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Shining a light on blindness and low vision

Teacher consultant named Braille Institute’s Teacher of the Year

Kent ISD — When it comes to baseball, Forest Hills’ Collins Elementary third-grader Javier Sanchez likes running and swinging the bat off the tee.

“I’m really good at it,” said Javier, who is blind. He recently discovered his affinity for the sport thanks to April Makley, Kent ISD teacher consultant for the visually impaired.

At the end of the school year, Makley and her team work with students in exploring a hobby or activity they can do with friends and family. By working with Javier, he was able to learn how to play T-ball. The tee is a low-tech kind of adaptive technology that allows Javier to know where the ball is and play.

“His friends will be able to go out with him in the fall and he can play with them,” Makley said. “That’s awesome.” 

By helping Javier learn about home plate and the batting T, Makley has given him access to the game. That’s always her goal – opening up the world to blind and visually impaired students and smashing barriers so they can participate in their general education classroom and interact without noticing that they are different.

Teaching a 200-year-old tactile writing system using raised dots is a major way she helps students. Makley was recently named the Braille Institute’s International Teacher of the Year 2023. The award is part of the Braille Institute’s annual Braille Change competition, which takes place from January to March and is designed to help students practice and hone their Braille skills. Kent ISD has hosted the Braille Challenge for the past couple of years.

“It’s super important for students to participate in events such as these, as a lot of our students feel like they’re the only one,” said Makley, who added that Kent ISD has also hosted a camp day for visually impaired students. “A lot of times they don’t really have friends who understand the struggles that they might have. So when they come to the Braille Challenge and everybody’s banging away at these (Perkins) braillers and suddenly they’re a little competitive and it’s fun to see.”

Makley was honored with the Teacher of the Year award at the Braille Challenge Finals in June at University of Southern California. She attended with former student Julia LaGrand.

 ‘These kiddos are out here and they’re just as capable as any other kiddo out there. We just have to have those expectations and give them the tools that they need.’

–  April Makley, Kent ISD teacher consultant for the visually impaired

LaGrand, a 12-time finalist in the national Braille Challenge, witnessed other teachers receiving the national award and knew she wanted to nominate Makely.

“She has always gone above and beyond to teach me as much as possible and to support my development into an independent and capable blind person,” said LaGrand, who is a graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High School and will be attending New England Conservatory of Music in the fall. 

“Whether it was driving, two extra hours to get me a functional graphing calculator or waking up absurdly early to make sure I had the technology I needed for an 8 a.m. exam when mine broke, she always went the extra mile. She also really pushed me to meet my full potential.” 

Left, Julia LaGrand, nominated Kent ISD teacher consultant for the visually impaired April Makley for the Braille Institute’s Teacher of the Year award (courtesy)

Blending Old and New Tools

Makley references inspiring historical figures when she talks about her profession. “When I was a young child, I read all about Louis Braille and Helen Keller, which led me to a career in teaching,” Makley said.

When she graduated from high school in the early 2000s, there was an abundance of teachers. Encouraged to specialize, Makley decided on special education and learned about the Blindness and Low Vision Studies program at Western Michigan University.

‘(April Makley) has always gone above and beyond to teach me as much as possible and to support my development into an independent and capable blind person.’

– former student Julia LaGrand

For the past 22 years, she has been a teacher consultant for the visually impaired, first for Ionia County Intermediate School District and for the last six years for Kent ISD. There are seven teacher consultants on Makley’s team along with three orientation and mobility instructors.

“My day is kind of like a juggling act,” Makley said. During a school year, Makley visits several schools such as Collins Elementary and Rockford’s Belmont Elementary working with students and adjusting instruction to help meet their goals.

This involves a mix of tried-and-true techniques, such as an abacus and the Perkins Brailler, to modern technology, such as BrailleNote Touch Plus, a tablet utilizing Braille that gives students access to email and apps, helps create slideshow presentations, has a calculator and the ability to present homework visually to a teacher.

During their time together, Kent ISD teacher consultant April Makley will use descriptive language to help third-grader Javier Sanchez develop a sense of the world around him

A Platform to Educate 

This is not the first time Makley has been recognized for her work. In 2008, she was recognized as Teacher of the Year by Michigan Parents of the Visually Impaired and most recently with a Kent ISD Leading Learning Award.

Makley said she hopes that being named the Braille Institute’s International Teacher of the Year 2023 will be a launchpad to helping the community learn about the world of blindness and low vision.

“It’s a very low-incidence population, but these kiddos are out here and they’re just as capable as any other kiddo out there,” she said. “We just have to have those expectations and give them the tools that they need.” 

Markley added she also believes that the award celebrates all who work with the visually impaired students, including her team.

“We work hard and we have to be on our toes constantly shifting and adapting and staying current with new teaching and new knowledge and technology,” Makley said. “It’s a lot, but it’s very worthwhile.”

Read more from Kent ISD:
Hoping to see the world through a camera lens
Play, laugh, learn

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio

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