Monday, October 25, 2010

Administration ...... grrrr...Or Yea?

I have been blogging about the budget cuts at WSD. It really concerns my family because without the services we received my son would not be doing as well as he is. I have personnel experience with the benefits of this option for our deaf kids. 

Well the other day I got an email from an administrator from another state school. To be honest I was shocked. I always feel a bit of a divide between family and administration. Not in a truly negative way but in a way that doesn't foster the united front we would hope for. What I hope we can learn from this is the need to reach out will help us all.  I asked permission to quote from this email but after much thought I realized it is too important to cut up in to bits and pieces. So here is our correspondence ,

Hello there Ms. Orr,
I’ve been following your blogs regarding WSD with great interest and want to tell you I’m very impressed with your understanding of all the factors involved in the needs of those students who attend residential schools for the deaf. 

I’m an administrator at the other WSD…the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.  We’re a bilingual bicultural school and we use ASL as the primary mode of communication and instruction.  We use ASL to teach English as a second language.  The vast majority of our students require a visual language.  For whatever reason they do not acquire English, usually because of the severity of their hearing loss.  Lots of people assume that children can learn English via an interpreter or via signed English.  40 years of trying those approaches and 40 years of research have proved that English is an aural language and is learned as a native language via the auditory sense. 

In order for these children to acquire a first language they must have a visual language which ASL is.  The very idea that young children will learn English via an interpreter is silly, there are so many components of language acquisition that are missing from that model and the same is true of the idea that a teacher who  has marginal sign skills or uses signed English will teach a child either English or ASL.  Those children often come to us at the middle school or high school level and have no language foundation whatsoever.  Then we are criticized because they don’t test on grade level.

Another thing many folks don’t recognize is the fact that our teachers here at WSD take two years of bilingual training and we require new hires to pass the American Sign Language Proficiency Interview, a process that evaluates your fluency in ASL.  It’s the same process that the US State Department uses for diplomats being prepared to go overseas and use a foreign language.  Teachers in mainstream programs rarely have these skills.

Please keep up the good work, it’s rare to find a parent so knowledgeable in regard to these issues.
Alex Slappey

Hello Alex,

Thank you so much for the thoughtful email. It is so exciting to hear about a school that is willing to
provide what we have been fighting for for twelve years. I agree with everything you wrote. 

I was hoping it would be OK if I quoted you in a post. I understand if you wouldn't want to
be quoted in public but I find people are less likely to take a parents opinion seriously. 

So thanks again, you made my day.

Mel Orr

Hello Melinda,
I’d certainly be honored if you decided to quote me, I have no problem with that. 
 I’d like to add that we require a certain ASLPI level from all staff because we are an immersion program.  All direct contact staff are required to have a certain
 level of fluency while support staff such as food services and power plant need 
at least survival level skills.  Many staff do progress past the required levels.  It’s also important to note we have approximately a 50/50 split in direct contact 
hearing/deaf staff and many of the deaf staff have native fluency in ASL.  
This provides a solid language model for the children in both languages. 
 We’re not perfect of course, but we have a very solid program in those aspects.

While the factors I’ve mentioned are crucial there’s a whole lot more that goes into a good residential program, but you know that.

Take care


  1. The respected school administrator speaks truth, but I beg to differ on one aspect: English and speech are not the same thing. ASL and English are not either/or choices. They can be taught at the same time.

    I learned English by reading, not by the oral methods used in my day. I learned ASL later on, but could as well have learned it at the same time as learning to read.

    Again, English and speech are not the same thing. One is a language, the other is only a vehicle.

  2. I agree with you Dianrez, speech is a vehicle, not a language. While we do teach English and ASL at the same time, they tend to be on different levels of acquisition.

    To learn English via writing and reading you need a first language foundation, preferably a strong one. The students we see tend to have weak or even non-existant language foundations so our first job is to teach a visual language ( ASL) as a first language. Once they have a sufficiently strong ASL foundation we can expect a better understanding of English.

    Unfortunately this is a very simple version of a very complex issue. Many of these children arrive too late to ever acquire either ASL or English beyond a social level. In turn this delays a lot of the other development areas.

  3. It looks to me like you both agree. This is a very complex issue and I think it would be hard to frame the information in one blog so that it presents clearly.

    English is a language that is expressed in a written and verbal form. The written form is accessible to my son. ASL is also a language and it is expressed visually and my son can naturally acquire that with no outside intervention. ASL provided the grammatical language map for him to learn his second language, English. . He was not taught both at the same time meaning simcom was not involved but he was taught at the same time meaning he was exposed to English in print while it was expanded on in ASL. A topic is presented and the appropriate English text was also.

    There are people who think an interpreter will teach ASL. This doesn't work in part due to the fact that it is a one way conversation and the child has no real conversational language model.

    Again this is a very complex topic but it looks like you both agree on this and the way I framed it was confusing. Maybe I am wrong?

    One last thing to consider is when I read the first email I understood him because of my previous experience. He didn't need to start at the beginning with the philosophy so it is almost like meeting an old friend who you just start where you left off ten years prior. You don't need to repeat the beginning of the friendship because it is a shared experience.

    So thank you both for the comments. I respect you both and admire your willingness to connect with parents.