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April 11, 2005

As loud as words--Teacher opens up communication for hearing-impaired students

From: Fairfield Daily Republic, CA - Apr 11, 2005

By Audrey Wong

FAIRFIELD - Teacher Paul McDonnell doesn't mind students talking in his class - in fact, he supports it.

Recently, Kena Johnson, a Will C. Wood High School senior, attended McDonnell's class at Rodriguez High. Three students of McDonnell were curious about the visitor. As McDonnell gave a language lesson, students Mycheal Hicks and brothers Herby and Julio Pacheco took turns peppering Johnson with questions in sign language.

"One reason why there is so much talking in this period is because this is one of the only few times where they can talk freely," McDonnell said through an American Sign Language interpreter. "I encourage that."

McDonnell teaches deaf and partially deaf students in a new program at Rodriguez, one of two new programs for deaf and partially deaf students in the district. Green Valley Middle School began its program two years ago.

DeAnn Livensparger teaches the middle school students with the help of two interpreters and an aide.

Deaf or partially deaf students may attend mainstream or special education classes based on their English skills.

Anna Kyle Elementary School has had a program for deaf and partially deaf students for years. But until recently students didn't have a local secondary school with a program.

Their options were to commute to Hogan in Vallejo or attend the California School of the Deaf in Fremont, where students live on campus. Many parents don't want their children to move an hour away and live at school in Fremont, Livensparger said.

Going to school in Vallejo would inconvenience students who live in the northern part of the county, she said. Livensparger has a student who commutes from Vacaville.

Students in both Rodriguez and Green Valley attend a combination of mainstream and special education classes. Which mainstream classes they attend depends on their language skills. Sign language interpreters accompany students to classes. Teachers in both programs modify courses so students can understand concepts easier.

For example, Livensparger makes sure all her students receive books for their reading level. Teachers ensure all videos have captions and science classes use visual aids.

Livensparger teaches English, math and seventh- and eighth-grade science to her deaf and partially deaf students. McDonnell teaches computer applications. The rest of the day, he team-teaches in the other classes his three deaf and partially deaf students have. His other classes are all

special education - business math, English, earth science and U.S. History.

A county special education program funds the Rodriguez and Green Valley courses with a combination of state and federal money, said Jay Speck, director of special education for the Solano County Office of Education. The cost of a teacher and two interpreters would be about $150,000, he said.

The Green Valley and Rodriguez programs provide deaf and partially deaf students with an opportunity to connect with others like themselves.

Deaf and partially deaf people have their own culture, Livensparger said.

"When we have them together in a room, they do share their culture," Livensparger said. "The main thing is they share the same language which is sign language. One of the main things that separates the deaf culture from the hearing culture - language."

McDonnell relates to what his students experience because he was born deaf. He has seen a lot of deaf people who were rejected by hearing peers because of difficulties communicating. McDonnell had mixed reactions from people who hear. Open-minded people were receptive to him while others didn't want anything to do with him, he said.

"Here, I encourage my students to spread out and have an interest in the hearing world," McDonnell said.

As a child, McDonnell attended mainstream schools and the California School for the Deaf. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge, and is finishing his master's degree in special education at California State University, San Francisco. He taught in a San Francisco elementary school and the California School for the Deaf before coming to Rodriguez.

As a deaf teacher, McDonnell wants to provide role models for his students. He allowed Johnson, who is deaf, to observe his class so his students, who range from freshmen to junior, can meet a deaf senior.

Julio Pacheco, a junior, enjoys school more with McDonnell as his teacher.

"(He) makes me want to learn more," Julio Pacheco eagerly said in sign language. "He makes class fun and I want to learn more."

The teenager said he had a hearing instructor before and prefers McDonnell. Julio Pacheco said he recommends his teacher to other students and wishes more deaf students can have McDonnell as their teacher. McDonnell's age - 30 - also helps him relate to his students. Students chat easily with him about movies and the high-top Chuck Taylors McDonnell wears. The Pacheco brothers talk to him about their passion, skateboarding.

McDonnell rewards his students with points if they do well in class. Enough points earn them a weekend visit to his house where the teacher helps them with homework.

He also takes them to events for the deaf and partially deaf so they can meet more deaf adults. One Friday, McDonnell took his students to San Francisco State to show them college is "cool."

The students work hard to rack up the points.

A goal of McDonnell's class is to help his students pass the California High School Exit Exam.

But some of his students need to hone their language skills. Some deaf and partially deaf students have problems with English.

English, with its myriad rules, is one of the hardest languages to learn, Keenan said. Deaf and partially deaf students can't listen and learn all the nuances of the language, she said.

Some parents are too busy to learn sign language, McDonnell said. So while the rest of the family may talk at dinner, the deaf child is left out of the conversation, he said.

A family may not show a deaf or partially deaf child the written word so that child isn't familiar with reading.

Children pick up language more quickly from birth to 3 years old and if parents don't try to communicate with them during that period then those youngsters lose out for life, McDonnell said.

So McDonnell instructs his students in the many tricks of English. Recently he taught them about words with multiple meanings such as "trunk." Students discussed the different definitions and drew them on the board.

McDonnell's students also share part of their world with their hearing classmates. During the first 10 minutes of special education English, Mycheal Hicks, Julio and Herby Pacheco teach other students sign language. Their classmates sign a phrase and the three rate them.

"I like teaching sign language. That way I can talk to more people," Julio Pacheco said.

Green Valley has a sign language club where Livensparger's students teach sign language to hearing students.

Mariah Ransom, 13, attended the California School for the Deaf when she was younger and prefers Green Valley to the Fremont school.

"I like it here," Mariah said. "There are more challenges."

Reach Audrey Wong at

427-6951 or

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