Lessons for a hearing world

Communicate: Deaf pupils focus on American Sign Language and English at a literacy camp at McDaniel College.

July 11, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Jumping to their feet, the 10 children playing charades clamored to be the first to give the right answers.

"Fireman?"

"Teacher?"

"Cat?"

All three were correct. The eager pupils were rattling off guesses to the clues -- just in a different language. They were signing in response to the pantomime.

The children, all from the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, were learning about everyday heroes at McDaniel College's summer literacy camp. More importantly, they were learning to improve their English -- both reading and writing -- as well as American Sign Language.

At the weeklong camp, the pupils read the true story of a cat in Brooklyn, N.Y., that rescued her five kittens from a burning building in 1996, and learned that cats can be heroes, too. The story introduced other heroes: the firefighters who rushed the strays to the animal hospital, the veterinarians who cared for the cats and the strangers who adopted the homeless felines.

"Most schools around here tend to focus on [learning] English, but here we focus on ASL and English because we recognize that they're two completely individual languages," said camp coordinator Sandy Rae Scott, who was born deaf and began learning sign language when she was 4.

"Words look different in ASL than in English. ... We teach them to see English and then how to sign it in ASL," she said.

Knowing how to write and read English means the children won't be limited to communicating solely through sign language, said Scott, who has found ways -- such as writing notes -- to communicate with people who don't know sign language.

This year's theme, Heroes and You, was selected "to emphasize and build on citizenship and to allow the campers to explore their own character traits and how they can be heroes in many, many ways," Scott said.

The camp's instructors, graduate students in McDaniel's deaf education program, integrated the heroism theme into their activities, such as storytelling, charades, hiking, swimming and nature walks.

"We take those activities and infuse literacy in ways that are providing our campers with language experiences so they realize that they can learn to apply reading and writing to everyday activities," said Scott, who teaches at Alabama School for the Deaf in Talladega during the school year.

A favorite activity among the campers was re-enacting fables that had been chosen by instructors to illustrate morals such as honesty, compassion and humility.

The instructors posted each story on the wall using an overhead projector so the children could see it in written form while the instructor told the story in sign language. After each story, the children correctly guessed the moral.

Then came the fun part.

The instructors had no shortage of volunteers when it was time for the children to re-enact the fables. A few times the classroom lights had to be flickered as an attention-getter to remind the children to calm down.

"It's fun for me. ... We get to get up and move around," said Alexa Simmons, 7, when asked why she enjoyed the role-playing. Alexa, who said she likes school because "it makes me smart," added that she enjoyed learning English because then "I can write it."

McDaniel College, which has sponsored the camp for deaf children for about 10 years, created it to give graduate students an opportunity to get experience teaching deaf children.

Another weeklong session, open to deaf children ages 6 to 12, is planned for July 19-23.

"We're using the deaf culture as a platform to teach them how to use English," said instructor Mario Mauro. The camp is "a wonderful way to see how printed English relates to ASL."

By combining activities with lessons in reading and writing, camp organizers aim to give deaf children the resources for dealing with a hearing world.

"Navigating in both hearing and deaf worlds can be challenging, yet adventurous," Scott said.

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