Thursday, April 02, 2009

Learning from My Deaf Teachers

Last July I joined the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, NY. Because of NTID, there are quite a few Deaf folks in Rochester, so I had some causual experience of seeing people sign. But I didn't know very much about the culture, and never really thought about how my instructional design "played" to a Deaf audience. Our content was captioned, so it was accessible, right? Wasn't that enough?

When I started to dig into the work at my new job, I decided that I wanted to develop an instructional design model for creating online learning for Deaf adults. It only took me a few minutes of watching my old e-learning to realize that it was woefully poor, if you did have the sound turned on. It lost most of it's meaning and the captions just didn't work to fill the void. But beyond that, I want to develop a model that actually works best for Deaf learners, and doesn't just have access tacked on as an afterthought.

So, it seems to me, that a good place to start is to observe good Deaf teachers. I am assuming that a Deaf person would know the very best how to teach a Deaf student. Lucky for me, I spend an hour a day, four days a week with such people -- my ASL teachers.

We have two languages at NTID: English, and ASL (American Sign Language). I have the opportunity to attend ASL classes and also to work with a tutor twice a week. I have a very long way to go to master this lovely language, but I am making progress.

I have had two different teachers for my ASL classes, and they are both really excellent. They are Sam Holcomb and Barbara Ray Holcomb. I have observed four things that they both do. I am going to assume that these are common practices of excellent Deaf teachers.

1. They don't assume that because they are broadcasting, I am receiving. They make sure I am attending before they communicate. I have started noticing my own communication patterns, and I see that I have a working assumption that because I am talking, you are listening. Of course that's not true -- how many times have I said something, only to discover that the recipient of my communication wasn't listening. Then I have to (after expressing frustration!) repeat myself. Barbara Ray and Sam signal that they are ready to begin -- then check to see if I am making eye contact with them - attending to them. They do that with everyone in the class, all 10 - 15 of us. And if someone isn't ready, they wait.

2. Barbara Ray and Sam both check for understanding after they communicate something. They look right in my face to see if I have understood what they are saying to me. If I don't actively communicate back that I understand, by nodding, saying 'ok' or 'yes' or 'right' -- they communicate right to me and keep doing it until I understand. I can't just zone out and not pay attention because they are checking to see if I am following at every juncture.

3. Both teachers will use a variety of ways to communicate new information -- fingerspelling the word, signing it, and sometimes using pantomime or pictures. Sam frequently explains how the sign might have evolved. It is amazing to me that I have developed the vocabulary that I now have almost completely by this method. Can you imagine learning Spanish at the earliest, most basic level without using English? I can't. Yet, this is how we have learned ASL.

4. The curriculum is entirely material that I need to do my job. It is completely relevant to my everyday existance at NTID. We do learn a little about the daily life of Deaf folks, and a little about Deaf culture, and I find that interesting. It helps me to understand how to modify my communication to be better understood by my Deaf clients and colleagues. But by and large, the stuff I am learning is what I need to survive, on the job.

You may be reading this and thinking, "Well, that's not very ground breaking -- that's just good teaching!" and you would be right. However, in my experience in all levels of education, from primary school up to graduate school, I have rarely had teachers who actively communicated as well as these two people do.

I am going to continue to observe Barbara Ray and Sam, and am going to try to observe some other Deaf professors here. I feel like there is a lot of gold here. Watching them is going to help me to devleop my instructional design theory, and after that, develop the best e-learning ever for the Deaf.


Anonymous said...

I really liked your item #3. It's hard to imagine learning anything without English, but we all learned English without it! I think that's a great approach. In some of my Spanish classes, once you walked in the room, no one was allowed to use English. It *forced* you to learn.

Aside, I'm glad you posted again to your blog! I was wondering when we'd get another instalment... :)

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