Let's Talk

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Several years ago, Kinzie School head teacher Maureen Bazel and a visitor fell in stride behind two 4th grade girls involved in a discussion of a very singular sort. One girl was using sign language; the other was using her voice. The visitor expressed delight at how the two girls, one deaf and one hearing, could communicate so well. But she conceived the situation exactly backwards, Bazel says: It was the deaf girl who was speaking and the hearing girl who was signing.

While this sort of role reversal is unusual, the episode is indicative of how students mingle at Kinzie, an innovative K-8 school located on Chicago's South Side. Interaction between the 472 hearing and 105 deaf and hard-of-hearing students is a routine event at Kinzie, remarkable only to outsiders. Students sign at recess, over lunch, in basketball huddles. Like students anywhere, they are griping, gossiping, hammering out homework. Together these students take gym, perform in school plays and participate in school festivals. There are even deaf kids in the school band, some of whom have learned to play by counting time.

"Quite a few of our kids are bilingual," Bazel says. "Of course, sign language isn't something you learn once and then know. Like any language, it's fluid -- something you continue to learn." While hearing students learn some sign language in weekly classes, most of them pick it up as Americans residing in Mexico might learn Spanish: through sheer exposure coupled with a willingness to learn.

Inclusion at Kinzie isn't just an extracurricular activity. In the classrooms, particularly in the early grades, many hearing and deaf students learn side by side. In a kindergarten class, two teachers take 10 hearing and eight deaf children through a mini-lesson on the weather.

"Sunny," the deaf children sign, their hands tracing circles above their heads. Then they sign "cloudy," their hands now at their chests, puffing at imaginary balls of cotton. Awkwardly, but without a trace of self-consciousness, the hearing children mimic their motions.

The subject changes to a discussion of libraries. The deaf children struggle to say "read" and "books." Later one of the teachers, Barbara Chiri, explains that for some it will always be extremely difficult to make certain sounds, though others will become capable English speakers. "Our goal is to get them to read and write in English. Speaking is not our central focus."

Signing makes almost every class look like a drama class. In a mixed 1st grade reading class, students and teachers explore the concept of transportation by honking horns, jostling in bus lines and playing conductors shouting "All aboard." The hearing students go "Beep, beep" and "Tweet, tweet."

"Can you take an airplane to work in the city?" the teacher asks, in sign as well as speech. "No!" the children shout and shake their heads.

In a middle school communication arts class, deaf and hearing students enact the plot of an opera, betrayers stalking the betrayed, the betrothed exchanging vows. They then sail through a medley of songs, the lyrics seemingly coming up through the body, surfacing in sign.

Afterwards, students gather to discuss how they feel about attending a mixed school. The deaf kids, whose speech is blurred but comprehensible, say they get along with everybody, but that deaf friends are, of course, much easier to communicate with.

"In the early years, when I first came here, it was sometimes hard to explain stuff to hearing kids," a 6th grader named Mark says. "But I have a lot of hearing friends, and it's a good experience to learn from both."

Another boy adds, as a charming irrelevance, "Unlike the hearing kids, we can talk to one another underwater."

The hearing students, some of whom came to the school with deaf siblings, frequently act as interpreters for the younger children. They take great pride in their ability to sign, which they describe as second nature.

"Every time we sing a song, we sign it, too, so you quickly get a good sense of how it works," Kenton, a 7th grader, says. "By the time I was in the 2nd grade I was hanging out with deaf kids, and when I managed to get across something sort of hard they'd say, 'Nice signing.'"

In 1982, when Kinzie School decided to accept 135 deaf students, it was essentially an act of self-preservation. The predominantly Polish community around the school was becoming increasingly elderly, and declining enrollments and vacant classrooms made the school a serious candidate for closure. The new contingent of deaf students ensured that the school would survive. But mere survival, people began to discover, was no way to live.

At first, the idea was that deaf students were to be "separate but equal," as current principal Jeri Banks documented in her 1994 book, All of Us Together. Deaf students and staff constituted an island on the south end of the building. The school philosophy regarding the deaf, reflecting that of the general society, was "Live and let live." The new students were put up with but not particularly welcomed.

As America's history of racial separatism so vividly reveals, separated groups eventually share suspicion, if nothing else. Such came to be the case at Kinzie. Parents of hearing children whose classrooms were falling into disrepair resented the newly redecorated special education classrooms. And the hearing children regarded the deaf students as aliens from a faraway world, with a peculiar language and customs.

"They invaded our school, each deaf boy and girl with a Walkman on his chest and headphones over his ears," an 8th grader wrote shortly after their arrival, recalling the amplification devices that some students wore. "They wiggled their fingers, made strange noises, were always touching each other. But they stayed at their end of the building. They didn't go out for recess."

Why didn't the deaf have recess? Or as a deaf boy named Albert put it to his teacher one glorious fall day, "Why me no outside play?" The teacher had no answer and told Albert to pose the question to the sympathetic principal, who responded, "That's a good question." Soon the deaf were playing alongside the hearing, taking turns on the swings and teeter-totters.

Initial difficulties had to be worked through: The deaf felt excluded by chattering children who could not sign; the hearing were angered by deaf children who sometimes poked at them in order to get their attention. It was clear that each group of students needed to learn a great deal about the other. And the best way to do this, the staff decided, was to get them to participate in shared activities.

Banks, at that time a teacher, had already taken this step. Her students liked to express themselves in movement, so she steered them into the performing arts, creating a dance class that performed before a raving downtown audience. It was so successful, in fact, that parents soon asked that their hearing children be allowed to participate. The more experienced deaf girls mentored the novice hearing ones: Mastering choreographed steps required a unified effort.

Walls, once breached, have a way of toppling. And this is what happened as Kinzie parents, teachers and students -- suddenly questioning the logic of separatism -- chipped away at the wall's foundation.

Soon there were unified assemblies, collective mural painting, Friday afternoon all-school activities in which students studied drama, dance, art and composition. The hearing studied sign language; the deaf joined sports teams. Eventually all the deaf students were mainstreamed into gym and, in numbers that varied from year to year, into academic classes where they could succeed with the assistance of an interpreter.

"Separatism just doesn't work," Banks says, reflecting upon her 15 years at the school. "We don't live in an isolated world, and the deaf don't live on an island. Ninety percent of their parents, after all, are hearing. They must be given an opportunity to make it in the mainstream."

During the 1980s, in the wake of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, more and more deaf children around the country were mainstreamed into regular classrooms. But, according to Banks, this was, and is, too often done summarily, sometimes hurting the deaf children it was designed to help. Many times schools attempt to mold the child to fit an academic program, instead of molding the program to fit the child. Deaf children simply tossed into a hearing classroom typically find themselves in a precarious sink-or-swim situation.

A case in point was a Chicago-area social studies classroom into which a wholly unprepared deaf 5th grader was placed. "The interpreter just kept signing the teacher's lesson even though the child lacked the vocabulary to keep up," recalls Banks, who observed the class. "He was completely lost."

It is the school's responsibility, then, to adapt itself to the needs of individual students as much as possible. Some deaf students hear almost nothing, while others can pick up certain frequencies; some can be mainstreamed into math but not English, or vice versa. In other words, it is impossible to think in terms of a typical deaf student.

Just as teachers must not label students, so must they not label themselves. "The days when you got a teaching certificate in a narrow area of specialization and stuck to that specialization are over," Banks says. "No matter who you're teaching, you have to be open to new ideas and approaches. You need a strong philosophy to run a school like this, but it must be a philosophy always open to change."

In fact, change has been very much in the air at Kinzie, as it has at deaf schools across the country. Increasing numbers of deaf students and deaf advocates want more than inclusion. They want the hearing world to acknowledge that the deaf have a culture and language all their own.

At Kinzie, respecting the "uniqueness of deaf culture" most emphatically does not mean a retreat from inclusion. "Isolation," as deaf parent Patty Duncan puts it, "is insulting, like treating the deaf like they're sick or something." But what inclusion does mean is an acceptance of differences rather than a denial of them.

After class, Markeeta, a sparkling girl whose signing is punctuated with easy laughter, says she appreciates all she has gained at Kinzie -- cheerleading, school picnics, close relationships with both hearing and deaf friends. But she adds that she's eager to attend the Illinois School for the Deaf next year.

"I've learned a lot here," she signs. "But now I'm relieved to be going to a deaf school. This doesn't mean that I have anything against hearing people, but that I need to discover who I am."

Markeeta's mother, Donna Cheatham, says that mainstreaming at Kinzie has given her daughter a solid academic foundation and lots of close friends. "Yet deafness is a culture for her, and it's time for her to explore that culture. In a way, it's hard for me to say that, because she's my child and from my culture as a hearing person. From the time she was 5 or 6, we worked on speech, on total communication. But now it's time for her to venture out into the deaf world."