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I have greatly loved the story of Helen Keller all of my life. On several occasions I’ve had the chance to bring the story of Helen Keller to life for my children and our friends. Each time it is a deeply moving experience as we walk into the world of the blind and deaf.
Recently I had the pleasure of picking up Annie and Helen by Deborah Hopkinson with illustrations by Raul Colon at our indie bookstore Union Street Books.
The inspiring story of Annie Sullivan and her student Helen Keller has captured the hearts and imaginations of people for over a hundred years. This beautiful picture book, with excerpts of Annie’s own letters to her former teacher Mrs. Sophia C. Hopkins, shares the trials, joys, and inspirations of teaching Helen.
The telling of this story lends well to young readers as Annie opens Helen’s mind by making the world her classroom and we get to learn right along side her. Inside the pages of this well crafted story we discover Helen learning sign language, and learning to read and write in braille. It is because of Annie’s help that Helen Keller grew up to be the advocate for special needs people and a most accomplished woman of her time.
The illustrations are captivating as they use a combination of inked line-drawings and water colors. It gives a very welcoming old-time feel to the book. This is becoming a greatly loved book in this house !!!
Something To Do :
How do blind people eat at the table ?
One of the first things Annie had to teach Helen was how to sit at the table and eat her food properly. This had us asking the question “How do blind people eat ?”
Here is a wonderful online video series from Perkins School of the blind which helps families teach table skills to their blind child.
After watching the videos we decided to give blind eating a try. In the videos they talk about specific containers, plates, and utensils. We don’t have any of these things accessible to us at the moment so we came up with the idea of taking our usual dinnerware and designating specific areas on the plate for specific foods. This will help us as we’re trying to eat blind.
We did this dinner-time in shifts so that each blindfolded person had a seeing mentor sitting by to answer questions.
For this exercise you will need:
- A blindfold for each eating person.
- A plate and eating utensils.
If we look at the plate as a clock, we placed the mashed potatoes at 12 o’clock, the chicken tenders at 6, and the corn at 9 o’clock.
Each person got a turn and then after each person had eaten their meal we left the table to write a bit about our experience. What was difficult ? Was it scary? What did you find easy ? What was your experience with ?
Please note that we were not doing this as a form of entertainment but as a way to walk a bit in someone else’s shoes. To try and see the world from their perspective. This exercise had the greatest positive impact on my children and family as a whole.
Helen needed a way to communicate. Because she couldn’t hear, she never learned how words were formed or pronounced. She had no way of communicating and she needed a language. Deaf people use sign language to speak, but Helen Keller was both blind and deaf. Annie was inventive and figured out a way for Helen to use sign-language by signing in the palm of Helen’s hand.
Sign-language uses a special hand position for each letter.
- Practice the sign language alphabet.
- Now try spelling out words Let’s spell out some of Helen Keller’s first words.
Mug, Milk, Cake, Fire, Water, Ground, Baby, Teacher, Hat, Walk, Puppy, Puppies, and numbers 1-10.
- Spell out words for your friends, child, parents and whoever will be willing to guess what you’re spelling.
- Now with a special friend, let’s see how well you know your sign-language letters. Put on a blindfold, open the palm of your hand, and have a friend, sibling, or parent spell words for you in sign language. Can you understand each letter ? How many words did you get right ?
Once Helen had a language to communicate with, it was time for Annie to teach Helen to read and write.
What is Braille ?
“We the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg . . . Without a dot system what a chaotic, inadequate affair our education would be!”—Helen Keller
Braille is a series of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or whose eyesight is not sufficient for reading printed material.
How Was Braille Invented?
Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France, on January 4, 1809. He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France, as a student. While attending the Institute, Braille yearned for more books to read. He experimented with ways to make an alphabet that was easy to read with the fingertips. The writing system he invented, at age fifteen, evolved from the “Ecriture Nocturne” (night writing) code invented by Charles Barbier for sending military messages that could be read on the battlefield at night, without light. Learn more about the creation of the braille code by exploring the Louis Braille Online Museum.
Once Helen learned Braille she could read any book which had been typed in braille. Annie also brought Helen a braille typewriter so she could write in braille.
How is Braille Written?
Just like we use a paper and pencil/pen to write with a blind person can write braille using something called a slate and stylus. The slate is a template with evenly spaced depressions for the braille dots. The paper is placed in the slate and the dots are made by pushing the pointed end of the stylus into the paper over the dot depressions. This bulges the paper on the reverse side making the “dots”.
Braille is also produced by a machine known as a braillewriter. Unlike a typewriter which has more than fifty keys, the braillewriter has only six keys and a space bar. These keys are numbered to correspond with the six dots of a braille cell. Since most braille words and symbols contain more than one dot, the keys of the braille write can all be pushed down at the same time.
But what about the computer ?
Technological developments in the computer industry have provided and continue to expand additional avenues of literacy for braille users. Software programs and portable electronic braille notetakers allow users to save and edit their writing, have it displayed back to them either verbally or tactually, and produce a hard copy via a desktop computer-driven braille embosser.
The best way though to really know how the blind and deaf live is to visit a school, have a visit with a seeing or hearing impaired person or get in touch with an occupational therapist. All three of these things can open up the world of the blind and deaf to you.
Braille Bug is a site for kids with learning braille instruction, along with fin games, and great info about Helen Keller and Louis Braille
A Shared Experience
At the time of our first Helen Keller book jump my eldest daughter was 12 years old as were many of her friends at our Helen Keller book gathering. This book-jump had a great impact on them because there was a new student at school who was deaf and they wanted to communicate with her and had no way to do so. Our Helen Keller book jump led us to invite not only “Melanie, the deaf-girl” but also an occupational therapist who signed for Melanie at school. We learned how deaf people talk on the phone, how they use sign-language, but more importantly how they wish to do everything like everyone else. We all learned how to type on a braille-writer and how to read in braille but most importantly we learned that seeing and hearing impaired people are normal and have feelings, hopes, and fears just like we do. The only difference is they talk with their hands or read and write in braille.
From our Helen Keller book jump, nine girls in our mother/daughter book club started a sign-language club after school and learned sign language. They learned quickly and found a very dear friend in Melanie which continues to this day. Those girls are now 23 and 24 years old and are still great friends. Melanie graduated from college two years ago and got married last summer. At her wedding many childhood stories were shared in sign-language about the friends who entered her world and the great times they had together growing up.
Other Hellen Keller Reads:
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
This book is free online in any format you could ever want.
Who Was Helen Keller? by Gare Thompson and Nancy Harrison
Helen Keller (Scholastic Biography) by Margaret Davidson and Wendy Watson
History for Kids: The Illustrated Life of Helen Keller by Charles River Editors
Helen Keller (Young Yearling Book) by Stewart Graff and Polly Anne Graff
Helen Keller: The World in Her Heart by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome
Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport and Matt Tavares
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller (Center for Cartoon Studies Presents) by Joseph Lambert
Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller
Have you read any of these books? Have you read them as a family? Share your thoughts and experiences with us!
**Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links.