Sunday, 15 April 2012

Singing Lessons I Learned from a Deaf Man

When I was in university I studied communication disorders, speech/language pathology, audiology and sign language --  great stuff for someone entering the field of education at a time when Special Education was starting to be taken very seriously.  I was very drawn to the needs of students with hearing disorders, so took several courses in sign language, which I practiced every chance I got, even attending a church that had a deaf fellowship/ministry so I could learn more signs.  That is how I met Arnett, a deaf man who loved to lead singing at church.

He was amazing.  He was "profoundly deaf", so did all of his communication through notes and sign language.  He certainly had no idea how to sing in the traditional way, but he had a great love of "singing" in sign language. He would go to the front and sign the number of the song he was about to lead from the hymnal.  Then he'd make the sign for ready and look for an agreeable response from the congregation.  We'd all be sitting there with our hymnals balanced on our knees, ready to use both hands as we  joined him in signing the songs.  He'd then take a deep breath the way hearing people do when they are about to start singing, and his "back-up" song leader would start the song from the back of the room, being careful to sing in time with Arnett, who was the actual song leader.

Arnett's favourite song was "How Great Thou Art".  He really got into this song.  He'd start off signing the first line, "O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds they hands have made."  There's an imaginary box that signers keep their hand signs in, but Arnett couldn't stay in the box for this song.  By the time he got to the fourth word, God's name, he'd exaggerated the size of the sign for God, knowing that he wasn't talking about a little god-- that this God was too big to fit in the box.  Whenever he signed a word referring to God or Heaven, he'd motion way up high above his head, clearly showing that he knew who he was singing to and what he was saying.  They weren't just words to him.  He was communicating something big and powerful; the greatness of God.

The other song I remember him leading a lot was "When We All Get to Heaven".  It's been over 30 years since I worshiped with the deaf fellowship, but, in my mind's eye, I can still see Arnett gazing lovingly at the congregation as he joyfully signed about seeing us all in heaven.  The last line of the song says, "When we all get to heaven, we'll sing and shout the victory!"  Again, he reached high above his head to show the loftiness of heaven and he made big, exaggerated signs to show the power of that shout of victory.

Yes, Arnett knew what he was saying and who he was saying it too, and watching him get caught up in a song was a sight to behold!  The lesson I learned is that there is nothing wrong with losing yourself in the beauty of a song and getting a little dramatic can be a powerful way to communicate.  You just need to know what you're saying and who you're saying it to.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

About Battle Scars

I went in for a "small medical procedure" a few days ago that turned out to be a bigger deal than I was expecting.  I had a couple basal cell growths that my doctor felt needed to be removed, so off I went, assured by the good doctor that this form of skin cancer is rarely serious, but will cause me nothing but trouble unless I take care of it.  The one on my collar bone was no big deal, but the one below my eye was another story.  What I didn't anticipate was the size of the incision that I'd be coming home with, right down the side of nose.

I'm sure that once everything is healed it won't be so bad, but, for now, I feel like I've been disfigured in a way that can't easily be hidden or covered up.  In the short term, I'll be wearing a large bandage that will only attract attention and questions.  In the long term, I'll have a slowly healing wound that will need to be kept clean, so I will not be permitted to cover it up with face makeup for some time.

I'll be going back to work next week with a "battle scar".  I expect to feel uncomfortable and embarassed about it.  Children are always the first to notice differences and ask for explanations.  I'm accustomed to them asking about things like my crooked lower teeth, a run in my stockings or my new hair colour.  Somehow, this feels different.  However, I see no alternative but to get on with life and hope that the novelty of my new look will soon pass.

Typically, I like to present myself as a strong, confident woman.  I do this by bathing each morning, dressing appropriately for whatever is planned for the day and looking people in the eye.  In fact, repeatedly throughout the day, I remind my students to show attentive listening by looking at me or whoever is speaking to them during our learning activities/discussions.  I don't expect any of that will change, despite the fact that I'd rather nobody had to see the ugly gash I now have on my face.  (Yes, I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself.)  I'm truly dreading sitting across from my students' parents for parent/teacher interviews in a week's time.

Then I remind myself that this little battle scar is nothing compared to some of the things that others must work around in their daily lives.  The black eye I'm currently sporting is a result of a surgery, not a spouse's fist.  The "disfigurement" that I'm self-conscious about is nothing compared to the irreparable changes that a burn victim or an amputee must face.  The cancer I had was quickly and easily removed and is not likely to ever be a problem for me again, unlike other forms of cancer that so many others battle on a daily basis.

I have great respect for people who face truly challenging circumstances in their lives and continue to go out in public, facing the insensitive looks and comments that come their way.  It doesn't hurt any of us to get a little reality check from time to time and remember how very blessed we are.

As we approach Remembrance Day, let's think about the people who have genuine battle scars, acquired in war zones as they fight to bring civil rights and dignity to suffering people.  They're the ones who have scars, visible and invisible, that will forever remind them of a time in their lives when we counted on them to show the world what it means to be Canadian.  Real battle scars are acquired in the heat of battle where courage must be drawn on in ways that most of us can't even imagine.  Show support for our war veterans and never forget what they've done for all of us.  

Sunday, 2 October 2011

How Important is Reading?

How important is reading???  This blog isn't long enough to truly capture all the wonderful benefits of developing strong reading skills and habits.  Obviously, once you learn to read, a whole world opens up to you of facts, thoughts and imagined ideas that you previously had limited access to.  Nowadays, people talk about the information highway and the beauty of digitized images available to us in any number of electronic media sources.  However, have you ever noticed how often those incredible images began with the inspiration that came from a great book?

It often pains me to see yet another classic story being produced on the big screen, knowing full well that once my little friends have seen it in that format, they are less likely to actually read the full novel upon which the screenplay was based.  Some will, but many more will not.

I have been encouraged lately by a trend I've noticed in adults who recognize that many great movies are based on interpretations of novels.  These discriminating readers will make it a point to consume the book before entering the movie theatre to see the film version.  This allows them to enjoy the full scope of the story and the complexities of the characters that the author so painstakingly created, before viewing the Hollywood version, that, no matter how well done, is still a stripped down, shorter version of the original work.    I saw it over and over again this summer with the release of  The Help.  Everywhere I went I saw adults scrambling to purchase and read this exceptional novel before enjoying the film version at their local theatre.  People were talking about it at the water cooler, in bookstores, on Facebook, on airplanes and buses -- even on beaches and beside pools.  The movie was fantastic, and I fully expect it to win many awards, but the book was better!  Try as they might, screenwriters cannot possibly cram as much information into a 2 hour movie as an author can develop in a full length novel.

The same is true of children's stories and novels.  Ask a fan of the Harry Potter series or any number of other great books like Stuart Little or The Cat in the Hat.  Sometimes the movie version is a "faithful portrayal" of the characters and major plot lines, but often it is a new story "based on" the original story.  If it's a "faithful portrayal" there is opportunity for comparison and critical dialogue, valuing the artistry rendered to a new media form to enhance or support the author's creation.  However, if the movie (or cartoon or t.v. show) is "based on" the original story, it's often a new work altogether, intended to entertain the modern audience of both adult and child, possibly with more adult humour than is appropriate for children and story lines that are quite different than anything the author ever would have considered.

Nothing can replace a good book.  By the same token, nothing can replace the joy of sharing great books.  There is a bond that forms between people who share the love reading.  You can see it in the eyes of a child as they sit on your lap or cuddled up beside you when you read with them.  You can see it in a classroom as children sit spell-bound, waiting for the teacher to turn the page so they can see what happens next and how a character will solve a unique problem.  You can see it out in public, when perfect strangers discover that they are interested in the same book and strike up an animated conversation about it.

Here's a book recommendation for you!  I learned about it through my cousin's husband who responded to a Facebook posting about a month ago when several friends started sharing titles of books they'd been enjoying.  The book is called The Reading Promise, by Alice Ozma.   It's the true story of a nine-year old girl (the author) who enjoys reading books with her father so much that they enter into a little challenge to see if they can hold to a daily commitment to read together for at least 10 minutes each day, for 100 days.  They call it their "reading streak", and once they accomplish their first 100 days, they recommit to try for 1000!  The time that they spend together becomes so important to them, for so many reasons, that they keep the streak going until Alice goes off to college.  By that point they have faithfully kept the reading promise to each other for 3,212 days! You can read about it at and even buy it on line, if you wish.  I downloaded it onto my Kobo and am currently reading it in my spare time.  I hope it will inspire you to make a reading promise of your own!

Monday, 29 August 2011

My Summer Vacation

One of the best things about being a teacher is the school holidays!  We may not be able to go where we want, when we want, but we do have the privilege of nice, big chunks of time with our children when they are not in school!  When my children were young, we spent a lot of our vacation time in parks and public swimming pools and on short trips visiting extended family.  As they got older, I turned into "taxi-mom", shuttling them around to summer camps and summer jobs, spending more time with them in the car than anywhere else!  Now that they are grown, we are back to going on outings together, but now they do the driving!  What a treat!

This summer the men in my family have been very busy with their jobs, so I got to spend quite a bit of time with my daughter and other special women in my life.  I joined a summer book club with some ladies from my church.  I went to a concert with my daughter, my aunt and my sister-in-law.  I spent a weekend with a cousin who has been like a sister-friend since we were little girls, keeping in touch over the miles as pen-pals.  I went on a cross-border shopping trip with a van load of spunky ladies.  But, best of all, my daughter and I went on a tropical vacation, just the two of us, to Turks and Caicos.

For a whole week we stayed on an island that is a virtual tropical paradise, doing nothing but soak up the rays, float in the ocean and gaze on the beauty our surroundings.  Our one big adventure was riding in a semi-submarine to view the amazing sea creatures that are active along the coral reefs.  But even from our beach chairs we were able to enjoy the antics of several amusing passers-by, whether they be people, birds or sand crabs!

Sometimes we get so busy organizing things and the people around us that we forget how truly wonderful things are, just as God made them.  To me, that's the value of a truly relaxing vacation in a beautiful place.  There's nothing like shedding the responsibilities of our normal, hectic lives and sliding into the zone where you are nothing more than a quiet, peaceful observer of all that is wonderful and awesome!  It puts things back into perspective and restores something to your soul.

Thank-you, my sweet girl, for taking me to one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in my life!  My heart is filled with lovely memories and a new concept of peace that I hope to tap into when the challenges of life kick back in.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Teacher's Challenge

Teachers often present challenges to their students.  Sometimes the teacher encounters challenges and becomes the student!  This was my experience recently, when I took a three-hour course in the art of creating a web-site.

First came the promise: The instructor enthusiastically convinced us that with just a few simple pointers we would soon have all the tools needed to create our very own web sites – something that would improve communication with our students’ families and reduce trips to the photocopier to print out numerous notices and newsletters.

Next came the lessons: I needed to listen and watch carefully as the instructor demonstrated several technological maneuvers that I had never before witnessed, let alone attempted.  Admittedly, on more than one occasion I was so caught up in the newness of it all, and the wonder of what I was learning, that I actually missed parts of the lesson.  Like the child with Attention Deficit, my focus was engaged, but not always on the exact thing that I would later find was missing from my newly acquired set of tools and skills!

Then came the guided practice: With the instructor moving from station to station, we had the opportunity to replicate and personalize standard web site pages that are common to most teacher web sites.  Encouraging comments built up confidence.  Little reminders eased us over minor obstacles.  The occasional review and clarification helped to build greater understanding.  When the instructor was busy with another student, my elbow partner gladly filled in as a peer mentor, helping me to remember the bits that escaped me at first and cheered me on when things started to fall into place.  Thankfully, I was able to return the favour a couple of times for little things that she was having trouble remembering and I had managed to pick up!

Finally, we were released from the class and deemed to be capable of working independently – after just a few hours in a workshop setting!  Our instructor smiled at us and sent us off, reminding us that the notes he was e-mailing us would be a handy reminder if we ran into difficulty, and he was setting up a conference site so that we could exchange questions and ideas for even more learning.  I was certain he had misjudged me as a student and was putting too much faith in his teaching skills.  How would I ever manage on my own???

So, I went home, turned on my computer and started “messing around”.  I doubted my ability to do this thing on my own, but knew that if I didn’t try it immediately while things were fresh on my mind, I’d be “sunk” for sure!  Surprisingly, once I was in the comfort of my own home, practicing on my own computer, and moving at my own pace, things started to come together for me.  Occasionally I “muffed up”, but then I’d take note of my error and be sure to avoid that mistake the next time!

In the end: VICTORY!  It may not be the most beautiful website ever created.  It’s definitely a work in progress.... but hard work and perseverance won out and the student learned something she wasn’t convinced she was capable of, even after three hours of instruction and encouragement.  Was it worth the struggle?   Absolutely!!!