During a recent geography lesson, Perkins teacher Rachel Antonino instructed her students over a video conferencing app to put one of their hands out in front of them while using the other to trace a finger.
“If your hand is Egypt,” she said, “then your finger is the Nile River.”
That is, it runs down the country. Not across.
In this new world, the question of how to teach remotely when a student can’t always see, hear or communicate in a typical fashion has carried great urgency. And while swapping a tactile map in an actual classroom for one’s own hand is certainly a way to continue teaching Egyptian geography to kids with visual impairments, it’s hardly the only answer to that question.
That’s why today, across the Perkins community, teachers, students and families are working together to devise new ways of learning. There have been many challenges in doing this, of course. But like the Nile River in Egypt, perseverance has run through the heart of every lesson.
“I've got families and students all over the map, and they all have different needs and challenges in this new way of doing things,” says Antonino. “There’s no perfect solution. I'm trying to find a balance while still challenging my students.”
That means teachers have had to get creative.
Sara Espanet, a teacher in the Deafblind Program, works with students who generally have multiple disabilities, aged seven to 14.
She says she’s been working with parents to see what types of objects they have in the house that can stand in and support lesson plans.
When teaching math, for instance, she might communicate with a student’s family beforehand to see what kind of coins they have to facilitate counting lessons. She’s also been mailing seeds to students to start gardens of their own in lieu of the popular on-campus garden projects beloved in the Deafblind Program.
“I'm trying to translate all of the lessons over video as if I'm sharing it in front of them in person,” she says.
And this type of work has been done across the organization in nearly every subject.
For literary lessons, some teachers have been reading to their students and instructing them to press a switch — an assistive communication device — to signal they are ready to go onto the next page in a story.
Music therapists have been writing and sharing songs based on different themes and feelings about the season and new realities of remote learning.
Even physical education has continued, with teachers conducting group stretch routines and multi-part movement workouts over video chats.
“It’s crazy trying to figure this out when you have a Zoom classroom full of kids — the turn taking, the questions and how to foster positive experiences” says Megan O’Connell Copp, adaptive physical education teacher. “It’s unique in that we need assistance from our families to help with this, definitely with phys. ed., with directionality and spatial concepts.”
Indeed, parents have played an important role in all this work, no matter the subject. After all, they’re the ones finding items around the house to repurpose as classroom materials, they’re the ones keeping their kids on schedule and they’re the ones really taking on entirely new roles as both parents and educators.
“At first, only his teachers could show him how to do the work,” says Andrew, parent to Jacob, 7, in the Deafblind Program. “Now we’re able to go over more materials with him ourselves. He’s starting to sit and do work with us, too. When things started, we weren’t really sure what to do, but things are getting better and better.”
It’s all hard work, but it’s been paying off. It’s also clear that while this work was brought about by necessity, the perseverance being shown by teachers, parents and students is being fueled at least in part by excitement over a brighter future.
Back in Antonino’s class, before dismissing her students, they’re asked what they’re most looking forward to about the day they’ll be able to return to Perkins, whenever that might be.
10-year-old Guo Zheng, who goes by Z, is quick with a response, delivered rapid fire: “Art, gym, technology, reading, music, lunch, recess, going on the bus and learning!”
“The whole thing huh?” Antonino responded.
He answered: “Yep.”