Meet Alexandria’s 9-year-old braille champion

Meet Alexandria’s 9-year-old braille champion
Noa Hottin with his BrailleNote, a device that allows him to read and write in school, in the hallway at Mount Vernon. (Photo/ACPS)

By Missy Schrott |

Noa Hottin’s life is far from ordinary. Hottin, at 9 years old, has already lived in three countries and speaks four languages – he’s also been blind since birth and spent a period of time selectively mute.

As such, he’s faced challenges that many of his fourth grade peers have never even had to think about. Despite his unusual set of circumstances, he has continued to tackle challenges and to thrive while doing so.

Most recently, Hottin became a national braille champion when he placed first in his age group at the Braille Institute’s 2018 Braille Challenge – the only academic competition of its kind in North America for students who are blind or visually impaired, according to the Braille Institute. 

The competition tests fundamental braille skills including reading comprehension, spelling, speed and accuracy, proofreading and charts and graphs. 

Hottin recently competed in the national championship in Los Angeles in June after competing in a regional competition in Baltimore earlier this year. Preliminary competitions were held in 51 regions throughout the U.S. and Canada, but only 50 contenders – those with the top 10 scores in each age group – earned a spot at nationals. 

Even though Hottin placed third in his age group at the preliminary competition, his score was among the top 10 in his age group of those who competed in all 51 regions.

Noa Hottin (bottom row, fifth from right) at the national Braille Challenge in Los Angeles in June. (Courtesy photo)

“I came in third place in my age group, which is like five people,” Hottin said. “I came right in the middle, and when I walked out of there, I was like, ‘Okay, this is probably over.’ Little did I know that I was going to be one of the top 50 kids to go to Los Angeles in the finals.” 

After finding out he had qualified in May, Hottin spent the next month preparing for the competition.

“I love this little boy’s diligence,” Hottin’s mom, Lisa Buzenas, said. “For the full month before the competition, he read for an additional hour every day, just kind of practicing, and I mean, he just read voraciously. I remember I went to the Duke [Street] library, they have a braille section on the second floor, and I checked out every book they had. I think I got probably like 27 books for his age range. He finished them in two days.”

During the awards ceremony after the competition in Los Angeles, Buzenas said she was surprised to hear her son’s name announced as the winner for his age group. 

“I remember I was talking to one of the testers later,” she said, “… and I just told her I was really surprised that he won and she said, ‘I wasn’t.’ I said, ‘Really?’ and she said, ‘No I talked to Noa beforehand, I could tell he was really bright.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but he came in third place out of five,’ and she said, ‘That’s because he’s never done this before. Those other kids have all gone to regionals before. They knew what to expect, so after Noa went through regionals, he knew what to expect out of the test. That’s why he won here.’” 

Buzenas said Hottin has always been a fast learner. He started learning how to read and write braille when he was about three years old. 

In addition to learning braille, Hottin had an unorthodox experience with language as a child. His mom is in the Foreign Service and the family spent a lot of time moving. 

Noa Hottin and his mom, Lisa Buzenas, explore Los Angeles while on the west coast for the Braille Challenge competition in June. (Courtesy photo)

He was born in Arlington before moving to Bangkok, Thailand at eight months old, and later Brussels, Belgium at three years old. By the time he moved back to Alexandria at six years old, he knew English, Thai and French. 

Buzenas said that between speaking French at school and Thai with his nanny, Hottin didn’t speak a word of English for four years, so when he started first grade at Cora Kelly School, it took about two months before he started speaking English again. 

While he spoke at home, though, Hottin had gone selectively mute about a year before leaving Brussels and he was not speaking in school.

In second grade, Hottin transferred to Mount Vernon Community School and began to learn Spanish through the school’s dual language program. It took time, however, for him to grow out of his selective muteness.

“I would take videos of Noa at home doing his schoolwork while reading out loud just so I could send it to his teachers so they knew that he was understanding the homework,” Buzenas said. “My concern was that [if] he is not responding in class, then they don’t know what he knows and what he doesn’t know.”

In addition to the videos, teachers and staff at Mount Vernon had Hottin video-call his dad during the school day in order to bring a familiar voice into an uncomfortable environment. Gradually, Hottin became more comfortable as he neared the end of second grade, and he started talking. 

Mount Vernon Principal Liza Burrell-Aldana said she remembered the day it happened.

“The kids, when they heard his voice, it was beautiful,” she said. “With the teachers and the students, we were like, ‘If Noa starts talking, do not make a big deal [about it]’ – not because it wasn’t, but because we don’t want him to feel shy again. So when the kids heard him, the teachers told me they were just trying to hold it and the teachers were trying to hold it … and of course he couldn’t see that, but what he didn’t know was that everyone around him, we were all excited and making faces.”

Buzenas said she had been hesitant about sending Hottin to traditional elementary schools in Alexandria in the first place.

“I was a little worried because he’s only gone to school for special needs children and this was the first time we mainstreamed him,” she said. “I really wanted him to be around children with sight to understand what it would be like in the world and not to live in a bubble.”

However, because of the principals and teachers at Mount Vernon Community School, Hottin has adapted quickly to his new environment. He has overcome his muteness and now takes talented and gifted classes. He’s even working on a project with his friends to encourage students to be quieter in the cafeteria. 

Hottin’s biggest learning tool that allows him to take ordinary classes in school is his BrailleNote, a device he uses to read and write.

“I just create a document on here and then I just read my homework and type my answers and then I save it onto a hard drive,” Hottin said. “That way, we can plug it into the computer, and that way my teachers will be able to read my homework, so it’s pretty cool.”

Hottin also has a personal aide who helps put his assignments on the BrailleNote and print his work once he’s completed it. 

Burrell-Aldana said it was the partnership with Hottin’s family that helped not only make accommodations for Hottin, but to bring awareness about special needs to the school community.  

“We didn’t have any braille signage or any system here at Mount Vernon. It is because of Noa that we now have it at Mount Vernon, so he brought a lot of awareness to all of us – the awareness of the different types of learners, and that we need to meet those needs and fit their learning style,” she said.

Noa Hottin waves from a convertible as the grand marshal of the Del Ray Halloween Parade on Oct. 28. (photo by Will Niccolls/DRBA)

Because of Hottin’s growth as a student and impact on the school, Burrell-Aldana said, staff at Mount Vernon chose to name him the grand marshal of the Del Ray Halloween Parade on Oct. 28. 

“He represents who we are as a school,” she said. “The diversity that we have in our school is so big – backgrounds, languages, learning needs, experiences, stories and how just that partnership with the families is going to make such a great impact in helping our students achieve.”

Looking to the future, Buzenas said Hottin wants to participate in more braille competitions. He’s also not stopping at the languages he knows already – he in the midst of learning his fifth language, Mandarin, in preparation for a move to Beijing, China with his mom next summer.

“We’re both looking forward to it,” Buzenas said. “I’m fortunate that Noa’s very adaptable. If you could imagine how difficult it is for a child to move all over the world, to have to make new friends, and then you have to put on additional languages and different curriculum, … and then on top of that you throw on that he’s blind so he’s having to learn new homes, new buildings, how to get around.”

“It’s a lot to ask of him,” she said. “It takes a village and I’m really, I mean, I could not be happier with the experience we’ve had in Alexandria.”

Burrell-Aldana said she’s proud to have been a part of Hottin’s journey. 

“I know Noa’s going to do amazing things in life,” she said, “but it’s just beautiful to know that maybe some of that started in elementary school and that we were part of it. That is beautiful. That is what I think education should be about.”