If you think about all of the difficult tasks that would be intimidating if you were blind, what comes to mind?
Using a computer to type a paper for class or e-mail friends? Navigating around a large, unfamiliar city? Cooking a flawless five-course meal for a dinner party? Selecting a perfect outfit at your favorite funky clothing store? Teaching a highly energetic class of 18 second graders?
Angela Wolf in her class of 18 second graders at St. Elmo Elementary.
Chances are you would designate the first four items challenging and the last one downright impossible.
Actually, it’s not.
Angela Wolf, a student teacher in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, is about to wrap up her final semester as an apprentice teacher, having spent the last three semesters teaching kindergartners and second graders. In May she will leave the university with a teacher’s certificate and, she hopes, a job teaching in an elementary school classroom all her own.
A person who was blessed “with that something extra,” Angela is a leader and activist in the blind community on a national level and the type of individual others allude to in conversations about inspirational behavior or the indomitableness of the human spirit.
At age 12, Angela went from sighted to blind almost overnight when her doctor administered too high a dose of Vitamin A to her, triggering a rare condition known as pseudotumor cerebri. With pseudotumor cerebri—which literally means “false brain tumor”—the body leaps to the alert and reacts as though one has a brain tumor. It produces more fluid around the brain than can be absorbed, and this excess of fluid creates a great deal of pressure. In cases such as Angela’s, the pressure squeezes and destroys the optic nerves.
Although the condition normally strikes females between 20 and 50 and sometimes does not result in loss of vision—or causes loss of vision over an extended time—Angela recounts the story of her loss of sight with no sense of being misfortune’s victim.
“I recall thinking almost from the beginning that regardless of my blindness, I could do whatever I wanted to do in life,” says Angela. “I remember telling my parents after I first went blind that I didn’t want to be different or treated like a ‘weirdo.’ I was very, very lucky to have grown up in Shreveport, Louisiana, which is about 60 miles away from a wonderful private training center for the blind. My parents had me in a camp there a matter of months after I lost my sight, and the learning and adaptation began.
“We started out learning Braille and how to use a cane and gradually learned more complex tasks. It’s important that people realize blindness is not an impairment—it’s just an inconvenience. As it turns out, I’ve had several wonderful role models who were blind and were happy, independent people, achieving incredible things and having perfectly ‘normal’ lives. I’ve never felt limited.”
To say Wolf has never been limited by her physical disability is a significant understatement.
Alexa Cardena gets help from Angela in creating an outline for the essay she is about to write.
In addition to obtaining a degree in humanities from The University of Texas at Austin in 2002, she also has become an activist in the blind community and serves as president of the National Association of Blind Students. She is quoted in national newspapers on topics like better and quicker access for blind individuals to usable textbooks, directs arts programs for blind children, attends and speaks at conferences around the nation and lobbies for reasonable access for all.
“I at first did not realize what a leader Angela is in the blind community and the impressive level of respect she commands,” says Malia Henson, a teacher of second grade at St. Elmo Elementary in Austin and Wolf’s cooperating teacher this semester. “She’s extraordinary and just being around her makes you realize how much more you could do because she’s accomplishing things that people with sight won’t even try.”
Courage, optimism and an absence of self-pity have helped Angela to hold onto the childhood dream she had of being a teacher and to treat it like any other challenge that has come her way.
“Whatever I want to do, whether it’s finding my way through a building or learning to be a teacher, I just have to figure out the ‘how,’ says Angela. “I have to do things a bit differently, but, in the end, I get it done.”
Teacher preparation has presented Angela a series of problem-solving exercises that have tested her creativity but also hardened her resolve to succeed.
In order to make the teaching go more smoothly, Angela’s first duty on her first day with each new class has been to talk about the subject foremost on every little mind—her blindness. She has explained to the students what it means for her to be blind and stressed the permanence of it. After telling the students what her life as a blind person is like, she has opened the floor for discussion and questions.
If a student wants to know how Ms. Wolf chooses an outfit to wear in the morning, she tells them. If a student wants to know how she finds the milk and cereal in order to make breakfast, she tells them. If they want to know what she “sees” in the darkness of blindness, she tells them. If they want to know if blind people get married (Angela’s husband is an accomplished musician and is blind), she tells them.
Although there are occasions when the children have tested and teased her, doing things like raising two fingers in front of her face and asking her how many fingers they were holding up, for the most part the students “get it,” Angela says.
“She’s an incredibly gifted teacher,” says Mary Ellen Smith, a facilitator in the College of Education who has monitored Angela in the classroom. “And she has an uncanny directional sense and awareness of her environment. It’s still been quite hard work, though, to teach a classroom full of children. It’s intimidating even for someone who isn’t blind.
“Every time a new problem arises, Angela stops and thinks, okay, so this is the situation as it stands now—what am I going to do to make it work? And she immediately begins to generate solutions. If you can even vaguely imagine what it would be like to monitor and teach a room full of young children, you get some idea of how many obstacles someone who’s blind has to overcome to do this.”
Because Angela cannot see the students’ written work, she has them read math problems, compositions and worksheets aloud to her.
Many of the changes have been a snap to implement.
Horizontal stripes of masking tape were placed on the chalkboard in her class last semester so that she could write in a straight, neat line, and she has Braille versions of the students’ books. When students were not writing enough in their daily journals, Angela decided to start feeling the backs of their notebook pages—from the indentations left by the pencils, she could tell if they had filled almost an entire page or only a couple of lines.
“I guess, in general, I probably encourage the children to talk more than another teacher would,” says Angela. “For example, instead of having students raise their hands to answer a question—which obviously would not work for me—I have them announce their names once. Then I call on them in the order that they announced themselves.”
To monitor writing content without being able to read what the students have written, Angela requires them to bring their papers to her and read their compositions aloud. She also uses “the Popsicle method” and draws from a cup of Popsicle sticks with the students’ names on them. The student whose name is drawn has to read his or her journal entry to the rest of the class. She monitors how well they are progressing when they’re silently reading their textbooks by stopping at individual desks and having them read portions of the text to her.
“I’ve witnessed something really interesting as I’ve watched Angela over three semesters with these very young children,” says Smith. “The children, after they understand what it means for Angela to be blind, assume more responsibility for their own behavior. They don’t let classmates abuse the situation and they’re clearly showing they realize they have a role in how well or badly each day unfolds. They have this strangely adult way of dealing with this ‘difference’ in Angela and begin to think about and react to the blindness in a positive way.”
Asked what her dream work scenario would be, Angela describes a room of second or third graders, levels she prefers because the students still are young but have begun to work more independently and are able to engage in abstract thinking. It’s a class where students have the freedom to be creative and where art, her passion, is incorporated in everything from history to math lessons. It’s a sanctuary where independence and personal responsibility are encouraged and where she serves as facilitator rather than babysitter or drill sergeant.
It’s a dream Angela intends to realize.
“I know that Ms. Wolf wants to be a teacher when she grows up,” says Desiree Market, an 8-year-old in Angela’s class at St. Elmo, “and I think she’s going to be a pretty good one. She can teach without seeing, and that’s really hard to do. Especially when the kids are not always good. She’s special and very smart and knows all of our voices, even from the other side of the room. I think her next class of kids is going to like her a whole lot.”
Office of Public Affairs/College of Education
Photos: Marsha Miller