Having to teach remotely on a screen because of the pandemic can bring on daunting challenges when the students on the other end are visually impaired.
But for Jonathan Hooper, it’s another way to get creative.
A New York City educator who teaches students at different public schools, Hooper has been honored for his inventive work — particularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The Braille Institute has named him 2020 Teacher of the Year for Excellence in Braille Instruction.
Hooper has been hosting national webinars on tech tips and strategies to help teachers of students with visual impairments during the pandemic.
“He really shifted gears in the pandemic,” said Rachel Antoine, manager of national programs and services for the Braille Institute.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Hooper went online and ordered braille books and then mailed them to his students.
“I wanted to make sure they had something to read!” he said. No one knew what was going to happen with instruction.
Finding new wellsprings of invention is not new for this United Federation of Teachers member, who puts textured fabric over squares to indicate different colors so that his students can play Candy Land.
He regularly conducts presentations and hosts webinars focusing on curriculum adaptations, strategies, and considerations for improving student outcomes. Hooper also teaches braille at Hunter College, which is part of the City University of New York.
A Tennessee native who grew up on a rural horse farm, Hooper began his career as a reading and math teacher, and his students included a frustrated child with visual impairment. Hooper researched ways to make lessons more accessible to the student — such as highlighting text with yellow strips of paper and using ruler lines to make it easier to follow text. The fifth grader didn't like large print books, because they made him stand out. Hooper began putting the text on word documents, making the font really big, and printing it on regular size paper, which he put in a binder for the student.
“He started coming to school. He was on grade level by the end of the year,” Hooper said. “It made a huge difference in his ability to thrive.”
And Hooper learned what was making him thrive. He earned a Master’s degree in teaching for visual needs. He aimed for a career in New York City because he wanted a community of colleagues teaching students with visual impairment, rather than being a lone teacher in an outpost.
Hooper teaches students to learn braille, and how to use braille technology. He also transcribes his colleagues’ classroom worksheets into braille. This can include graphics; he draws on special paper with a special pen and then runs the paper through a machine that heats and raises the lines he has drawn.
“The theme of our job is access,” he said. That includes access to education, recreation, leisure and jobs.
Hooper makes it his job to provide outreach and support to families of students with visual impairment, and he is also coordinator of the New York City Braille Challenge, which includes student competitions, educational panels, and vendors providing services to families and students. Last year, two of the city students went on to the nationals.
Hooper serves as an advisor for the New York Deaf Blind Collaborative and as a board member of the New York State Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER).
The American Foundation for the Blind offers statistics and information on children and youth with vision loss.