Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice Number 28 (March 2018)

Katharina Hegy-Bûrgin: A very special school, indeed

ETAS Journal, Volume 27, Number 3, (Summer 2010), p. 12-14

For language teachers, it is second nature to adapt our lesson plans and objectives to our students’ needs, and Katharina Hegy-Bûrgin’s article is an excellent example of how we do that, in her case in a school for partially sighted and blind people.

Different countries have different policies on integration of students with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities), ranging from separate schools as in the case described in this article, to inclusion in mainstream schools. Opinion now favours inclusion over separating learners although this special school still exists today.

What I find particularly interesting in the article are the various strategies put into place to support the learners in this special school, many of which would make perfect sense in an inclusive classroom today.  Katharina describes how one of the teacher’s responsibilities was to ensure each student was provided with the necessary resources to learn, be it using Braille books or different coloured texts or paper. Teachers also had weekly meetings to discuss progress and deal with any problems that had occurred.

As Katharina explains, teachers had to slow down teaching so that all the students could follow. She also used a rope as a timeline – what a fantastic way to help students visualise tense use!

I recommend reading this article because I think everyone could benefit from reading about different ways of helping all learners in the classroom. As it happens, one of the upcoming ETAS Journal Special Supplements in the Summer 2019 will be focusing on Inclusive Practice and SEND. For this reason, I would be interested in hearing from anyone who works in this kind of school today. Please contact me at ylteens@e-tas.ch

Rachael Harris

A very special school, indeed

Katharina Hegy-Bürgin

Ten years ago I had the chance to get to know a very special group of students at a school that is unique in Switzerland. The students had not so much a special purpose for learning English, but special needs for learning English as well as any other subject, for they were either blind or visually handicapped. They came to the ‘Eingliederungsstelle für Sehbehinderte’ in Basel from everywhere in Switzerland to train for a job in an office. For a few young adults it was their first vocational training and they stayed for a year or longer. Other students, usually more advanced in age, came to that school after an accident that impaired their eyesight or because an illness had broken out and handicapped them so much that they were no longer able to work in their original profession. There are many different diseases that can affect the eyes and that may, or may not, lead to complete blindness. These students usually stayed at the school for two to six months, for as long as the national insurance for invalids, the IV, was prepared to pay for their training.

The challenges for my students were manifold. First of all, they had to cope with the fate that forced them to come to our school. As a (seeing) teacher I had to witness their confrontation with that fact all the time. In fact the students were often confronted with it through me, i.e. through the lessons they were getting. On the other hand, we teachers also had to give room to that inner conflict of the students that each of them handled in his or her own way and at different moments. Pity was no help for the students in the long run, but at times one just had to listen to their sorrows and show understanding for their special situation. The difficulty in class was not to allow them to pull other students (who had to fight their own ghosts) down with their stories and to get on in the programme in spite of personal difficulties.

Although the IV only sent us people who seemed to be fit for a job in the field of clerical/secretarial work, it was still not the people’s first choice of a profession. So the students showed different degrees of talent for work in an office and also for learning foreign languages. This had to be kept in mind when teaching the students English.

Another difficulty for the students, and the school, was the fact that it is increasingly hard for handicapped people to find a job, however well-trained they may be. Thus, in my lessons, the students and I had to live with the bad prospects for future jobs. It is not a very good motivating factor if you know that you will most probably not be allowed to use what you are learning.

The school was special and different from other schools in that it really cared for each student and tried to do the best for them, not only by teaching them certain subjects, but also by helping them cope with daily life. In fact, orientation and practical skills was a school subject: finding and providing the best medical and technical help, settling personal problems (family, finances, insurance, etc.) and helping them actively find a job. All teachers contributed to the problem solving of any kind. For this purpose there were weekly meetings in which we discussed the students’ progress, their problems and ways in which to help them. This aspect of working for and with the students was at least as important as teaching them good English.

I must say that the atmosphere in the school and the classroom was usually quite merry and the students were usually very interested in learning; they enjoyed coming to class. All this, in spite of the problems and difficulties that weighed down on them and the teachers and had to be overcome before even facing the special challenges of teaching without relying on visual aids.

All students had an English coursebook. Each book had the same content but they came in different formats to accommodate differing needs. The Central Library for the Blind in Zürich transcribed the books into Braille. Some read with strong glasses or with a magnifying glass. There was also a machine in each classroom that could scan a page and magnify it on a screen similar to a computer screen. The size of the letters on the screen could be adjusted individually, as could the colour of the letters and the background. But for all students, the difficulty of having only a very narrow field of view was always there, for while they could read the text well enough, they could see only very small bits of it on a page. That was hard in their native language but more so with texts that they did not understand.

All in all, my first task was to remember each student’s special need and to provide the necessary copy of the book or whatever text we were using. It was also my task to make sure that the students used the devices they needed. The English class was not just for learning the language, it also trained them in new techniques that would enable them to cope with the rest of their lives.

The technical devices allowed each student to go on reading texts in spite of his or her handicap. That was the biggest achievement of the school, for it gave the students access to a lot of information that they were afraid of losing. For my lessons it meant slowing down the teaching and allowing enough time for each of the students to find the right place, to read the lines, to turn the page (and find the right line again).

Modern textbooks are full of pictures and captions; the texts are arranged around the pictures and all over the pages. Colours and tables and lists are used to illustrate grammar and vocabulary and for exercises. None of this was much use to my students. It only confused them. That is the reason why we used quite an old book, with few pictures but with a simple, straightforward layout of the texts. The texts and the stories could be dull. So I made up for this with personal additions like jokes and anecdotes.

When it came to illustrating things, I had to find new ways. I could not use texts or drawings on the blackboard - we didn’t have one. I explained rules orally and made the students write them down. To explain tenses, I used a relatively thick rope or a wooden ruler in front of them as a time line. They could touch this and the small objects (keys, pens, etc.) that represented short events or actions along the rope accordingly, so they could feel the difference. To illustrate the use of the present continuous students could also listen to noises inside and outside the building and say what was going on. Or else I took them for a tour of the house to show them what was happening and how it was described in English.

There are a lot of tools and gadgets that make life easier for blind people but the biggest help was the computer, modified to help people with impaired vision. I could monitor the students’ texts on the screen in real time, or could make the students print homework out or send it to me by email. The students could read what they had written on the special device attached to the keyboard that shows them the text on the screen in Braille. This also allowed them to have access to the internet. The first thing students at that school learnt was how to use the pc without a mouse and optical aids. The students also learnt Braille, of course. However, it is one thing to learn the meaning of the symbols and letters but it is much harder to read and recognize them by touch.

The lessons demanded a lot of concentration. And I was amazed at their good memories. They often learnt rules and words just by hearing them once We had a few reading texts, Easy Readers, transformed into Braille, so we could also read stories with the more advanced students. To be successful, flexibility in all areas - technical, psychological and in the choice of methods - was the most important quality asked of teachers and students alike.

The level of English I had to teach was different for each student. That is another reason why the groups were small. There were quite a lot of students who had already learnt English. They were ready to learn Business English and were encouraged to take a Cambridge exam. For this, again, they needed special training. For this reason most of the students only did the Cambridge PET exam even though their English might have been more advanced. Fortunately, Cambridge ESOL offers special arrangements for the handicapped. My students were tested at our premises, they were given more time and they were allowed to do the writing parts of the exam on the computer if the correcting programme and other language tools were blocked. The Basel Cambridge ESOL centre was very helpful and all our candidates were successful. Some were even able to take the FCE.

It was a challenging time for me but the work there was very rewarding. I only left because of the school’s insecure financial situation. The IV paid for each student individually and became more and more reluctant to fund students as they were under pressure themselves. The school still exists, however, and if you ever have a student with visual problems, please do suggest some training in Basel. Regular schools and even doctors are often not aware of its existence but it is a very good and helpful institution.