Education With Vision

by Annie Capestany

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Editor: Carla McQuillan is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Oregon. Those who attend NFB conventions know she also sings Irish ballads and other folk songs, accompanied by her guitar. They may not know that she is a Montessori teacher who operates her own business in Springfield, Oregon. The following is a story that appeared in the Springfield News, April 13, 1994. It speaks for itself; here it is:

          Carla McQuillan is not just a preschool teacher. She is a spellbinder.

          McQuillan holds a bachelor's degree in teaching children through the art of storytelling. To some traditionalists her skills may sound about as central to basic education as a course in Navaho basket weaving.

          Stories are a great teaching tool, McQuillan argues. But that wasn't her only motivation in studying them.

          McQuillan is legally blind.

          Most people don't believe McQuillan is vision-impaired. Her blue eyes are bright and clear, and they seem to look right at the person who is speaking to her.

          The object of McQuillan's gaze appears only as a big blind spot to her. Her only vision is peripheral. At its best it's only 20/200, compared to the 20/20 ideal.

          "I don't stumble over things," McQuillan says. "But I can't read print."

          Despite her blindness McQuillan owns and operates Springfield's only Montessori school, Children's Choice, which opened on Main Street last September.

          One side of the schoolroom is filled with Montessori materials: sorting games; carrots for peeling; number rods and counting beads; bright blue, three-dimensional geometric shapes; and even the school's binomial and trinomial cubes.

          The brightly colored cubes are a "concrete representation of an algebraic expression," McQuillan explains. "Now we don't tell the children that."

          Instead the preschoolers match colors and shapes to reconstruct the cubes. In that way grade-school children can absorb the abstract math formulas the cube represents.

          The other half of McQuillan's classroom is filled with more typical preschool toys and a computer. An indoor play area takes up part of the back of the building, and a grassy lawn is available for sunny days.

          Although McQuillan works with an aide, she seems perfectly capable of maintaining control on her own.

          "I know all the sounds of the materials in the classroom," she says. "I know when the kids are doing what they should be doing and when they aren't.

          "There is a very different sound when something falls down and when something is knocked down, believe me."

          While she cannot see the children's faces, McQuillan knows their voices--and their cries.

          "I know from upstairs which kid is crying," she says.

          The school is built on the philosophy Maria Montessori first developed in Italy. Learning is individualized, McQuillan says. She strives to find just what each child needs in the way of social, mental, and practical skills.

          "We want to teach the children how to think," she says, "how to get from point A to point C, even if we don't tell them where point B is."

          Montessori also taught that children are receptive to learning certain skills at certain periods in their lives. For example, she believed most children are best able to learn to read between the ages of three and six.

          McQuillan says children in Montessori classrooms aren't forced to learn. Rather they are invited and encouraged to learn when they are ready.

          When learning does occur, it takes place on all sensory levels, building from the concrete to the abstract.

          "The more senses you incorporate," she says, "the more effective the learning is and the higher the retention level."

          Traditional schools rely on visual learning eighty percent of the time, McQuillan says. Obviously that doesn't work for her, and she believes it also is less effective for most children.

          Students in her classroom use many methods, including sandpaper letters, to learn the alphabet. During a recent lesson on soil and the earth, the children all went out and made mud pies.

          And when it's time for a story, the children gather around McQuillan in the reading corner, next to the bookshelf, where she spins a tale of fun and fantasy, drawn from her imagination.

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