FSDB Blind Department students and staff members made their annual pilgrimage to the Jacksonville Public Library on Mar. 5, 2020 for the 2020 North Florida Braille Challenge, a student-family program of Florida Instructional Materials Center for the Visually Impaired (FIMC-VI). Exhibits lined the hallways reflecting the theme of "Jurassic Braille." Cleverly themed activities engaged students in preparation for the challenge ahead.
At the Embossasaurus Waste exhibit, students dug their hands into oatmeal goop, reaching for "dino dots" ping pong balls (hand sanitizers were made available. The Fossil Site featured an activity where students made fossil imprint of shells onto clay. The Apatosaurus Foot exhibit featured a huge dinosaur footprint for students to compare to their size. They also received souvenir dinosaur eggs. The Jurassic Photo Booth gave students the opportunity to take photos against a boulder wall next to a Tyrannosaurus Rex. At the Triceradots station, students created braille symbols with three dots.
At the Extinct Contractions faux digging site, students dug into the sand with plastic shovels for "extinct contractions" (retired braille contractions that are no longer in usage). The Head to Tail exhibit featured dowels and twine that matched the length of six different dinosaurs from the Jurassic Period. In this activity, students unspooled dowels as they walked backward, which gave them a sense of how long (and large) the dinosaurs were!
The Play by Ear station contained sensory sound eggs for students to match the sounds of different eggs to each other. At the Braille Book Excavation site, free books were available for anyone who wanted them.
After students circulated through the Jurassic exhibits, examined and shook paws with the free-range dinosaurs roaming the halls, they convened in the auditorium for the Opening Ceremony/Pep Rally. The ceremony featured a thematic story about various mythical dinosaurs delivered by Sue Glaser, FIMC-VI's statewide educational specialist. She asked a baited question: Is Braille becoming obsolete? "NOOOO!!!" the eager young competitors roared.
Glaser explained that ten students in each level from across the U.S. and Canada would secure coveted spots in the National Braille Challenge slated for June in Los Angeles. She asked the students in the audience who have already been to the National Braille Challenge to stand up. Several students from FSDB rose to loud cheers and applause.
Students in each of the six Challenge levels were then named and ushered to their testing rooms by their guides. During competition sessions 1 and 2, special guest Dave Wilkinson presented a workshop for parents entitled "Teach Your Students to Dino-SOAR."
Born blind in Arkansas, Wilkinson struggled at school and in his community. Never one to take the easy road, he used a slate for notetaking rather than a Perkins Brailler as he didn't like the noise! He had a tough time with braille and got a lot of the letters backward. Math was "a nightmare." His reading skills were initially well below grade level. In the first and second grades, his mother made him read for an hour a day while his friends were outside playing.
Wilkinson eventually excelled in school to the extent that he could attend New York University. He delivered an Ode to Braille, poetically citing how he has used it in his life. He encouraged parents to let their children follow their dreams and explained that he didn't really like blind people when he was young. He advised parents not to worry if their children are in this unpleasant phase and that they would eventually grow out of it. (He married a blind woman after swearing that he would not even date one!)
Growing up, Wilkinson had depression and anxiety attacks, explaining that it is exhausting to live in a world that isn't made for blind people, whether it's extra homework, "keeping complex social situations straight," or getting from one class to the next. These experiences take a toll. Wilkinson emphasized, don't let children use that as an excuse because life has so much to offer! He said that parents need to be aware of the fact that depression and anxiety are more common among blind and visually impaired children. He advised parents to get their struggling children professional help as needed, take advantage of counseling resources and therapy. Wilkinson did so after initial resistance, and he's glad that he did.