Saskatchewan

Art could be the next big breakthrough in deaf education

One Regina teacher is trying a cutting edge approach to deaf education. It's all through art.

Joanne Weber is looking to educate the students she sees falling behind

Tyson Zacharias, a Grade 9 student in the deaf and hard of hearing class at Thom Collegiate in Regina, shows off his dinosaur puppet that he made for class. (Tiffany Cassidy/CBC)

One Regina teacher is trying a cutting edge approach to deaf education. It's all through art.

Joanne Weber has taught the deaf and hard of hearing class at Thom Collegiate for twelve years. Over the last five years, she's started to see a troubling trend in her students. Many of her high school students are not reading at the Grade 4 level.

"Typically the case that we're dealing with is that kids know a little bit about the basic stuff, but it's the vocabulary that's killing them," Weber said.

This past school year, Weber decided to really focus on art as a way to approach learning differently. She's deaf herself, and knows if she's a visual thinker, her students likely are as well. 

She flipped learning on its head, and did every project starting with the artwork first. Her students wrote books, but before writing any words, they drew the pictures for each page. They did a science experiment, but made a story board of the project first. 
For this class project, students created the pictures for the book before writing the story. Teacher Joanne Weber found this visual-first approach has helped her students with their language skills. (Tiffany Cassidy/CBC)

The class accelerated when artist Chrystene Ells spent three months helping the children with art. Ells made sure the students had the basic art skills they needed to work on their projects. This included mixing colours, learning about lines, and drawing, among other techniques. It was through drawing that she saw a breakthrough in one particular student, Jacqueline Fink.

Her brain changed through drawing, and then something about that broke down a wall and she was able to get through to the end of the word.- Chrystene Ells

"She would draw everything on the left side of the object, and then she wouldn't draw anything on the right side of the object," Ells said. "So for example, if you had a toy dinosaur she might draw the tail and the back legs, and then that would be it."

When Ells would point out the missing half and ask where the head was, Fink would just draw a line cutting the dinosaur in half. Ells kept encouraging her to draw the right side.

"After a while she would turn her head, she would squint at it, and then after a while she would draw the right side. It was like she broke through this wall."

Fink would also not read the second half of a word. She would read the first half, and guess the second. But lately, she had been reading whole words.

"When I realized what [Jacqueline] was doing in the art making was parallel to how she was approaching reading, then I knew we were making progress. Her brain changed through drawing, and then something about that broke down a wall and she was able to get through to the end of the word, or the other side of the dinosaur."

Deaf and hard of hearing students not getting the language skills they need

It's hard to pinpoint exactly why Weber's new students have worse language skills than before. Whether it's through more television time, less communication, or something else, Weber said her students do not have the language skills they need.

This holds true for both written, oral, and sign language.

Many deaf and hard of hearing children get hearing aids so that they can communicate orally. Weber said for some students it's very successful, while for others it's not. 
For this class project, students painted the pictures first, and then captioned them. Teacher Joanne Weber has found that working with art first can improve the language skills of the students. (Tiffany Cassidy/CBC)

Meanwhile, many children are not being taught how to become fluent in sign language. The parents often don't have time to learn a second language fluently, and Weber said the interpreters in Saskatchewan often aren't well trained and don't have opportunities for development.

"The analogy would be somebody who knows a little bit of French would be able to teach French. You really have to become fluent in a language."

The result, said Weber, is a lack of access to a full language, which leads to a lack of knowledge.

"They're not picking it up through the hearing and the technologies, and they're not picking it up through the sign language, so they're really stuck between two languages."

About the Author

Tiffany Cassidy is the Digital Associate Producer at CBC Saskatchewan.

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