Tyler Zahnke succeeded in school with help from math aide Doug Morse, left, and Nancy Calvi, Kent ISD consultant for the visually impaired

Diploma: ‘I Feel Like it Changed My Life’

Program’s First Blind Graduate Pursues Creative Visions

by Charles Honey  

Tyler Zahnke sat down at his musical instrument – aka, his Toshiba laptop  – and proceeded to open a wonder-box of sounds. He called it “Welcome to the Tape.”

Out the sounds came, tumbling one into the next: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1; an announcer spouting “Hi boys and girls!”; daffy cartoon voices; a snippet of Van Morrison’s “Moondance”; and then several voices stitched together to say, “Welcome to a very special Mini Nifty mixtape, five years in the making.”

“That is how the CD begins,” Tyler said with some pride, after the soundscape ended. It was, he explained, an artistic form called “sound collage.”   

“Sound collage is where you take pieces of collected audio and basically glue it together,” Tyler said. “After all, the word ‘collage,’ from French, means ‘gluing together.’”

Tyler knows whereof he speaks when it comes to sound. He creates great quantities of it, both in collage and more traditional musical forms. All unaided by sight -- and perhaps enhanced by his lack of it.

Blind since birth, Tyler has turned his inner vision loose on music, as well as writing, while navigating the challenging terrain of academics required for a high school diploma.

He has done so with plenty of support from MySchool@Kent, a partly online and partly face-to-face program offered by Kent ISD that provides flexible, online learning for students with special circumstances. Tyler is the first blind student to graduate from the program – a fact of which he is rightfully proud.

“I managed to do it,” Tyler said. “I can’t believe it, personally.”

Editor's note: Grads with Grit is a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring.
MySchool@Kent

Billed as "high school personalized," MySchool@Kent is a program of Kent ISD designed to help students with special circumstances, although it is open to all students. About 280 students were enrolled this year in its high school completion program, working toward diplomas in their home school districts.

WHERE: Its main hub is the Kent Career Tech Center, with offsite locations at the David D. Hunting YMCA and the Gaines Township branch of the Kent District Library.

WHO: Students served include those with long-term illnesses or fragile health conditions; caregivers to parents, children or others; those with jobs that cut into the school day; and students whose activities don't permit regular attendance. The latter have included a minor league hockey player, a motocross competitor and a ballerina.

HOW: Students receive instruction online, overseen by a teacher who also meets with students in the classroom. Students are required to attend class at least twice a week for approximately five hours total. Each student also has a coach who helps him or her with motivation, organization and keeping current with school work.

Source: Kent ISD

Perseverance plus Help

He actually completed his graduation requirements late last year, but plans to walk in the commencement ceremony of Northview High School East Campus, his base school, in early June. More than 35 MySchool@Kent students are expected to graduate from their home districts this spring.

Tyler finished his requirements both by online instruction and by coming to MySchool classes at the Kent Career Tech Center, where he worked for long hours with an aide on math -- the toughest subject for a student who couldn’t see the shapes and angles of a problem.

Principal Cary Stamas credited Tyler’s perseverance for his success, as well as MySchool’s flexibility and dedicated staff members who helped him.

“It starts with Tyler and his motivation and hard work to achieve,” Stamas said. “It really speaks to what our goal is, which is to try to figure out what roadblocks there are for students to achieve their goals. And how do we use the flexibility we’ve been given to innovate and alter things in a way that makes the experience something of value to them, and something of integrity.”

Flexibility also came from Northview Public Schools, where officials arranged for Tyler to enroll in the alternative East Campus school and connected him to MySchool. They enabled him to stick with the program after his father died two years ago and Tyler moved to live with his mother in Rockford.

Through all the challenges, Tyler drew on assistive devices for the blind as well as his own intelligence. As graduation came within sight, he applied himself more diligently, coming to the Tech Center three or four days a week when only two were required.

“I’m very proud of him,” said Nancy Calvi, a Kent ISD teacher consultant for the visually impaired who’s worked with Tyler since he was 3. “I’m so glad he made it. A lot of the reason he made it is he’s just a smart kid.”

Tyler Zahnke sits in on a jam session earlier this month at the Fulton Street Pub (photo courtesy of Rachel Buzzitta)

A Bright Musical Mind

Tyler’s smart all right. That quickly becomes obvious when you first meet him, and he begins citing websites, musicians and authors with ease. He seems to know the Internet like the back of his hand, or rather the touch of his fingertips.

He’ll casually mention Jonathan Bowers, a mathematician and father of googology – “the study of ridiculously large numbers,” as Tyler puts it. Or he’ll tell you about the singer Imogen Heap starting a fair trade organization for the music industry that he supports, then break into singing her song “Let Go.”

Indeed, Tyler aims for a career in music, both as a studio session musician and as a composer for music libraries that provide sound for TV, radio and movies. And he plans to continue advocating for visually impaired people as a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan.

He has composed numerous tracks, both solo on his Yamaha keyboard and with fellow advocate for the blind and musician Elizabeth Kazmierski of East Grand Rapids, with whom he has a longtime group they call Mini Nifty. “Welcome to the Tape” is from a longer work in progress he’s composing with her.   

Tyler believes being blind and a musician enables him to see, in a sense, things other people don’t. He said he is proud of his blindness.

“I just think it’s a unique look at life,” he said firmly. “There’s a whole scene the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable about, a whole culture.

“Being a musician, I get to hear about composers and artists that the rest of the world seems to miss. The same goes for blindness. I know the world has discovered Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, but for goodness’ sake, have you discovered Kevin Reeves? I don’t think so,” he added with a laugh.

AUDIO: 'The Ambient Phases of Life'

Math was Tough

He hopes to further his music studies at Grand Rapids Community College as soon as this summer. He also is an active writer and blogger, writing online poetry and a couple dozen freelance articles.

All that said, earning his diploma wasn’t easy.

Reading was one thing. Nancy Calvi began teaching Tyler braille when he was a young child. At MySchool@Kent, he often used text-to-speech programs that would read Poe and Beowulf to him on his laptop – although sometimes he still prefers reading silently with a refreshable braille keyboard.

'I just think it's a unique look at life. There's a whole scene the rest of the world doesn't seem to be knowledgeable about.' – student Tyler Zahnke on being blind

Writing was relatively easy, Tyler says, with his intimate knowledge of the keyboard helped by a program that would read out each letter as he typed, and then the full sentences. “These days robotic voices are pretty good,” he quipped. “It isn’t ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ anymore.”

Math was another matter. Lacking a program that could magically turn mathematical symbols into intelligible sound, Tyler turned to a retired biology teacher for help. Doug Morse was hired as an aide to spend long afternoons with Tyler, describing geometric shapes and graphs in ways to help Tyler solve problems. Morse, like Tyler, was learning as they went.

“We worked as a team,” Morse said. “We both had to learn patience. We were kind of teaching each other to get through this.”

With help from Morse, Calvi and others, while calling on his own intelligence and drive, Tyler got through his courses to earn a high school diploma. And while he’s well occupied with his musical and literary interests, he feels good about that. 

“I feel like it changed my life,” he said. “It just made me feel like I actually accomplished something.”

He did indeed. But it would appear he has much more to accomplish ahead of him.

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MySchool@Kent

Northview High School East Campus

Submitted on: May 19th 2017

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