Lessons for life
The Expanded Core Curriculum goes beyond traditional academics, and prepares Perkins students for the challenges of school, work and everyday life
By Alix Hackett and Bill Winter
Take a glance at the class schedule of any Perkins School for the Blind student and you’ll notice something unusual. Sandwiched between familiar standbys like algebra and American history are courses you won’t find in most public schools – covering topics like independent living, sensory efficiency, and orientation and mobility.
Together, these classes make up one third of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC), a set of nine skills geared specifically toward students with visual impairment. The ECC is an essential curriculum that compensates for vision loss and helps students access core academics. It’s foundational to all other learning.
The ECC also covers everything from cleaning to using technology to socializing with peers – skills that most sighted children acquire by observing everyday life.
“What’s different about educating children who are visually impaired? The simple answer is that they miss the opportunity for incidental learning that sighted children take for granted,” said Perkins president and CEO Dave Power. “They don’t get to see the other members of the class and their social interactions, or see how their parents get dressed for work every day.”
Life skills have been a mainstay in Perkins classrooms since the school’s founding in 1829, and they remain just as relevant today in preparing students who are blind to lead more independent lives. Walk into any classroom on campus, and you’ll likely witness one or more ECC skills being taught alongside traditional academic subjects.
“Our teachers are experts at building these skills into their teaching in regular programs,” said Power. “If you’re in science class at Perkins, you’re learning biology but you’re also learning social skills and self-determination.”
That’s also true for public school students who receive services from Perkins’ visiting community teachers. Most of those lessons incorporate essential ECC skills, too.
“The ECC is not just for students on our campus,” said Power. “There are thousands of kids who are visually impaired in Massachusetts.”
ECC skills take on a new level of importance when students who are blind enter the real world. For those living independently, being able to shop for groceries and use a computer to pay bills is just as valuable as being able to recite the periodic table.
“You can learn the core (academic) subjects, and you should learn them,” said Power. “But if you only learn the core and you’re visually impaired when you turn 22 (and leave school) you have the risk of failing in the real world without the rest of these skills.”
For students in Perkins’ residential program, the ECC permeates every facet of campus life. Ordering pizza becomes a lesson in budgeting and assistive technology. Getting dressed to go outside becomes a lesson in sensory efficiency. Every moment is a teachable moment at Perkins School for the Blind.
Here are snapshots of nine of these ECC moments, as they happen:
Orientation and mobility
Bronwen’s white cane is almost as tall as she is, and she prefers it that way.
“I think it works better for me,” says the 16-year-old Secondary student. “I’m a fast walker.”
She certainly is. She strides confidently down the hallway, her ponytail swinging, the tap-tap of her cane echoing off the Howe building’s tile floors and brick walls. She’s navigating to the school gym, where she’ll play goalball later.
Orientation and mobility specialist Paul Doerr trails a few steps behind. He teaches students how to use a white cane and how to find their way from place to place, safely and efficiently.
He asks Bronwen if she needs directions. “I want to do it myself,” she says.
“Independence is a good thing,” Doerr says later. “If you can get someplace by yourself, and not have to rely on other people, it opens up all kinds of things for you.”
It’s a daily grooming task most men do without thinking. But it’s more difficult when you can’t see the face you’re shaving.
That’s why Secondary student Brian, 20, is standing at the sink in his residential bathroom. He’s practicing shaving while independent living skills teacher Kathy Bull looks on. It’s one of a multitude of skills – from cooking to cleaning – Brian must learn to become a self-sufficient adult.
“If you can take care of yourself, and your home, and make food, you’re just going to feel like a competent person,” says Bull. “And that makes you feel confident.”
Brian shaves by feel with an electric razor, one area of his face at a time. He rubs his chin to check if he missed anything. The razor buzzes again for a quick touch-up.
Brian rubs his face one final time and smiles. “Oh yeah,” he says. “It looks good!”
Slater, 17, sits in front of a computer screen, fingers poised over a large print keyboard.
“Dear Aunt Lori,” she types. The computer reads the words aloud as they appear, magnified, on the screen. She pauses and looks to her teacher, Sharon Stelzer, for guidance.
“What do you want to tell Aunt Lori?” Stelzer asks.
For the next half hour, Slater composes an email to her aunt. She tells her about gym class, and celebrating the 100th day of school with classmates in the Deafblind Program.
Compensatory access classes teach Perkins students how to process and share information in ways that don’t require sight. Slater is nonverbal, and uses a voice output device to communicate. When Stelzer asks her a question, she uses a spelling board to answer.
“That is her main mode of communication – we’re not trying to change it,” Stelzer says. “We’re trying to expand it and structure it.”
Ada Chen, a teacher in Perkins’ Deafblind Program, holds out a fleecy pink scarf in one hand and a black felt hat in the other.
“Which one is your scarf?” she asks Casey, 9.
Casey, who has low vision and moderate hearing loss, carefully touches each garment before selecting the scarf and wrapping it around her neck.
She strokes the soft fabric as Chen reads aloud from an interactive book about winter. The book includes pictures of Casey, her classmates and the clothes they wear to stay warm.
After each page, Chen introduces tactile objects like the scarf that reinforce the printed words. The activity encourages Casey to efficiently utilize all of her senses to learn and interact with the world around her.
“Students like looking at their pictures, and that motivates them to use their tactile senses to differentiate between objects,” says Chen. “Every sense is so important.”
In the Early Learning Center, students ages 3 to 6 sit side by side for “Circle Time.” Through interactive songs, they learn about shapes and concepts like left and right.
They also practice being social.
“If you’re visually impaired, you don’t always know there are others around you,” music therapist Jill Buchanan explains. “With the passing and greeting activities, we’re reinforcing social skills and reminding everyone that there are people on every side of them.”
Social skills are taught at every age – for example, older Perkins students learn how to engage in conversation without the benefit of visual cues. Younger students get more kid-friendly lessons.
During a song about sharing, Buchanan asks students to pass around a green ball. For a moment, Emily, 4, seems tempted to hold on. Then, at her teacher’s encouragement, she offers the toy to her classmate, Grace.
When her turn comes around again, Emily doesn’t hesitate.
Secondary student Zach may not know it yet, but his future is at his fingertips.
The 16-year-old is typing braille on a Braille Sense notetaker, a powerful mini-computer for people who are blind. Students use it to write papers, read articles, send emails and more.
Today Zach is exploring the Braille Sense’s advanced functions while also improving his braille writing skills – a “twofer” lesson, says assistive technology teacher Kate Crohan, who is also blind.
Zach just saved a file, using the Braille Sense’s built-in braille keyboard. He reads the result on the refreshable braille display.
Crohan tells him to rename the file. “Are you with me?” she asks.
Zach says, “Yeah,” and his fingers move a little quicker.
“The notetaker literally brings braille to your fingertips,” Crohan says. “There are so many things you can do with it. It’s imperative that students learn it and keep using it.”
For 19-year-old Jon, finding his dream job starts with honest answers.
He’s taking a Vocational Planning class where his teacher, school psychologist Linde D’Andrea, asks questions to help him figure out what career is right for him: What are your skills? What are your interests? What do you like to do?
“I’m good at social skills – speaking to people,” Jon says. “I’m good at getting things organized.”
Jon attended public high school, and is now at Perkins to enhance his job-search and workplace skills. He’s learning how to write a resume and handle a job interview, and has signed up for a five-week vocational program to gain real-world work experience at a local company.
At Perkins, students like Jon take an active role in planning their future, says D’Andrea.
“They’re getting the self-determination, the self-advocacy, the self-awareness – and just the confidence and readiness to move on,” she says.
Recreation and leisure
After warming up on the treadmill in the Perkins gym, Jake, 17, knocks out two sets of lat pulldowns on the weight machine. He records his workout – 40-pound weights – on his braille notetaker.
“Next class can I try 50 pounds?” he asks Megan O’Connell-Copp, his physical education teacher. “Forty seems to be good for me but I like pushing myself.”
“We can talk about that,” O’Connell-Copp replies, as they move on to free weight exercises.
For Jake, exercise is about more than getting fit. Learning how to be physically active will help him develop hobbies and activities he can enjoy for the rest of his life. Like his sighted peers, he’ll be able to stop by the gym or go for a run with friends.
“If you’re healthy, you’re more confident and you have more options,” O’Connell-Copp says. “You have the tools you need to be independent and happy.”
Brendan knows what he wants to do with his life and has a plan to make it happen.
During a morning shift at Perk Café, the student-run campus coffee shop, the 18-year-old rings up a customer before restocking the fridge with sparkling water.
“I’m really good at what I do, which is working at the café and serving people,” he says. “It’s something I love and it’s what I want to continue doing.”
For young adults who are blind, developing self-determination is an important step in the transition process. It helps them advocate for themselves and push for opportunities in their careers and in life, says Denise Fitzgerald, director of transition services.
For Brendan, self-determination helps him plan for his future.
“It begins with him experiencing something he is successful at and realizing, ‘I can do this,’” Fitzgerald says. “When you’re self-determined you’re taking ownership of your life.”
Skills for everyday
For these nine students – and every other student at Perkins – the ECC is more than a curriculum. It’s a way of life. The nine skills are explicitly taught in classrooms and residential cottages, at kitchen tables and on playing fields. They are an essential part of the Perkins experience.
“The Expanded Core Curriculum is at the heart of our expertise,” said Power. “It’s engrained in everything we do.”
For teachers like orientation and mobility specialist Paul Doerr, the ECC is the best way to prepare students for all the challenges and opportunities of life. It gives them a toolbox of skills they will use at school, at home, on the job and in social situations. Together, these skills empower students to follow their dreams and build happier, more independent lives.
“I think it’s a key element to being a human being – being able to make a decision about what you want to do, and then doing it,” he said. “I think that drives everything, that level of freedom.”