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Helping Blind Students 'See' the Stars

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Wire Side Chat

Benning (Ben) L. Wentworth III, a science teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, was named Disney American Teacher Awards 2001 Outstanding Teacher of the Year for his innovative ways of teaching science to visually impaired students. Included: Descriptions of manipulatives to help visually impaired students understand science.



Ben L. Wentworth
Benning (Ben) L. Wentworth III teaches high school science and history to visually impaired students at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs. He designed and built the only portable, self-standing tactile planetarium in North America for visually impaired students. Wentworth's innovative work with his students earned him the honor of Disney's American Teacher Awards 2001 Outstanding Teacher of the Year.

Wentworth, who served in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force before becoming a teacher, also is NASA's low-vision consultant for the NASA Braille Book of Hubble images, Touch the Universe.

Developing patient education programs for the Army, in addition to having attention deficit disorder (ADD) and a reading disability himself, helped prepare Wentworth for creating educational programs for blind students. Wentworth is married, has two grown children and a granddaughter.

Education World: What prompted you to become a teacher after retiring from the military?

Ben Wentworth: In 1969, I was very dissatisfied with the way our country was being run and with the way society in general was acting. I wanted to make changes in our country's attitude and realized the only chance of being able to do that was to obtain a college degree. Somewhere during my first two years at the University of Missouri, amid student protests against the Vietnam conflict, I realized that the greatest field for attitude change was the arena of education. One individual alone can effect change only within arm's length, but if you can get others to think critically and look beneath the surface of a problem, then your influence spreads out like ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond. Thus, I decided to embark upon a career in education and have never once regretted this decision.

EW: What is your educational philosophy?

Wentworth: I believe that the purpose of education is to provide information and educational experiences so students are able to make realistic decisions and take the necessary actions to maintain an optimum level of life. I see my role as assisting the student to accept this responsibility, while teaching the student how to seek knowledge.

Every student is capable of learning and has a right to an instructional program that maximizes his or her opportunity to obtain the highest functional level possible with their abilities. For this reason, I refuse to accept "I can't" from any of my students. Thus, I nudge students to optimize those areas that afford development of their potential in the cognitive and affective domains. I believe the vehicle to reach those goals is quality education and an enhancing, challenging environmental setting for student participation.

EW: How did you come up with the idea for the tactile planetarium?

Wentworth: Keeping in mind my philosophy of education, what do you do when a student asks, "Why can't blind people have an astronomy class designed for them?" The answer is, "I don't know why there can't be one -- let's do it!" The result is a Toyota TAPESTRY grant and the beginning of the "Where Fingers Meet the Stars & Beyond" project. That project has given rise to a tactile astronomy class that is low-vision and non-sighted-friendly and the only portable, self-standing tactile planetarium in North America.

EW: What is the planetarium made of?

Wentworth: The planetarium consists of five 4-meter dome tents, one for the projection of constellations and four others to represent the night sky over Colorado Springs. Each of the four seasonal night skies is represented in one of the tents. Plastic molds of different sizes and shapes of metal nuts were made to depict the different star magnitudes. Then the "stars" were glued onto the inside of the domes to represent the various constellations, so the students could "see" them with their fingertips.

EW: What else have you done to help your visually impaired students understand science?

Wentworth: Teaching all the high school sciences presents a constant challenge to put visual concepts into a tactile, graphic format -- but it is an area I thoroughly enjoy. To meet the challenges, I have created tactile Bohr models (of atoms) that use hex-nut "electrons" to illustrate chemical bonding, and a magnetic element board that allows students to make their own chemical compounds without chemicals.

A non-sighted shadow detection unit was devised so blind students could experience sun shadows and learn about the Earth's rotation, seasons, and time. Hot air balloons with radio buzzers attached to them help non-sighted students learn about convection cells. A walk-in anatomical model of an animal cell provides students a means to picture the cell organelles. Those are just a few of the examples of what I do to make science experiences possible for blind students.

EW: What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your job?

Wentworth: Even though creating these tactile manipulatives to convey visual concepts is a passion of mine, helping students who are losing their eyesight come to grips with this significant emotional event, overcome it, and then realize they can still run with life is the most rewarding aspect of my job. Every year seems to bless me with being able to see at least one of my students realize they can do more than just survive. Two students in particular have affirmed my belief that every student can succeed in attaining his or her potential.

The first was a student with extreme ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] who could hardly read and frequently would try to run away from school. He was extremely defiant. Seeing myself in the boy, I started working with him as I wished someone had worked with me. Gradually he responded, and I was one of the few individuals at our school who had no problems with him. He moved to Florida at the end of his sophomore year. The next fall, I received a letter from him stating that he had decided to return to school because he wanted his high school degree so he could become a successful artist.

The second student is a girl who came to our school as a street-wise individual, rejected by her mother and raised by her grandmother. She was full of anger and distrustful of everyone. Giving her patience and love, and caring for her as a unique individual before worrying about teaching her academics, brought a promise from her that she would continue in school. That promise replaced her former threat of, "As soon as I'm 16, I'm out of here!" Last year, she moved back to Denver and is still in school.

Moments like those, while not earth-shattering events, are the true balm for the many hours teachers devote to their students. Seeing my students realize that they can succeed, rather than just survive, lets me realize that I do make a difference. For me, those moments are priceless; they affirm that miracles still happen -- including the one in which a projected "failure at life" went on to become a teacher of visually impaired students.

This e-interview is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


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