Wednesday, July 25, 2012

37: Teaching While Deaf: Choosing Texts

Three simple principles: accessibility, contextualization, inclusiveness. It's not easy to apply these principles when designing a unit for Deaf kids. I wanted to teach US History and make sure my Deaf students knew that Deaf people had a place in making America–and that, like my students, there were many kinds of Deaf people. Many tribes, if you will. What texts would be helpful and show Deaf people's place in American history?

What do those three terms mean? Not what you think. Accessibility, to me, means that you can approach the topic in many ways–physical, visual, verbal, interpersonal, intrapersonal, all those intelligences and minds that educators discuss. I have observed that in many classrooms when a teacher works with a Deaf student or a minority student, the tendency is to start with verbal English then "go downwards"–i.e. make the explanation easier and easier, and then ending by repeating verbal structures. The emphasis is on the primacy of English. When teachers work with students who are hearing, or like the teacher, the emphasis is on discovering the student's strength in learning and addressing that strength with a teaching of equal complexity. It's not easier ways, it's different ways, and there's no primacy given to one way over another.

Contextualization means to provide the outside story of whatever you're talking about. A challenge for Deaf kids is they have access to less information than hearing kids. Less movies have captions. Radio isn't captioned at all. Hearing parents are sometimes unavailable. These blocks close a door in the mind, the door of inquiry, the door essential for learning. Teachers have to find the door of inquiry and shove it open, then feed context into the child's brain until the door stays open and the kid starts asking questions themselves. Otherwise education will be unsuccessful. (This is true for all kids, not just for Deaf kids, and the deep bone-down reason why you can't use testing to decide how good a teacher is. You have to see how many doors they've tried to open, and nobody can see that, except the teacher themselves.) The more context you provide, the more the child will understand.

Inclusiveness means to place the Deaf kid in the context of the story. Many other writers have addressed how history departments fail to reach kids, how textbooks fail to reach kids, by dehumanizing and de-diversifying (is that a word?) history. We rarely, if ever, see Deaf people in history classes, except Helen Keller–and even she is circumcised, cut off at age 4 with her hand in running water. We never see her 13 books on socialism, and sadly, many of those books no longer survive, it seems. It also means recognizing all the different ways Deaf people live and have lived, because the stories we include need to reflect our own stories.

The American Revolution was a challenge. In addition to information about the causes of that war and its resultant laws–particularly the Constitution, of course–I wanted to provide information about how Deaf people lived. John Brewster, Jr., made it in–and let me make connections to Goya, and how there were some spaces a little more fluid, a little easier to move in for artists. John Lamberton, slave-ship owner and one of the founding fathers of Martha's Vineyard. Rebecca Nurse, burned as a witch for her blunt declaration, basically, that witchburning is stupid (it is.) These stories don't directly connect to the war, but they embroider it, giving the glitter of reality to the cross-stitch of plain facts. (Sometimes you need a tempting glitter, to open that door.) Add to that the fact that Adams and Franklin were interested in what l'Epee was doing in his school in France–but most of this is text, so while this gives me context and inclusion, it doesn't necessarily give me accessibility. I plan some skits and acting out to help impress the information on students in a variety of ways. We have vocabulary lists also, and these I teach in ASL and English.

The War of 1812–also a challenge. There's rumors and bits, of course. The origin of oral education, and maybe the war between oral Deaf Americans and sign-using Deaf Americans, in the story of John Braidwood, ne'er-do-well scion of the Braidwood family, collapser of two Deaf schools and enemy of Thomas Gallaudet, safe in America from arrest by the British thanks to the war. There's pictures now, of most of these things, so I can at last satisfy more easily the need for accessibility as well as contextualization and inclusion. Deaf Heritage was my friend there, and the Deaf History Reader, and a little booklet written by Alexander Graham Bell, interestingly enough. Maps and pictures of weapons and buildings and paintings... visual and tactile as well as verbal and other methods.

The Mexican-American war gives me a nice little goose-egg: the story of Deaf Smith, Smith the Mumbler, Smith the war-leader, who like Lamberton spoke little and did that strange motion with the ear. He's the perfect frontiersman, the guy who can give me the opening to explain the independent Texas spirit, that short-lived but glorious Texas Republic, and the slotting-into-place as Texas–on its own terms–became part of America. He's also a strange amalgam: in descriptions of him I recognize many types of Deaf people, and it's clear Deaf Smith, like Jean-Jacques Massieu, was an independent icon.

And my students make the connections themselves. "Blunt like me," signs one Deaf girl, about Rebecca Nurse. "I like to stand by the side watching my friends sometimes," says another Deaf boy, with mostly hearing friends, thinking about Deaf Smith. "Why do hearing people use the same word for "impress" (she signs with her thumb in a palm, meaning to astonish, entertain, or gain credit) and "impress" (she signs the sign used also for "recruit," and she's talking about the habit of impressment of Americans by the British in the war of 1812)?" I try to explain, and point out that in ASL we also sometimes use the same sign for different concepts. In tests they are improving steadily, but after two weeks we already have 75 vocabulary words, and they're starting to complain.

To which I reply, reasonably, that it's their own fault; they picked the words themselves.

Feel free to suggest texts and topics!

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