What used to be a classroom full of enthusiastic students has now turned into a screen featuring boxes of students’ faces. But, the energy in the room is the same nonetheless.
Since its founding in 1919, the Braille Institute has established seven centers around California with programs that are all geared toward visually impaired and blind individuals. Although the programs have gone virtual due to COVID-19, there are an array of classes and workshops that adults and youth can participate in.
“There’s still a sense of community, despite not being in person,” Madeleine Hernandez, Youth Programs Specialist for the Braille Institute L.A. said. “Some of our students are totally blind, others are visually impaired. So there’s a range of visual status and visual abilities, but despite all those differences, they’re still continuing to interact.”
Last summer, the Braille Institute L.A. hosted a youth summer program for visually impaired and blind students. This year’s theme was the arts.
“Art provides so many avenues for the students to explore,” Hernandez said. “That’s why we decided to go the art route.”
Because of the pandemic, all classes were held virtually through Microsoft Teams. However, the instructors say that this didn’t always have negative connotations.
The virtual setting allowed students from across the state the chance to participate as one group in the program.
At the end of the summer, students had the chance to showcase their projects and performances during the Summer Revue. Students taking art classes virtually presented their projects live and students taking choir recorded videos that were played during the showcase.
Each week, students created art projects with the materials provided in the mailed Distance Learning Kits. These kits included various art supplies, such as watercolors and canvases, which corresponded with the week’s activity and a letter in either large-sized font or braille.
“We send items that are tactile, related and interesting to the students so that the items that we’re sending are meaningful,” Hernandez said. “With everything that we send out, we ensure that this will help them support them in some way, shape or form and relate to the lesson.”
This year, the art classes were not only taught by the center instructors, but also professionals and experts in the field. One session was taught by an artist based in Colorado, who also works with visually impaired students in her community.
“To be able to provide an opportunity for the students to learn from artists who are experts in their field is really great. I think what’s special about this summer,” Hernandez said.
Not only did the Braille Institute L.A. have art classes, but students also had the chance to participate in the choir program.
In past years, the choir has performed at the Hollywood Bowl with American singer Cyndi Lauper and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last summer, students prepared singing performances and skits to showcase at the Summer Revue.
Every class session started off with warm-ups. As Scarlett Brais, the Children’s Choir Director, led the group through breathing exercises and voice lessons, students energetically followed along. Although all but Brais’ microphones are muted, that didn’t lessen the students’ enthusiasm.
Because the students are visually impaired, the process of learning and memorizing the songs was tailored to them. At the beginning of the summer, students learned the songs over Zoom with Brais and received guide tracks of Brais’ voice so that they could practice the song on their own time.
After warming up their voice and practicing the song, students transitioned into the second part of class: skits. The skits were made entirely from scratch. Students thought of the idea, discussed them during class and practiced them with their peers. This gave students the opportunity to be creative and pursue ideas that interest them.
“I wasn’t sure if they were going to feel comfortable acting because it requires acting and you have to change your voice,” Brais said. “But it turns out, we have a really funny and fearless group, and they love doing it.”
Brais said one challenge the class ran into is when the time came for students to record themselves singing. Because the students are visually impaired or blind, they had trouble setting up their filming equipment and making sure that their position on camera is correct. This was where Brais came in to assist them and give feedback on students’ videos after they sent them in.
Despite the small bumps the class ran into throughout the sessions, students used their time in the sessions as a form of therapy, Brais said.
“Speaking for my students, they tell me that this is like their escape,” Brais said. “You don’t really need to have perfect vision to be a singer. You don’t really need perfect vision to listen, to enjoy music, to be a songwriter and to play an instrument.”