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April 16, 2004

Students learn about Vineyard's unique legacy

From: Allston Brighton TAB, MA - Apr 16, 2004

By Josh B. Wardrop / Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2004

Deaf history speaks volumes

To most of us, Martha's Vineyard is a spot where the rich and famous go to get away from it all. But, even as insular as Oak Bluffs, Chilmark and Edgartown might seem to us today, back in the early days of America's colonization, residents of Martha's Vineyards shared a far more exclusive bond than financial status.

"For almost 300 years, one in four people who lived on Martha's Vineyard were deaf," said Jody Steiner, director of PAH! Deaf Youth Theatre at Wheelock Family Theatre. "And to the people who lived there, deafness was never considered a disability. The islanders never knew that the inability to hear or speak was regarded as a handicap, because everyone on the island knew sign language, from the postmaster to the deacon of the church."

This little-known piece of history is at the core of "The Island Project," a 10-week-long educational program at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Brighton, where middle-schoolers have been learning about the history and culture of America's first independent deaf citizens. Following the completion of the program this week, several of the students will be moving on to take part in the production of an original play, "A Nice Place to Live," set in the Martha's Vineyard of the early 19th century.

Horace Mann Principal Patrice DiNatale said that the educational and theatrical program brought in by Steiner - and funded by the Peabody Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council and VSA arts of Massachusetts - was ideally suited to the school and its students.

"I'm always in favor of including the visual and performing arts in education," said DiNatale. "And deaf history and deaf culture is a big part of what we do here. It's really been a perfect fit."

Damon Timm, a sign language interpreter from New Hampshire, is the hearing teacher who's been working with the Horace Mann students and their counterparts at the Learning Center for Deaf Children in Framingham who are also participating in "The Island Project." He explains that the mix of elements in the curriculum offered a balanced educational and artistic experience for the children, for one hour a week for the last 10 weeks.

"We've been combining social studies and history with American Sign Language storytelling and poetry," said Timm. "The idea of a whole town that knows sign language was hard for them to imagine, so we would do role-playing activities to make it a bit easier to understand."

Norma Tourangeau, a deaf teacher and actress who teamed with Timm for the classroom work, explains that she learned about the deaf settlers of Martha's Vineyard along with her students.

"I knew a bit of the story, as did some of the students," she explains, as Steiner interprets, "but not the wealth and the depth of it. We all learned so much - who these families were, what was the mainland's perspective of a deaf society. The students, in particular, got to learn about a deaf community where nobody felt they had to be fixed. That's something that, in 2004, we're still trying to let people know."

Timm and Tourangeau are hopeful that the program, which has been extensively videotaped throughout the process, might be turned into an educational DVD and enjoy a long life outside the Horace Mann School's walls.

"I hope this curriculum can be used throughout the U.S. at other schools," said Tourangeau. "Deaf history is very important - it helps deaf children frame an identity of who they are as people."

Now that the in-class portion of the program is completed, the deaf students from Horace Mann and the Learning Center participating in the theatrical presentation, their teachers and Steiner will head off on a school vacation/field trip to Cape Cod. They'll finally be receiving the script for "A Nice Place to Live," in which a young hearing man from the mainland moves to Martha's Vineyard with his family in the 1890s. There, he falls in love with a deaf woman, and must struggle to understand a world where deafness is seen in an entirely different light.

Through an interpreter, 13-year-old student Cathy Bellevue, who will be appearing in the play, confessed to being "a little nervous" about acting in the production. But she looks forward to sharing the story of the deaf residents of Martha's Vineyard.

"I really liked [learning about] it," she added.

The students will do two staged readings, one in Harwich and one at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard. In June, "The Island Project" will culminate with two shows - one for the public and one for schools - performed at Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston.

"As a program director, I really hope that young deaf people can feel power in their lives from this story," said Steiner. "And, having worked with deaf teens at PAH! for nine years, I've seen many of the students involved in theater go on to college. That's what I feel involvement in the arts can do - give kids a chance to dream outside of their regular experiences."

For more information about "A Nice Place to Live," call 617-879-2147.

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