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L.A. Unified bans blindfolding during lessons

A new fourth-grade reading program recommends using blindfolds to help students learn about sensory details. But in light of the Miramonte Elementary case, district officials consider it prudent to eliminate the eye coverings.

March 02, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

Who knew that blindfolding students was part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District?

It was, until last week, when a senior district official nixed a lesson in a new fourth-grade reading program.

The blindfolding of students attracted notice after the January arrest of Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct for allegedly photographing students blindfolded and being spoon-fed his semen.

In light of that case, blindfolding "may be perceived negatively," wrote Deputy Supt. of Instruction Jaime Aquino, in a Feb. 23 memo to principals.

The activity is part of the new California Treasures curriculum and is described in the teacher's edition. The purpose is to "review with students that sensory details are details that we observe by using our five senses."

Students work in pairs, with one blindfolded. Using an object, which isn't specified, the blindfolded student answers questions about the object from the other student.

"The goal is not to guess the object," the directions explain, but "to notice as much as they can with their fingers, nose and ears. Explain that the more detailed descriptions they provide, the easier it will be to identify the object."

There is no tasting involved.

Aquino suggested that teachers "use an alternate means for students to look at sensory details. Instead, students might be asked to explore and use their senses to describe details of objects hidden inside an opaque bag."

In an interview, Aquino acknowledged that blindfolds have been used in lessons for a long time. But it may be wise to use alternatives in the future, he said.

These days, a principal must be "100% more vigilant," said retired Assistant Supt. Angie Stockwell, who said she believes the directive makes sense. And "if I were a teacher today, I would be more cautious."

"What would be normal in one time becomes suspect in another," she said. "When blindfolding, things can happen."

At one school, in a related development, making butter also joined the list of banned activities in L.A. Unified.

Substitute teacher Prentiss Moore has, for 15 years, made butter with elementary-school students in a much-anticipated lesson.

"It is a standards-based lesson with elements of science, social studies, language arts and art," said Moore, 67. "I've done it over 500 times, always with the permission of the teacher, and being careful about allergies."

"The finished butter is served to the class on crackers," he said.

Berndt has been accused of serving students tainted cookies, which caused one parent at a North Hollywood campus to question Moore's buttered crackers.

"Let's be wise," Moore said the principal told him. "Let's not do our butter lesson."

Moore, who has high regard for the principal, said, "The issue to me is how the good teachers are besmirched by the actions of a few."

Former school board member Genethia Hudley-Hayes perceives overreaction by administrators.

"I've done the butter lesson when I taught kindergarten and first grade," she said. "It's fun. It has educational value."

She also questioned the ban on the blindfold activity.

"What you really want is to protect students from predatory behavior," she said. "How does that get us any closer to protecting children?"

howard.blume@latimes.com

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