The little girl was sitting at the classroom table with her friends. At the end of the table sat her “interpreter”. The teacher asked the class to write about their weekend and the “interpreter”, signing effectively, relayed this information to the girl. The little deaf girl nodded and got cracking. As she worked the “interpreter” assisted other kids around her table. They asked questions, the “interpreter” clarified what needed to be done. There was chatter around the table and the kids traded stories with each other about their weekend and what they were going to write about. The little girl watched this chatter but the “interpreter” strangely interpreted nothing of this. The little girl looked at the “interpreter” hoping for a little bit of information but still the “interpreter” did not interpret. The teacher said something and the “interpreter” decided that this was important information and interpreted this for the little girl. It was all very strange.
Recently I was asked to observe a young deaf girl in her classroom. The deaf girl uses Auslan as her first language, has deaf parents and is well adapted with excellent language skills. The mother wanted someone to observe her daughter in the classroom who had some knowledge of deafness, particularly in regard to interaction and learning. I was more than happy to help out, took a day off work and drove out to assist. What I saw actually scared me.
The school principal actually contacted me to invite me to the classroom. The mother had requested that she do so. The school principal asked me to sit in the classroom and “reassure” the mother that her daughter was doing fine and that there were no problems. She didn’t ask me to give an honest assessment, she asked me to “REASSURE” the mother. This in itself raised alarm bells in me.
What I did witness was an obviously very intelligent young girl making the best of a less than ideal situation. During the opening activity, where the kids were writing about their weekend, I actually asked the “interpreter” to check with the young girl as to whether she had understood anything her class peers had been talking about. Not surprisingly the little girl said she had not understood anything. What was puzzling is that having made it clear she did not understand what her peers had been discussing the “interpreter” still did not interpret anything that the little girl’s peers said.
The little girl demonstrated some classic deaf behaviour. Deaf people will know that when they are in a large group of hearing peers and doing an activity, whether it is learning or physical, they will be constantly looking around them to make sure they have not missed anything and are doing the right thing. As the little girl worked she would take quick glances around the room to make sure she had not missed anything.
As she wrote you could see her looking out of the corner of her eye just in case she would miss the action. She could “hear” her teacher when the teacher spoke but not understand. If the teacher spoke she would look up to see if the activity had finished and if she needed to be somewhere else. Even at this early age she is aware and has developed coping strategies. It was like looking back to my own years being deaf in a hearing classroom.
It was fascinating to see the strategies that she had developed. For example if she was working with a group of peers she would focus on the one student that appeared to talk the most and take her cues from that student. During one such activity I signed to the little girl that I was deaf and needed her to interpret what her friends were saying. She admitted to me that she could not because she did not know.
During another activity the class were reciting number patterns in the form of multiplication tables. The teacher had the multiplication tables on the board and would point to the first number and the children would recite the pattern 2 – 4 – 6 … and so on. To the casual observer it might have looked like the girl was fully involved but if you have a trained eye you will see that the little girl joins in at about the third number. She watches the teacher point to the board, catches the rhythm of the class reciting the numbers and then joins in. You will see her counting and listening, just moving her lips slightly, until she feels she has the rhythm and she will join in – 6 -8 – 10 … It was fascinating to watch.
It was also frustrating to watch. Story time is something most kids love. The kids gathered round to listen to the teacher read the story. The “interpreter” interpreted what the teacher was reading. The teacher asked the class a question using prediction strategy. Prediction is a teaching tool where you read a story and then to test whether the kids are following the story ask a question like, “… and when the lizard scurries up the tree how do you think the cat will feel? ..” At this all the kids will put their hands up to give their views. The problem is that in the little deaf girl’s classroom when the kids answered the “interpreter” did not relay their answers to the little deaf girl. Of course this means that the little deaf girl misses out on language and ideas that are provided by her peers through this natural interaction.
The little deaf girl, despite the less than ideal learning environment, was doing really well at school. A lot of this is down to the fact that she has come to school with a solid language foundation from being able to interact easily with her family. She is doing really well and in the school’s eyes that is all that matters. But how much better could she be doing if she could access the banter of the classroom and not just what her teacher is saying?
I really could not understand why the “interpreter” did not interpret everything. After all is that not what interpreters do? I wrote a report for the school. In it I outlined that the “interpreter” was more correctly a communication aide and did not interpret. I highlighted the good stuff. For example the classroom teacher went out of her way to ensure the little deaf girl was a respected part of the class by allowing her to lead things like “sign singing”. She also spoke very clearly and structured the class so that the little deaf girl could see and be involved. BUT, I pointed out to the school, peer interaction and access to what peers are saying is an integral part of learning. I emphasised that the “interpreter” was an efficient signer but needed to INTERPRET.
Apparently this wasn’t what the school wanted. They wanted me to provide REASSURANCE so that the mother would relax. The “interpreter” upon reading the report threatened to resign. The mother felt the school was dismissive of her daughter’s needs. Apparently it was not my place to write such a report and that my assessment was “tinged” by my friendship with the mother. It really was sad because the school would not acknowledge any of the issues that were raised.
Is this what our deaf kids are facing every day? Well if it is it’s a tragedy that needs to be addressed quickly. Doing well is not enough, deaf kids have the right to achieve their full potential. If this is to happen access to peer interaction is a must.