Archive for the 'visiting schools' Category

Lots of folks will be relieved to hear this

At the Q & A session during our visit to St. Anne Catholic School last month a first-grader wanted to know, “How do you cook if you’re blind?”

People who are blind can cook, and lots of them are very good at it. “I’m just not one of them,” I said with a shrug.  A reporter was in the audience, too, and I had to laugh when I read her description of my cooking skills in the article she wrote about our visit in the Barrington Courier Review afterward:

Although her husband does most of the cooking at home, Finke said she enjoys making salads. She just has to stay away from the stove and sharp knives.

Well, it’s not exactly what I meant, but hey, it is good practice. Anyway, here are some photos from the visit:

Whitney and I spent the whole day at St. Anne's. Here, we're with fifth through eighth graders.

     Whitney and I spent the whole day at St. Anne’s. Here, we’re with fifth through eighth graders.

We also made individual class visits.
We also made individual class visits.


A brush with danger

Here's the illustration from the book that sparked the questions.

Here’s the illustration from the book that sparked the questions.

My friend Nicole Dotto and I both volunteer for Sit Stay Read (SSR), a literacy organization that encourages Chicago Public School kids to love to read. SSR uses dogs and volunteers in all sorts of clever ways: children read aloud to specially trained therapy dogs, human volunteers visit as “book buddies” to help individual kids, and people like me come as guest readers – the books we read to the kids always have something to do with, guess what? Dogs!

I haven’t been able to visit the schools lately with Whitney like I usually do, but…Nicole to the rescue! She read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound out loud to fourth-graders at the schools she was at this month, and sent me a fun homemade card listing the questions the kids asked when they got to the page where Hanni prevents me from falling into a hole. “What a perfect treat!” Nicole wrote. I had to agree, and thought I’d share some of those questions with you blog readers as a treat for you, too:

  • What if there is a hole and her dog doesn’t see it?
  • But what if she just doesn’t?
  • What if Hanni falls into the hole first because she’s looking at a bird?
  • After she falls, how does she find her toothbrush?

I bet whoever asked that last question has a great smile. Gotta love a kid who, even in the face of danger, keeps her mind focused on dental hygiene.

The heart and soul of Francis W. Parker School

This week Judy Roth, one of the writers in my Thursday afternoon memoir-writing class, arranged for Whitney and me to visit the school where her grandson Davin goes to kindergarten. My friend Carol drove us to Francis W. Parker School and agreed to write a guest post about our morning together there.

My morning at Francis W. Parker School

by Carol Dorf

The hands flew up in unison.

The hands flew up in unison.

When I heard Beth was going to speak to kids at Francis W. Parker School, my hand immediately shot up to ask if I could accompany her. Sure, I wanted to experience Beth interacting with kids, but, truth be told, I really wanted to see what kids who attend one of the most prestigious private schools in Chicago are like. From the school Web site:

Colonel Francis W. Parker, influenced by the educational theories of John Dewey, envisioned a school that held the child at its very center. His fundamental belief was that learning could be fun and proved his point, not by theories on child psychology, but with actual classroom demonstrations. Colonel Parker believed that education included the complete development of an individual — mental, physical, and moral. Through the educational journey, students would develop in to lifelong learners and active, democratic citizens.

Colonel Parker believed that these great citizens must use their knowledge to improve the community– to make things better, more fair and pure. Parker students would graduate, not only with vast knowledge, but also with heart and soul.

Francis W. Parker School was, shall I say, quite lush: carpeted hallways, perfectly appointed decorations on the walls, modern desks, fabric lounge chairs. This was the crème de la crème.

The kindergarteners shuffled into the auditorium, and once they found their seats I could see heads bobbing and stretching to get a look at Beth and Whitney. Some kids were literally on the edges of their seats in anticipation of what would come. They waited patiently as Beth did her shpiel, and then, like mini Arnold Horshack’s, two dozen hands went up.

This was the moment I was waiting for. What questions would these “senior kindergarteners” ask: “How do you know the maid has done a good job if you can’t see?” “Who walks the dog for you?” Yes, I admit I was expecting a bunch of precocious kids asking questions that reflected their seemingly privileged lives. I pre-judged, and boy, was I wrong. What I heard instead was exactly what you’d expect from any 5-year-old:

  • How do you write if you can’t see?
  • Can you tell what I look like?
  • If you can find your wallet, How do you know what’s in there?
  • How do you make food?
  • When you’re doing art, and you have to pick a color, how do you know what it is, you know, if your dog is color blind?

A big thank you to Beth for allowing me to accompany her that morning. Me and the kids at Frances W. Parker School learned a lot that day.

Whitney on the go, go, go

Whitney and I got off the train from Milwaukee Saturday only to turn around and jump in the car with Mike to drive down to Champaign! I spoke to an animal sciences class yesterday morning at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Whitney stole the show, of course.

My three-year-old Golden Retriever/Yellow Lab cross has been home with me a year already, and I spoke with the class about how confident and comfortable she seems in her

Whitney is chillin' at home.

Whitney chillin’ at home.

work now. After that I went over some of the qualifications necessary to become a guide dog instructor. Most guide dog schools require instructors to have a college degree and then do an apprenticeship, and apprenticeships can last as long as four years. I hope I did a decent enough job explaining how complicated it can be to train dogs, train people, and then make a perfect match between the human and canine — if so, those undergrads walked out of class with a new appreciation of why the apprenticeships last so long.

Once apprentices finish their training and become full-time Seeing Eye Instructors, they’re assigned a string (a group) of dogs and given four months to train that string. Throughout the training, instructors pay close attention to each dog’s pace and pull, and they make careful notes about how each dog deals with distractions, what their energy level is, and all sorts of other characteristics. And then? We blind students fly in from all over North America to be matched — and trained — with a new dog.

Seeing Eye instructors have to be as good at evaluating people as they are evaluating dogs. Our instructors review our applications before we arrive on campus and then ask us tons more questions when we get there. Instructors take us on “Juno” walks (they hold the front of the harness to guide us through all sorts of scenarios to get an idea of how fast we like to walk and how strong of a pull we’ll want from our dog) and then combine all of this information with what they know about their string of dogs, talk it over with fellow instructors and the team supervisor, mix in a little bit of gut instinct, and voila! A match is formed.

Each Seeing Eye instructor trains more dogs than they’ll need for a class. If a dog has a pace, pull, or energy level that doesn’t match with a blind person in the current class, that dog remains on campus with daily walks and care, and perhaps more training, until the next class arrives.

My first dog, a Black Lab named Pandora, was one of those Seeing Eye dogs who went through a second round of training before she was matched with me. Back in 1991, the Seeing Eye knew that the dog they matched me with would be landing in the home of a very unique five-year-old boy named Gus, and that the dog would be in the hands of a woman who had never had a dog before. I’m sure they figured Pandora would need all the extra training she could get!

The Seeing Eye took special pains to train Whitney for me, too. She did a lot of her training in New York City, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Our past week together serves as a great example of Whitney’s versatility: one day she leading me down streets to a St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Milwaukee, the next day down crooked brick sidewalks in rustic Urbana, and today, back to work leading me down Michigan Avenue.

Whitney is very game. She is nonplussed by unusual or chaotic predicaments, and her confidence in the city is contagious. None of the dogs are perfect, though. Whitney chewed through yet another leather leash while lying at my feet on the train ride home from Milwaukee. Hard to blame her, I guess. Sitting on the train is boring. She’s a cosmopolitan girl who needs to go, go, go. I just need to check on her more often when we’re sitting still. And always make sure I’m carrying a spare leash.

Let the Braille Games begin

Quick. How many people do you need for a team at a Braille Game?

Whitney, me and the Braille crew. Photo by Richard Robbins.

Whitney, me and the Braille crew. Photo by Richard Robbins.

Six, of course. One for each dot in a Braille cell.

Whitney and I learned that, among many, many other things, at our very first ever Braille Games competition in Milwaukee last Friday. A story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel explains:

Teams of students rotated from table to table in a made-up world where Braille is written on money, on pizza boxes and orange juice bottles from the grocery store, on clothes in a department store, on “Go Fish” cards and other games.

Braille Games participants came from schools all over southeast Wisconsin, and all of them had significant visual impairments. As Judy Killian, a Braille teacher from Madison, pointed out in the newspaper article, blindness can be very socially isolating. “After this, they’ll be really enthused,” she told the reporter. “It gets them pretty excited about learning Braille.”

Teams of six spent their morning buzzing from table to table to play Braille bingo, spin a Wheel of Fortune, and spend Braille money on groceries marked with Braille labels. My favorite game was Human Braille Cell, and to help you know how it’s played, here’s a beginner’s understanding of what a Braille cell is made of:

  • A Braille cell is six dots arranged in two columns of three dots, just like the number six on a pair of dice.
  • To make writing and referencing Braille symbols easier, each dot in the Braille cell has a number.
  • Down the left hand side, starting from the top, the dots are numbered 1, 2, 3.
  • Down the right hand side, again starting from the top, the dots are numbered 4, 5, 6.

The letter “A” in Braille is only one dot, and it’s the one on the very top of the left hand side, dot one. The letter “L” is a straight line down the lefthand side, dots one, two, and three.

To play Human Braille Cell, each team of six sits in two rows of three. You know, just like the Braille cell. When the emcee calls out “A,” the kid representing Dot One jumps up like a jack-in-the-box. If the emcee calls out “L,” the three kids representing dots one, two, and three all jump up at once. The June Taylor Dancers had nothing on these kids.

Whitney and I didn’t compete, but I’d say we won the best prize of all: we got to meet every kid there! Each one came to our table to have me sign (in Braille, of course) their grand prize for participating: a Braille version of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound to read at home.

A big shout-out to my children’s book publisher, Blue Marlin Publications, and to each of you who have purchased copies of the print version of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in the past. Blue Marlin Publications donates a portion of the proceeds from every print book sold to Seedlings Braille Books for Children to help them produce high-quality Braille books for children who can’t read print.

How can that dog keep you safe?

At Oglesby last week.

At Oglesby last week.

Last Friday Whitney and I visited an elementary school in a South Side Chicago neighborhood that’s been the center of a national focus on violence and guns the past couple of weeks. That very day, President Obama was at a Chicago high school nearby giving a speech about his new antipoverty policy initiatives. Our mission at Oglesby Elementary was far less controversial: Whitney and I were there to talk about writing, Seeing Eye dogs, and what it’s like to be blind. Judy Spock (a writer in my Thursday afternoon memoir-writing class) has a neighbor who works for a Montessori program at Oglesby, and the two of them accompanied Whitney and me on the visit.

Judy sat at my side while I talked to the kids, and as she rhythmically flipped through Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound to show off the beautiful illustrations, she noticed a boy in the class had his hand up. “Can you color?” he asked. I could, I said, but I’m not very good at staying in the lines. “Can you paint?” I had to consider this one a bit. “I could get the paint on the brush,” i said. “But whatever I painted would be kind of, well…abstract.” Next question: “What’s a stract? Hmmmmm. “I guess I meant it’d be a mess.”

The finger-painted wreath.

The finger-painted wreath.

The class grew quiet. I didn’t have to see to know their little minds were thinking, thinking, thinking. All of a sudden another hand shot up. “You could finger paint, couldn’t you?” a little boy asked. “We made a wreath!” And just like that, all of them started talking at once. “It’s right there! Behind you! We painted it with our fingers” I turned around to look. Don’t ask me why.

“No, over there! Not there! Behind you! On the wall!” Judy to my rescue. She turned around, looked up at the wall behind us, and described a huge piece of paper with a beautiful green circle of painted handprints: a holiday wreath. The boy was right. I could do that. “Maybe you and that dog could come next Christmas to try,” one of them said, which led to the next question. “How does the dog know where to go?”

I’m the one who tells Whitney what direction to go to get our errands done. I told the kids how we travel one block, she stops at the curb, I tell her,  “Good girl, Whitney!” Then I give her a direction. “Whitney, left!” She turns left, I tell her how smart she is, and we go to the next curb. “Atta girl, Whitney! Good girl!” I say, then give a direction. “Whitney, right!” Whitney turns right, and we’re off again. I explained how I listen very carefully for traffic when we have to cross a street. When I think it’s safe, I command “Forward!” Whitney looks both ways, and once she’s made sure it’s safe to go, she leads me across. More questions followed:

  • How do you wash up?
  • If you can’t see, how do you know where the doorknob is?
  • If you can’t see, can you play any games?
  • Did that dog write the book by itself or did you help the dog type it into the computer?
  • What if you got to a hole in the sidewalk and the dog took you around and right then a big bus came by an beeped really loud and you fell in to the hole?
  • How do you know where to press your fingers on the piano if you can’t see the sheet of paper?
  • Why is your hair so blonde?

That last question gave me an opportunity to tell them how I tap the lane marker to keep my place when I swim laps, and how the chlorine in the pool makes my hair turn lighter . “Do I look like Beyonce?” They chorused a joyful, “Yes!”

Just as it was getting time to leave, one girl asked, “How can that dog keep you safe?” She must not have been listening when I’d explained our routine at the stoplight, or what Whitney does to prevent us from falling into holes. I repeated my story about Whitney checking both ways before we cross a street, and then Judy and her neighbor led Whitney and me out to the car. We spent the entire drive home yammering about the delightful and curious kids at Oglesby and how thoughtful their questions were.

It was only when I got home and turned on the radio that I realized that last question might have been about a different sort of safety. The radio story said that in his remarks that afternoon, President Obama had paid tribute to 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who had attended a high school near Oglesby. “Too many of our children are being taken away from us,” the president said. “last year there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under. So that’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.” The school where the kids want me to come back and fingerpaint is located at 7646 S Green St., right where the Englewood, Auburn and Gresham neighborhoods meet, and on the Friday we visited, the Chicago Red Eye reported:

In Englewood, a 29-year-old man was shot to death Friday in the 6900 block of South Morgan Street, officials said.
Englewood has recorded three homicides so far this year. This South Side community area logged 21 homicides last year, RedEye found.

Oglesby Montessori is a free, open enrollment, elementary school that is a part of public (non charter) Chicago Public Schools. You can help them grow by letting Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools (773-553-1500) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel (312-744-3300) know that the Auburn-Gresham/Englewood neighborhood deserves an ever-growing and expanding Public Montessori school.

The Shoe Game

Our presentation at Joseph Sears Elementary School yesterday started with me reading out loud from the Braille version of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound,

At Joseph Sears school yesterday.

At Joseph Sears school yesterday.

and then I explained three rules the kids should keep in mind if they happen to see a guide dog with a harness on: don’t pet the dog, don’t feed the dog, and don’t call out the dog’s name. “Those things can distract a Seeing Eye dog,” I told them. “It’d be like if someone nudged you or kept calling your name wile you were working on your spelling words at school. You wouldn’t be able to concentrate on your work.”

A concerned kindergartner raised her hand. “Can you pet the dog?” I assured her I could, leaning down to do just that. “It’s part of the bonding,” I explained. “She has to know that I’m special. I’m the only one who can pet her when her harness is on, and that helps remind her to take care of me and help me stay safe.”

And with that, we were off. The kids wanted to know how I sit in a chair, if being blind was scary, do I watch TV, how I am able to drive, how I get dressed and whether I ever make mistakes. That last question made me laugh. “One time I gave a presentation at a school and I was wearing two different shoes!” The kids laughed, too, and then the whole conversation turned to, you guessed it: shoes.

  • Kid: How do you tie your shoes?
  • Me: How many of you know how to tie your shoes?
  • Kids: I do! I do! I don’t! Yes! My sister knows how! No! I do!
  • Me: Well, those of you who can tie your shoes, I bet if you close your eyes you could tie them, too.
  • Kid: (background sound of quiet fumbling at feet) How many shoes do you have?
  • Me: Well, after I made the mistake with the shoes that time, I got rid of a lot of shoes. I only have four pairs now: One closes with Velcro, another is a slip on, and two pairs that tie. One of the tie shoes has round shoelaces, the other has flat shoelaces,that’s how I tell them apart.

And that’s when I got the idea. Tell them how to play the shoe game. You form a circle, put blindfolds on, and everyone takes their shoes off and throws them in a pile in the middle of the circle. When the teacher says, “go” you have to find your shoes and put them on. First person with shoes on wins.

The teacher yesterday appreciated right away how this game might teach children how much they can determine from their sense of touch. She promised the kids they’d play next week. “I won’t tell you what day we’re going to do it, though,” she warned. “I don’t want you all wearing slip ons that day!”

Time was up already, but as we got up to leave one boy called out one last question. “What if you were a boy, and you put on Cinderella shoes, and you didn’t know you had them on and you wore them home by mistake?” Hmmm. Guess he’ll just have to wait until the Shoe Game next week to find out.

Close your eyes and try to find the toilet paper

After our fun visit to Dewey Elementary School in Evanston, Ill. last month, six-and-a-half-year-Katya Karpeyev told her Papa she felt special. “It was really neat to be up front assisting Beth with the other kids’ questions.”

Katya’s big sister was at the assembly with her third-grade classmates, too, and Sasha agreed to write a guest post so my blog readers could see a school visit from a nine-year-old point of view.

That's Sasha and Katya helping out in class.

That’s Katya (l) and Sasha helping out in class.

Things I learned from Beth and Whitney’s visit

by Sasha Karpeyev

When I got into the multi-purpose room it was really nice to see Beth, Papa, and Carli at school. I learned a lot about blind people and Beth from the stories and things that she told us. I learned that only blind people have white canes with red tips, that Beth went blind when she was 26 (half of her life), and that it can be challenging to be blind.

At home, I tried some experiments like trying to go to the bathroom with my eyes closed to see what it was like to be blind. It was really hard because first I tried to turn on the light and turned on the vent instead when I did not even need the light. Second it was hard to find the toilet. Third I could not find the toilet paper very quickly. Fourth it was hard to find the sink and when I felt the sink, it seemed like it was crooked.

I also tried to slide my finger across the numbers on the phone to make combinations of numbers. I got every single one right.

The day Beth came, after we left the multi-purpose room, all of my friends were talking about how interesting it was to see someone at school besides the teachers and students. Everybody also thought it was fun to see a dog in school since no animals were allowed in school except service dogs. They also said it was cool how Beth could be a writer even though she can’t see at all. I hope Beth can come to see us again!

Thanks, Sasha. Whitney and I had a ball with you and Katya at Dewey School. Hope we can come again, too!

From Spa Flo to Baby Flo

Spending an overnight with my 96-year-old mother is like staying at a spa. Flo keeps the thermostat in her apartment at sauna-high temperatures. She rarely drinks coffee or alcohol and offers green tea to guests. She doesn’t have a computer or wi-fi at her place, and there’s no T.V. in the living room. She creates a peaceful atmosphere by stacking traditional jazz and Christmas music on her record changer, sitting back in her favorite comfy chair and encouraging guests to take in the sounds of her console hi-fi with her. And then, when night comes, the slow, deliberate moves Flo makes to get ready for bed allows her guests plenty of quiet time to sit on the couch and meditate.

Whitney and I had a slumber party with Flo last Thursday night, and I was still in my nightgown finishing the traditional Spa Flo heart-healthy oatmeal breakfast when Chauffeur Cheryl showed up yesterday morning to deliver me to her granddaughter’s school.

That's AnnMarie helping me to field questions from her classmates.

That’s AnnMarie helping me to field questions from her classmates.

My great-niece AnnMarie Florence Czerwinski is the only offspring in our entire family to be blessed with my mom’s beautiful name. Her birthday was yesterday, and although she’s a big seven years old now, I still refer to her as “Baby Flo.” Baby Flo’s elementary school is relatively close to Spa Flo, and Whitney and I visited Westmore Elementary School yesterday in honor of AnnMarie’s birthday.

Realizing I wouldn’t be able to see when her schoolfriends raised their hands, the birthday girl volunteered to accompany me to all three first-grade classrooms. “Questions?” she’d ask. “Anyone have questions?” AnnMarie is not a shy child. Allowing her the opportunity to stand in front of class and choose who got to go next was the best birthday gift ever.

The first-graders had all read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound before we arrived, which meant they had time to come up with some pretty thoughtful questions. Examples:

  • “What happens if you go to the library and the book you want isn’t there in Braille?
  • Why do you need a dog instead of a white stick?
  • What if you go to the library and they told you no dogs allowed?
  • What if you ate food and it wasn’t what you wanted and you asked for your money back?
  • What if the dog is blind and the person can see?
  • How do you know what your dog looks like?
  • What was the last color you could see before you went blind?

Whitney was as spirited as the students we visited, sneaking out from under me to lick a first-grader in the front row, and somehow managing to roll over – even with her harness on — to beg the kids for a belly rub. We had a ball celebrating Baby Flo’s birthday at Westmore School, but I’ll be honest: two-and-a-half hours with first graders left me yearning for one more night at Spa Flo.

Breaking bad

That’s Whitney and me from a previous visit to New Orleans. Kids love us in the Big Easy.

As it always goes with school visits, the questions students at the Waldorf School of New Orleans asked after our presentation last Wednesday were the best part of the show. One of the younger girls wondered, “If you can’t see your dog, how can you tell when she’s telling you what she needs?” and an older boy asked “Do you ever get stressed, you know, being blind and everything?” but my favorite question came from a boy who sounded to be ten or eleven years old. “Do you break a lot of stuff?”

I answered that last question with a hearty laugh and an emphatic, ”Yes!” I acknowledged that I should probably only use plastic cups and plates. “But I don’t like the way they feel in my hands, or the way they taste.” This boy’s honest question made me smile, and it gave me an opportunity to share some blind tricks of the trade:

  • I use a placemat, and Mike and I are consistent about where we place things on it when setting the table
  • I keep my hand on the table top and kind of “spider” my way to a drink rather than reaching across the table for it (and knocking it over)
  • I try to always put dirty dishes right in the sink or dishwasher rather than leaving them on the counter where I might knock them over
  • I feel inside the cupboard to determine what’s there already before putting clean dishes away
  • I have one certain place in my office and the kitchen where I set my coffee cup so I know where to “look” for it again
  • If I’m sitting down at a party I’ll often sandwich a drink tightly between my feet rather than risk reaching for it (and spilling it) on an end table

Friends and family accommodate me by setting drinks down loudly enough for me to hear where they are, my Sunday morning book club rings my cup with a spoon so I’ll know where my coffee is, and the bartenders at Hackney’s always serve my drink in a solid pint glass so I’ll know what to expect when I reach for it. I had to admit to the kids that even with all these tricks I still manage to break a lot of stuff. “It makes me sad sometimes, but then I to stop and think, “I shrugged. “It’s just stuff.”

The kids were listening. A few days later a package from the Waldorf School of New Orleans was hand-delivered to thank me for our visit. The kids had bundled an assortment of tiny tubes of fragranced creams and emollients inside, guess what? A new coffee cup. “Just in case…”.

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