Why first-graders love Helen Keller

Nearly 50 years after her death, the story of Perkins’ most famous student fascinates a new generation of youngsters

A class photo of the first-graders who wrote to Dave Power, with their teacher

First-graders at Pinecrest Elementary School learned about Helen Keller from volunteer teacher Barbara Soper (center).

November 22, 2016

This fall, the president of Perkins School for the Blind was the target of the world’s cutest letter-writing campaign.

The topic at hand? What first-graders really think about Helen Keller.

Eighteen children from Pinecrest Elementary School in Michigan wrote letters to President and CEO Dave Power, describing what they liked best about Perkins’ most famous student.

In his hand-written letter, Owen said he liked that Keller “rote words,” despite being deaf and blind. Miriam’s favorite moment was when Keller met her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Jack appreciated Keller’s love of animals, especially “cuoot bogs” (translation: cute dogs).

The students had learned about Keller from Barbara Soper, a veteran teacher who volunteers in their school. Soper is a self-taught Helen Keller expert – one of her most prized possessions is a copy of a letter Keller wrote to her high school principal.

“I just think she’s so worth it,” Soper said. “(Helen Keller is) someone who conquered the odds and made a difference for the entire world.”

Keller became world famous as the first person with deafblindness to earn a college degree. She went on to become a renowned author, activist and public figure before passing away in 1968 at the age of 87.

When sharing Keller’s story with first-graders, Soper said she turns off the lights, and asks her students to close their eyes and plug their ears. For a brief moment, she wants them to experience life as Keller did – without sight or sound.

“It’s always my goal to make things real and honest for the students,” Soper wrote in a note to Power that accompanied her students’ letters. “I chose the topic of Helen Keller because she is such a wonderful story of determination and also had a willingness to help others.”

In the classroom, Soper also explained to her students how difficult it was for Keller to learn language as a child without the benefit of vision or hearing.

She described a scene, made famous in the 1962 movie “The Miracle Worker,” when Anne Sullivan tried to teach Keller the word for cake. Sullivan gave Keller a small piece of cake and then spelled C-A-K-E in sign language into the girl’s hand. But rather than learn the word, Keller snatched another piece of cake and stuffed it into her mouth.

Students loved that story.

“My favorite part of Helen Keller was when she grab the cake and stuck it in her face,” Sabah wrote in his letter to Power.

That’s the kind of anecdote that helps 6- and 7-year-olds understand that a historical figure like Keller was actually a real person, Soper said. “I wouldn’t have left that (story) out for anything.”

A handwritten letter on colorful stationary. It reads, "Dear Mr. Powers, I am in first grade. My name is Miriam. My favorite part of Helen Keller was when she met the teacher."