Saturday, March 15, 2008

10: notes from the holistic bilingual classroom

...and what's amazing is that out of 17 kids the two who refuse to sign are the deaf ones!

It seems contrary at first. The concept of Deafhood helped me understand the implications. They still leave me bemused, but pleased. I'm proud to say that in some aspects I think I've achieved a fully multicultural classroom. I type these notes unobtrusively on my Blackberry in the back of the classroom while watching my students act in an anger management and conflict resolution program run by ENACT. Their goal is to act out common school behavior problems - What To Do About The Annoying Kid, for example - and help students realize better ways to resolve those concerns than the usual (death and dismemberment.)

For today's activities we have two interpreters present in the room, both for my students and myself as well as the actors. I've got two Deaf students, fifteen who hear, in this bilingual English classroom which utilizes both English and ASL as languages of instruction, in keeping with our school philosophy. The Deaf students in my classroom are new to ASL. They've had a mostly oral background, with the support of hearing aids and special staff. I'm probably the first adult they've seen signing regularly, though one came to school knowing some sign language. Their background has been one of being picked on for being different. Here in our school, with Deaf teachers and administrators visible, these students have begun to have pride in themselves, but there are still barriers, and the obvious use of interpreters is one of them. (In a discussion with my Principal we realized these students probably had never been trained or instructed in how best to use interpreters, information all students probably could use.) Instead of paying close attention, they glance at the terps out of the corners of their eyes and (which action showing me they are at least paying attention) sometimes absentmindedly imitate signs; the hearing students try to sign with them but get frustrated at their embarrassment and instead REFUSE TO SPEAK for the visiting team leaders! Instead, several of my hearing students have become true members of the signing community. They feel comfortable, apparently, using ASL interpreters to communicate.

After the class the interpreters came up to me. "That girl, short, Deaf-" "She's not Deaf!" "What! She signs so well!" The fact that the interpreters could not identify who was hearing and who was deaf is such a fascinating little fact to me. The fact that students had become more willing to navigate these pathways of identity and actually act as though they were Deaf was fascinating to me. Even more interesting is that they were surprised afterwards. Their decision to use ASL was just that - a decision. It is a dual language school and they were using both languages. They were completely comfortable with the concept of ASL as a language and felt comfortable - for the activities we enjoyed that day anyway - using ASL to communicate.

The implications of these results, in this type of academic environment, will be interesting. At this stage in my work I feel frustrated by the fact that I am still not totally adept at all the skills I need for assessment and analysis. Some of them I can learn; some must be invented; the need for others, I am sure, exists but has yet to be recognized. Still, it is a powerful phenomenon to witness, and one I'm enjoying.

And the skills will come with time, after all. I just need patience, I think.

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