As a faculty member, when I think of cultural relevance, I tend to try to think about what I can do in my classroom to help achieve this, whether that is by identifying approaches to assignments that allow students to choose a topic that is meaningful to them or working to identify readings from authors who better mirror our culturally diverse campus. Recently however, I realized that an important part of developing culturally relevant pedagogy is coming to terms with the depths of what you don’t know.
Spring started and I learned that I had five students classified as deaf and hard of hearing this semester. No problem, I thought. I had worked with a deaf student in the past. I remembered that she had some challenges with grammar because of the differences between American Sign Language (ASL) and English. As the semester progressed, I noticed some trends with these students across ENG 091 and 101: sentences with missing words, sentences with unnecessary words, and profound problems with choosing the correct tense. The missing words made sense to me. After all, words like “a,” and “the” just aren’t that essential to the meaning of sentences when you think about it. They’re added to ensure clarity, but they’re not as crucial as the subject and verb, for example, so it stands to reason ASL would omit articles for the sake of speed. And since ASL communication often occurs synchronously, as opposed to asynchronously like writing, your audience can always stop you and ask for clarification if needed. Not so with writing. But the issues with tense stumped me.
I have the same interpreter across three classes and have gotten to know her a bit in that fleeting time between classes. I’m so impressed by the work our interpreters do and often feel compelled to ask questions (not when students are present of course. It’s important to always address the student, not the interpreter during office hours or any other interaction with deaf and hard of hearing students. You talk to them just like you would anyone else. You just hear their answers coming from somewhere else.) During one of these conversations, the interpreter informed me that there is no present and past tense of verbs in ASL. Instead, sentences are often preceded by a word (“yesterday” for example) that makes the context of the events clear.
“So there’s no word for ran. It’s just run?” I asked, or something along those lines.
Anyone watching could probably have seen the light bulbs going off above my head. No wonder these students had difficulty identifying the correct tense to use in their writing. They had to memorize verb conjugation from scratch, just like anyone how learns a foreign language, only even more challenging than that because they don’t get to hear it spoken. The next time I met with a deaf student to review his paper, we spent some extra time focusing on errors in choosing the right tense. Instead of telling him the correct tense, we discussed the verb itself and each of the conjugations of it: past, present, future, past perfect, etc. The interpreter, of course, spelled out the different conjugations. Some of these he had already memorized; some he hadn’t. I told him that I realized these designations must seem arbitrary, but that I was confident with time and practice he could memorize them. We talked about similar conjugations across some verbs, much like when my Spanish 101 teacher taught us how to conjugate -er verbs 20 years ago.
I left that day feeling more than a little humbled. How could I expect to effectively serve our deaf and hard of hearing students if I knew so little about the unique challenges they face in learning English grammar? How could I ever learn enough to really be as effective as I would like to be? I realized that creating a culturally relevant approach to teaching requires hundreds, perhaps thousands of little “Aha!” moments like the one I had that day. There is no one guidebook that tells you everything you need to know about deaf culture. (I do, however, plan to read more about the differences between English and ASL.) Becoming more culturally responsive is about time and practice. Time means taking the time to get to know each and every student and to understand where they are coming from and what works for them. Practice means not just teaching but reflecting on outcomes. Which approaches are more effective for students? If a student is struggling, what can we do to better facilitate their success? And, perhaps before any of this, we should ask: who are they?