When I begin planning a unit or a curriculum, I start with big ideas; I've always been impressed by the Understanding By Design text and guide, and I think it has a lot to offer. This year for the summer session I'm teaching a course with eight Deaf kids; the course is a humanities course and the goal is to help students prepare for US History and English Regents exams. I'm excited–it's one of the few times in my five years as a teacher I've had a class which is entirely Deaf. Follow me as I begin planning...
The students are a pretty smart bunch, but they lack a lot of context and this has affected their vocabulary; for many years they were in a "special" class where there was no organized instruction of history (this happens sometimes in the mainstream.) Right away I know my goal is going to be to try to contextualize history for the students and use nonfiction passages, probably original documents from history, to guide students in their reading development. There will be a secondary focus of strategies for breaking down unfamiliar English words, which I figure they'll definitely encounter in historical documents.
A big problem for many minorities in the classroom is they lack models. I don't think any of my textbooks mentioned Puerto Rico growing up, for example. Why is this important? Because in history class, you're studying people who moved and changed the world. The important people, to be precise, in the narrative of history. Leaving out important people from minority groups and focusing on what is most familiar kind of semantically separates students from "the important people." It's an unspoken divide. Kylene Beers and other writers in education encourage teachers to help hearing students make connections–personal connections that help students improve reading skills by helping them visualize historical or other worlds. (I remember in my teenage years I was obsessed with finding literature with Deaf characters.) So for my students, it's going to be vital to use passages that include Deaf and hard of hearing people. We've had several speaking and signing Deaf people as part of history of the US, one way or another.
Now, I had a look at the test in question. There's a lot to do with facts, amendments, dates and wars. So what kind of theme can I create with these categories? I really like to do dynamic themes, themes which show relationships; static themes tend not to interest students as much as themes that clearly demonstrate cause and effect. I had a bright idea: Wars and Amendments, a unit designed to show the relationship between wars and the amendments and laws which came after. If students saw the connection of cause and effect, the facts might "make sense"–and have a better chance of staying remembered (students have a much harder time remembering facts and information that are isolated and seem to have no connection to anything else. This is a criticism James Loewen levied at many modern textbooks, which often omit cause and effect, saying "Wars broke out," or "the country decided to make a law," instead of delving into the more complex relationships. And, I wonder, can I include information for each day about how Deaf people dealt with those wars and situations? Yes, I can.
Then I begin planning. Lists of wars, lists of causes and effects. I learn things I didn't know before: that, for example, the Prohibition Amendment really does have a connection to World War I: it piggy-backed on anti-German racism! After WWI Americans hated Germans so much that German-Americans were politically ignored–and since they had been a powerful Anti-Prohibition force, once their power was diminished, it was possible for Prohibition to be pushed through. I didn't know how many Deaf Americans had swindled their way into the American Army; I didn't know Gallaudet adapted military songs and students marched around campus in a patriotic fervor. I include as much of these as possible.
Students began the course yesterday and were fascinated by an introductory excerpt from Jack Gannon's Deaf Heritage, recounting the experiences of a Deaf Hawaiian at the start of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They recognized the startling nature of the vibrations, the stress of nights spent with the lights out... and showed engagement with history. Afterwards, they spent a busy hour scribbling in their vocabulary journals, going back to the story and making notes; the engagement they felt with history had palpably increased.
Unfortunately, and this is going to be a bloody pain–students don't have the final capstone in this process, which is unrestricted access to materials to read and understand on their own at home. In my day, we had textbooks to bring home; today, I think most public schools probably keep books at the school. Marschark has noted how there may be a correlation between success in school and literature available in the home–a correlation also noted for other minorities, especially immigrants. When I was young, I could explore the class textbook on my own when I was bored of trying to figure out what everyone was saying in class. I'd love to give each of my students a copy of Deaf Heritage. Maybe one day a foundation to get copies of this book to every Deaf child? I can dream.... but the point is, if you really want a Deaf kid to learn, make sure you teach inclusively, teach accessibly, and teach contextually. And the reason I think these three principles are so powerful is because they work, not just with Deaf kids, but with any minority.
**Note: the “having books of your own to read” kind of fits into all three categories, if you think about it. Buy books for your kids. Just do it. OK?