The following are portions of an article recently published in the October 2015 edition of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council Newsletter.
I share them here in hopes of continuing the conversations surrounding deaf education reform.
Spotlight on Deaf Education
An interview with Heidi Givens, by fellow TAC member Brooke Perry
“Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time connecting with Heidi over our mutual interest in teacher blogging. Heidi teaches students who are deaf or hard of hearing in Daviess County Public Schools, in Kentucky. My relationship with Heidi has opened my eyes to the unique learning needs of the students she works with, along with the importance and scope of her job as an educator—something I believe is worthy of sharing with our peers.” - Brooke Perry
What are the main differences you see in the ways that hearing students and deaf/hard of hearing students learn?
There are assumptions that deaf children are just hearing children who cannot hear. This could not be further from the truth. Deaf children receive and process information differently, and therefore learn differently than hearing children. They have different memory strengths; deaf children have stronger visual-spatial memory and hearing children have stronger sequential memory. These differences are related to how the two groups use their senses to access language and the world around them. Hearing children are bombarded with sound, especially in the classroom, where teachers and students are talking all the time. They process information in the order the words were heard: linearly. Our English language also functions in a linear manner. Deaf children, however, experience the world visually, which affects how they learn. With their wider and stronger peripheral visions, deaf children pick up on many small visual details that hearing children miss. They are more sensitive to slight changes in facial expressions or to the positioning of items on different pages in a book. They also process information within a larger context in order to understand how the concepts they’re learning fit in visually with what they already know. It’s like getting information as a picture rather than a stream of words. For example, if we were to say, “The cup is on the table,” that’s a linear statement. But to draw that sentence, most people would not draw a cup floating there first. You’d draw the table first, and then you would draw the cup on top of the table. That’s how language works for visual-spatial learners. So, using the same teaching framework with deaf students that we use for hearing students just doesn’t work.
What do we need to know about the #DeafEd Twitter chat?
The chat began with a visiting professor and students at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I stumbled upon the chat on Twitter in 2014, and I knew I needed to learn more. The students had come up with questions and made videos to sign them. The level of professionalism and participation was so impressive, but since it was a culminating project for the college students, there wasn’t a plan to continue the chat. I asked the professor, TL (@talilalewis), if I could take over. We held the next #DeafEd chat in mid-April of this year, and it was a hit. Prior to the start of this chat, there really wasn’t a national platform for conversations about deaf education. Our intent is to vary the topics each month and have prominent experts in the field serve as hosts. My hope is to encourage any teacher who is or could be working with deaf or hard of hearing students to participate. The title of the chat on October 1 was, “The Intersection of Education and Language of Deaf Students of Color,” and the November 5 chat, hosted by TL and students, will be about Deaf identity.
What are your hopes for the future of deaf education?
A bill was just introduced in the US Congress—H.R. 3535: The Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act. It looks at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which falls short on students who are deaf, blind, or deaf-blind. The IDEA states that a student who has a disability should have the opportunity to be educated in the least restrictive environment. “Least restrictive environment” is often interpreted to mean the regular education classroom, but for deaf children, that is often the most restrictive environment. Because of the way people interpret the law, deaf students have to be in the same classroom as hearing students, and often that’s a detriment to the children. A lack of direct access to communication and opportunities to be with similar peers has a harmful effect on many deaf and hard of hearing students. The Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act aims to ensure that the language needs of deaf and hard of hearing students are made a priority. If the bill passes, you’ll see more deaf children where they’re supposed to be, and that’s in a school for the deaf.