Credo students, blind find bond with woodwork
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By Dave Williams  March 21, 2014 12:00 am

Eight visually impaired high school students in late February visited Credo High School for a day-long course in woodturning, creating rolling pins and baseball bats on the school’s machine lathes.

The course was a result of an innovative Credo 11th-grade course called Developing Capacities, taught by Credo science and woodworking teacher Julian Shaw, PhD, in partnership with Hoby Wedler, a blind doctoral student in chemistry at UC Davis. The Waldorf charter school course is part of a larger intention of the two teaching colleagues to engage more blind and visually impaired (BVI) students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

For Shaw, the experience could not have gone any better.

“Wow, what a day!” Shaw said. “It was beyond expectation, one of the highlights of the year for me. Our juniors really rose to the occasion. They showed an amazing degree of maturity guiding other high school students. Our students were exemplars.

“It was a teacher’s dream.  All of our students were totally engaged, and I just let the day unfold.  Everyone went away with a sense that we were doing the right thing.”

Preparing for this event over the 12 weeks of the Developing Capacities course, Credo students developed the social-emotional, communication, spatial and kinesthetic skills that are needed as an assistant to blind students. This initial program took the first step towards developing the necessary partner communication skill set, some background protocols and abilities to negotiate successfully a complex social/cognitive relationship that needs to develop between sighted assistants and BVI students interested in pursuing STEM careers.

To prepare for their work with the BVI students, Credo students were placed in sighted and blindfolded pairs. Each student in the pairing had to experience a woodturning task without the use of sight (while blindfolded), and developed some semblance of understanding of the challenges of performing a complex task. 

This process allowed students to become more emotionally attuned with each other. More importantly, this immersion attunement helped students develop a deeper understanding of the capacities required in these “specialized zones” of development.

This effectiveness of the course is largely reliant on developing in-depth communication skills, which are different with each pair of students, and different depending on the events encountered. Assistants to BVI students should be able to develop an ability to “read” their partner's actions/speech and make crucial judgment calls about when to continue to allow the BVI partner to lead at their own pace and when to intervene either through verbal communication, spatial guidance, or kinesthetic modeling. The assistant's role then is not to guide the BVI student to a stated goal, but instead to follow the BVI student's lead, and in doing so, help create a new way of communicating. The “BVI individual as the leader” exercise provides an important lesson for both the assistant and BVI student.

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