Archive for the 'visiting schools' Category



Happy Birthday! (Or should I say “Bon Anniversaire!”),

Today, January 4, is the birthday of Louis Braille. He was born in France in 1809, and his father had a leather shop. Note to children: be careful out there! Three-year-old Louis lost his sight after playing with his father’s sharp tools and accidentally poking his eyes.

Louis Braille’s parents did what they could to give their son a normal life. He was the best student in his school, and he became an accomplished organist and cellist. When he was 15, he simplified an idea that had been used in the French army to send messages that soldiers could read in the dark, encoding individual letters rather than sounds. He represented each letter by a different arrangement of six dots packed close enough that each letter could be read by a single fingertip.

Today, reading and writing of Braille is something of a dying art. There are now far more audio versions of books than there are books printed in Braille, and there are software programs to convert written text into audio. Today fewer than 20 percent of blind children in this country learn to read Braille. Technology is cool, but how will these children ever learn to spell correctly? How will they know where to put commas, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and so on? I didn’t lose my sight until I was 26 years old, so I was fortunate to learn all of that when I could still read print. I’m not proficient in Braille now, but the little I know sure comes in handy when I want to confirm what floor I’m on when I get off an elevator or to label CDs, file folders and buttons on electronic devices at home.

S & S

You blog readers out there who have a print copy of Hanni And Beth: Safe & Sound on your bookshelf should pat yourself on the back. You know a good children’s book when you see it, and your purchase has helped create more Braille books for children: My publisher, Blue Marlin Publications donates a portion of the proceeds from sales of every print version of Safe & Sound to Seedlings Braille Books for Children, a small non-profit organization in Michigan that provides high quality, low cost Braille books for children.

Over the past seven years, Blue Marlin Publications has Seedlings Logodonated thousands of dollars to Seedlings.

By producing Braille books for children, Seedlings helps promote “literacy for the blind,” providing visually impaired children equal opportunity to develop a love of reading. Safe & Sound is one of the books available in Braille from Seedlings, which means I’ve been able to read parts of the book aloud at the presentations I’ve been doing since Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published in 2007.

To find out how to order a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in Braille, or to donate to Seedlings to help them create more books in Braille for kids, link to www.seedlings.org. Every ten dollar donation makes another Braille book possible.

Quiz show

Last Thursday I spoke to a U of I class in Champaign. Monday morning I spoke with second graders at Chicago’s Francis Xavier Warde School. Yesterday I spoke to visually-impaired adults at Blind Service Association.

Each of these three presentations ended with a Q&A, which lead’s me to today’s quiz. Tell me if the following questions came from a college kid, a second-grader, or an adult with a visual impairment :

  1. How do you know what you’re wearing?
  2. How does it feel to be blind?
  3. What is the name of your book?
  4. What’s your favorite thing to do with your dog?
  5. What is it like to be blind?
  6. When you’re up there in front of us, do you picture what we look like?
  7. Do you know my girlfriend?
  8. So is there one thing that’s happened since you’ve been blind that you just can’t picture, you know, like instagram, or, like something like that?
  9. Is it sad to be blind?

That’s the quiz, now for the answers – let’s see how you did.

At Frances Xavier Warde last week.

At Frances Xavier Warde last week.

  1. A college girl asked this. I was wearing black shoes, black jeans, a gold sweater and a colorful scarf. The shoestrings on my black shoes feel different than the shoestrings on my gym shoes. I put a safety pin on the tag of my clothes that are black, and the gold sweater is the only one I own that has a cowl neck (so I just memorize that the one with the cowl neck is gold). My multi-colored scarf is the only one I own that has textured stripes I can feel, and the woman who sold it to me said it’d go with anything. “Does it?” I asked the class. They chorused a yes.
  2. A second-grader asked this one. I’ve been blind half my life now, I told her. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it usually just seems normal.”
  3. A visually-impaired adult asked this. My talk was about memoir writing, so gee, you’d think I might have mentioned the name of my book, huh! I’d forgotten, though, and when I told him my memoir is called Long Time, No See, he said he knew my story sounded familiar. “I read the audio version!”
  4.  The college talk I gave was to an animal sciences class, so you’d think this question would have come from a student there. But no, it came from a very cute second-grader. I’d never been asked this before, and I needed to take a few seconds to think before answering. “You probably guess I’ll say playing fetch with a ball, or having her chase a Frisbee,” I said. “But really, my favorite thing to do with Whitney is have her lead me to a place downtown, you know, get there by ourselves.” I explained how good it makes me feel to have confidence in my Seeing Eye dog.
  5. Another second-grader asked this question after I’d answered it the first time. She was no dummy: she didn’t buy my first answer! This time I admitted that being blind can be frustrating. “It can take longer to do certain things,” I conceded. “And I always have to remind myself to slow down so I won’t fumble around so much.” They seemed to like that fumble word.
  6. A college kid asked this, and I told them the last time I was able to see was 30 years ago. “So I picture you all dressed like college kids in the 80s.” They gasped, and then they laughed.
  7. An adult with a visual impairment asked this. “She’s from Champaign,” he said. And know what? I do know her.
  8. A guy in the college class asked this one. There are tons of things I can’t picture, but the one that stands out is 911. “The plane going into the building, the smoke, the people jumping,” I said, explaining that I went up in the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building in Chicago when I could still see. I remember how little the cars looked from up there, and how slowly they seemed to be travelling on the highways below. “But I just can’t picture how little the people who were trapped on top of those towers looked, or what it was like to see them jumping off the buildings, all of that.” It felt shameful to be intrigued by such a gruesome event, but I try to be honest when answering questions people ask at the presentations I give. I didn’t want the students to try to describe 911 to me – heck, they were only 6 or 7 years old when it happened. “Lots of people have tried explaining it all to me already, I’ve read books and articles, listened to TV shows and documentaries about that day,” I told them. . “I just can’t get it into my head.”
  9. This same question about my feelings came from yet another second-grader. At Francis Xavier Warde School the students spend a lot of their year in second grade learning about special needs, and I think these second graders were worried about me. “You’d think being blind might make me sad, or maybe lonely, but it really isn’t that bad,” I assured them, explaining some of the benefits of being blind. “One of them is that I can’t judge people by what they look like — I get to judge people by what they say, and what they do.” Judging from the concern those little kids showed about my feelings Monday, the second-graders at Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago are beautiful.

A little thumpin’ thumpin’

Whitney and I took a train to Champaign Wednesday to give a presentation for an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. While we were there, we stayed at the house of an old friend: retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni.

There’s Whit with Hanni’s bone during a previous visit to Urbana.

Whitney and Hanni are both Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses, they are both graduates of the Seeing Eye school In Morristown, N.J., and both of them are very, very smart. I had no trouble telling them apart, though. Hanni is a tail wagger — you know it’s her when you hear a thump, thump, thump on the floor. She’s taken on more and more of her Golden Retriever side in these matronly years: she wears her hair long and full. Her coat matches her personality: fluffy.

Whitney, on the other hand, is a lean, mean machine. She’ll be five years old next month, and she no longer shows signs of childish jealousy that she used to on visits with her predecessor.

Fourteen-year-old Hanni is in very good hands with her people Steven and Nancy. She’s slowed down, of course, and when we enter the room, she just lifts her head and acknowledges us with the thump, thump, thump of her tail wagging against the floor. The only person she gets up to greet at the door now is her beloved Nancy. I use Whitney as a role model: I don’t show any signs of childish jealousy. Truth is, I’m joyous.

At 14 years old, Hanni still gets out regularly for walks. Sometimes, she even runs. I eavesdropped on Nancy in the other room as I buckled Whitney’s harness on to get ready for our trip back home to Chicago. “Wanna go to Homer Lake today, Hanni-boo?” she cooed. Whitney guided me out for our ride to the Champaign train station then, and we left to the happy sound of Hanni’s tail thump, thump, thumping her answer to Nancy’s offer.

Back to school

I practiced with Whitney ahead of time, so when the Dukes of Distinction presentation started Thursday night, we knew exactly what to do: follow fellow

That's the York High School Commons all done up for the ceremony.

That’s the York High School Commons all done up for the ceremony.

distinguished alum Dr. Robert Chen (“I go by Bob, he said when we were introduced) down the red carpet, stop when Bob stops, and pivot 90 degrees to the left to face our audience. Whitney guided me beautifully, and as the audience cheered, I gave Bob a nudge.

“It all feels a little odd, doesn’t it?” I whispered. Bob agreed. He’s a leader in immunization research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and he’s working now on HIV prevention research at the CDC and serves on the World Health Organization’s HIV Vaccine Advisory Committee. I’m guessing he’s won an award or two before. “The organizers are all taking it so seriously, though,” he whispered back. “You don’t want to disappoint them.”

And you know what? We didn’t. The event was well-organized, the room was full of positive energy and pride, we kept our talks relatively short, and everyone enjoyed the assortment of chocolate covered strawberries, brownies and cookies — especially Floey’s five-year-old little brother Ray, the youngest person there.

Hearing my brother Doug play at Fitzgerald’s was a perfect way to celebrate afterwards, and the alarm rang way too soon the next morning: all of the Dukes of Distinction had to be back at York at 7:30 a.m. to spend the day visiting classes. An entourage of high-energy well-organized students whisked us from one twenty -minute visit to the next, and after a while, I lost track of how many there were in all. I do know we visited:

  • a gym class (they were doing yoga!)
  • an animal behavior class
  • a creative writing class
  • a children’s literature class
  • a calculus class
  • the student newspaper staff
  • three different sophomore English classes
  • A concert band rehearsal
  • and a partridge in a pear tree.

My sisters Cheryl, Marilee and Bev came along with Whitney and me to all these classes, and all four of us were surprised at how much we enjoyed the calculus class. Leslie Davis Stipe (a friend from my York High School days) teaches that class, and she explained that it’s a “flipped classroom.” She makes videos explaining how to do calculations, students watch the video on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in their high school’s high-tech Commons, and they can repeat the video as many times as necessary to help them understand. They return the next day to do what we used to call “homework” together in class. When we arrived, Leslie was circulating around the class while the students worked in small groups to do their exercises. It was great to see technology being used to make the most of a real-life teacher’s ability instead of trying to substitute for human interaction. Some other highlights:

  • The sophomore English students were all reading short stories and studying “identity.” One student asked if I thought my identity changed after I lost my sight. Another wanted to know if my sense of beauty changed, too.
  • The boys and girls cross country teams were heading to state championships in Peoria this weekend, and the band was coming along to play and cheer them on. When I told the band kids how much I used to love those bus trips, and that a lot always happened in the back of the bus, they laughed in agreement. It was reassuring to know some things really don’t change.
  • A creative writing student asked if it was hard for me to write without being able to see. “I don’t mean physically typing,” he said. “I mean, is it hard to describe things to readers?”
  • When the journalism teacher asked if anyone had one last question, a boy said he did. “Is it just me, or is that the most beautiful dog anyone has ever seen?”

Late in the day I had a one-on-one talk with a 16-year-old student who is losing her sight due to Stargardt’s disease. She seemed relieved when I told her I know what that is. I understood. “It’s nice to not have to explain that stuff all the time, isn’t it?”

We shared stories about friends who stick with us, and how difficult it is to learn Braille. She told me she might be going on a college visit early next year — it’s being arranged especially for high school students with visual impairments. They’ll go as a group to a number of colleges in the Chicago area. Each trip will include a talk by someone in the students with disabilities office.

By the end of our visit, she and I decided we’d try to arrange a presentation both of us could do together sometime. I’ll do my normal shtick, and she can demonstrate some of the new technology she uses to keep up with sighted friends her age.

York’s principal, Diana Smith, caught up with me at the end of the day and said she’d already heard from that student. “She told me visiting with you was the best thing that’s happened to her in high school.” If any of you blog readers are interested in having this 16-year-old and me come speak at your school, civic group, library, whatever, please leave your contact info in the comments here.

When 3:30 finally came around yesterday I was totally exhausted. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: teachers should be paid wayyyyyyyy more than they are now. Everyone should visit their old high school, too. I can’t promise you’d be given the royal treatment that I was (I was treated more like a Queen than a Duke) but boy, is it worth the trip.

Sound the trumpets — and the trombone

Tomorrow’s the big day. Every year York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois honors a number of distinguished alumni, and six other York alumni will be honored along with me at a ceremony in York High School’s Commons tomorrow night. York is the “home of the Dukes,” so honorees are officially called Dukes of Distinction.

And so, tomorrow night, I get my crown.

Okay, it’s just a plaque. But a girl can dream, can’t she?

The reception begins at 7 p.m., and the program follows at 7:30 p.m. Mike has ordered a Zipcar to get my Seeing Eye dog and me there in time to practice walking on the red carpet. I know, I know. Sounds like a punchline, right? But it’s true! My sister Cheryl lives in Elmhurst and has made multiple trips to the school district office with photos and memorabilia from my York days, two other sisters are coming in from out-of-state, and my eight-year-old great niece Floey will be joining them at the head table along with Mike, Whitney and me. From the District 205 web site:

That evening, seven alumni will be recognized at a celebratory reception followed by a recognition program during which they will speak. The event is free and open to the public (no ticket necessary). The following day, November 7, honorees will present to and interact with York students in large and small group settings.

And wait! There’s more! My brother Doug is coming in from Louisville tomorrow night, too! I’ve written about Doug here before. He’s a professional jazz trombonist, and tomorrow night he’s performing at Fitzgerald’s in nearby Berwyn, Ill. with Petra’s Recession Seven, a Chicago-style early swing/trad jazz band:

Thursday, November 6 Petra’s Recession Seven –
Petra with trumpeter Bob Ojeda, clarinetist Kim Cusack, guitarist Andy Brown, bassist Joe Policastro, drummer Bob Rummage,
and special guest trombonist Doug Finke
7:30-10:30 pm
Fitzgerald’s http://www.fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
6615 Roosevelt Rd. Berwyn, IL 708-788-2118
$10 cover

That’s Doug: Has trombone, will travel.

Flo took my sisters and me along to hear Doug perform with the Original Salty Dogs Jazz Band when we were little, and we all grew up listening to the jazz records he left behind when he embarked on his music career. Louis Armstrong, Hot Five and Hot Seven. King Oliver. Lil Hardin.

Flo went to York High School, and all of my sisters and brothers graduated from York, too. What better way to celebrate my new dukedom than to dance to Doug’s music with Mike and my sisters. Not sure how awake I’ll be when “presenting and interacting” with high school students at York the next morning, though!

Teaching children about blindness

I’ll be showing off my children’s book in Orlando this week.

Tomorrow afternoon Whitney and I head to Orlando to give a presentation about ways to teach children about blindness for the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children. Part of my presentation includes ways to use my book
Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in the classroom, and as long as I’m gathering resources to share at this conference on Friday, what the heck, why not share them with you, too?

An entire lesson plan devoted to Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound is right there for the taking on a web site called Learning to Give. The site suggests “Reading Experiences to Inspire Acts of Kindness,” and features lists and lists of activities for kids who read our book. Example:

During Reading

ASK: How does Hanni keep Beth safe during the day? What senses does Hanni need to use to help Beth?

SHOW: Look at the pictures of Hanni guiding Beth.

CONNECT: How is the way that Hanni takes care of Beth similar to how your parents or friends take care of you, or how you help others? For example, have you ever helped a younger child or elderly person cross a street or perform a task? Imagine what kind of help you would need if you could not see or hear or if you could not move easily.

The site also mentions Braille:

“In addition to having special dogs to help them get places, those with a visual impairment also have a special alphabet that helps them read.”

marthaAnd here’s another idea for you: Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound is one of the books on the Martha Speaks Read-Aloud Book Club list. Martha Speaks is an animated show on PBS, and each book selected for the Martha Speaks Book Club is coordinated with a Martha Speaks episode. For Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, PBS suggest kids watch an episode where Martha wants to pursue her dream of becoming a real firehouse dog, but then realizes the job is not as easy as it seems.

You can download this episode from the PBS Kids site here.

The Martha Speaks Read-Aloud Book Club resource guide is three pages long so I can’t go into all the details here. It does suggest inviting a special guest to read-aloud sessions, so if any of you teachers or librarians are thinking ahead about special events for the next school year, please know: Hanni has retired, but my current Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I would love to come.

And finally, you can download four lessons at Teachers Pay Teachers to use with Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound at home or in the classroom. The total cost for these four lessons is five dollars, and right now anyone can download the one aimed at third graders free of charge – you don’t have to be attending the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children conference to take advantage of this deal, and you don’t even have to be a teacher! I think you do have to register to download that lesson, but it only takes a minute, kids seem to really like the fun activities suggested in that lesson, and hey, it’s free!

Okay. Enough. I’d better get packing.

I should have known she’d ask that

I have a children’s book published, but here’s a confession: I don’t know a whole lot about children’s literature. Not modern children’s literature, at least. I read a ton of books when I was little, but after I traded my children’s library card for one that got me into the adult section of the Elmhurst Public Library, I never looked back.

This means that when the Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival started touting the writers who’d be there last weekend, I didn’t recognize a single name. I just figured everyone on the list was like me: Midwesterners willing to travel to this out-of-the-way Wisconsin town to sell a few books and enjoy the quiet.

The organizers created trading cards for all the authors, including moi!

The organizers created trading cards for all the authors, including moi! The front’s above, back below

Boy, was I wrong.

The Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival is spearheaded by two retired children’s book librarians who volunteer their time to the festival, and every year these two dynamos manage to bring a few very highly-regarded children’s books and authors to small-town kids in Wisconsin. Here’s a sampling of just four of the 16 writers at the festival last weekend:

  • Kevin Henkes won a Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon and Newberry honors for two of his novels, Olive’s Ocean and The Year of Billy Miller
  • Blue Baliett wrote Chasing Vermeer and other mysteries for children that regularly appear on the New York Times best-seller’s list
  • Peter Brown won a Caldecott Medal for Creepy Carrots, and he came from Brooklyn to be at the festival
  • Raina Telgemeier traveled from Astoria, New York to be at the Sheboygan festival, and she has a graphic memoir called Smile that was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

So was I intimidated by all these famous writers? Heck no. I was impressed! Both with the fair organizers who got these writers to come, and the writers who took planes, trains and automobiles to get to Sheboygan.

And besides, who needs the New York Times or some fancy-schmancy medal? I’ve got a secret weapon: Whitney.

A volunteer driver chauffeured Whitney and me to visit small-town schools as part of the festival Friday, and at one school a starstruck boy approached to shake my hand. “You’re the first blind person I’ve ever met,” he said. When I took Whitney’s harness off at another school to let kids pet her, one girl crawled up on all fours. “I’m a Seeing Eye dog,” she said. Her friend was right behind, closing her eyes and grasping a belt loop for guidance.SheboyganTradingCardB

Our presentation the next morning was in a section of Bookworm Gardens dedicated to Helen Keller. the flowers and plants feel — and smell — sensational there. A six-year-old with visual impairments came to hear me speak, along with her brother and her parents. Maya is learning Braille at school, and she came up to the front to help me answer questions from the audience afterwards.

My favorite question from the entire festival came later. I sat on a panel about “Animal BFFs” and a woman in the audience wondered if losing my sight had heightened my sense of intuition.

“Whoa, I’ve never been asked that before!” I said, taking time to ponder. Do I? Sometimes I’m right about guessing which elevator will open first. Hmm. The other day I thought about Colleen, and when i got home there was a message from her on the answering machine. You think…and suddenly I realize I had my answer: no. if I’d had a good sense of intuition, I would have known she’d be asking that, and I would have been ready with a response!</p>


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