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18 May 2007

Photo Feature by Renee Morrison

Using the Senses to Make Sense
of the Blind Student's Vision
of the World

   “How do plants grow? Feel the roots…smell the dirt…”

Through Eyes of Imagination…

or Brunettes like Mint


I stood in a crowded line at the mini-mart…my arms overflowing with Snicker’s bars and green apple Nerds as my thoughts whirled in preparation for the day. Perhaps it was the huge grin on my face that caused the older gentleman in front of me to ask, “You look awfully happy. Somebody got a sweet tooth?”


The cashier laughed and said, “I bet she’s working with a group of kids today!”


Nodding my head, I replied,”You are betting right! I am on my way to the tip top of Mount Cheaha to teach a group of students from the Alabama School for the Blind about nature. See how green it is out there? They’ve never seen that with their eyes…so we are going to TASTE green today…green apple Nerds are the taste of spring. These children are going to pull seedling plants from their rooting containers to find out how a plant grows…feel the roots, smell the leaves, squish the flowers between their fingers and roll the dirt around in their little hands. These Snickers bars are an edible geology lesson. We’ll pull them apart, feel of the layers and then squish them back together to make mountains. They’ll learn how the mountain that they are standing on was formed. Oh, we have so many plans for this group today!”

Tears glistened on the gentleman’s cheeks as he said, “Young lady, you are a gift from God to these children. I am honored to have met you. You have blessed my day.”

After a few hugs and an exchange of information about JSU Field Schools, we parted. Once again I realized how fortunate I am to work for JSU because have the opportunity to touch the lives of so many unique and diverse young people.

Bobby Floyd, our field assistant, and I met the group at Lake Chinnabee. The children were so excited to be out in the forest. We all stood together underneath the shade of a giant oak tree near the edge of the lake. It only took a few seconds for Bobby and I to realize that we were the ones lacking…these children were hearing sounds that we had to strain to hear. They were sensing the environment without using their eyes…things like temperature changes and breezes…smelling scents…noticing the world around them in a way that caused us to refocus our way of using our own senses. It was absolutely amazing.

As we began to talk to the students about the mountains and the valleys…about the birds we could hear and the water and the trees…they interacted with us…enhancing facts with a intricate web of imagination that brought our words to life. I don’t believe I’ve ever taught a more intelligent and attentive group of children in all my twenty years as an environmental educator.

Helen Keller said, “The most beautiful world is always entered through imagination.”  We entered a beautiful new world through this particular experience.

These children opened a new depth for us in learning technique. As we progressed from the base of the ravine…running little fingers over a relief map to find the valleys and the hills, touching the cold water, dissecting roots from soil, hugging trees, holding live snakes, sniffing skunk scent, tasting “green” …and as we climbed to the top of the mountain…feathers of birds, wind on our faces, edible geology…we discovered that age-old magic that nature is incredibly alive, changing and marvelously diverse!

We led the group out on the accessible trail and toward Bald Rock my concern began to grow. How am I going to explain the vastness of standing on the edge of the earth looking out at a 2600 foot drop off? Most of my group was completely blind and the rest could only see objects at a sight range of one inch or less.

I should have known that a day so blessed would take care of itself. Just as we stepped to the end of the board walk, a gentle but heavy wind blew up from the valley and rolled over us.  It literally took our breath away. A red-tailed hawk flew low over our heads and let out a series of cries as if to greet the children. Jessica spread her arms wide and said, “God is BIG, isn’t He?”  Several others in the group answered, “So BIG!!”

The group’s teacher, Mrs. Susie Thomas, led the children off the board walk in a safe location away from the edge. Bobby and I must have looked like ten windmills for a few seconds as we whirled around in concern for these children as they joyously stumbled over the scattered rocks and debris along the ridge. Mrs. Thomas laughingly commanded us to calm down. “This is the way they learn. They have to venture out and investigate the world with the skills that they have.”

And they did! Quickly adapting to the change underneath their feet, they moved about in wonder. How impressed they were by the size of the giant boulders…stretching themselves over the rocks and comparing the sizes to familiar things like their sofa or the school bus.

I must admit we were relieved when the group was safely back on the boardwalk.

As we started back toward the parking lot, a young woman briskly walked past the group. She was traveling in the opposite direction and passed by us with a friendly smile but without a word of greeting.

Danny and James, my two “typical” teenagers began an immediate conversation about the passer-by…”Mrs. Thomas! We are making a U-turn! Gonna follow that pretty lady. She smelled nice! And she was a young lady…nice figure by the sound of her walk. Blonde, too!”

I was stunned at their accurate description of someone they couldn’t physically see. “How did you know all of that?” I asked.

“Easy!” Danny responded with his adorable grin. “Floral perfume…sound of her shoes…her steps were quick and light…and blondes tend to like that strawberry flavored gum.”

James added with a sly smile, “Brunettes like mint.”

Jessica says this is the biggest rock she’s ever “seen” in her life!

“This rock is warm…the sun is heating this rock!”

“On the edge of the world…”

“It is alive! This snake is alive! I can feel it crawling!”

“I love this tree!”

“Meet a tree…touch the bark…”

“Let them discover on their own…”

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