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Deaf Studies Programme, Week One

1 Jun

Monday, 26 May
Plan: Outside Activity: Do the trust fall activity outside; first, in pairs and on the ground; second, with groups catching pupils falling backwards off tables. Introduce Deaf Studies. First activity: Pupils pick a playing card, read its number, then tell that many unique things about himself to the class. Second activity: each pupil has a Post-It, and votes with it by placing it on the appropriate space on the whiteboard in response to a closed-ended question, e.g. Were you born deaf? Is being deaf good or bad? Then discuss. Third activity: With paper and markers, draw a world where everybody is deaf.
Outcome: Three girls ran away during the table fall; they were too terrified to attempt the fall. No one was dropped and the boys clearly enjoyed this much more than the girls. Self-introductions were disappointing; pupils mainly copied each other and followed the same sequence of name, family, age, etc; many struggled past five things. The vote was interesting. Everyone voted that being deaf was good, not bad! Many seemed to confuse themselves with their parents when asked if they had deaf parents (e.g. Teacher: Are your parents deaf? Pupil: I’m deaf! T: No, your parents? Hearing or deaf? P: No, I’m deaf!). They were able to, via the Post-Its on the whiteboard, visually appreciate that most deaf people are born to hearing families. Many completely missed point of drawing a Deaf-World, choosing to instead draw themselves or their families. I am feeling unsure if this class will work; they’re in Years 6-9 classes but they respond more as if they’re actually in Years 2-4. A far more interactive approach is needed.

Tuesday, 27 May
Plan: Outside Activity: Human knot. Pupils stand in a circle and grab hands in center at random, then must untangle themselves without letting go of hands to recreate a circle. Discussion of activity. First activity: Discuss what languages we learn at Rohana, and the building blocks (letters) of each language. Second activity: Introduce handshapes as the “letters” of sign language. Identify handshapes in Sri Lankan Sign Language. Third: Assign a handshape to each pupil. Trace handshapes on papers and complete the drawings.
Outcome: Children enjoyed human knot activity although a couple girls kept cheating and grabbing different hands. They did not seem to get the point that they could not communicate in sign language; many said they felt they were signing even though they could not use their hands! They were very interested in acknowledging that they learned three different languages: Sinhala, English, and sign language. They thoroughly enjoyed identifying handshapes and signs for each, although still dependent on name signs instead of real vocabulary. Fifteen were identified, and thirteen were assigned. They were quick to trace and draw their handshapes on paper using markers. Ended on a high note; they were engaged and interested in how handshapes build sign language.

Wednesday, 28 May
Plan: Outside Activity: Animal Circle game. Pupils sit in a circle and each pick their own animal. After learning each other’s animals, and following a clapping rhythm, one pupil must say their own animal, then a different animal, “handing it off” to the pupil who has that different animal, then repeat the process. First activity: Review handshapes from yesterday. Second activity: Show “No Talking Allowed,” a tame romantic movie with all Deaf actors and all dialogue in sign. Discuss. Third activity: Show “PAH!” movie by CSD Middle School from 2007 CSD Annual Storytelling Festival DVD. Discuss.
Outcome: It was difficult for pupils to follow the clapping rhythm; many have not learned about keeping beats. Did Animal Circle without clapping. It was very important for some of the pupils to learn that they had to keep their eyes on whoever was signing or be sent out. One girl kept looking away but later in the game she learned to focus after she kept getting sent out of the game. Review of handshapes went well; a couple boys were confused and displayed the handshape that went with their name sign instead; it was good to reinforce this. Assigned handshapes to two new pupils. Many were surprised that an entire movie could be produced in sign language, and appeared to enjoy the “No Talking Allowed” movie. They loved seeing their middle school counterparts in the PAH video. Paused during part with CSD MS Principal Clark Brooke to illustrate that deaf people can even be school principals. One boy cried that he wanted Clark to be his principal now! They are enthusiastic about my idea of producing a “We Can!” video for Rohana modeled on PAH movie.

Thursday, 29 May
Plan: All activities outside. First activity: Handshape Dramatic Warm-up. Stand in a circle. Choose a handshape, then perform an action–not a sign–with that handshape. Hand off handshape to next person to do a different action until everyone has had a turn, then change handshape. Second activity: Separate into pairs. In 30 minutes, create a short play or story using just two assigned handshapes. Support them by reviewing their stories often. Third activity: Put on an impromptu performance for younger children.
Outcome: During warm-up, interesting to see many levels of creativity and theatric aptitude among the fifteen pupils. Two boys needed extra support; they would copy the person next to them instead of doing something original. Girls overall were slow (or shy) on uptake but in the end surprised me with their creativity, too. The performance was great, with about twenty younger children in audience. Two teams, all girls, were impeccable in adhering to the handshape rule and created surprising stories. Boys were more inclined to put on entertaining, vaudeville-like performances and lose track of the handshape rule. One boys’ pair fell apart when one snuck away to eat curd left over from lunch. Everyone had a very good and positive time.

Friday, 30 May
Plan: Outside activity: Object Dramatic Warm-up. All pupils stand in a circle. Pass around a found object–a stick, a rock, anything–and each pupil does something interesting with it. First activity: Review videotape of yesterday’s performances. Guide children in identifying errors where handshapes other than what was assigned to the pair were used. Tally up errors to crown first, second, and third places. Second activity: Show ABC, 1-5, and “Hansel & Gretel” stories from 2004 CSD Feast for the Eyes DVD. Discuss. Third activity: Show/Translate Ella Mae Lentz’s poem “The Treasure.” Discuss.
Outcome: Warm-up seemed to go better than yesterday’s warm-up; easier for pupils to innovate with a tangible object than a handshape. Exciting things were done with a ordinary leaf! Pupils thoroughly enjoyed reviewing their own performances and figuring out which one was most error-free. Encouraged that everyone’s performances were great. Took a while for them to understand the idea of an ABC story–they don’t know the ASL alphabet–but they quickly understood the 1-5 or 1-10 story idea. One boy even made up a 1-5 story right away! They want to practice this next Monday. They were able to reflect on the “Hansel & Gretel” story and discussed a similar Sinhalese folk tale. Despite my lousy translation into Sri Lankan Sign of “The Treasure,” they discussed and appreciated Lentz’s point of how sign language can be devalued, and why sign language should be cherished.

Week ended on a high note. Doing outside group activities, watching videos (especially of other deaf people), playing with sign language, putting on performances, and having group discussions are all completely new instructional activities for the 15 pupils, and they have now taken to the lessons with alacrity.

They are looking forward to next week’s classes–plans include showing “The Lives of Deaf Mexicans” to contrast their deaf experience with Mexico’s; using storybooks from library to develop signed stories; number stories; and practicing rhythm with drums. Am considering asking principal if a short storytelling festival could be held next Monday the 9th during the last school period (especially for teachers to observe) but need to ask pupils first. Overall, I am pleased.

The Sinhalese of Reason, Revisited

1 Jun

(This is an update to The Sinhalese of Reason post, March 2007.)

I didn’t notice Kasun’s absence right away on the first day I came back to the school (it was their Buddhist day prior to Wesak), and I don’t think I made note of it until the next day. I even forgot his name sign, so when I tried to ask questions about him to the other boys, I called him “that boy from just beyond Devinuwara town that I brought here to school.”

Fortunately, Rohana’s pupils, due to their small number, remembers clearly every new person to arrive on campus, and the boys quickly supplied me with Kasun’s name sign, and said that they hadn’t seen him in months.

So I followed up with Damayanthi, who was promoted to head matron sometime during the past year. She is doing a fine job at it, too, and promotes sign language fluency as one of her goals–she just explained to me yesterday that every Saturday and Sunday morning, she and some of the older girls teach signs from the national sign language dictionary to the younger children. And now during daily evening prayers, someone is randomly chosen to lead the rest of the children in signing Buddha’s blessings.

In any case, Damayanthi explained that she hadn’t seen Kasun since last October, his mother’s phone number no longer worked, and there were no responses to the school’s written inquiries.

When school sort of, but not really, started again after the Wesak holidays, I talked with Mr. Abeygunawardana about the boy. He directed Udari, his secretary, to open the safe and show me nine envelopes, each containing a 1,000-rupee note and individually labeled for the school months between last November and this June. Heather, Kasun’s sponsor, had provided this transportation money to pay for his daily van ride to and from home. When Kasun stopped coming, the school stopped paying the driver.

I told him I’d pay Kasun’s family a visit in Gandara, and asked if I could take Damayanthi along to speak with them. He said that was fine, so last Thursday, we left with Ajith, the same three-wheeler driver I always use for my Kasun visits because he knows where the village is.

In the week and half between my talk with Mr. Abeygunawardana and the visit, I thought a lot about what could be done. Perhaps there was a simple misunderstanding, a clerical error that could be cleared up quickly.

But I knew it wouldn’t be that easy. It was challenging to even get him admitted to the school in the first place and solve the transportation issues. And then the school wasn’t equipped to deal with his needs–at thirteen years of age, he had no language and depended on maybe a dozen rudimentary gestures to communicate. He was placed in the Year One class with a teacher who didn’t seem to have a clue about language development. I spent a hour with him almost every day trying to teach him signs–rock, tree, grass, yellow, blue, red, good morning. When I wasn’t busy being his Miracle Worker, he would get into tussles with other boys far younger than him. An attempt to have him try one night in the hostel ended up with an escape from school grounds and his nighttime appearance back home in Gandara; he’d ridden the public bus all the way back.

Still, he seemed to be improving; his vocabulary grew although he would still imitate people or communicate whatever was expected of him; for example, a “good morning” when I arrived at school. I believed that if he could just stay at the school long enough until the language light bulb went off in his head and he started understanding sign language, things would be fine.

But instead, there I was, on a gray and cool Thursday morning, in a green three-wheeler with Damayanthi and Ajith, trying to collect a boy who hadn’t been to Rohana for more than half a year. I figured he had probably returned to his village school (no doubt, the principal, who didn’t want him to go to Rohana in the first place, would be amused). Damayanthi would talk with the family, then perhaps we’d visit his school and decide if he should go back to Rohana or if we should somehow try to provide his village school with some resources for him.

Instead, when we chugged up to the path to Kasun’s house, he suddenly bounced into my view, his eyes beaming in recognition of Ajith’s three-wheeler and me. A few inches taller and sprouting the beginnings of a mustache, he moved in full technicolor animation, excitedly trying to explain something crucial even before I stepped off the three-wheeler.

I wasn’t sure but it looked like he was saying, “Water, water, far away! Water!” He hopped onto the fiberglass boat nearby–thousands of these boats were donated in the Matara area following the tsunami and they can appear in the most unexpected of places, often kilometers away from the ocean like this one which Kasun was in now, making the motions of a fisherman using netting to capture fish.

And on and on he went, miming everything a fisherman does–mending nets, hooking fish, sorting them into boxes–with such clarity that I was convinced he had been working as a fisherman for the past several months. His relatives explained that he hadn’t, but he had been by the beach and docks almost daily, studying the men working there.

Kasun, however, wasn’t using any formal sign language to explain this. Damayanthi and I signed to him, hoping to elicit some sign language in return, but it looked as if he’d forgotten everything he had learned at Rohana. With his family looking on, I tested him on colors–pointing at objects and asking him what color they were. He remembered some of the signs, not all, but used the wrong ones (signing green in response to a white chair, for example), indicating that he just didn’t know that green meant green.

While I videotaped Kasun delving into the art of capturing fish, Damayanthi collected information from the family. Apparently, one day Kasun decided he didn’t want to go to school anymore, and that was it. The family accepted his decision, he never went again, and his new life of hanging around the fishermen began.

He was fifteen years old now, and his mind was totally consumed by the fishing industry. Damayanthi and my repeated questions about Rohana, delivered both in sign and mime, got absolutely no response from Kasun, who instead kept on chattering about fishing.

We sat down in their house and drank some tea while Kasun worked the DVD player and stereo for us, playing an Indian music video.

I asked Damayanthi to ask Kasun’s relatives why he didn’t go back to his old school. After all, education in Sri Lanka is compulsory until eighteen years of age, so he needed to be in a classroom somewhere, anywhere. The family said they couldn’t make Kasun do something he clearly had no interest in doing, and it’d be hard to do so given his dominant personality.

Heather, in an e-mail to me which I read prior to the trip, suggested that maybe a tutor could visit Kasun once or twice a week, or perhaps an arrangement be worked out with his local school. But I saw quickly that there weren’t really any solutions here that would be sustainable for years to come.

And so, that was it–the dream for Kasun’s formal education died in that living room. Finishing our teas, Damayanthi and I shifted tracks and discussed the possibility of his employment. If he’s so interested in fishing, so why not have him train or work as a fisherman now, we asked. I threw in Indika’s name, a very friendly deaf fisherman and Rohana alumnus in nearby Dickwella; perhaps Kasun could train with him?

The family had thought of that, but Kasun’s mother was afraid for him. Sri Lankan Fishermen aren’t known for their agreeable personalities, and she did not want his deaf son out at sea working such a dangerous job. And as an underage employee, he could be caught by the police and sent away.

We were out of options. Damayanthi feebly requested that Kasun’s family find some sort of vocational training for him, but they feared his headstrong personality would land him in trouble anywhere he went, except for the docks.

Throughout Damayanthi’s conversation, Kasun showed off a few items he had purchased with his older brother’s money: a Rastafarian bandana, a spent jar of Black Gold hair gel, a belt printed with the United Kingdom flag, and a small bottle of cologne. He was proud of those objects he bought on his own, and he told me he wanted to own a motorbike next. He twisted his fists like throttling an imaginary motorbike, saying he would go very far away and then come back. Maybe to the docks and back.

How could I tell him he would have to wait at home for a couple more years before he could start working on the boats? He didn’t even understand numbers or that 15 represented his age. So I hovered my palm a few inches above his head, and explained that when he got to be that tall, he could go and work.

I asked Damayanthi to translate to the family that the video footage I took of him would be put on a DVD and mailed to him along with a sign language dictionary I had forgotten to bring to Gandara. And then we left.

And we left. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see him again. I realize you cannot help everybody in the world. But this was a mortal blow to a tenuous illusion that I had created during my fifteen months of teaching–the first nine at Rohana in Sri Lanka and the rest at Fremont in California. I believed that as long as deaf children could find their way to deaf schools, the details would take care of themselves. Kasun, once immersed in a deaf school, would gain language, make friends, and accomplish his dreams.

Children, of course, are not like new saplings that will adapt to any pot you plant them. I knew that, of course, and I knew Kasun’s challenges were considerable. I still hoped for the best, but that didn’t happen here.

The next day, the honorary manager, who had been doing a superb job of terrorizing the school the entire week (the principal was on leave preparing his home for a mirith, a house blessing event with twelve monks that’d begin Friday 9:15pm and last into Saturday afternoon), asked in writing “if my mission was successful.”

I wrote back that the family and the boy were no longer interested in attending the school, and that they would find other arrangements.

“Well, there is nothing more that we can do if the mother is not willing to accept responsibility for his son’s education. Please credit the school for your transportation fees. Is my English good?”

“Yes, quite wonderful,” I wrote back.

“No compliments needed. Thank you.” and then the manager waved me away. And the school continued with its education of one hundred and twenty minus one pupils, Kasun’s short attendance all but forgotten.

I don’t know. I still hope, and I do believe that Kasun will, one day, reach his dreams, whatever they may be.

Rohana Boys Discover Photo Booth

25 May

This is the third time that I’ve tried to upload this video clip and I’m glad it succeeded this time (but not before heavily compressing it to less than 3 MB!).

It’s Monday morning. School begins again today after the long Wesak holiday. The week feels full of promise, despite the fact that the sign language DVD project is on hold now while we try to discover more information about the ICTA’s work (see comment on previous blog entry). The deaf studies class begins today; I’ve just got lots of new tasks from Anne that Mala and I can follow up on; more ideas are boiling in our heads.

It’ll be great!

17 Days and Counting

22 May

Mala arrived two nights ago! Volunteering at Rohana Special School is fun, but it’s always so much better when you’ve got a buddy, a partner to do it with, and I’m lucky that I get to have Mala around for the next two and a half weeks.

Wait a minute. That’s all that’s left? Just 17 days? I thought I was here for four weeks, but it was really just three weeks and four days, and now more than a week has passed in Matara. I’m surprised and disappointed; nine months really is different than three and a half weeks and I’m already staring at my itinerary, making sure I really leave on the 9th and not the 19th.

The children and my friends in Matara know this, too, but they’re okay with it because I’ve conveniently placed the blame for my short stay not on myself, but on my to-be university for starting classes so early in the summer!

Another time-related issue is that the school has been essentially shut down since I arrived. Although the Wesak holiday was last Monday and Tuesday, many famiilies have decided to keep their pupils home for the rest of this week; Sri Lankan schools have very lax attendance policies! So school doesn’t officially begin again until next Monday the 26th. Mala and I will finally be able to observe classes and jump into the usual daily routine then.

Especially due to the short time I’ve left in Sri Lanka, it is fortunate that I’ve already planned out what will happen the next two weeks.

Via discussions with Naizer, the president of the Ruhunu Sumaga Circle of the Deaf, the deaf association representing the south of Sri Lanka, we will begin filming a sign language video dictionary every morning for two weeks. I’ll provide the camera and supplies (t-shirts, backgrounds), while the deaf association will provide sign language models and linguistic oversight. I will then give over the footage to the school’s new IT teacher, Kasun, who will then work through the summer assembling the dictionary program, to be completed in August and freely distributed on DVD to the school community and throughout Sri Lanka via the provincial deaf associations.

That’ll be in the mornings. In the afternoons, with Mr. Abeygunawardana’s approval, I’ll be teaching a Deaf Studies class for two hours to pupils in Years 6 through 9. (Years 10 and 11 are in vocational training classes every afternoon) I’m looking forward to this challenge of talking about Deaf culture and identity in a language that isn’t my own, and Mala and I will keep brainstorming ideas of how the children can take advantage of what they’ve learned after the Deaf Studies class is completed. I’m not entirely sure how this can be turned into a sustainable programme at Rohana instead of an one-time deal, so that’s something else for Mala and I to consider.

The next two weeks promise to be full of activity and challenge. Little projects we hope to accomplish include securing funds for new murals on the front wall of the school campus, providing new bedsheets for the hostels, discovering what happened to Kasun, the deaf boy I helped enroll in school last year (he stopped coming last October), capturing more Sri Lankan deaf persons and families on videotape for my personal ethnography project, persuading the school to hire deaf matrons, introducing an afternoon activity timetable for residential children, and more.

A note re SMS: I am having problems contacting my American family and friends via SMS messaging. So far, I’ve only been able to get in touch with three people in the USA. Feel free to send me a test text message at +94775520223 and see if it goes through (and even if it does, I might not even be able to send you a response!).