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October 27, 2002

Breaking The Silence

From: Harlingen Valley Morning Star, TX
Oct. 27, 2002

Educators bring letters, words to those who can’t hear

Valley Morning Star
BROWNSVILLE — Sixteen-year-old Yolanda Rodriguez, a Hanna High School sophomore who lifts weights in her free time, strolled into her first period art class wearing sneakers, jeans, a gold necklace and a red shirt that said "Do not start with me – You will not win."

When the substitute teacher instructed the students to pick up seven objects from a pile at the front of the room, Rodriguez grabbed a knife, scissors, a button, a key, a bolt, a clip and a screw. She then took a seat at the front table, next to her interpreter, and began to draw.

The class’s regular teacher, Mary Daughters, appeared in the period’s final half-hour. She made stops at each table to assess her students’ progress.

"You’re doing good," she said when she got to Yolanda. "Nice filling of the space."

The interpreter signed Daughters’ words to Yolanda, who smiled, nodded and returned to her drawing.

Regional School

Yolanda is one of 70 students at the Brownsville Regional Day School Program for the Deaf. The regional school occupies four campuses – Hanna High School, Oliveira Middle School, Egly Elementary and Burns Elementary.

It buses in students ages 3 and up from throughout Cameron and Willacy counties. Some come from as far away as Raymondville — a two-hour roundtrip each day. Brownsville’s school is one of more than 50 regional schools in Texas. The next closest one is in McAllen.

Brownsville’s regional school employs 12 teachers for the auditorally impaired. It also employs interpreters, a parent/infant advisor and an audiologist. The audiologist tests students’ hearing and supplies them with hearing aides and auditory trainers (microphone and ear piece sets that magnify teachers’ voices).

Some students spend their days in regional school or "deaf" classes, which are taught in sign language. Other students attend a mix of deaf and regular or "mainstream" classes, where they have interpreters. Deaf students who succeed in an entirely mainstream setting stay in their home campuses. The regional school serves 78 hearing impaired students in their home schools.

At the regional school, teachers and administrators make sure deaf students aren’t isolated from hearing students.

"If (deaf students) go to the cafeteria, they go with other students. If they go to an assembly, they go with other students," said Anne Kurta, teacher of the deaf at Hanna.

Teaching the Deaf

The average regional school student reads at a third-grade level, according to Susan Moody, the students’ speech language pathologist.

They’re behind in language for a simple reason, Kurta explained. Unlike hearing people, deaf people can’t listen and learn."Nobody sat down with you as a toddler to teach you vocabulary," Kurta said. "As you’re playing, you’re listening and picking (it) up. … ‘You want a cookie?’ and Mom’s showing you a cookie. … You…figure out a cookie is a cookie. (Deaf) students don’t get that. It has to be directly taught to them."

The regional school’s educational philosophy is "total communication." Teachers use sign language and the written and spoken word to communicate with their students.

"We want them to use as much hearing as they have," said Janice Metsker-Galarza, supervisor of the regional school. "If there’s a horn honking as they’re crossing the street, we want that child … to hear (and think), ‘Oh my gosh, I need to look out.’"

Kurta said she and other teachers try to use signed English. That’s when they sign every word they say. If students don’t understand, Kurta explained, teachers revert to American Sign Language, the language of the deaf culture. ASL is the third most spoken language in the United States, Moody said.

"(ASL is) ‘How you?’ instead of ‘How are you?’ and ‘You go store finish?’ (instead of) ‘Did you go to the store yesterday?’" she said. "In ASL, there’s no ‘ing.’ There’s no is, are, was, were, be, it, is, a, the. There’s no (distinction) between her and she, me and I or our, we and us. … There are no past-tense markers. … (You) raise your eyebrows. (You) tilt your head forward when it’s a question," Moody said.

ASL is an integral part of teaching, according to Sergio Saldaña, a deaf teacher of the deaf at Hanna. He teaches fundamentals of math, consumer math and world history at Hanna.

"(The students are) interested because I’m teaching the class in ASL," he said in sign language. "If I were to use (signed) English, they would fall asleep in the classroom for sure. There’s no expression, no body language."

Teachers and interpreters sometimes use "pidgin sign English," which is a combination of signed English and ASL.

Moody said she and the teachers and interpreters should use more signed English.

"What do we leave off the most? Is, are, was, were and the (soft) sounds. What do our kids leave off the most? The same thing," she said.

Daughters, Yolanda’s art teacher, said deaf students sometimes "write like they sign," putting their native language, ASL, onto paper.

Meli Martinez, an interpreter at Texas State Technical College and the University of Texas-Brownsville, said that deaf students are often linguistically behind their hearing peers when they get to college.

"Most of the time they have to start (with) the basic, first English class (the colleges) offer – because of their writing skills," she said

The primary classroom challenge at the regional school is getting students to associate the printed word with the signed word, Kurta said. Letters and words mean little to people who can’t hear them, she explained. To teach sounds, teachers often use visual phonics. They sign the sounds "bah" and "ow" into the word "bough" and "th" and "oh" for "though," Moody explained. Sounds also have written representations, which teachers use in their lessons.

"(Deaf) students can’t hear the sounds to decode the words in order to read," Moody said. "Visual phonics … (helps) them start to decode so they can learn to read."

She and teachers and administrators encourage parents to supplement classroom work with sign language, visual phonics and reading.

Parental Involvement

Maria De Los Reyes, Yolanda’s interpreter, has a deaf 12-year-old daughter who is mainstreamed at Oliveira Middle School. When her daughter was 2½ years old, De Los Reyes started learning sign language.

"It was hard for me to learn the signs because I did not want to accept that she was deaf. Then I realized I had to learn sign language in order to help her," she said.

Anson Guillen, the deaf counselor and parent/infant advisor, said parents like De Los Santos are in the minority. Guillen goes to the homes of deaf children to teach them and their parents sign language before the children start school. Most deaf children start going to the regional school when they’re 3 years old, though some have started as late as 17 years of age, Moody said.

Guillen said many parents of deaf children learn the sign language basics — but nothing more.

"A majority of parents can say things like ‘eat,’ ‘Go to school,’ ‘Go to sleep.’ … They think that’s enough, but it’s not. … It’s not, ‘Who are your friends? What did you do at school today? … What did you have for lunch today? Why did you get a 70 in spelling?’ … With a hearing child, you can talk to them about drugs and sex and not hanging out with the wrong people and, ‘You need to study because you’re going to go to college’ — all the things that everyone has to talk to their child about."

Parents who speak only Spanish face two obstacles — learning English and ASL. If parents take the time to learn sign language, they can help their kids succeed despite their disability, Moody said.

"There’s no reason why our kids cannot be successful — get good jobs, go to college — have whatever dreams that they want to have," she said. "There’s nothing wrong with them except their ears are broken."

©2000, Valley Morning Star, a Freedom Communications, Inc. Company. All rights reserved.