Teaching essential life skills to public school students

Perkins community teachers bring the power of the Expanded Core Curriculum to students everywhere

A student using a SMART Brailler while her teacher looks on

Public school student Madeleine, 12, receives lessons in assistive technology and independent living skills from Perkins teacher Lauren Blume-Webb. Photo Credit: Anna Miller

Toting her backpack through the halls of her middle school, 12-year-old Madeleine looks like any other sixth-grader. Like many of her peers, she enjoys sports, especially swimming, and hanging out with friends.

But Madeleine is the only girl in her grade who knows braille.

Every day, Madeleine attends regular classes at her Belmont, Massachusetts, public school, learning core academic subjects like math and history, and electives like art. In the afternoons, she meets with Perkins teacher Lauren Blume-Webb, who helps her learn specific skills related to blindness.

On a recent Wednesday, Madeleine and Blume-Webb sit in front of a Perkins SMART Brailler®, practicing abbreviated braille versions of common words. Blume-Webb asks Madeleine to select a random word from a bag and use it in a sentence. The first word is “always,” and Madeleine pauses over the brailler keys, a look of concentration on her face.

“I always go to swim practice,” she types, pulling inspiration from her daily schedule.

Madeleine has usable vision in one eye, and can read some large print. Braille is the back-up plan in case her remaining vision is ever lost. She is one of hundreds of public school students receiving services from Perkins educators who travel to classrooms across Massachusetts.

During her sessions with Blume-Webb, Madeleine learns assistive technology and independent living skills. Both are part of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC), a set of skills designed specifically for students with visual impairment who often miss out on the incidental learning opportunities their sighted peers enjoy.

Soon, Madeleine and Blume-Webb will begin working on food-related lessons, simulating restaurant scenarios and learning basic food preparation skills.

“If you go to a restaurant and get chicken alfredo on a white plate, how are you going to use your utensils – and not your fingers – to feel if you have food on your fork?” Blume-Webb asks. “Those things are so important. It’s all the stuff that you don’t think about when you don’t need to.”

Madeleine also receives weekly instruction in orientation and mobility, where she practices using a white cane to navigate independently. Soon she’ll start learning how to take public transportation.

“She’s going to be in seventh grade and that’s what kids are going to do, they’re going to take the bus to Harvard Square,” Blume-Webb says. “So she’s working on reading maps and looking up (bus) schedules on her phone. These are the things that you’re not going to learn in your classroom, but that you need for day-to-day life.”