By Dan Russo Witness
DUBUQUE — Learning in Natalie Schira’s classroom happens in a similar way to any other high school English course these days, with a few modifications to adjust for the teacher’s visual impairment.
“I don’t think it makes a big difference,” said Macy Vance, a student at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque who is part of Ms. Schira’s Honors Sophomore English Class.
On March 10, the students in this course took time away from the usual lectures and class discussions on literature to do research for a paper they are writing on an American author of their choice. They mainly used laptops for the research with some guidance from their teacher, who occasionally walked around their desks answering questions or making comments. Schira uses technology in the classroom to help her perform her duties, including a text to speech program on an Apple iPAD called Voiceover and a wireless keyboard that allows her to communicate digitally with her students.
“You can send (questions or information) to her over email and she gets back to you very quickly,” said Vance.
The writing the students do and the notes Schira gives from her lectures are all sent and received electronically. The software Schira uses to read the compositions gives her many capabilities.
“It offers me direct control over what I want spoken and how much punctuation I want to hear,” she said. “I can also navigate by character, word, sentence, line or paragraph.”
Schira has limited vision due to congenital glaucoma.
“In simple terms, that means the optic nerve, which sends data from the eye to the brain, is severely damaged,” explains the teacher. “It’s like trying to charge your phone with a severed lightning cable. Some electrons would get through, but you would never achieve a full charge.”
Although legally blind, Schira has worked hard to overcome obstacles in her road to a career in education.
“The most important thing to keep in mind is that (being visually impaired) is one of many adjectives which describe me,” she said. “We all have our lists, and that happens to be included on mine.”
Schira begins each class with a few minutes of prayer, emphasizing that imparting the importance of faith to her students is essential. Aside from her faith, her personal love of literature is evident as she interacts with students. Pictures of famous writers decorate the walls of her classroom, and she talks with obvious excitement about her favorite literary works.
“Every time we read a book, we see her passion for it,” said Olivia Blosch, another of her sophomore honors students.
Schira moves frequently as she teaches and has made adjustments to adapt to her visual limitations.
“When I first joined the Holy Family team, I spent time making sure I knew the campus well,” said Schira. “I also deliberately arrange the classroom such that I have access to any student as needed … at times, I walk with colleagues, and I would welcome that in unfamiliar settings. I generally walk freely around school.”
Schira functions as well as any other English teacher and is happy in her work.
“From a student’s perspective, I give teachers a lot of respect for what they do for us,” said Sam Sykes, another of Schira’s students, who added that he particularly admires the example Schira has given to those she teaches.
Main Photo (above): Schira assists students in the class March 10 as they conduct online research for an upcoming paper. The Honors Sophomore English Class combines studies of composition and American literature.