In A Perfect World:
What’s Missing in the Mainstream?
I’ll always be grateful for the wisdom gained from a fifth grade class I never attended.
Fifth grade was the year our son Dane was fully and effectively mainstreamed, along with several other kids from the center based program for deaf/hard of hearing students. It was a struggle getting there, but we were thrilled that his school had finally made a genuine commitment to providing him with access to the same curriculum that his hearing peers were taught.
That year was our “Camelot” because Dane benefitted from a co-teaching model that actually worked the way co-teaching should work. His general ed teacher paired with a certified teacher of the deaf (both highly qualified master teachers) and they jointly delivered instruction in a manner that made neither the “real” teacher nor the “assistant” in the room. They dropped their defenses, egos and presumptions and committed to one another that they would function as true partners owning each student. They planned their curricula together, embedding it with visuals and language enrichment that benefitted all the students. They did not match the kids with hearing loss to the teacher of the deaf or the hearing kids to the general educator; they were equally yoked to each student. It was a stellar year in terms of progress. Dane made up for a nine month language delay and genuinely earned excellent grades. He left elementary school with some very important skills that served him well in the real world of junior high. I could go on and on about the many fine merits of co-teaching, but that’s fodder for a future column. Back to the point—how much there is to learn when the learning environment is right.
What really surprised my husband and I was what else Dane learned from being in that fully accessible, meaningfully inclusive, well-taught envirinment. One day about two weeks into the semester, he came home looking smug. When we asked him about his school day, he informed us with an air of superiority that a hearing boy had gotten into trouble—and did we know that hearing kids actually made mistakes, too?!
It was hard to know how to respond. When had he divided the world into hearing kids and deaf kids? How in the world had our son missed that hearing kids got into trouble? Was it from the isolation of being in a deaf ed resource classroom (except for music, gym and art) since he was in first grade? Was it that when he was mainstreamed into those “specials” he had limited access to all the different kinds of communication that were going on in the room? It strains the brain to think of it.
Apparently, many non-academic details like punitive and other social messages had been dismissed as unimportant at school; little effort (if any) had been previously made to convey such things. Lack of exposure to communication of this kind had created a seriously flawed perception of the world for Dane. We quickly overreacted with LOTS of stories of miserably bad hearing children—feeling like the “Parents Grimm” and knowing that this wasn’t the answer. More intentional and effective communication was, and that included a larger role for us as parents relative to his social and emotional needs. Not just “don’t forget to write Aunt Charlene a thank you note” good manners, but purposeful use of every possible socially teachable moment that life could afford.
Much of what we know about social behavior (whether appropriate or inappropriate) is learned “passively” by simply seeing and hearing what happens (and what people think about what’s happening) all around us. If a child can’t hear well enough or at all, s/he will be missing some very important cues. For example, I knew from a very early age that no nice girl wears tight white jeans to church because my mother and her friend Dorothy were snipping about “that Haney girl” on the drive home one Sunday and I overheard the whole thing from the backseat of the car. Wow, that was news to me since the dads and older brothers barely restrained their approval. Trivial? Hardly. I submit that for every moral truth worth carving on tablets of stone there are innumerable small social pebbles dropped by others that mark the way through the mysterious forest of societal norms. We’d better teach our d/hh kids to recognize them or they will get lost. Knowing the unwritten rules about who thinks what is acceptable in variable settings under which circumstances could have an impact on future employment, relationships, and if you really think about it, maybe even world peace.
While you are waiting for the perfect “teachable moment,” go ahead and make up a few. My brother-in-law Greg never missed a chance to tell his boys (and mine) about poor, hapless “Hooby Dooby” who was forever running into the street, or standing up in the grocery cart, not sharing toys or sassing his mother. Terrible, painful consequences always resulted. Feel free to invite Hooby Dooby to your own home; he’ll make a helpful nuisance of himself. Greg’s approach works until about age four, then it’s probably time to make examples of annoying neighbor kids, classmates or extended family members (who must remain nameless). Embellish as you see fit, but point out that all kids (hearing or not) get the answers wrong on occasion; they sometimes don’t do their homework or their chores. They forget to feed the dog. They leave the potty seat up. They call names, they get grounded, and they repeat offenses.
What’s more, hearing kids can hear but they often don’t listen. Some actually ignore teachers on purpose. My friend Sara’s daughter Maddie was surprised when she learned that hearing kids can’t hear everything either—like in the noisy cafeteria or what’s going on in the next room, or that her teacher COULD recognize that it was Maddie coming down the hallway in her dress shoes because of the way she “clomped” them.
What’s missing from the mainstream for too many of our d/hh kids is an authentic social experience…the kind where they’re learning all kinds of things they need to know that have nothing to do with noun/verb agreement or the periodic chart of the elements. The d/hh kid enjoying the rarified social air of a choice school or state school for the deaf has just as much potential to struggle with adjustments to the “hearing world” elsewhere, so none of us can let our guard down here. Wherever they are educated, our kids have a right to get all communication—the good, the bad and the ugly. How we as parents and teachers are going to make that happen should be part of every IEP discussion of “special considerations” for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. What’s the plan for group discussions? How does this work during recess? On the school bus? How are we preparing our kids for sarcasm, body language, idioms, double-entendre, and subtext? Who is going to help this kid process all the “inferential learning” and specialized vocabulary that comes via the unrequited crush, peer-imposed nicknames and the girl-fight? This stuff may not show up on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, but it’s definitely on the most important standardized test of them all: Life. ~