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December 19, 2002

Learning words without the pleasure of hearing them rhyme

From: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WI - 19 Dec 2002

Crocker Stephenson

The second-graders in Joanie Stratman's class have a spelling test.

First word: chew.

Second word: shoe.

You probably noticed, even without saying them out loud, that chew rhymes with shoe.

What a language this English is.

Hugh, view, two, you, zoo and do. None is spelled alike. All sound alike. All rhyme.

There are 23 kids in Stratman's second-grade class. Seven are either deaf or hard of hearing. Rhyming, for them, is an idea with only a vague reality.

Third word: crunch.

Crunch is a sound deaf people understand. Crunch is what an apple does when it is being chewed. Crunch, what that rhymes with, is the sound of walking through brittle snow.

"This is the hard word of the week," Stratman announces. "Get ready for it. Here it comes.

" 'Shimmering. 'Shimmering.' As I looked up in the sky, I saw the stars shimmering."

If you are a hearing person, try for a minute to drain the sound out of the word shimmering.

It's a visual word. It's a word about appearances. It's like the word dappled.

But shimmering and dappled don't mean quite the same thing. And their meanings are, for hearing people, attached to the sounds they make. A clue to the difference between the meanings of dappled and shimmering can be found in their sounds.

Stratman teaches at Milwaukee Sign Language School, which is part of the Milwaukee Public Schools system.

About 80 of its 600 students are hard of hearing or are deaf. She teaches with Lisa Hanel, who is sick today. Hanel is trained to teach kids who are deaf or hard of hearing. Katie Johnson, a licensed educational interpreter, works with Stratman and Hanel.

Fifth word: shadow.

Stratman says it, and Johnson signs it in American Sign Language. The kids put pencil to paper. It's a pretty word: shadow.

The principal of Milwaukee Sign Language School is Chuck Marks.

Marks loves music. Big Beatles fan. There's a picture of Louis Armstrong in his office, and there's Herman Leonard's photograph of Ella Fitzgerald singing in a nightclub to Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and there's Art Kane's famous jazz portrait "Harlem 1958."

Marks is in his fourth year at MSLS. He is wearing a sweat shirt with his name on the chest, spelled out in American Manual. He doesn't know what it is like to be deaf.

But he is learning.

Marks used to think that if he were made to choose between the ability to see and the ability to hear, he would pick sight. Until he came to MSLS, he took for granted the utility and pleasure of sound.

Now, given the terrible choice, he thinks perhaps he would choose blindness. Sometimes he goes home at night, puts on Miles Davis and turns the stereo up loud.

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