Teaching in a bilingual English-A.S.L. curriculum

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Sep 9 22:09:05 UTC 2008

August Ambitions<http://lessonplans.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/07/august-ambitions/>
Joseph Santini <http://lessonplans.blogs.nytimes.com/author/joseph-santini/>

Throughout the school year we're allocated a period each day — roughly 42
minutes — for "prep time." During this tiny oasis between classes we're
meant to perform all the meta-activities needed to survive the hours in the
classroom: make copies, do paperwork, calculate grades and contact parents,
either verbally, through relay, videophone, e-mail or text message. In
reality, once school begins, these minutes are mostly spent in the hallways
struggling to get to the copy room while simultaneously ensuring students
maintain discipline — no easy task.

In August, however, when working is a volunteer proposition (especially
given New York Department of Education budget cuts) prep time has a new
meaning; the teachers and administration work together, in a more-or-less
organized fashion, to begin designing the coming year. The resemblance to a
pyramid is truly uncanny; imagine the building blocks of month-long units,
composed of smaller blocks made of lessons, as inexplicably and — ideally —
wonderfully engineered as Egypt's monoliths. And the foundation for this
year of education? It might be the energy and passion of teachers, or
students, or the administration. It might be a simple, reliable daily
schedule. During this summer's prep time we begin to divine what this
foundation might be.

My personal pet project is frustrating and exhausting; I will be
team-teaching a new sort of class, based on bilingual teaching principles.
We want to design a new course, team-taught, which incorporates both
standard English and American Sign Language (A.S.L.) in an effort to raise
the achievement bar for both languages, for all students. As a Deaf person
who uses several different languages (most prominently British, which is
akin to a Gallic signed language, and American, which is more Romantic and
descended from the *langue des signes française*) and a student of education
— as well as a product of New York City's public schools — I am extremely
passionate about discovering the truly least restrictive environment for the
modern Deaf student.

I have come to believe this environment is neither the traditional Deaf
school, or the mainstreamed environment, but rather a combination, with both
physically deaf, culturally Deaf and hearing children, with visible
administration from all cultures and with respect for all languages: an
environment which also encourages — demands — mastery of those languages. In
my second full year teaching at P.S. 47 — my third working with young people
full time — I have so far taught both Deaf and hearing students English.
This year will be far more intricate.

To plan this course, my team teacher Anne and I have scheduled a prep day on
the last week of August in our schizophrenically designed school building:
half 1900's urbanism, half 1960's functionalism, perched appropriately on
the eastern edge of Gramercy, where the two decades glare at each other in
architectural disgust. Anne, a far more experienced and talented teacher
than I, is impossibly young-looking: I have co-workers who remember her as
their teacher from other schools, yet she looks a mere few years older than
I do, at 30. She brings to the team many years of experience in bilingual
schools; I bring experience studying the structures and techniques used to
educate Deaf people in America and Europe (I obtained my first masters
degree in Social Sciences with a concentration in Deaf Studies at the
University of Bristol in the England, where I studied under Dr. Paddy Ladd,
author of the text "Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood.")

We hunker together in a strangely empty classroom, surrounded by half-empty
boxes; books lie in disarray on the shelves. Our voices echo each other as
we work. (For the curious: I wear a hearing aid. But in an empty school
building, echoes are physical things, and I could feel the steps of people
walking four classrooms away, and the rumble of heavy traffic five floors
below.) We are speaking a dialect particular to English teachers, finishing
each others' sentences, sometimes ideas. Short silences interrupt our words
as we break into signs, building our rapport with each other. I must learn
to lip read and listen to her; she must learn ways of communicating with me.
Luckily, we have an easy camaraderie: there is no visible frustration, and
with communication difficulties there almost always is.

In this school, where members of both the staff and administration are both
Deaf and hearing, communication is ad hoc. We drift between languages
sometimes, muddle and confuse them. "We need to choose texts to … give them
support, to …" begins Anne, hunting for the right word. Her hands gesture
downwards. "Ground them?" I counter. Her gestures come perilously close to
sign language, sometimes. "Yes, exactly," she replies, relieved, "ground
them while we teach them specific reading skills. And we need to give them
rules for communication, with themselves and others."

In designing this English-A.S.L. curriculum we have several ambitious goals:
to create a program which lacks the patronization and isolation usually
afforded to Deaf children in mainstreamed programs; to maximize the ability
of the students to develop full fluency in both, and possibly other
languages; to include stories, poetry and literature by Deaf people from
around the world as well as the usual English fare; and to write lesson
plans that compare how literary and grammatical elements appear and are used
in each language. At the end of our first day of prep planning together we
are thrilled and a little daunted by the size of the task ahead of us.

We are not interested in following some party line, after all. As much as we
believe in the concept of bilingual education, our goal is for students to
learn as much as possible. We are determined that the bilingual aspects of
our curriculum should support wider learning, not narrow it. Despite these
self-imposed limits the aforementioned excitement pervades everything. Our
students have been clamoring for a higher level of sign language study, and
this year we will be offering it. Can we find ways to do more and better
teaching in two languages? Can we use technology to help us? Could we even
add other signed languages to the curriculum?

We plan our first unit. It will focus on short stories that have the common
theme of conformity. I remember a book I read as a child, "Belonging,"
written by Virginia Scott; it focuses on the story of a girl who eventually
comes to need hearing aids. She only learns a little American Sign Language,
but the story of someone who almost loses herself in the trauma of becoming
different would, I think, resonate with these middle school students. "Could
this be one of our grounding texts?" I wonder. Moreover, if it confronts
issues of communication, could it guide the class in understanding and
following the rules for language use and communication? We add the book to
the list. We must teach as much as possible these days, so every assignment
must do the work of six.

The school staff interpreter walks by as we plan, dropping off some water.
She is skilled in both English and A.S.L. and listens to us, sharing an idea
or two before she leaves. Other bodies float by. I begin to realize the
school is not empty, after all; now it begins to feel like the rehearsal
stage of a performance. We "actors" take the opportunity to chat and give
our heads a break. We talk darkly of coming changes to the school. "Have you
heard about the cuts to Teacher's Choice?" Our annual stipend for supplies
has shrunk yet again, from a meager $230 to a smaller $150. While the school
does order supplies, it's helpful for a teacher to have the flexibility to
be inspired and pick up something in a store for a totally new perspective
on the subject the next day: now some of our flexibility has been taken

The gossip ends on this dark note. Sometimes I think teachers need the
outlet of these dark conversations. We have so little in our classrooms in
terms of supplies and support; we struggle on a daily basis, even here in
the heart of Manhattan. It brings us together, as does coffee and prep time.

Tired of sitting, most of the day already gone, we agree to scour the school
for supplies. Rumors have found their way to us of a closet with some
forgotten notebooks; could these be presents for our students, free journals
which they could use in class? We try to make sure no resource is wasted. On
the way we pass janitors, summer school teachers, other administrators; we
say hello. Walking up the stairs, which in August smell more of cleaning
fluid than children, we pass teacher after teacher. Most of them seem
relaxed, are smiling. At the top of the fifth floor, where my classroom was
last year and will be this year, there is a piece of paper still on the
wall: a poster one of my students drew …

And there is no time left. Three days later; we are in the classroom with
our students, excited, nervous. Will our plans work? We are trying hard to
leave certain variables in the hands of the students — in some ways, they're
better at working things out between them than we adults are. "What do
*you*think the rules for communication should be?" I ask them, feeling
our own
meticulously-developed list in my pocket. For this first week of class,
until we have set and practiced the rules, we have and will continue to use
an A.S.L. interpreter.

It's only when 11-year old Jam raises her hand and makes a suggestion that
neither Anne or I have considered that we smile at each other and I begin to
hope one day our interpreter will no longer be needed, will bow smiling out
of the classroom and allow these students to build and play with language,
even as we teachers do the same: possibly the best kind of learning, and
certainly a foundation strong enough to build on.


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138

Email: haroldfs at gmail.com

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