for always having been so hard on me.” She’s — she said, “now I understand why you had me write those five-page essays when some of the other students only had to write five paragraphs.”
Coit: That’s so wonderful.
Fraser: Yeah. It meant a lot.
Coit: I bet. That’s really wonderful. And so what have been — what have you found most satisfying or rewarding in your relationships with the people that you’ve worked with?
Fraser: Having a coworker who was equally enthusiastic about science. So that’s happened a few times over the years. That’s been just the greatest thing.
Also, one of the things that’s been wonderful for me, because I’m dual-certified both as a Science Teacher and a Teacher of the Visually Umpaired, is I was able to mentor a number of people who were in the TVI program and do their — supervise them as student teachers who work with me and go on to see them be successful Teachers of the Visually Impaired.
That’s such an integrated part of what I do. In all my teaching, what I know as a Teacher of the Visually Impaired has been integrated into my teaching. I was very lucky that through the funding we got way back when, we were able to hire a science teaching assistant. And now at least three of those people are still teachers at Perkins. So — that were teaching assistants.
One of them is Joe Bayne who teaches math and Stu Grove who’s a Special Needs — Severe Special Needs teacher. I mentored Mary Mhyre in the Horticulture Department. And numbers, numbers of other people both in Deafblind as well as in other parts of Perkins. So that was a big thrill.
Another thing that was really rewarding to me was being able to do some work with leading people in International Program. For years I would go and speak to the international students, International Leadership students. I had a chance to work with people at UMass Boston, and before that, people at Boston College. And just the range of being able to meet different people and be able to get them excited about what we were doing at Perkins.
[Additional information from Kate Fraser: The International Program referred to is the International Educational Leadership, or ELP students.]
Coit: So I want to go back a little bit to teaching science. Can you — what was it like teaching science when everything was shut down during the pandemic? And I’m just — I’m very curious about how did you teach such a sensory subject?
Fraser: It was not easy. So we tried a number of different strategies, and luckily we went back hybrid fairly soon. But we — in fact, another thing that was affected by that was the fact that it was the week before the Science Fair. We’ve had Science Fairs every year, except this past year we did not have a Science Fair, which is really sad.
But it was the week before the Science Fair, and everybody had been working on their Science Fair projects. We were ready to go, we had whole plans set up, and the school shutdown. So I was like, OK, now what do we do? So never mind the regular day-to-day lessons, how do we pull off having a Science Fair when we’re remote?
But we did it. So we sent home packages of information, we worked with the students. So we did have the Science Fair where I was able to take home all the students’ posters from Perkins — they’re still in my closet. And we videotaped them. And students — we recorded every student doing their little presentation and shared it with people who were interested in hearing it. So that was the way we conquered that.
It took us a few weeks to pull that off, but the students had worked so hard. The Science Fair is always one of the most fun activities every year. Then relatively easier were the daily lessons, but we would send home information, we’d send on hands-on materials that students could use at home.
We did the best we could with what we had. Other teachers were also struggling at other schools. In fact, during that time period, I was teaching a course for UMass Boston on STEM education for teachers who are in service TVIs in public schools and some who were — a couple of people who were teachers at Perkins.
And we had to go remote, so that was a bit tricky and that was a big subject matter discussion, was, how do you do this? I also did a course for e-Learning during that time about how to deal with being remote.
We did things where people used just household supplies they had at home, and I would sometimes work with parents and ask the parents to be there and to, depending on the safety needs, I’m trying to think of some specific examples, but —
Coit: You had to be creative.
Fraser: Yeah. That we had to be very creative, but I would — oh, one experiment that we did during that time — I was teaching biology, and one of the things that we do during that time is take chicken bones because we’re studying comparative anatomy. And we look at chicken wings as compared to our bones. And then I have skeleton models at school. But I wanted to go ahead with that activity.
So it only uses chicken bones and some vinegar and water. So we were, first of all, examining the chicken bones themselves once they’d been stripped of all the meat, and this one I used cooked bones, and then — so they could see that there was actually like an elbow and other parts to it.
But then we continued with the bones into the idea of, well, how do we keep our bones strong? What makes bones be so hard and firm that they’re able to serve as the framework for our bodies and so many other vertebrates? And so the activity is to take the bones and soak them in vinegar for a few days.
So just made sure that everybody had some vinegar and a big enough glass at home and everybody soaked their bones for a few days, then you fish them out of the vinegar and they’re bendable, they’re pliable, because the vinegar has caused a chemical reaction that removes the calcium from the bones. And so that’s just one small example of what we did.
Fraser: One example, there were probably a hundred others. That’s the one that comes to mind.
Coit: It’s a good one.
Fraser: Yeah. And also, various people have various reactions to the vinegar smell.
Coit: Of course.
Fraser: Something’s very hands-on that everybody could appreciate and do fairly easily.
Coit: That’s great. So I also want to go back to something else you talked about. When you said that you work with the Girl Scouts, can you talk a little bit more about the Girl Scouts? The Girl Scout troop at Perkins?
Fraser: There happen to have been two Girl Scout troops at Perkins at one point because in the Athletic Program, Sharon Stelzer was running one. And at one point, Cynthia said to me, “gee, Kate, you’re doing Girl Scouts with your daughter in the Newtonville” where I was living at the time.
[Additional information from Kate Fraser: The Athletic Program is the Athletic Deafblind Program.]
And she said, “would you be interested in–” at that time, Fisher Cottage was all girls. And she said, “would you be interested in doing a Girl Scout troop on campus on the weekend?” And I was like, of course, that would be a lot of fun.
So my girls that I was working with who were, at this point, similar in age — so there were some — and also some other students that were from other cottages, but we held the meetings in Fisher Cottage. We met about twice a month and we met in the Fisher Cottage living room and did various activities related to earning badges.
And one of the girls actually completed her goals — can’t think what it’s called now. The highest — or it’s equivalent to an Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts, Gold Bar I think it’s called. And it’s been a long time since. And we did — they did various projects.
We did camping. We pitched tents behind — let’s see, which cottage? Behind Fisher Cottage in the field there. We pitched tents and had a campout one weekend. Maybe a couple of weekends. We did various cooking activities, craft activities, lots of hands-on activities. And we also included the girls that were involved in the troop and activities that were happening in Newton in the troop I was involved with there and the entire — Newton being a very big city had a lot of Scouts at the time.
And one of the events that I remember was something that we did every year called — it was an international dinner because Girl Scouting and Girl Guides are quite an international organization.
So once a year we would have a dinner where the troop would pick a particular country they were interested in to prepare foods from that country, and then would — and would create hands-on materials and other things that represented the country of their choice. So the girls from Perkins did that one year with the girls from Newton and that was a lot of fun.
Coit: That does sound fun. So my last question is, what are you most proud of in your work at Perkins?
Fraser: Most proud of. All right. Well, the successes of my students and the chance for them to learn about science and technology and engineering. And the other thing was that Perkins Accessible Science website. I was very proud of that. I think that it was very helpful to people beyond Perkins and that it was a helpful resource that I hope is going to continue.
I’m also proud of all the people that I encouraged to stay in the field and who became teachers. I’m proud of that, I think.
Coit: And is there anything that I missed or that you want us to know or that you want to share?
Fraser: I can’t think of anything. That if people in the future had other questions or information, I think that I would like to see Perkins continue to support STEM education for its students and for students that are served by itinerant teachers in the community so that all students could enjoy the experience and be successful in the study of STEM subjects.
Coit: Thank you so much. I’m going to stop the recording.
Fraser: OK, Susanna.