Feature Writer Jane Kronheim

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – Sailing the Seven C’s

When we enter the field of education, it is like navigating uncharted waters. Each child is unique, filled with new and interesting challenges. This is true of all education, and not only with regard to the special needs population. As we launch a ship of understanding and patience in the new year, we will encounter difficulties on our journey. And, after 35 years of itinerant work in the vision field, I can see a new horizon up ahead. It is surrounded by the seven “Cs”. Perhaps this sounds like a play on words and in fact it is. Early adventurers traveled unknown waters called the Seven Seas and much like those sea-faring men and women, many of us are aware of undefined waters looming in the not-too-distant future.

When I considered my own type of “C” faring adventure, I discovered seven “Cs” of my own that I wish to share. The first “C” has to do with change which is not only necessary from time to time, but which will hasten new beginnings and new ways of thinking. Change can shake up some people or it can become a reward to others. This depends on your willingness to accept what happens next.

In order to change we need to challenge ourselves, the second “C”. So, when we take up this challenge we allow ourselves to “think outside the box” of conventional ways of doing things. While some folks sign on to the latest trend or “educational fad” there are still a few of us around who dare to challenge this herding instinct as we step outside of the fold to raise critical concerns. But this cannot happen if we are unwilling to express ourselves with freedom of thought.

So communication becomes the third “C”. Without timely communication teachers will have a difficult time teaching their students. And without communication with each other, they will be at a loss for further insights. Often when we communicate, we might confront each other as we seek change and strive to challenge mislead ideas.

Although confrontation is difficult for most people to do, it is often necessary. So, confrontation, the fourth “C” is imperative if we are to move ahead on a sea of progress.

At the turn of the next wave is creativity and collaboration, the fifth and sixth “Cs”. Sometimes creative solutions might appear controversial at times, but as a doctor/friend once said: “Controversy is good!” This can bring about new ideas and invention. If we can collaborate properly and in good spirit, then the sky’s the limit and who knows just where this ship will sail.

Finally, it takes a lot of courage to get this ship back to harbor. Every day I see teachers and therapists who are willing to go the extra mile to help a child, to teach a new technique, and to support their colleagues. To step outside the box of conventional thinking, this takes courage, the seventh “C”.

So, when I tell you that “I am sailing the seven “Cs”, you will understand what I mean: change, challenge, communication, confrontation, creativity, collaboration and courage. If you can embrace even one of these seven “Cs” then know that you are embarking on an expedition that begins when you take the first step towards a truly human endeavor called exploration.

Now, make sure that the ship you are on has the right navigation tools. For instance, a compass will give you direction. Make sure that you know how to use it. Be certain of how to read it. Ask others to check the course with you. Be of one mind. Have clear thinking. Don’t let starfish, icebergs or the briny sea muddle up your thinking. Otherwise your ship might sink. Education, like a ship, needs to flow evenly, full steam ahead. With the right amount of “Cs”, the ship may toss and turn for a while, but it will eventually right itself.

Now there is another ship that might cross your path to the seven “Cs”. This is the “ship of fools”. The “ship of fools” attempts to chart a course with a compass that no one can read. This ship has all of the best equipment, but the ship’s captain and the men and women on board were ill-prepared for the journey. I could go on and on about the description of this foolish vessel, just know this: that without honest assessment of the ship’s needs, this ship will fail to return. One can compare this to the preparation of our children, as well as ourselves. Without proper instruction, at the right time, with honest materials and approaches, a student receives a flawed direction. This can even happen to any of us, at any age. It will take forever to reach back and find the seven “Cs” that could have helped our students and ourselves.

So how do we embrace the seven “Cs”? I believe this can happen as we honestly apply ourselves, living our lives with integrity, learning by experience and through the appropriate educational channels and having the courage to recognize the sea of change that surrounds us.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – The Cat Who Liked Sargento Cheese and Crab Rangoon

This time of year when people are rushing around, crowding each other at the various department stores in search of that desired object or masses of “stuff”, I think fondly of one particular gift that I had the good fortune to embrace almost 20 years ago. This happened when a friend had to vacate her apartment, find various homes for all of her “critters” and then move on to some unknown location.

I was visiting her when all of her “stuff” was strewn around the apartment, when I noticed this mischievous black cat, “Twinkle Toes”, standing on top of the box spring of her bed which had been leaning against a hallway wall. I took one look at this feline character who was flirting with me as he rubbed his nose against the padding, and I suddenly heard myself saying: “I’ll take him!!” I had never had a cat before and while I was growing up we only had dogs: one beloved Irish Setter named Maeve and another smaller pooch named Heidi, a schnauzer. We never had cats.

I don’t know why. Most people will tell you that a house is not a home until there is a cat present somewhere in the environment. I can tell you now, after nearly 18 years with the “Twinks,” it is true. This little guy, who had been abandoned somewhere on Beacon Hill in Boston, was discovered by my friend’s daughter who heard the wee kitty meowing in an alley way. She gathered him up and brought him north to New Hampshire where my friend took him in, along with her loving kitty Mousy, a strange Iguana named Sweet Pea and two ferrets whose names I can’t recall anymore.

But “Twinkle Toes” stole my heart and for many years he was my constant companion. As an artist, I was entranced by this little black kitty who became the muse for many of my paintings and drawings. I even penned a children’s story about the cat who loved to wander in the woods with me as I collected branches for my woodstove. I took numerous photos of the “Twinks” and came up with so many different names for him that I often wondered if my friends thought me mad. He became the Twinkmeister, the poopacatta, Mr.Pussywillows, kitty literature and jaws and claws or prickly paws. The list went on and on.

Along with the unusual nicknames, my special kitty had some favorite foods. They included Sargento Swiss cheese, crab Rangoon, and Kate’s Real Butter. After I would butter the toast in the morning, I let “Twinkie” enjoy a breakfast meal by allowing him to gently lick my “butter fingers.” I think you can just imagine how sweet that was. Over time, a wonderful man returned to my life and Twinkle Toes became a “jelly cat” or very jealous of this gentleman’s presence.
When Twinks and I were on the sofa and this boyfriend would approach, Mr. Twinks would make a scoffing sound or a low grunt at this man’s presence. I had never heard this before so I was shocked at how possessive this cat had become.

Later on my friend and I would laugh with glee remembering those moments as the kitty would come to my rescue on the sofa, curling around on my upper torso in total possessive stance. Eventually Twinkle Toes made friends with my boyfriend and learned to accept him as his own.
Of course it would never be the same, but this gorgeous black cat remained with us till the bitter end when one night Twinkie could no longer breath and met his demise on the basement stairs.

Heartsick I ran to his aid, only to realize that my 19 year old kitty was gone. In tears and sadness I was able to get the kitty to the proper animal hospital where they prepared a special cremation for my Twinkle Toes.

Within a week, I had received a letter from this place, featuring a card with a little purple ribbon, a small poem and the kitty’s paw print emblazoned on the card. I was a total wreck, emerging from the post office, unable to stop the tears from streaming down my face.

This special kitty was indeed a long standing gift I gave to myself, allowing him to come into my small quiet rural world, up on a hill in New Hampshire. Who says that small animals have no meaning or place in our lives? They are the best gift that can possibly exist for all of us.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – Mrs. Finneburgh’s Piano: An Early Gift of Music

Whenever I visit programs for young children, I am always scanning the classroom in search of a piano. A real piano. Yes, they are still out there, those pieces of musical furniture lurking somewhere in a preschool or kindergarten classroom.

In recent years, the pianos have been disappearing. I do not see them anymore. This reminds of a time, long ago, when I was a little girl. Mom and I would visit Mrs. Finneburgh’s house. In her living room, filled with typical furnishings of the 1950’s, I saw this beautiful piano.

Mrs. Finneburgh’s children, now grown up, once took lessons there. But the piano, still looking beautiful as ever, had been transformed, and became a fancy table top upon which the family stored photos, embellishing its uppermost level.

I would ask Mrs. Finneburgh if it was OK for me to sit at the piano and explore its black and white keys. At that point, I did not really know how to play the piano, but I loved tinkling the ivories for hours, forming chords, making my way with “Chopsticks” and lovingly creating those “Oriental” sounding melodies playing only the black keys, as I called them.

On and on I would play high notes, imagining little woodland folk floating around the upper keyboard, then low, deep notes as if thunder just infiltrated the deep forest while all of the woodland creatures ran off to their appointed knot holes. I loved Mrs. Finneburgh’s piano and the fact that she allowed me those moments of time in which to create my own childish rhapsodies.

I am struck by the fact that people are discarding these “relics” of old front rooms and Victorian parlors. Some people will do anything; “just cart it away and you can have it for free,” say many of the “Piano for Sale” ads in the local papers.

Just a few years ago, while up north doing some vision consults, my student and I were on a community trip when we went into a secondhand shop and saw an announcement regarding a piano raffle. I put my name in, just for fun, and wouldn’t you know it, they called me from the great north woods to tell me that I had won the piano, so come and get it! I explained that I was a three and a half hour drive away. I tried to hook them up with a local piano teacher in their neck of the woods, but somehow they never connected.

Sadly I learned that these people, out of frustration, took an ax to the old piano, eventually dumping it into some local ravine. I was heartsick, feeling guilty and remorseful about the demise of that piano. I felt that its musical soul had been broken. What could I have done?

I thought again about Mrs. Finneburgh’s old piano, how I had loved it, longed for one just like it and eventually learned how to play an upright Krakauer that my parents bought.

I hope that young children today, even in the midst of their iPods and iPads and virtual keyboards, will have the opportunity to play a real piano in real time in some old lady’s front room.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – The Gift of Literacy

We typically think of a gift as something that someone has given to us. Usually wrapped in seasonal gift wrap with a ribbon on top, the gift is hidden beneath such elaborate and colorful trappings. But I am thinking of the type of gift that keeps on giving in and of itself. And that is the gift of literacy.

As a teacher I am always amazed at the ways in which young children learn to read and write. Although learning to read does not come easily to some, most children who have the capability to comprehend what words are all about, learn the reading “code” whether this is in print or Braille.

I often think back on the many kids who struggled to learn what words represent. Some just could not grasp intellectually what this amazing system of words and letters is all about. And for those who had real print disabilities there was always the spoken word. What I mean here is the ability to listen to spoken information and to tuck that information away for further applications.

Many teachers believe that acquiring “true” literacy means that you can read print or Braille… and that’s it. They have frequently placed recorded or audio formats in the back seat (so to speak) of literacy, as if it does not count for anything. I vehemently disagree!

What to do with children who have print or Braille difficulties? Some might say that these kids are unable to be literate. Again I disagree. Over the years I have tapped into RFB&D – Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic which is now Learning Ally. These recordings have been developed for the many textbooks that print-disabled individuals could access when print failed them. I have also found that BookShare and NLS (National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped) is extremely helpful to many readers. Studies of those who experience dyslexia show that these highly unique and intelligent individuals can access the world of audio books just fine and in fact, they do quite well.

Now, for the blind and visually impaired there are so many audio formats to tap into, it boggles the mind. I have had numerous discussions with my blind colleagues and they say that most of the reading they are doing as adults is connected to audio format. Does this mean that they are all illiterate? Not so!!! I feel that the future of reading and writing will take place almost exclusively within the context of talking technologies and audio/video learning. And I am someone who still likes the feel of a real book in my hands. Take a look at the explosion of technological wonders that are now available and are also moving forward in research. It’s important to understand that the way an individual gains information may take many pathways, all of them pointed towards literacy and what that means to each person. And so if we say that literacy means “to read and to write” in our day and age, for future generations it will mean so much more. And that future is at our doorstep.

Take a look at this interesting definition of “literacy” from UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization): “Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential to participate fully in the wider society.” I would add something crucial to this UNESCO definition of literacy which is the ability to use not only printed and written materials but also audio and “spoken” information which will make learning all the more enriched. After all there is nothing like the human voice that can reach deep into the heart of the learner. Let us imagine that literacy in the 21st century will offer all of us more multi-sensory approaches to the acquisition of knowledge.

What would be your definition of “literacy”? Please feel free to share your perspective on this subject in the Reader’s Forum.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – Five Years Worth of Effort at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, Part Two

There were so many international families that arrived in the medical community of Boston. Their purpose and desire was to seek out the best pediatric eye care practitioners who could care for their young children who experienced retinopathy of prematurity, an eye condition associated with extremely premature infants. I had the good fortune to work with one such retina specialist, Tatsuo Hirose and his associate Osamu Katsumi. It was during a five year stretch of time that I had a series of amazing experiences with this eye research institute and the courageous families who often risked their lives to get to the United States with their children.

Often the scene on the seventh floor of SERI and Retina Associates was like a United Nations of families and babbling children. Their languages were frequently unknown to me and as I wandered through the waiting area, I was struck by the gathering in front of me. I would never know who would be sitting there and what international media group would be traveling with one or more of the families. I began to realize that sometimes the German families would be accompanied by a noteworthy German newspaper, gathering the story about the possible eye surgery and its results for a particular infant. These human interest stories would touch one’s soul and the outpouring of emotion and reality was often beyond anything I had ever experienced.

I recall in 1989 and 1990 when war broke out in Yugoslavia. There, in the waiting room, were families from that region of the world who had risked everything to get to Boston. I saw Bosnians, Croatians and Serbian families. These were the ethnic groups who were at war with one another in Yugoslavia at the time. Yet, there in front of me were these families, holding each other’s babies so tenderly, all brought together over their deepest desires for the improved health and possible function of their babies’ eyes. I remember a weeping woman who approached me one day up in that waiting area. She was beside herself, torn with emotion over the situation surrounding these families. She wondered out loud how I managed to carry on and do my work at SERI with such events unfolding that would pull at most anyone’s heart strings. It was difficult at times, I must admit, but I needed to assist the doctors in the best ways that I could muster.

I began to understand how important communication became and that all of us would need to stretch our imaginations quite far in order to help these families. At times I learned how their desperate situations went beyond what was occurring at SERI. There were issues of housing, sponsorship, loneliness, friendship and insurance coverage. I discovered that sometimes our doctors would donate their surgical efforts and that places like the Salvation Army in the Back Bay would step forward to provide housing. It was a time of intensity and purpose. No one would know beyond the elevator lobby on the main floor of the many dramas unfolding there at the Schepens Eye Research Institute.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – Five Years Worth of Effort at the Scheppens Eye Research Institute in Boston, Part One

In the late 80s and early 90s I had an opportunity to work at SERI or the Scheppens Eye Research Institute, located in Boston. After meeting many of the amazing eye doctors there, I was invited to come and visit weekly when children came to the clinic on what was referred to as “baby day.” At first I made the acquaintance of Dr.Tatsuo Hirose, the renowned retina specialist who attempted to repair the retinas of infants who had been born extremely premature. I also met another pediatric ophthalmologist by the name of Osamu Katsumi who had developed a top notch children’s low vision clinic. I could tell that this would be an amazing experience for me, an educator in the field of blindness and visual impairment. So, for 18 months I would show up on “baby day” to follow the doctors around during their many appointments with families from all over the world.

I remember how I rearranged my entire weekly schedule so that I could come to this amazing place. During those first 18 months I volunteered my efforts as I was asked to communicate with many families regarding the educational programs that often did not exist in their home countries. I learned that in many lands there were no preschool programs for the children. There was nothing called early intervention which we have available throughout the United States.

After that first 18 month of volunteering I eventually was offered a daily stipend for my time at the children’s low vision clinic. This was a fantastic experience for me as an educator in that rarely were teachers present in the clinics of eye doctors, where they could advise and counsel families as well as help to train the future eye care practitioners from other countries. Most of my time was spent as a clinical research assistant to Dr. Osamu Katsumi where the parents and the blind and severely visually impaired children would come for vision assessment. One of the most immediate needs I could see was the translation of an information form which addressed the functional visual abilities of the children in their home environments.

The information we were seeking was basic but very important such as: Does your child look out the window? Does your child look at and visually follow the family pet around the house? Does your child show any interest in the TV? There were many other questions that became increasingly detailed and I could often tell that our international families did not know how to respond. I went searching for assistance. One of our German translators helped completely convert the sheet of questions for the many German families who arrived. But I was at a loss to locate many other individuals who could help out.

One day I had a real brainstorm. I asked Dr. Katsumi if he thought that our doctors who came for training from all over the world would be interested in helping out. And they did!!! We obtained translations in Spanish, French, Serbo-Croatian, Japanese, and in Italian to name a few. This was a pivotal moment in the critical area of communication with families. Once the families could read these questions in their native tongues, it was far easier to get “yes” or “no” responses fairly quickly. When we completed these question and answer sessions, the real work began.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – The Learning Pillows That Were Sent Far and Wide

After working on the Learning Pillows for several years, I started to get feedback from many people and agencies across the globe. Requests were often specific and spelled out the hidden needs of many families where blind and visually impaired children lived. I recall a hand written letter from a family in West Virginia. They asked if I could send them the parts and pieces of one particular Learning Pillow so they could put this together in front of their children. I learned that they had a blind two year old at home, and another child who was attending the school for the deaf and blind in that state. As an aside, they also shared that a child who “lived around the block” enjoyed the Learning Pillow and the accompanying story. I remember how that one request really touched my heart, as I continued to sew and stitch and blend together the tactuals and visuals that were attached to these colorful felt pillows.

During the late 1980’s I traveled to Israel to present my Learning Pillows to a gathering of international vision professionals. This took place at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was a wonderful experience and even though many attendees did not know English very well, they quickly understood the design and purpose of each Learning Pillow that I demonstrated and discussed. While there I traveled to Tel Aviv and Haifa. There was a wonderful preschool program located in Haifa where blind and visually impaired preschoolers learned together. When I visited that preschool, I presented a Learning Pillow to them called “The King and His Closet.” Immediately upon seeing it the teacher exclaimed: “The King character looks just like Ben Gurion!” I hadn’t realized how much the face with a bald spot on top of the head and vivid white hair stitched on either side of the face did indeed look just like Ben Gurion, who was the first Prime Minister of Israel! The teacher and I laughed heartily with this revelation. It was then that I devised a story about Ben Gurion that could possibly connect with this particular pillow. I never knew what would happen when I shared a Learning Pillow!

When early learning materials are designed with a cross cultural purpose in mind, they can go anywhere and reach any child who is ready to learn early literacy concepts. Often the concepts involved directionality and movement like: in, under, on top of and in between. Those ideas were always present in the story of “Mr. Bug Tries to Hide”, another Learning Pillow. Imagine how blind and visually impaired children could learn what that means when playing with the Learning Pillow and then trying to relate those spatial ideas around the house, or apartment or hut, or tent, or where ever they live in the landscape of the world! And that is what happened with the Learning Pillows as they went to far flung places.

Some families of blind children traveled to Boston for eye care with a well known retina specialist with whom I happened to be working at the time. These families came from some rather exotic places like Saudi Arabia, Chile, and Afghanistan to mention a few. I recall when the family from Chile remained in the Boston area for many weeks. They had housing assistance from the Salvation Army and at one point I found out that they wanted to speak with me regarding the educational needs of their child. We met at my apartment in Watertown where I lived at the time, and we had a joyous “meeting of the minds” when I discovered that the mother was a teacher who very quickly understood the meaning of my Learning Pillows for her child. Even though we could not speak each other’s language perfectly, we immediately communicated how these early learning materials could help their young blind child. These are just a few of the many stories I recall about the development of the Learning Pillows and how they nurtured the early learning concepts of the young blind and visually impaired child.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – Stepping Back to 1980 Part I

It’s 1980 and I’ve just designed my first Learning Pillow for blind and visually impaired preschoolers. I recall that there wasn’t much around in the area of tactile graphics. The young blind and visually impaired child was almost forgotten about in terms of the multi-sensory world of toys and pre-literacy approaches. The American Printing House for the Blind had a series called “Touch and Tell”. That was about it way back when. So, what is a Learning Pillow? I designed the Learning Pillows out of 8 and 1/2 by 11 inch colorful felt rectangles, stuffed with fiber fill. On the surface I placed different types of tactual materials like Velcro or buttons or jingle bells. They all had a purpose. I don’t think I even had a sewing machine so I threaded a needle and started stitching by hand. I remember using small buttons for eyes, a cut-out curved felt shape for a mouth and a pom pom for a nose. The hair was carefully designed out of clumped up fiber fill which I shaped together on each side of a circle which would become a face. That Learning Pillow turned into a tactile visual story called: “The King and His Closet.” I used lots of different kinds of materials: Velcro; felt; buttons; pom poms of different shapes and sizes and Slik Pen which was new on the arts and crafts market back then. Slik Pen and Glitter Pen were real game changers in that I could squeeze out the liquid substance in lines and dots and circles and then let them dry. This resulted in colorful and interesting raised lines, jumbo and tiny dots, shapes of all sorts and also faces. I remember thinking: “How cool was that!”

There were many Learning Pillows I designed back then: “Mr.Bug Goes for a Walk” which is a pillow to teach left to right directionality. It is composed of several different textured pathways. When “Mr.Bug Tries to Hide” came along, the fun really began as this “bug” character would hide in various places on the front and back of the Learning Pillow. I gave a lot of thought to how children learn and play. Blind children certainly enjoyed play time and I wanted the pillows to present small “maps” of wonder that launched ideas and concepts guiding the child to explore the world around him/her. I also developed poems. One was called “Long Lazy Lines” and the other one, “Bumpedy Bumps.” I considered those original poems and raised dots and lines to be pre-braille training experiences, perhaps for a two or three year old blind child. Remember, it was 1980 and there were not many exciting pre-braille and pre-literacy options out there for such a young blind and visually impaired child.

These little tactual-visual felt pillows went all over the world! Filled with literacy ideas for young blind and visually impaired children, my intent was to design and fashion them so they would be cross cultural. And they remain to this day a fine teaching tool. I’ll continue to explain more about the Learning Pillows in the next issue of the Matilda Ziegler Magazine. In the meantime, please share your thoughts and ideas about real (not “virtual”) tactile visual stories and books for the young blind and visually impaired child.

Feature Writer Jane Kronheim – Taking a Step Back While Moving Forward

As a teacher of blind and visually impaired children and students, I am often left in a quandary about how to select just the right kinds of materials and approaches to use with the many youngsters that I meet. Since I have been in the field of blindness for over 30 years, it is often necessary for me to recall all of the wonderful “real” three dimensional objects and learning tools that I used way back when. Lately, I am asking myself some very important questions. Are the high tech tools of today allowing our kids to really learn better and get ahead? Are these sophisticated bits and bytes of technology really “game changers” or “great equalizers” or are some of them assisting these visually impaired children to move ahead at the same rate as their sighted peers? Some of my colleagues say a resounding “YES” while others doubt the true guidance of these systems.

I have entered many classrooms where Smart Boards are now the rage. The Smart Boards are white boards that contain projected and enlarged images or videos; they are like electronic blackboards. I have to agree that Smart Boards are clear and relatively easy to manage and offer clean images instead of musty old chalkboards where contrast is often lacking for the low vision child. I have to admit that many of the refreshable Braille devices make more sense for the blind reader/writer of Braille, and I like the fact that many kids can now access important information on their own. I like the idea that “talking” technology is available for everyone, sighted or blind, unless your ability to hear has been dramatically affected.

Many other TVIs (teachers of the visually impaired) are determined that their blind and low vision students become as independent as possible and usher in a sense of self determination. Who would dispute that? But what does that “independence” actually mean? Does it mean being capable of using several different pieces of access technology to get information from lots of different sources like the internet? Is that independence? Does it mean using the same technology that their classmates use? Is that independence? Are the kids supposed to be doing all of this completely by themselves without any help from anyone? Does independence mean using a $5,000 device to connect with a $300 “I” device? Is this independence? Independence is not as simple as it sounds. What makes more sense for all of us, blind or sighted, is interdependence – people working with each other toward common goals.

For too long the attitude has been standing on your own without any help from anyone. Is this actually realistic? You know that old saying: “ No man is an island.” I teach my students to learn to do as much as they can for themselves and to learn how to draw upon the resources and the people who surround them while asking thoughtful questions.

What do you think?

I look forward to your responses in the Reader’s Forum.