“Are they nailed in?” a nine-year-old boy asks my student after she gives a presentation about her cochlear implants.
“What?” She can’t see his lips from across the room and the class is restless.
“Are there nails?”
“No!” She laughs.
“Do you miss being able to hear, or are you used to it?” another student asks.
“I’m pretty used to it.”
This exchange is representative of my year teaching deaf/hard of hearing students — kids can be goofy/bizarre and then surprisingly insightful.
One of my students is a 10 year old with about 10-25 spoken and signed words. (His hearing loss is not his primary disability.) He is inconsistent with most of these — when you show him two pictures and ask him to point to the ball, he will sometimes point at the ball, and sometimes at the tiger. He knows the sign for “ball” and if you say “ball” he will go and get one, but he won’t consistently pick out a picture. With early language acquisition in hearing impaired children, it’s important to be as literal — or as close to the physical 3D object as possible. But after that, the learner needs to grow to learn more abstract concepts. Language itself is abstract: a set of verbal symbols that represent objects and ideas.
I spent my year with this student trying to expand his limited vocabulary and help him communicate with the world around him. I wanted him to be able to express what he wanted and didn’t want, what he liked and didn’t like. Sometimes he would point or stare at something and make noises — he wanted to communicate so badly, but didn’t have words or signs. At the end of the year, he had made improvements in many areas, but he still didn’t have that communication piece that I wanted.
It turns out I am not a miracle worker. It is disconcerting and upsetting when I think about lower level students like this…when I am not sure that I was of any substantial help after eight months of bi-weekly visits. I end up telling myself that at the very least he had a steady, encouraging relationship in his life — but the reality is that that’s only part of my job.
There is humor throughout. During my last month with him, he rubbed my stomach and said “baby.” He understood the concept of babies being carried within a mother! And I would never wear that shirt again.
I’ve spoken with burnt out SLPs (Speech Language Therapists) who are contemplating quitting because they can’t deal with working on the same sounds with the same kid over several years — not out of impatience, but out of a sense that even when the kid can produce the sound in therapy, he/she will never generalize it (have it cross over into spontaneous speech).
Perhaps it is similar to doctors with patients who won’t do rehab exercises or social workers with families who won’t knock habits permanently. Teaching, especially students with impairments, means taking on responsibility for another’s welfare, even when it is not fully in your control. (Or, often, theirs.)
I can’t make my students care about school work. I can’t make my 8th grader talk to his teachers about missing assignments. All I can do is provide him with tools and examples and deliver my best inspirational monologue a la Robin Williams and hope something gets in.
“An idiom is when we say something that doesn’t mean exactly what we’re saying. It’s not literal.”
“So it’s lies.”
D/HH students often have difficulty with nonliteral language. Figurative language (idioms, metaphors, similes), sarcasm, irony — these are all typical struggles for a student with hearing loss. It’s abstract language and because it isn’t used as often in everyday speech, they often aren’t as exposed to it (they miss a lot of incidental language — the language that surrounds us and isn’t spoken directly to us) and need to be taught directly.
This particular conversation was with an eight year old who was extremely literal, but we did make some headway and he drew some fabulous literal and non-literal definitions of idioms which I will upload soon.
The highs are high, the lows are low, and everything else is a work in progress. The “a ha” moments sometimes feel few and far between, and are often the result of a lot of time and effort — but they are wonderful when they happen.
I loved my kiddos this year. I will miss them.