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May 29, 2005

A Special Calling

From: Myrtle Beach Sun News - Myrtle Beach,SC,USA - May 29, 2005

Foursome works with hearing-impaired students

By Sarah P. Kennedy
The Sun News

When Jamie Julian took over Homewood Elementary School's hearing-impaired class in the fall of 2003, she had her work cut out for her.

The class had been without a permanent teacher for a year. The class had no auditory trainers, which are electronic devices - headsets for students, a microphone for the teacher - used during teaching that reduce background noise. Julian wasn't sure whether students were regularly spending time in regular-education classes. And there was the challenge of teaching children of different ages, with different levels of hearing impairment and learning ability.

"There was nothing when we got here," Julian said. "We've worked very hard to get the needed resources, materials."

Julian's classroom in Conway is the only self-contained hearing-impaired class for preschoolers through fifth-graders in the county. Her students travel each day from Little River, Surfside Beach, Loris and other places to learn.

Julian credits the school district's staff with giving her the support, supplies and teacher's aides she needed when she asked for it.

"[The situation] was quickly rectified once I sang from the mountaintops," Julian said.

Two of the first additions to the class were interpreters Nicole Bitner and Westie Vaught, who joined the staff in the fall of 2003. Ledena Todd began work as a teacher's aide in Julian's class in January.

The four form a dynamic teaching team. They each play a different role in the room, working with different students at different times of the day, but they work together seamlessly. They're smart, energetic and compassionate. They clearly respect, like and learn from one another. They love the students, love to teach. They have high expectations and high hopes for their students. Their concern and dedication are reflected in the happy, eager faces of their young students.

Karen Howard-Goss, who supervises the district's speech therapy program and ensures students have the proper hearing equipment, can't say enough positive things about Julian and the team.

"[Julian] certainly goes beyond the basic school needs with her kids and loves them like they're hers, which sets her apart from other teachers," Howard-Goss said. "There's a lot of love of love in that classroom."

A learning moment

Julian's class was excited about a field trip to a fire station and pizza restaurant.

A bright-eyed 7-year-old pointed to the date of the trip on the calendar and enthusiastically said aloud, "Miss Jamie, Miss, Jamie, pizza."

Julian nodded, then said aloud while signing with her hands, "Yes, we're going to Pizza Hut."

The student tried to repeat the name of the restaurant: "Pizza Hug."

Julian said, "No, Pizza Hut."

Julian signed the word for "home" or "building" because there is no word for "hut" in American Sign Language, and shaped the first two fingers of both hands into the sign for "h" for hut.

The child looked confused.

Julian showed her an ad for the restaurant. The student nodded with apparent understanding and said "Pizza Hot."

Patiently, Julian signed and said, "No, it's not 'hot.' Look at the word. H-u-t."

The student said "hut" but didn't understand what it was. She had no point of reference, no context. She'd never seen or heard the word before.

Julian explained with her hands as she spoke aloud, without the benefit of a picture of a hut to help the child make the connection between word and object, what a hut was and why the sign for "home" in this case meant "hut."

"It's like a home for the pizza," Julian said to her student, who clearly was eager to grasp the concept.

The girl nodded one last time, said "Pizza Hut" to confirm her comprehension, then walked away to get ready for art class.

Julian's life as a teacher is full of such moments.

"They will always have a hard time with vocabulary," Julian said. "My kids need visual clues, pictures. ... We take for granted how much we know because we heard it. Things we learn from TV, conversations between Mom and Dad, overhearing people in a grocery store."

Hearing-impaired kids don't have that background knowledge, Julian said. It's tough for them to draw inferences, make predictions. They understand things in concrete terms. Abstract concepts - such as idioms, sarcasm - are especially difficult.

Julian said she once tried to explain the phrase "raining cats and dogs" to a deaf child, who was envisioning a sky full of furry animals. "It just means 'raining hard,'" Julian said. The student responded: "Well, why didn't you just say that, then?"

It can be difficult to teach hearing-impaired children, Julian said, but the rewards are enormous. "This is hard," Julian said. "There are days that are really frustrating. You're frustrated because you can't teach them a concept. They're frustrated because they don't get it. But then it's also the most rewarding. When that light bulb goes off ... it's the most amazing thing. We cherish those moments."

The teaching team

Julian, 30, is the 13th teacher in her family on her father's side. In high school in Indiana, Julian was in National Honor Society, which required that she perform community service. She chose to tutor in a hearing-impaired class in an elementary school. She knew immediately that was what she wanted to do. So at Ball State University she double-majored in elementary education and deaf education, and after graduation, she went to work training teachers who taught hearing-impaired students from preschoolers to high schoolers in 12 schools in Shelby County, Ind. When she began yearning for more direct contact with students and warmer weather, Julian sent out resumes.

Three weeks later, she moved to the Grand Strand and into her Homewood classroom. One of the most useful things she experienced in her previous job was how to successfully place hearing-impaired children into regular-education classrooms, a practice called mainstreaming.

"It has its pluses," Julian said. "They're not segregated out. Their behavior is easier to deal with because they're with their peers. They have a lot more friends. ... You exhibit the behavior you see."

Julian also saw the downside of mainstreaming.

"A lot of times they're lost, they're overwhelmed. They don't have the skill sets the other kids do. A lot of teachers don't have the special skills," Julian said.

So at Homewood, Julian tries to combine the best of full-inclusion and self-containment. Four of the eight children in Julian's class spend part of their days in regular-education classrooms. Julian would like to see all her students become full-time students in regular classes.

"My goal is for them to be as independent as possible, as mainstreamed as possible," Julian said.

In order to do that and in order to teach her kids how to read and write, she teaches in Signed Exact English and American Sign Language. The structure and syntax of the two sign languages are different, Julian explains. The basic signs are the same, but Signed Exact English uses a sign for every word whereas American Sign Language doesn't. The former often is used to teach sentence structure; the latter, concepts. Julian gives an example to explain. "Go get your coat," in Signed Exact English becomes "You, coat, go" in American Sign Language.

Julian also often uses Pigeon Signed English, which is a mixture of Signed Exact English and American Sign Language that does not include verb-tense endings - "ing," "ed" - or prefixes.

Julian wishes all her students' parents - none of whom is hearing-impaired - would learn sign language. Not only can the frustration of not being able to communicate lead to behavior issues in the child at home, Julian said, it can create problems at school with the children.

"At home, you can tell they just go and do and get" because that's the only way the children can get what they want or need. At school, they sometimes have to be reminded to say "I need a pencil" or "I need a drink of water" and ask permission before they get up from their desks.

"I had one parent say, 'Would you please not send homework home because I can't do it with him,'"Julian said. "None of the parents know about deafness and hearing impairments. They need more information."

Julian, who gently rocks a preschool student to sleep almost every day during nap time, said she is loving but firm with her students. She wants to prepare them for the real world.

"Having a hearing impairment is not an excuse," Julian said. "You have to try harder just to get to the same place as other people. It's not fair, but that's the way it is."

Still, it's not always easy for her to discipline the kids she adores. A scolding for bad behavior in the cafeteria produces a crestfallen expression on the face of a normally ebullient boy. As Julian turned away from him, she said, "It's so hard for me to keep a straight face."

Bitner, 33, saw someone speaking in sign language when she was about 12 and was fascinated. She decided she wanted to learn to speak with her hands, so she taught herself the sign-language alphabet. Bitner, of New York, earned an associate's degree in public service with a minor in interpreting. She worked at the S.C. School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg before moving to Japan for a year. When she came back, she became an interpreter at Homewood.

Like Julian, Bitner wishes more parents would learn sign language and get educated on hearing impairment.

"Their child's disabilities are never going to go away," Bitner said. "We have too many parents who are in denial of this."

Vaught, 39, began signing when she was 8 to communicate with her stepsister, who is deaf.

"She taught me the alphabet," Vaught said. "When we were playing, she'd show me words."

Vaught, of North Carolina, taught regular-education kindergartners and first-graders at a private school for six years before coming to work at Homewood as an interpreter two years ago. Vaught accompanies hearing-impaired students to regular-education classes to interpret and teach. She finds the work deeply satisfying.

"This doesn't seem like a job to me because I love it," Vaught said.

Todd, 33, was taught some sign language by someone she knew in her church whose parents were deaf. She taught at the same private school as Vaught for two years. Todd began substitute teaching as an aide in Julian's classroom before being asked if she would like to become a permanent part of the team.

Julian thinks the four of them were brought together for a purpose.

"We were all searching for a place to be professionally in our lives," Julian said. "We've all really bonded together. ... We're here for the kids. ... We always remember we do this for them."

The four sometimes spend time together outside work, shopping or going to the movies, and recently they performed in a school talent show, signing "God's Will" by Martina McBride. Julian said they did it to say thank you to their students' parents for allowing the women the opportunity to teach such great kids.

All eight students' parents were invited to the show; none came.

"It was really hard," Julian said.

But she and the other teachers are quick to remember that they don't work for praise or for the pay.

They do it for the kids.

"As much as we teach them, they teach us," Julian said. "They've given us purpose in our lives."

Contact SARAH P. KENNEDY at or 444-1718.

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