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June 4, 2004

Teacher inspires the deaf to speak and read

From: North Platte Telegraph, NE - Jun 4, 2004

By Diane Finch , Telegraph Correspondent

Students Travis and Joe, who are deaf, freshmen at McQueen High School in Reno, Nev., read "Hamlet" to their teacher Jean Irwin. Irwin spoke Friday at the District 5630 Rotary Conference in North Platte. Irwin believes auditory learning creates better co

Jean Irwin, a teacher for the hearing impaired, told 150 Rotarians attending the annual District 5630 Conference Friday at the Sandhills Convention Center to "Take language from the rich and give it back to the poor."

Radiating enthusiasm, Irwin spoke of the challenges involved in teaching the deaf to speak and read. A teacher of the deaf for 24 years, she held the audience captive as she shared her experiences.

"I'd always wanted to be a teacher," said Irwin, who teaches at McQueen School in Reno, Nev. "Then I started dating a guy whose grandparents were both deaf and that's when I decided what to do with my life."

After receiving her master's degree, Irwin started out teaching signing, believing it to be the best method of instruction. She soon changed her mind. Now, the mere mention of signing appalls her.

"Signing is not the answer," she said emphatically. "Deaf people who use signing can't communicate with those outside their community. Most times parents of the deaf have not mastered the system. Other people have no idea what the signs mean."

Irwin heartily endorses and teaches oral/aural language.

"Most people have some residual hearing," she said. "They are able to learn sounds. Granted, it takes longer for the deaf, but it happens. I believe for chronically deaf children, the auditory method works best, but it must start before the age of 3 and the parents must be committed."

Irwin said it takes a deaf person 10,000 repetitions of a word before the word is understood. She starts her teaching course by introducing children to animal sounds. Soon the children imitate the sounds and the learning of language takes shape. She absolutely forbids signing in her classes even though two-thirds of the deaf community signs. She said there is a constant cultural battle between those who advocate signing or auditory learning.

"Almost all of the hundreds of children I've taught have learned to speak and read through the auditory method."

Irwin said her students are mainstream students, studying side by side with hearing students. She audits their classroom studies in everything from algebra to chemistry.

While most of the hearing impaired graduate from high school at the fourth-grade level, Irwin's students graduate at a 10th-grade level, with some going on to college. Irwin said she learned many of her current skills while studying as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at Nottingham, England, in 1989.

"I'd already been teaching the deaf for seven years, but I wanted to do more research. There was this professor at Nottingham who stressed how important it was to make the deaf more conscious of language. We would let children talk at length, create stories and in the process they'd self-correct their own language. I'm so grateful to Rotary for giving me the chance to do additional research. It's made my job so much easier."

Other speakers participating at Friday's Rotary conference were Nicki Klein, a volunteer in India during a National Immunization Day and Miss Nebraska Jane Noseworthy.

The Rocky Mountain Children's Choir performed at the Friday evening banquet, which honored incoming club presidents and distinguished Rotarians in the District. The choir will perform for the public in a free concert at 7:30 p.m. today at the Neville Center for the Performing Arts.

The Rotary conference continues today.

©North Platte Telegraph 2004