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Sound Teaching

Dual master's candidate Carolyn Woods, a deaf student in the deaf education and elementary education programs, is breaking new ground as a deaf student teacher in a hearing classroom.

It's pretty widely recognized that teaching math to fourth graders is tough. Teaching math to fourth graders when you're deaf and they can hear-well, no one knows much about that, for the simple reason that, at TC at least, it's never been done before.

Until now. TC master's student Carolyn Woods, who was born deaf, is student teaching this semester in a fourth-grade class at P.S. 9 while working on her degree in Elementary Education. Last semester, as part of completing her master's degree in Deaf Education, Woods was a student teacher at St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf in Brooklyn. When the semester ended, though, she surprised her advisors by announcing that she wanted to work with hearing students "like any other degree recipient." A colleague in the program referred her to Heidi Grasing, a teacher at P.S. 9 who is familiar with sign language and deaf culture. TC agreed to put two interpreters in Grasing's classroom to communicate with Woods in American sign language, and Woods was in business.

That was the easy part. About a week prior to her first day of student teaching, during Woods' orientation, Grasing surprised her by offering to introduce her to the students. "I said, ?OK,' but I was extremely nervous," Woods admits. She got it over it fast, as the kids immediately peppered her with questions. "Why can't you speak?" "How did you become deaf?" "Can your deafness be fixed?" "Do you have any friends?"
and "Are people ever mean to you?" The questions, she says, have never stopped. But the students have made her feel at home, too. Grasing had prepared them by teaching them to sign the alphabet. On that first day, one girl came up to Woods and signed, "Welcome to my class." "That made me feel connected," Woods says. She has been in the classroom since January 19, teaching math along with 10 minutes each day of American Sign Language. She has also been invited by another fourth grade teacher in the school to teach sign language to her students. 

So far, the arrangement has been a success, though not without some challenges. "Sometimes kids are talking to each other, but I can't hear them. The interpreters let me know there is chatter," Woods says. "Another time, I passed out papers for the students to read aloud, but I didn't realize that some of the students pronounced the words wrong. The interpreter let me know so I could correct them." In spite of occasional loneliness because almost no one else in the school knows sign language, Woods is happy having made the choice to work with hearing children. "I remember growing up deaf, and in doing this, I thought I could be an ambassador from the deaf community to the hearing community," she explains. "The less people know, the more separate they are from each other; but the more they know, the more bridges can be built." But her main motivation is to be a role model for deaf children. "Most have very low self-esteem; they think they can't do anything," she says. "I want to share my experience and show them they can experience life in the hearing world."

Published Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2005