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yesh omrim

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A tale out of school

14 March 2006

In a previous life, I aspired to be a teacher of deaf children. I had to abandon that plan for financial reasons, but not before serving two terms as a student teacher and collecting a master’s degree in the subject. A recent posting by siderea on Avidity, Giftedness, and the Classroom reminded me of the most depressing experience from my graduate-school years.

For my first round of student teaching, I worked in a middle-school science class at a school for deaf children. One of the students who passed through that classroom was a girl I’ll call “Ellen”. Ellen had been born outside the United States; in her country of birth, she had spent a number of years in an oral school (one that only allowed communication through speech and lipreading), and when her family moved to the US, she was placed in a school that used sign language. Even compared with other deaf immigrants, her progress at picking up ASL was very slow.

But by God, she was avid. She would tell me stories in a rapid-fire sequence of signs that neither I nor her ASL-fluent classmates could understand. I would set up a game for us to play and she would be eager to play it, although her guesses as to the rules of the game did not always match my intentions. Meanwhile, the other three students in her class would pretty much sit there and wait to be told what to do. I recalled a comment by Maria Montessori in one of her books: mentally retarded children would only use her educational materials when prodded by a teacher, but children of normal intelligence would pick them up on their own initiative.

I was convinced that Ellen was a bright kid whose intelligence was being masked by a combination of deafness, a deprived educational background (of the sort that is very common among prelingually deaf children), and some kind of language processing disorder. At some point, I must have said something too positive about her to my supervising teacher, because he just went off about how I had to understand that she was retarded: maybe from some kind of organic defect, maybe just as a consequence of her upbringing, but it didn’t matter now because. She. Is. Retarded.

As proof of Ellen’s poor language skills, the teacher described an incident where another student was standing too close to her, and Ellen said “B/w” (I’m transcribing this in ASCII-Stokoe notation).

“That’s a sign,” I said. I had seen a Deaf adult use exactly that sign in exactly the same context.

“No,” the teacher said, “it’s not a sign, it’s a gesture.” And he went on about how he had studied ASL at a certain well-regarded deaf-ed program and knew the difference between a sign and a gesture, and he knew that if Ellen had been using proper ASL, she would have signed “pb/B"/fx”.

(Of course, I checked with Deaf ASL-fluent classmates later that day, and I was right. “pb/B"/fx” is the sort of sign you’d use to describe mailing a letter. Ellen had all sorts of trouble with ASL, but in this respect, she knew more than her teacher.)

I told the head of my deaf-ed program that I’d like to have a formal test of ASL fluency administered to Ellen, or at least videotape her telling one of her stories, so that someone who knew ASL backwards and forwards could analyze what was going on with her. No dice, said the professor. You can’t test a student without the principal’s permission.

So I went on to my next student-teaching assignment, and Ellen…she’s in her twenties now, so I assume she’s now out of high school and in a group home…for the mentally retarded.

I wonder how many kids like Ellen someone would encounter in a career of teaching deaf children. Maybe it’s just as well that I don’t know.