ECET2: Cultivating a Calling – Lauren Maucere

October 11, 2019

I’d like to start with a love story. It’s
not just any story, probably one that you know well: Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. We
all know these two lovebirds were segregated due to class and wealth disparities, culminating
in their tragic deaths. But, in between, is that unforgettable balcony scene. In order for my deaf students to better understand
this classic story, they staged a reenactment of that famous balcony scene. That scene was
tough for my students, who were reading far below their grade level, but, they were expected
to understand the monologues that were truly foreign to them. I asked myself in that moment: am I expecting
too much? At that moment, I could have perpetuated the status quo of low expectations for deaf
students and deprived them of that opportunity to learn an important, classic, and cultural
and literary work in our history. But in spite of those doubts, I continued on. For days, I watched as my students struggled
with adapting the Old English lines into American Sign Language or ASL. Lo and behold, during
the performance, our Romeo and Juliet performed magnificently, with every line just as it
had been translated. It was a moment I will never forget. I know
it was the same for my students because we realized that when opportunity is given, all
things are possible. That experience really did bring me to tears.
It was such a special moment, about which I felt great pride. It was then I knew I was
meant to be a teacher. I also realized that teaching was not just about reading from books;
it was about believing in my students. It was about providing them opportunities for
to thrive, opportunities to learn from their own mistakes, and to give them the confidence
to pursue their dreams. It is about teaching them to embrace their own humanity. Now how do we teach our deaf students to “embrace
their own humanity?” When there have been significant misunderstandings
and misrepresentations of what and who deaf people are. I am fortunate to teach at an all-deaf school
where I can work to combat centuries of oppression as well as foster positive self-image among
my students. I do this by encouraging my students to challenge the systems that have prevented
them from taking their place in society as complete human beings. Part of my job as a teacher and a human is
to be a role model at this bilingual ASL-English school. At my school there is a critical mass
of deaf students who use ASL. Our faculty, comprised of deaf and hearing teachers strive
to provide meaningful academic and social growth for all of our students through the
only truly 100% accessible language, ASL. Now if you’re familiar with the surrounding
deaf education you understand why it is significant that I am here today, on this stage, addressing
colleagues like you. It is significant because only 50 years ago, deaf teachers were almost
nonexistent. Now let’s look back to the year 1880, when the International Congress of the
Education for the Deaf (ICED) met in Milan, Italy, where delegates from all around the
world–all of who were hearing, none of them deaf– officially decided that sign languages
would be banned from all educational institutions. As you can imagine, this conference resolution
isolated the deaf community, keeping deaf children away from their peers, and from deaf
teachers–their very own people, those people who could have been role models. Deaf people
were denied their linguistic as well as cultural heritage and therefore denied their fundamental
human right to a fully accessible language, and the ability to interact with their own
people. Can you imagine that?! We all know the tragic story of Romeo & Juliet,
but did you know this tragic story about deaf people and their past?
These tragedies are still occurring today even in the year 2015, as in the case of Jose
Garcia here in the very state of Washington. Allow me to emphasize: For over one hundred
years, sign language was banned as the language of instruction in schools for deaf children.
this was done in the hopes that national statistics for their reading and writing would improve. Now jump to the 1970s, When the I.D.E.A. or
the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, further perpetuated the segregation of
deaf children from their own peers by placing deaf children in hearing classrooms. This
blanket policy is rooted in the mentality of giving children “unlimited opportunities”
but this law has only further compounded the dismal reading rates of deaf children. These philosophies of the “Unlimited Opportunities”
and the Least Restrictive Environment when enacted through a mainstreaming or inclusion
lens equates to deaf children being in hearing classrooms, where they become second-class
citizens. In these settings, deaf students often take on hearing values, and hearing
perspectives, which adversely impacts these students’ self-esteem. Because these mainstream settings are designed
for hearing people, whether there is an interpreter present there or not, deaf students do not
have the same level of access to the environment. This will cause delays in receiving information
and also creates significant barriers for self-expression and participation. Often times, deaf students are perceived simply
as hearing students who cannot hear, when in reality deaf students are students who
learn through visual channels. These students need research-based instruction that is specific
to their needs. That’s what my colleagues and I are uniquely trained to do. Typically in deaf education, decisions are
made FOR deaf people, rather than making decisions WITH deaf people, and incorporating the rich
culture, language, and heritage. Deaf history, deaf movers and shakers, and
deaf innovators have contributed greatly to all of our ways of living, and when these
concepts and individuals are absent from the curriculum, how do you that will affect a
deaf students’ self-perception? How can we as teachers empower our students to aim high
when they don’t have the opportunity to learn about others like them who have succeeded?
We must provide these opportunities. Often, if I ask my students what it means
to have basic civil rights, they will respond examples of how black people or African Americans
fought for equal rights as well as the Mexican farm-workers in California who protested for
better working conditions and equal pay. I then ask “What about deaf people and their
civil rights?” My deaf students are often unaware, in fact the thought has not occurred
to them. I then proceed to tell them the story about
the 1988 Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University, which is the only liberal arts
university for deaf people in the world. For 124 years, Gallaudet University was denied
the right to a deaf president, because those in power felt that a deaf person wouldn’t
be capable of leading a university of their own kind! When the only hearing candidate was chosen
as president from a pool that included three deaf qualified candidates, the two thousand
students revolted. It eventually became a worldwide protest, not only by deaf people,
but hearing people as well. After 13 days of protest, I. King Jordan, became the first
deaf president of Gallaudet University. Like Howard University, many years before
in their struggle to appoint a Black president, Gallaudet’s Student Body Government carried
on civil rights demonstrations in order to have their concerns recognized, understood,
and accepted by the world. This then created a realization that deaf people should have
equal rights and opportunities just like anyone else. These important historical events remind
us that all people have the right to be self-determined and also to be full participants in society. The key for us, as educators, is to create
opportunities for students to dream. What good is it if we teach them about famous leaders,
like Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King Jr., or even I. King Jordan, if students aren’t
then given a chance to take a stand, such as being a part of student council? What good
is it if we teach them about counting money, if they are not trusted to with a fundraiser? We must make sure these students are not only
taught skills, but given an opportunity to apply those newly learned skills. We must
not only teach inside the four walls of our classroom, but also to educate others to what
our students are capable of doing and ultimately accomplishing. A final story I would like to share starts with an assembly where students were set to learn about health from an invited speaker.
When I brought my deaf students who had special needs in, we were stopped in our tracks at
the door, and told we could not participate because – this is a direct quote – “my
students wouldn’t understand the content.” And this is in a school that should know better. I had to decide on the spot if I should turn
around and take my students back to the classroom, or take a stand and have them participate
in the assembly anyway. I said to the person who was manning the door, “How would you know
if they would understand the content? And at least they could learn to be a part of
an assembly and have a similar experience out in the real world when they got there.” Once the assembly got underway, a student
of raised her hand to ask a question, all of a sudden the audience began murmuring.
They were so impressed that she had asked about something that had not yet been covered.
The joy in my student’s face was evident as people approached her and thanked her for
asking such an important question, which really had surprised me as well. It just goes to
show that students–regardless of their abilities, and when given opportunities–can contribute
greatly to all discussions. That experience taught me the importance about
advocating for my students and for all students to be given equal rights and opportunities.
We need to advocate for them, to be their voice if they are not able to speak out, we
need to open doors for our students to experience the world around them. Because if they are
not given these opportunities, how will they gain experience? How is it that students will
learn to express their opinions? How will they become empowered if we do not teach them
to advocate for themselves? And while we are teaching them about self-advocacy,
we also must consider how our students can best benefit when we make content relevant
to their real life experience, as in the examples of Deaf President Now, and even the play,
Romeo and Juliet. As teachers, each and every one of us has
the power to change our thinking patterns and challenge the status quo for all of our
students — deaf or hearing, we need to do that even if it means assigning that dreaded
balcony scene. It starts today. We must create these opportunities for all students. It starts
now. And it starts with us.

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