8 Questions with Classroom Teacher Tree Windsong


This past semester I had the pleasure of working alongside freshman English Language Arts teacher Tree Windsong through a Writing the Community residency at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind. Tree, who herself identifies as visually impaired, brings the qualities of empathy, compassion, positivity, and humor into the class environment. Tree describes herself as a fighter: motivated, adventurous, and feisty. “I am sure that last one is hard to believe,” she says, though her life story speaks its truth. Tree grew up in New York State and moved to Tucson over 20 years ago. “I moved here because I was looking for a change so I donated items, packed and shipped boxes, and hopped a Greyhound Bus.” She has also traveled overseas to England, Scotland, and Ireland, and held a diverse assortment of jobs from crisis hotline volunteer to summer camp counselor to teacher. Reading, music, dancing, forests and bodies of water, and cats, including her five-year-old orange tabby, are among her passions.

It was an honor to teach in Tree’s classroom and to get to know the voices of visually impaired students, who bring a fresh and I think often little-known perspective. I found out just how sight-reliant I am in my own practice as a writer and artist, and found myself challenged to think beyond sight, prioritizing other senses like touch, hearing, or scent. In taking the emphasis off sight, I found my own world expanded and renewed. Each student’s unique experience of the world, coupled with their creative word and imagery choices, made for a delightful teaching and reading experience on my end. They were open, trusting, playful, and explorative, and I knew this had a great deal to do with their teacher and the environment she had cultivated throughout the year.

Of course, I was thrilled when Tree agreed to share more in depth about her teaching philosophies and experience, as well as some pieces of her own journey. I hope readers will enjoy this brief interview and insight into visual impairment as it relates to reading and writing.

How long have you been teaching at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind and what attracted you to teaching English to students with visual impairment?

I have been teaching at ASDB for 12 ½ years. While at this school, I have taught 5th-12th grade students. This is my first year only teaching ELA to high school students, and I enjoy it. It gives me a chance to focus on one subject and truly show how reading and writing are expressive and full of life.  

What are some of your personal teaching philosophies, particularly regarding teaching reading and writing to students with visual impairment?

My philosophy is that I believe in the success of all students, and I want them to believe in themselves. When it comes to reading and writing, I think everyone is creative and has the ability to learn from what they read and write. Everything takes time, practice, and patience.

Do you have a favorite book, poem, or short story that you choose to teach students? And why are you drawn to teaching that particular item?

Well, I honestly enjoy teaching a variety from classics to modern. When someone knows a wide range of materials and information, it helps to become a more well-rounded and understanding person. Also, one day, you could find yourself as a contestant on Jeopardy.

My favorite poem to teach is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I like this one because it talks about two paths. One of them is easy while the other is more difficult. With this poem, I can relate it back to life’s experiences, choices, challenges, and opportunities. We can also discuss how all these can have an effect on us as well as others.  

What are three qualities you hope your students will develop as readers and writers?

Three qualities I want students to learn is to understand different perspectives, to keep going when a task is difficult, and to learn it’s all right to make a mistake. Life is filled with opportunity and growth, and we can all learn from everything we read, write, see, hear, and do.

What was it like for you growing up as a student with visual impairment? How has education for the visually impaired changed or evolved since you were a student?

Wow, this is a novel in itself. Well, it wasn’t easy growing up with a visual impairment. I went to a public school in a small town, I was the only VI student, and I had to endure a lot of difficulties. I had access to a CCTV, which I received during my senior year.  The textbooks I needed were large print or on tape, which were months late. Some textbooks weren’t even available in either format. In most cases, I had to work with what was available at the school.  

The students I work with are very lucky because they have peers that are like them, and they have the technology and services to help them in school, college, and beyond. For example, they have digital or audio textbooks, devices that have voiceover, speech, magnification, and/or braille output. This age of technology makes it easier for anyone with a disability to access information quickly.

What are some myths about visual impairment?

Well, there are quite a few roaming around.  I will share four since we’d be here for hours if I mentioned them all:

  • We can’t live alone because we can’t take care of ourselves: In my experience, I have had a lot of people act shocked when they find out I have lived alone, have traveled overseas by myself, and have a job. Some of the questions and comments after this are, “Who dresses you,” “Really, you don’t live with your parents,” “Wow, you can cook without getting burned,” “Wow, you are so brave,” and so on.
  • People who are blind/vi are totally blind: Some people are under the impression that if a person is blind/visually impaired that he/she is totally blind. This isn’t the case. Most people with a visual impairment are not totally blind. There are many different eye conditions that affect all parts of the eye. Two people can have the same eye condition, but each individual will experience it differently depending on the severity and other variables.
  • You don’t look blind: This one is another assumption that others make about visual impairments. Some eye conditions are not going to be noticeable because it’s affecting only the back of the eye, like the retina. Also, depending on the severity, someone with a visual impairment may not yet be using a white cane or guide dog.
  • We don’t watch movies: With the invention of audio description, this has made movies more accessible. When there wasn’t this option, movies were still fun to watch. In most cases, it’s pretty easy to know what is going on by sounds and dialogue. A friend of mine once blindfolded herself to see what it was like, and this was before audio description was done for movies. I had to tell her what was happening.  When I choose movies to watch, I really like fantasy. Although, it is hard to resist a period piece or a good murder mystery. A movie that makes me think or brings me joy is always better than one with tons of explosions and a pointless plot.

I know you're an avid reader and love fantasy. When and how did you discover your enthusiasm for reading?

I didn’t like to read in school because it was embarrassing for me. I secretly loved to read when I was at home or with friends. I got my first fantasy book when I was 12.  We were at the bookstore in the mall, and my dad told me to look for a book that I wanted. Even though I wasn’t sure what I wanted yet, I was very excited. I picked out The Wizard of Oz, because I had seen the movie, and I was curious about the story. I still have the book.

What draws you to the fantasy genre, and who is your favorite fantasy character of all time?

I think it is the magical feeling and the possibilities that draw me into the fantasy genre. I suppose it is the wishing that life could be filled with all of these aspects. I don’t have a favorite character. I do have a favorite type of character though. It is the one who has to fight harder to prove him/herself and wins in the end because he/she was underestimated the entire time.

Totally unrelated and of my own curiosity: having lived in Tucson 20 years, do you have any favorite hangouts or restaurants?

I really love Sabino Canyon for its beauty and serenity. There was a restaurant that I loved to go to that isn’t here anymore. It was called 5 & Diner. It had a fifties vibe to it, and the food was great. The restaurant that I enjoy now is the Angry Crab Shack because the food is laid out on the table, and I can eat it with my fingers. It’s fun!

Saraiya Kanning is a creative writer and visual artist with an interest in wildlife and ecology. As an educator, she seeks to inspire students with joy and curiosity for art making. She often highlights the intersection of art and science in her workshops and enjoys facilitating writing exercises that celebrate Sonoran Desert ecology. Kanning holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Arizona. She teaches drawing and painting. You can view her visual art at raebirdcreations.com.