The Life Itinerant: Glimpses of my first year as a TOD


“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 Pathologists) 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.


Teaching the Deaf — The deal with language

“Oh wow, that sounds rewarding.”

“Do you know sign language?”

“Ohh deaf education.  I thought you said “death” education.”

These are the three most common replies I encounter when telling someone about my current studies.  The third one is actually the most common, and usually followed by the first — apparently educating people about death is currently on the forefront of the public consciousness.

I’ve already semi-answered the “Do you know sign language” question in another post, but I’d like to answer it more fully now.

No, I don’t know sign language, but I’m (very slowly) working on it.  Earlier this month, in a fit of zealous optimism (the only way I can describe making February resolutions), I decided to learn one sign a day.  Which, living with a native signer, is hardly a difficult task.  I’ve learned some basic words so far, most of which can be used in polite company, and hope to get a few more down before summer.  The beauty of sign language is that a) it’s sort of sloppy, so sometimes messing up a sign almost makes you look more fluent and b) if you can’t remember a sign you can make something up and have a good shot at guessing it correctly.  Kind of like guessing Swedish words by using an English word with a weird vowel stress.

I’m currently reading “The Miracle of Language” by Richard Lederer, which is thus far a lovely read, if only because he references Roald Dahl and Lewis Carrol.  Language has always fascinated me — the philosophical idea of language constructing our reality, and the consistently mind-boggling realization that it truly separates us from animals.  I am blessed with the combination of having a terrible memory and being easily enthused about concepts and ideas.  This means that I am able to rediscover old thoughts and get equally excited about them every time.  Basically: every time I pause and consider the implications of language and the beauty and detail of our communication, I get excited.


The sign for “Thank you” is taking your hand, keeping it flat, and bringing it up to your lips and then moving it down away from you.  The sign for “Good” is essentially the same.  I learned these two this summer because most of the girls in my program have a signing background, and “Thank you” and “Good” happen to come up quite frequently.

All of this to say: though our program is oral, none of us are “anti-signing”.  We are being trained to teach students to listen and talk, but we still respect parents who choose sign for their children.  And our cohort is required to take a signing class from a Deaf teacher in order to graduate.

When I first started the program, I was easily distracted during lectures because my roommate (who is in the program) had interpreters in some of the classes and I would stare at them as they signed to her.  I was captivated by the expressive movements, the fluid hands, the theatrical faces; there is so much beauty captured in the physical expression of language.  One of the interpreters had actually become an interpreter because he had been in a class with a deaf student and was mesmerized by the sign interpretation.


I like words.  I like to play with them, toss them, use them to evoke thoughts, create images, guide minds, share ideas.  Yet it has only been during this semester that I have realized that I have stumbled from one wordsy profession (journalism) to another.  Basically: I’m being trained to be a teacher of language.

“A Teacher of the Deaf is a Teacher of Language.” One of my professors said this (about seven times for good measure), and I immediately recognized it as the crux of my studies that I had previously left unlabeled.  We talk about access, about speech, about acoustics and audiology and visual aids and vocabulary gaps — but what we’re really talking about is language.  Communication.  How can I — as a being sharing space with you — share with you how I feel?  I am hot, I am hungry, I have memories from after the age of four (but not before), I believe in souls, I like your hair, I shrink clothes in the dryer, I think about life too much or not enough or just the right amount.

Most of our relating — from the most banal to the deeply profound — is done through language.  And to most of us, it’s breathing.  We don’t notice it unless there is an interference (ie. navigating a foreign country).  Furthermore, to most of us, acquiring it is also breathing.  It’s instinctive, almost automatic: we hear language and eventually start repeating it and develop a natural fluency.

But deaf children — even ones with aids or implants — don’t have full access to sound, and therefore, language.  Depending on their hearing loss, they miss different frequencies (which means missing different sounds because each phoneme/letter falls under a frequency), and therefore their production of speech is altered.  They struggle to create sounds they can’t hear, or can only hear occasionally or fuzzily.  They miss incidental language, which is the language that surrounds us that hearing people internalize automatically.  Instead of having this automatic language stored, they miss it and develop gaps in vocabulary, in grammar.

Our professor told us about an 11-year-old boy she had to teach the word “fart” to.  He would say “excuse me, I passed gas,” which she said she appreciated for its politeness. However, as she told it, he was on a baseball team and there was no way she was going to let him go into the dugout and say “I passed gas” to a bunch of 11-year-old boys.


I did a three week externship at a school for the deaf in Seattle.  Like many oral-auditory schools, most of the classes had a couple of hearing peers.  While I was there, NBC Nightly came to interview the students about meeting Derrick Coleman, a member of the Seahawks, and the only deaf NFL player.  The students were all brought into a classroom and played with toys at various stations as the camera crew scanned the room and picked out children to interview.

The reporter, brown hair, big encouraging eyes, sat down and talked to several of the children.  The first few were shy and mumbly, and answered questions about Derrick Coleman’s profession with answers like “baseball?”  Then the reporter came to a table with kids playing around it.  He started talking to a little boy with mussed brown hair and an eager smile. The boy answered his questions articulately and clearly, so the reporter kept talking to him, asking him his thoughts.  And then:

“How do you feel, knowing that Derrick Coleman is a professional football player?”

The boy shrugged. “Good, I guess.”

“Does it make you feel like you can do anything?”


The boy, of course, was one of the typical hearing students.  Derrick Coleman’s success as a deaf football player had no personal relevance on his career goals.

When I tell this story, I laugh at the humor of the situation. But I also think of how eager the reporter was to talk to the boy after less articulate interviews.  How, even as he created a piece about deaf children, he unknowingly missed most of the deaf children in the room and talked to a hearing child.

That’s the thing about language.  It often means inclusion or exclusion.  I know which I want for my students — I just don’t always know how to get there.

In the meantime, attempting to sign language is a good reminder to myself of how hard it can be to learn a language for the first time.

Masters of Deaf Education: What I’ve been learning.

(Note: This post will basically be a summary of the classes/course content I took this summer.  You’ve been warned.)

I’ve blogged about how busy I’ve been and written an overview of the basics of Oral/Audio deaf education.  Today I’m going to continue that theme and give brief descriptions of the classes I took during the summer session.

ELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners)

This was the first year an ELL course was required as part of the M.E.D. program, and I believe the reason is that new education legislation was passed requiring all certified teachers to have a certain amount of ELL course hours.  “ELL” is essentially a broad term for ESL or EFL; it refers to non-native speakers learning English.

The class: ELL required many hours — we had between 11 and 14 hours of class and observation every week.  The class sessions were mostly four hours long.  Four. Hours. Long.  As a human, and an ADD one at that (I’m so trendy), four hours is far beyond my capacity to retain information.  To be fair, our teacher was great about mixing up the format between lecturing, discussions, and group work, but ultimately four hours was quite a stretch, especially every other day.

The content: We learned about different teaching approaches designed to create ELL-friendly classrooms.  The course was designed for regular classroom teachers with 1st generation students in their classes, so it wasn’t about how to teach English, but how to teach a lesson (any subject) in a way that shelters (helps guide) the kids whose English abilities are low.  However, we did learn specific methods of English teaching, and were able to observe local language classrooms with international students learning English.  The observations were the most enjoyable part of the course because they were a tangible experience of the hypothetical situations we discussed in class

Perspectives on Deaf Education

This was a two part class, in which we studied curriculum (specifically, Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum) in the morning and discussed the history and controversies surrounding Deaf Education in the afternoon.

The class: The coursework consisted mainly of reading and reflections.  Classes were lectures in the morning and video/discussions in the afternoon.  Our final project was an anthology of curriculum resources to use in our teaching careers.

The content: During our morning classes, a huge emphasis was placed on Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum, which basically means curriculum designed to meet the developmental needs of a child according to his/her age and ability.  DAC encourages parental involvement, takes into account different learning styles, and considers different theories of development and teaching (Skinner, Erikson, Maslow, etc.)

During our afternoon classes, we learned about the history of deaf education (which is long, interesting, and has been rapidly changing over the past 20 years.)  We also watched Sound and Fury, a documentary about a deaf family faced with the decision of choosing whether to implant their deaf child.  After watching the documentary — and the informative followup — we discussed the controversy of oral vs. manual education.  (Which I will go into more detail in another post.)

Introduction to Hearing Science (Audiology)

Developing Auditory/Oral Communication