Thursday, August 25, 2011

"I'm Britney?"

From 2000 - 2002 I taught preschool to a diverse group of energetic children. Every morning one boy would enter the classroom, throw down his stuff and run over to the dress-up corner to slip into a wedding gown.

His enthusiasm for the loveliness of this dress was unabashed.  Wearing it made him happy. He wore it when building in the block center, playing with make-believe guns ("no guns in school"), reading books and eating breakfast.

Sometimes he would roll around on the table singing Britney Spears songs. I once said to him "Okay Britney, time to get off the table" to which he ecstatically replied, "I'm Britney?"

None of the other children in the class had a problem with his wardrobe choice. It was a non-issue.  The teachers in the room didn't make a big deal out of it either.  

For Christmas that year Toys "R" Us offered to donate a gift to every child in our class.  Each student read through the catalog and chose an item.  This little boy circled a Barbie doll. It was all he wanted.  He had asked his parents for one but they said no.

What to do?

We decided that we would put his order in exactly as he wanted it.  The day the Barbie arrived in school he was grinning from ear to ear.  He spent the rest of the day holding it, playing with it and loving it.

The next day when he came to school he did not run in to get the wedding dress.  He was not smiling his normally infectious smile.  He was sad.

"Mommy threw my Barbie in the garbage" he replied when we asked him why he was so upset.

He even wrote a song about it that went something like this...

"I got Barbie.  I love Barbie.  Mommy threw Barbie away."

Eleven years have passed since this incident but it is something that sticks with me, especially in light of some recent posts that touch on similar issues (you can read them here and here.)  I'd like to think that a boy can play with a Barbie and wear a wedding dress nowadays without his parents flipping out.

Granted, it is probably a lot to swallow but isn't acceptance better than teaching shame?

Teacher of the Deaf

I am a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing.

I am not a sign language interpreter.

Over the years I have encountered those who are confused about the difference between the two professions.

This has happened in both my professional and personal life. For folks unfamiliar with issues related to deaf culture or deaf education using the terms interchangeably is certainly understandable. Yet, the two call for distinct qualifications, demands and experience. They do not have to be mutually exclusive but the path towards certification in each is not the same.

My role as a teacher is similar to that of any other educator, only I use American Sign Language (ASL). I am also not a speech teacher - I am interested in putting forth ideas and concepts, in expanding how my students see the world, in developing positive attitudes, in fostering questioning, in supporting academic and emotional growth and independence and in helping each child reach the next level of development.  I do this through lessons, conferences, hands-on experimentation, assessment, etc., the same as any teacher with hearing students.  The mode of communication is the only difference.

Interpreters on the other hand are there to facilitate communication between people who do not share a common language.  American Sign Language interpreters facilitate conversation between a hearing person and a deaf person.

Using the services of an ASL interpreter can take some getting used to if you are not familiar with it but these tips should help ease you into it.

None of this confusion really causes any damage.  Adults figure out how to work with one another to get past barriers. However, damage is caused when deaf or hard of hearing children are placed in mainstream classrooms without access to the language.

I have spoken with teachers who simply do not know what to do when a deaf child is placed in their class.  It takes time to figure it out and some simply don't have the time or the motivation for it, which brings me to my main point.

ASL interpreters in the classroom are not responsible for teaching. Their job is to interpret. The deaf child placed in a mainstream classroom with an interpreter has the right to the same education as all the other children in that class.

While I do not feel this is the least restrictive environment for the deaf child I know that it happens.  It is my hope that those teachers will do their homework and educate themselves about effective practices.  The following guidelines can serve as a starting point.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Driving Bilingual Education

I am a good driver - but you would never know it given the theatrics of "backseat drivers" whose sudden gasps and quick grasps for the dashboard denote a lack of confidence in my skills.

This drama is alternately amusing, annoying and unnecessary.  I'm proud to say that, for the most part, my motto of "when in doubt, step on the gas" has never let me down.

The same adage can also be used to describe the path of bilingual education in America.

English language learners (ELLs) have been thrown into English speaking classrooms with a goal of acquiring this dominant language as fast as possible.  If accommodation is made by providing supportive programs in bilingual education it often ignores the research which states it takes 2-3 years before children develop Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and 5-7 years before Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) allows the language of learning to become fully realized.

Negative views surrounding the bilingual education debate have influenced policy and practice.  In California, Proposition 227 essentially outlawed bilingual education. This history is full of struggles with conflicting input from "experts" holding various perspectives.

It reminds me of the influences and history of deaf education in America. The push towards assimilation has been forceful and unyielding.

So it is with a great deal of pride that I find myself teaching at the only public dual language (American Sign Language and English) school in America with students who are deaf, hard of hearing and hearing.  Here the struggles in bilingual and deaf education come together allowing us to lift up on the gas to give our students an education based on the scientific research espoused by No Child Left Behind (but NCLB is another can of worms isn't it).

We may not have all the answers but we are constantly questioning and learning.  Our little school is adding to the history of both bilingual and deaf education.  I look forward to seeing where it leads us.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Beating Bliss

I love the title of this post because it is so ambiguous.


Teaching is a gift that fills me with immense gratitude but there are aspects of it that make me want to scream. And as my summer days drift away I've realized how long it takes to heal from those occasional beatings.

The 2010-2011 school year was probably the toughest in my 15 years because the pressures of teaching to the test instead of teaching to learn have seeped into even our school, formally a bastion of authentic exploration and child centered learning.

We are all feeling the pressure of the American educational system which creates an environment wherein passing standardized tests is considered the Holy Grail.  We are stepping away from trusting that teachers are capable, experienced and knowledgeable enough to tailor lessons to meet the individual needs of each child.  Instead scripted text books and programs are becoming de rigueur.

Stripping educators of the right to be creative artists and forcing us to become homogenized, one size fits all automatons devoid of intelligence is insulting and infuriating.  All the while the test makers, who also create the text books needed to pass said tests, are happily counting their money.  It's all about making a buck - not education.

And the situation does not seem as though it is going to improve any time soon.  Our students thrived academically this past year.  They really did. But I mourn the fact that we did not have time to engage in deeper explorations as we have in the past with our investigations into the hot dog stand, the library, the bakery, hotels or teeth.

In the 2011-2012 school year I am committed to find a better balance between the hearts and minds of our students.  It is not an easy challenge but I am determined to fight for the rights of children who are paying the price of losing their childhoods stressing over achievement instead of taking in the small wonders all around them.


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