Keeping touch while apart

How our teachers ensure learning continues for students in the Deafblind Program.

A headshot of Sara Espanet

For many of my students who have both vision and hearing loss, physical touch is the best way for them to connect to the world.

In class, I’ll talk to them using tactile sign language, the practice of signing into their hands. I’ll help them locate objects on a table by placing my hand under theirs and lightly guiding them. I’ll give them objects, like coins, to conduct math lessons.

In March, the necessity for physical separation changed all that. And that left me, alongside my fellow educators, faced with an urgent question: How do we teach children for whom touch is so important when we have to do it online? The answer: Get creative while engaging our students’ parents and caregivers on a much deeper level.

It starts with communication between teachers and families.

Well ahead of class starting, I’ll ask my students’ parents: What do you have around the house that your child likes?

For example, I have one student who loves plants. So to work through a lesson on addition and subtraction, his parents gave him seeds. I have another who favored construction, so we swapped in nuts and bolts the parents had lying around. Elsewhere, we often enjoy art lessons built around painting without brushes, using whatever is available to children that the family doesn’t mind getting a bit colorful.

In every case, we work with parents to identify objects that might make the most sense, depending on their kids’ needs.

Parents aren’t just there to collect materials, though. Vitally, they make up the physical distance between us and their children. That means we’re coaching them on the ways we use touch to help connect children to their surroundings. And in that way, the parents have themselves become educators. We simply couldn’t do this work without their willingness to step in and take on these additional responsibilities.

As a friend of Perkins, you also play an important role here. Deafblind students learn differently than most. For them, a prolonged disruption in their education could mean losing skills they have worked so hard to build. Your support means we don’t have to pause our work with them.

Nothing about this year has been easy. Yet today, I’m so proud to say our efforts to educate children who have multi-sensory impairments have continued in new ways. I’m even prouder to say my students are also thriving in this new environment. They are so very capable of doing amazing things. They just need us to believe in them. We do. We know you do too, and it makes all the difference.

Sara Espanet has worked in the Deafblind Program for 13 years, first as a teaching assistant then teacher. She works with students aged 8-14, teaching them everything from math and science to English and language arts, and arts and crafts.

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