Sunday, September 09, 2007

Week One at The Learning Center

So, yes, i'm continuing to write, this time not about the physical explorations of the world, but about the explorations into a different community, a different way of living, and how I find myself fitting into it all. Last week I started work as a Teacher's Aid at The Learning Center for the Deaf (TLC) in Framingham, Massachusetts. Not being fluent American Sign Language (ASL) user, there have been some challenges. I knew enough to get through the half hour interview, but that's about the extent of my signing knowledge.

I am working with the Middle School, with about twenty-seven 11-14 year-olds. With each bell/strobe light signal, I switch classes and teachers I'm working with, and my daily schedule includes math, english, social studies, science, sometimes art, and hopefully some gym later on. All the classes are taught in ASL. At this point, I am able to understand the math classes pretty well, being numbers and charts and graphs, but the vocabulary of social studies is significantly more daunting. English is challenging but also rewarding in the gains that I make as the students explain the intracacies of ASL while also getting a better handle on their English skills. (ASL does not spell out each word, and ASL grammer is nothing like the English written language, so it takes students (and me) a while to get the hang of their none native language. To these kids, English is a SECOND language.)

Thankfully, I've been given the job of morning attendance taker so I'm slowly getting to know all the students. And slowly I am able to understand them when they finger spell their names without having to ask them to repeat it a few times. During class, I try hard to improve my skills. Always with my dictionary on hand, I sit and use a few different methods of paying attention. Often times, I will try to get the general gist of what the teacher is signing. (Often times this does not work.) Other times, I will try to focus just on the signs, just to recognize individual signs, so that it's not just a blurr of hand movements. This is getting easier, but with this method, I often miss out on the big picture. My third and least effective method of learning is when I suddenly find that I've been zoning out which greatly reduces my understanding of what is going on. With this method, though, I hope my subconscious is filing everything into nice neat ASL folders in my brain. Needless to say, at the end of the day, my brain is thoroughly exhausted.

Slowly, though, I am learning. Through the help of my supervisor and the teachers as well as the students, day by day, I know more signs and after a week of classes, feel like i'm getting to know the students. The highlight of Friday was helping a student figure out a math problem that involved simple planetary motion. I was able to communicate everything I needed to, the student was engaged and was miraculously able to understand what I was signing - and i was able to understand her. I was amazed to find myself, at only the end of the first week, to be saying to myself, "I LOVE this job!" And I'm getting paid for this!

There are a number of things that I have had to get used to:
-Conversations often occur between people across a room, and as a third party to those conversations, my neck gets a good work out going back and forth.
-When in class, if I look down to write something down, I miss what is being signed.
-Deaf students are anything but silent. They are very vocal and if they cannot get someone's attention visually, they will try for a tactile method which can mean hitting desks, book shelves or anything else that will send the vibrations to the other person.
-By school policy the primary language of the school is ASL. This means that even if i'm talking with a hearing teacher we will shut the door. (My supervisor and the two teachers I work with are deaf, and the other two teachers are are hearing.) Generally all communication, even between two hearing people, in the spirit of open and clear communication, is done in ASL.

It is strange to be in one place for the next 11 months (school ends late July) and it is strange to be indoors all day, and it is strange to not be getting ready for another adventure somewhere away from home. But biking the seven miles to school keeps my legs happy while sitting at the desk, and the metal concentration and stimulation are more than enough to keep me excited about what I'm doing. I have a long, long way to go as far as the language is concerned and I need to spend much out of school time doing homework of my own, but that's why I'm here, and I'm very happy to be at the middle school. I hope that the middle-schoolers will be able to learn as much from me as I will learn from them.