Education

Home is Where Your Heart Feels…

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. The following month, I enrolled in a graduate critical pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. We discussed literacy a lot there, too, particularly related to English language learners, and students who have been historically oppressed.

On Monday, I wrote some frustrations on how APS fell short in engaging students’ full experiences in connecting to literature and art. I asked, How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? Macedo asked, How can we continue to educate students while insisting on the separation of cognition and emotion? 

Regarding APS, I elaborated:

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

[…] But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art. 

So what is the alternative?

In the pedagogy seminar, and in my children’s literature course last spring in the bilingual education department (taught by my adviser, who was responsible for bringing Macedo to campus), we used student-generated, open-ended literature responses in the target language. These enable us, as teachers, to simplify a complex text to make it more accessible to our students; through the same process, we can also take a simple text and dig deeper into it through discussion cycles and semantic mapping.

Below are two maps from my seminar this summer, based on the discussion around a short poem by Francisco X. Alarcon. The first is on “Silences,” on the things that keep people silent or silenced; the second is on “Noise,” the things in life that distract us or drown out issues requiring our attention. Although “silence” and “noise” are opposite words by denotation, these concept maps are fairly similar:

Silences

Silences

Noises

Noise

So taking this, I read the book My Friend is Sad, by Mo Willems with my students. I projected it on the interactive white board so the English text was visible and read the story in ASL, making connections to the English text. We talked about opposites: happy and sad. In their journals, each kid drew and wrote about their favorite part of the story. The next day, two students (who do not have nicknames yet because it’s too soon in the year!) read and acted out the story. Then, we got down to mapping.

We started with the HAPPY map. Happy is a safe emotion. You can share stories and phrases and synonyms for happy with new people, and you don’t have to be very vulnerable. We referred to the story, and then we branched out. Some of the things that make us happy:

  • skateboard
  • snow board
  • play tag
  • yellow blanket

The next day, we talked about things that made us sad. The kids started out timidly with single words, and got a little bolder:

  • cry
  • baby
  • feeling scared
  • Mom took my iPod
  • JoJo broke my doll and the head came off

Then the floodgates opened:

  • No dad because he’s in jail far away. Then jail finished, still lives far
  • Go to a funeral and miss your grandpa. Hold your heart and carry his casket (This was in reference to my grandpa dying in April 2014, which a student remembered and shared. I was a pallbearer. I was not expecting this, and yes, I teared up.)
  • Want more money and patient working (The ASL sign for patient can also be translated as bearing, suffering, or enduring)

This. This is what my students produced on the first week of school

The Sad-Happy Maps

The Sad-Happy Maps

…from a book that looks like this:

IMG_20150825_072609

My students don’t always need upbeat. They don’t need hyper-engaging. They need real. They deserve authentic. Sure, My Friend is Sad is a really funny book (the lengths to which Piggie goes attempting to cheer Elephant are extraordinary, indeed). But the basic human desire to take care of one’s friend and to alleviate loneliness is totally accessible. They really just needed me to operate the markers. For now, anyway.

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Finding our Way Home

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. Each teacher participant signed up for a studio-intensive workshop from a choice of five artistic media; we met in our studio groups for 90 minutes of direct and guided instruction each day. We could return to the studio for independent work at other times during the day/evening. We signed up for single-session classes in a medium we might not have tried before, or in something that piqued our interest, but that we would not normally spend a full week studying. All sessions were taught by professional, working artists from the state of Idaho who, in addition to their professional practice, work in collaboration with the Idaho Commission on the Arts as artist-educators. We also attend whole-group sessions dedicated to the practical side of integrating the arts, artistic process, and artistic expression into our existing literacy curriculum. All this work is centered on a single theme each year.

This year, the theme focused on Homeand the process of going home. I participated in the theatre studio intensive, and we generated and performed our own content. I’ll come back to this in a moment because it is important, but in this self-generation process (which we can take into our classrooms and use with our students), our instructor explored a full range of images and emotions with us. We used our five senses and talked a lot about kinesthetic response. We tuned into our own bodies and watched the physical responses of our peers. When there was a collective gasp, or a moment of stunned silence, we held that. At one point, one teacher (who had never considered herself a writer or an actor) had the whole room in tears. We honored that.

Side trip: Two weeks after APS, I drove home to visit my family for two weeks. It was an important trip. For one, since I moved out in 2003, I always go home over the 4th of July because my grandparents’ anniversary was the 5th. Grandpa died last April, and since I’d been home for the funeral and was in a play at the end of the summer, I missed my July trip home. For two, this would be my first time doing the road trip alone, without any driving companions.

My second day of driving shuttled me home. My second day of driving was 13 hours between Missoula, MT, to my parents’ farm in rural North Dakota. Confession: I have not always got along well with my mom. And she did not always get along well with her mom. And we make each other a little frazzled, frustrated, and other emotions that sometimes invoke a “throwing things” response. But “home” is still overwhelmingly positive, in the grand scheme of things. The closer I got to home, the stronger the pull felt. As I got close to the driveway, I cued up “Home” by Ingrid Michaelson and let all the driving tension from the previous 13 hours out. I pulled up in front of the house at midnight, the porch light on, and I wept. I was so glad to be home. (And for the record, mom and I got along swimmingly while I was there!)

Back to APS: in every one-off session I attended–creative writing, storytelling–and in the whole-group, arts-in-literacy sessions, the tone was overwhelmingly positive. No where, except in my theatre studio, were we given the opportunity or the space to dig into the negative aspects of home. In one workshop, we were explicitly instructed to stick with positive images or memories of our childhood homes. One teacher sitting across from me sighed: I don’t want to go back there. They keep sending me back there. Not only were we not permitted to choose our preferred incarnation of home, but we were limited to a narrow range of emotional language. No where were we equipped with tools or strategies for working with a student whose artistic process dredged up unhappy, unsafe, or unpretty images.

How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? 

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

If reading is about making meaning, we spend far too much time teaching children that the text is king. All this focus on “close reading” in the Common Core concerns me. The text is important, yes. The author’s intent is also a text. What isn’t written is a text! The illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are contribute to the text as much as the words themselves. But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art.

Not everyone at APS cries when they pull into the driveway of their childhood home. Not all my students are excited to go home on Thursdays to spend the weekend with their families. If I censor those emotions, I sever an important piece of my students’ life experiences. I lose an important opportunity for human connection and critical instruction.

For a theme so central to our identities, we barely scratched the surface. We need to go deeper.

All of us need to go deeper. Language. Reading. Art. Our students deserve more.

Standardized Tests, Open House, and My Students’ Actual Progress

My students started their SBAC standardized tests last week.

I have third and fourth graders, so for three of my kiddos, it was their first time taking the tests. The interface has been updated since last year, so my fourth-grader needed a refresher. Plus, I’m a scribe for one student with motor challenges. There’s a lot to manage in Testland. We did practice tests together on my touch screen laptop and made a fun activity out of it. We practiced accessing the accommodations–the pop-out ASL videos are accessed via a drop-down menu. We talked about trying our best, making best guesses, and pausing to stretch and blink.

When test day came, each student selected a novel or graphic novel to read when they were done, and we descended upon the computer lab.

When my scribe-ee finished and we arrived at the “submit test” screen, she looked at me and asked if she could go back and check all her answers. All 36 of them. She had already tried her best. She had attempted to solve problems on math content she’d never seen before. She knew the test was hard. I asked her why she wanted to check the answers. She sad, What if I didn’t do good? I think I am a little bit wrong.

Plus 10 points for knowing when you’re wrong. Self-awareness is a good skill that many adults don’t have.

Plus 10 hugs for that self-awareness making you feel like you’re not enough.

You see, this kiddo, like most of my students over the past seven years, arrived with some big gaps. She was in third grade, performing single-digit addition. She’d never seen subtraction before. Now, at the end of fourth grade, she can read, write, compose, decompose, order, and compare numbers through 1,000. She can add and subtract three-digit numbers with regrouping, without using manipulatives (although we definitely started with them). She has flexible number sense and can play a variety of number games I use in the classroom that utilize 10-frames and 100-boards and base-10 blocks and chips. She can tell time. She can do one-step word problems in addition and subtraction.

She loves math. She works slowly, but when she finishes her work, she looks at me and says, It’s not a race, and I am smart. My brain is big! All of those things are 100% accurate.

And after her standardized math test, she looked deflated. So I reminded her that she’s done a lot of really good math in class. And I asked, What’s more important, do you think? All the math we do every day, that you love and can do and feel good about, or a test we take once in May that makes you feel rotten?

She said, The computer test?

This is not how we hold children and teachers “accountable” for learning and teaching.

Last night we had our spring open house for the elementary department. We worked long and hard getting ready to display and show our work to our families and friends. All five of my students’ parents came to the open house. They were so.excited. all day. All week, even. We showed how we went from reading Frog and Toad in the fall, only discussing two characters and one problem at a time, to reading Charlotte’s Web and discussing multiple characters and problems within a larger plot arc, and connecting our lives to the story. We had a bulletin board comparing non-fiction reading and historical fiction reading from our Native American unit. We shared videos of our poetry projects and our music video.

My students were all smiles, all hugs, all jumping skipping dancing in the halls, waiting checking texting parents. The energy was palpable. My little math kiddo? Her grandpa came and she nearly fell over with excitement. She was so tired from running around and showing her work to her dad and her grandpa and her mom and her sister (who attends a different school) and her friends’ parents and the other teachers and the principal that she reached that giddy manic run in circles level of exhaustion by the end of the night, like a toddler who just keeps walking so she doesn’t fall asleep. We are reading C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E-S W-E-B and my favorite character is C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E because she is a good friend. She take care of pig W-I-L-B-U-R. We have four chapter left. Then watch movie eat popcorn compare book and movie. Ms Danielle sign story funny. T-E-M-T-O-N rat funny greedy funny Ms Danielle sign funny! But my favorite spider sweet!

After the second trimester, I was feeling frustrated and dejected. I had not accomplished the things I set out to accomplish with my students. Their growth seemed small compared to what I thought it should be, we were in the mid-winter slumps, and I was feeling scrutinized by the people around me. The principal came down to talk to me, and started the conversation by saying she’d seen my students’ (standards-based) report cards and progress notes. They’ve had some really wonderful growth this year. They’re readers, Danielle. I see Ponyo with a book wherever she goes. And they’re all building wonderful relationships with others in the building. And they’ve really made some good progress in math. I hope you see that.

This growth took a lot of work over three years of sweat and tears (so.so. many tears…most of them mine). But there are kids who’ve made two years of progress in a year-and-a-half. And one girl who has grown from needing intensive behavior intervention and weekly de-escalation to basic behavioral reminders like a typical third-grader. And a shy student who used to only whisper who nailed the role of (signing) Olaf in our Christmas play of Frozen this December. And a little boy whose dad died two years ago who told me he was fine one day, and I finally really believed him. And a student who used to be the only kid in his school with hearing aids who now has friends with hearing aids and cochlear implants. I’m not saying this to toot my horn, or to say what a great teacher I am for turning these kids around. (But the fact is, I am a damn fine teacher; the headline-makers and book-deal-getters are the unorthodox teachers who love their students and also raise their test scores.) Because today, I am exhausted and possibly even more excited for summer than my students are.

So we’ve made some progress.

So after we hit [submit] on that pointless math test, I looked at my student and blew the biggest, wettest, tonguey-est raspberry I could muster. And I said, THAT’S how much you need to worry about the computer test. Your brain is more important to me. And your brain has lots of math in it. 

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

Cute, Part 3: Poetry

Content note: poetry in the elementary classroom

I’ve written before about my dislike of the adjective “cute” in regards to my students. Sometimes, it’s used as a disability consolation prize. Most of the time, “cute” is more about how the adults feel than about how my students feel. They’re getting older now, some of them are 10 and 11; “cute” is becoming more condescending. Context matters, of course. Several friends pointed out on my previous blogs posts on this topic that context matters, and that “cute” can be a compliment. It can be, but I maintain that for people who see my students every day, who know them, who have seen them from many angles, “cute” is a non-compliment that ignores the many dimensions of their personalities. It’s the “Hihowareya” fly-by of the school environment.

Right now, my class is diving into the thick of our spring open house preparations. The open house is a month from yesterday. It may seem like we have a lot of time, but with only four days of school a week, and field trips, parties, therapies, and other interruptions thrown into the mix, we really do not have a lot of time to get ready. I decided to focus our energies into literature and poetry study. We just finished our first-ever novel, so we are doing open-ended wrap-up projects: the students each chose their favorite character and completed a character web, descriptive paragraph(s), and illustration. The kids finished their writing today, and the mini-essays are so different. Ponyo focused on one specific event that only took up two pages of the entire novel, an interaction between the main character and her little brother, whose relationship during the rest of the novel reminded me of Ponyo and her younger brother. TLK chose the father, and talked about actions; every action he picked (killing a one-horned buck, surviving smallpox) was centered around the love for his family. Sir New Dude also chose the father, but focused on character traits like bravery and strength.

We are reading and writing poetry. They picked a favorite poem from a wide selection of books I offered, and they will be presenting it in a few different ways. The students will each work with me to translate it to ASL and record it. The students who wish to read it in spoken English may do so (three students asked if they could, so I added this). They will illustrate the poems they picked. We are also translating a song and recording a music video. Working with them, hearing and seeing them give voice to each poem, looking at their illustrations, digging through the meaning they attach to the ideas has been simultaneously surprising and totally expected. It fits with how I understand their minds and hearts to work, but the nuance and depth they bring reminds me how often we (and I include myself here) do not give enough credit to young people for their ability to make connections to the world and each other through text.

Sir New Dude and TLK selected “Grasshoppers” from Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. TLK follows SND’s lead for reading aloud; the roles are reversed for signing. They each wear one hearing aid, so they sit side-by-side, their aided ears together when they read it. SND is a fast reader, so he is practicing listening and waiting for a partner; he has a tendency to steamroll people in regular conversation, too. As a hard-of-hearing kid, it might be a compensatory tool for controlling his environment so he doesn’t miss anything–if he’s the one talking, he knows what’s going on. When they were drawing, they searched YouTube for nature videos of grasshoppers jumping, some in slow motion. Using science to understand art–beautiful. 

Freckles chose a poem from Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson titled “failing.” Right away he told me, This kid needs to learn math but it’s really about life too. I asked him why he liked the poem. He said it felt good. The kid in the poem laments the adult answer of, Just ’cause; Frecks was nervous, but when I told him he wouldn’t get in trouble for saying adults make him feel frustrated, too…well, you can probably guess what he told me. I added a few pencil marks on the poem and asked him to read it again. After he did, adding the pauses and a breath, he looked at me and said, Yeah. That was good. That last line was even sadder when I breathe. Frecks gets poetry. Of course he does; there’s a reason he was drawn to that book–his whole life is poetry. I am not trying to be profound or emotive. I mean that the first two stanzas of the first poem in that book could have been written about Freckles and his noisy brain that no one ever calls cute but everyone is always telling to be quiet and sit down and stop singing.

Elsa picked a poem from the book Food Hates You, Too, called “Toast.” It’s about bread getting eaten and being dead. She drew a really morbidly hilarious picture of dismembered bread being eaten by worms, and two angel breads going to heaven. All those people who tell me how cute she is are missing out on a wicked sense of humor. That toast was gross, man. And so, so funny.

Ponyo’s poem is from Heartsongs, by Mattie J. T. Stepanek. She stares at the picture of Mattie during poetry time. While other kids were drawn to a book, or a specific poem, she was drawn to the poet. She spent 20 minutes today watching subtitled clips from Oprah on YouTube. Mattie was a boy with muscular dystrophy who started writing poetry when he was 3; he died when he was 13 before my students were even born. He was a peace activist and poet who became quite famous in the late 90s when he wrote his Heartsongs books. Ponyo drew a picture of Mattie instead of a picture of her poem. She originally picked the book because she was going through a goofy sweetheart phase, and the book is called Heartsongs. But when she learned about Mattie, and read the poems, the sweetheart stuff stopped. Completely. But if I ask her why she loves it, she doesn’t know. That’s a bit more complex than “cute” can give her credit for.


Note: The above titles are linked through Amazon Smile. If you purchase the books through those links, I don’t get any money, but the CADASIL: Together We Have Hope Foundation does get a small contribution. CADASIL is a hereditary stroke disorder that leads to dementia, but as a relatively new-ish discovery, is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. As such, it does not get the attention or research dollars of better-known conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. All Amazon links I provide will support this foundation. Or, if you have a favorite charity, take five minutes to change your Amazon account settings to Amazon Smile!

Charlie Chaplin Made the Best Movies Ever

Content note: accessibility, d/Deaf history, educational theatre, film history

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival Theatre for Youth’s production of Maggie Lumiere and the Ghost Train came to campus last Friday. The four person cast features a Deaf actress, and three hearing actors who signed. Everything the Deaf actor signed was accessible to non-signers either by the voices of other characters, or by silent-movie style title cards. It was visual. It was funny. It was fully accessible. 

(Note: since we also have students who are blind or low-vision, our orientation & mobility instructor provided verbal description of all the action via a multi-headset FM system we use for such events)

During the Q&A, one Deaf teacher mentioned that he had attended many interpreted theatre performances before (which, we might all agree, meets one definition of accessibility, and ISF has done a great job of this), but he always misses large pieces of plot or dialogue because he always has to look between the actors and the interpreters; he, along with several Deaf students of all ages, and Deaf staff, shared that it the first, or one of the first, fully accessible theatre production they had ever attended. Several students said that they had always wanted to do theatre, but had never believed it would be possible for them until now. The actors teared up hearing that. They said that this was their 71st performance–performances 1 through 70 were for hearing audiences, but this was the most nervous they had ever been doing this show, because they knew this was the one that mattered. My kids were engaged the entire time. They understood the premise. They laughed in all the right places. They felt suspense during the suspenseful parts. They were able to converse with the actors after the performance. It was incredible. I cried. Three times, even. I already sent a note to the playwright (who lives in Boise) thanking him for writing it. Sure, there were a few bits of the script that I found a little problematic, but I can have a conversation with my students about it because the whole script was accessible to them! 

Theatre for Youth is educational theatre, and as such, there is a downloadable teacher’s guide with information about theatre itself, and about the content of the show. For my class, I focused on the history of early film. The plot of Maggie Lumiere involves a Deaf girl and her three friends making a silent movie, an homage-of-sorts to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. We didn’t have time to watch The Kid, so I showed them the following clip, the opening chase scene from the 1917 film The Adventurer:

I usually project videos on my interactive whiteboard, but this year my desktop computer took a dump, so imagine four kids huddled around my tiny tablet/laptop hybrid (a ThinkPad Yoga, if you’re familiar with them). If you didn’t watch the above clip, please do. It’s about 4 1/2 minutes.

They. loved. it. They laughed in all the right places. They felt suspense during the suspenseful parts.  All four kids begged to watch it again. The only time they’ve ever done that is when they watch a video of themselves. The second time through, they added their own sound effects and dialogue. I hadn’t even thought to suggest that yet; they spontaneously took the film to the next level.

We spent the next half-hour watching clips, each one twice. Boxing. The Circus. TLK looked at me, wide-eyed, and whispered in most serious voice, He made the best movies ever. After the show, Freckles, who attends public school most of the day and had missed all our Charlie Chaplin excitement the day before, said, I wanted to be a cop or a firefighter since kindergarten but now maybe I think acting might be a better choice for me because I’m funny and I don’t sit still enough to be a cop. 

Before the play on Friday, we reviewed appropriate audience behavior, but I really think this was the only time I didn’t have to do so. Even Ponyo, who gets a bad case of Bleacher Butt™ right about the same time I do, was attentive the entire time and only solicited the help-me-refocus back scratches once (she even put her head on my shoulder during the most tender-hearted bit–that was the first time I cried). Before the show, she was so excited, and she asked to take a selfie. So we did. Then she said, Selfie text mom!! So I pulled up my messaging app and her mom’s phone number. She typed, We are seeing a play. I am very excited. An obligatory smiley followed. When mom asked what the play was about, Ponyo tagged me to type the synopsis. Then she said, Tell mom C-H-A-P-L-I-N Y-O-U-T-U-B-E.

I have a hunch they watched a lot of silent movie clips this weekend.


I know I promised yesterday  that I would update the sComm situation today, but I needed to share this first. This is absolutely critical to understanding why Jason Curry’s insistence on English as superior to ASL, his stubborn refusal to recognize interpreters as empowering accommodations, and his disgusting “Communicaphobia” video that uses the word “crippled” in regards to ASL and depicts the use of an interpreter as an owner with a dog on a leash, is so damaging and insulting to my students, and to d/Deaf people everywhere:

I had a conversation over the weekend with my principal about getting my kids to record short “reviews” of the play for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival website. I mentioned our lesson on Charlie Chaplin, and she said something that stuck with me, hard: Silent movies were the golden season for deaf people. Total inclusion.

On Friday, I had been sick for two weeks, and throat was raw.  After the post-show Q&A, my students wanted to meet the actors. The gymnasium was loud, and my voice was ka-put; I could not have interpreted for them. Because all the actors signed, Ponyo could go right up to one of them and say, I’m deaf! I have an implant and I sign and I talk! You are great and funny and I love you! all by herself.

On Friday, I literally had no voice. But because of accessibility, my students owned a piece of theirs.

Audism, Language, and Competition

Content note: audism, ableism, in-group discrimination, disability hierarchies 

The Deaf-world controversy surrounding sComm and their marketing of the UbiDuo communication device continues this week. Trudy Suggs (the Deaf business owner and activist who has been the catalyst/gathering place/clearinghouse/springboard/etc. for the pushback against sComm’s dangerous, audist marketing language) shared last week that her hosting company received notice from sComm indicating that she had made unauthorized use of their property, even though the screenshots she used fall under fair use.

The Missouri Association of the Deaf issued an open letter:

There is so much to unpack here, and I am waiting to see what else comes out, specifically from sComm. So far, their attempt to use legal threats by contacting Trudy Suggs’ hosting company directly, instead of addressing her first, is a power play. Is it the male/female power dynamic? Is it the English/ASL power dynamic? Is it competing business owners? Is it (in Jason Curry’s eyes) good deaf/bad deaf? It’s likely an intersection of more than one of those. The more layers intersect, the more complex the power dynamics become.

UPDATE: 6:56 PM 4/7/15
From a former sComm employee, shared on Facebook today.


Here in deaf school land, we have an academic bowl, sponsored by Gallaudet University. Our school has participated for the last 8 or 9 years, but only recently have we really been a competitive team by any definition of the word. Last year was the first time we made it out of the regional competition to go to nationals.

Last week our academic bowl team did a presentation on their trip to the regional competition, as well as a few “mini-bowl” contests with students from the elementary, middle, and high school departments. Two of my kiddos were in the elementary mini-bowl, and they had a really good time. As we got into the middle school and high school groups, though, another teacher and I started to question the underlying assumptions of the entire system. I’m used to questioning systems–that’s how I roll. It was nice to have someone else with whom I could share my eyebrow-furrowing, head-scratching, table-pounding moments:

  • In academic bowl form, answers must be hand-written, spelled correctly, and shown to the judges and spectators. One middle school student got every answer incorrect; while the event was meant to be lighthearted and not a high-pressure situation, how does it benefit a student to have every incorrect answer shown to all and snickered at? Why did the adults laugh? How is that a positive experience?
  • At the national level, the same schools win, or at least make it to the final rounds. It feels like a pecking order, and each year’s competition is an exercise in making sure everyone knows what that pecking order is.
  • States with large populations have larger schools for the deaf; it makes sense. These schools have strong Deaf communities surrounding them, and many of them wind up sending many students to Gallaudet. They have a large pool of students from which to choose their academic bowl teams. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But issues of power and privilege come in to play–they always do. Is this where the idea of good deaf/bad deaf starts? Is this where we start weeding out the successful deaf from those that perpetuate the oft-quoted statistic that the average deaf adult has a fourth-grade reading level? I understand the desire to recognize and applaud academic achievements–but what does it mean when we’re recognizing the same achievements by the same few achievers each year?
  • Why are we still so fixated on competitions, when it’s becoming more and more evident that collaboration is going to be the necessary skill to solve the big problems of the century?
  • I have a friend with two deaf sons. When their first son was identified as deaf over 20 years ago, they moved to be near a deaf school. He attended that school, but he never belonged. Their family never belonged. As autistic deaf child with significant behavior concerns, he wasn’t the right kind of deaf; at least that’s how the message was received. Disability hierarchies were at play. Is that a form of audism, to exclude those deaf and hard-of-hearing who don’t fit in to one’s preferred vision of d/Deafness? To encourage a parent to withdraw their child from the school for the deaf because he doesn’t really belong there? Where does that idea begin?

The students on our academic bowl team are primarily hard-of-hearing, or prefer English over ASL. Why is that? The last few years, we’ve pulled kids from our outreach program to supplement our on-campus team. Why is that? My experience is limited, as I am “grafted on” to the Deaf community. But I have seen audism play out. I have seen unspoken disability hierarchies form the foundation for interactions and decisions and systems around me. And I have seen far too much of it go completely unquestioned.

It’s time to start asking questions.