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Deaf education students get hands-on learning at Mexican school

Sep 29, 2014

In 2011, the small Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende established a school for deaf students, the first of its kind in the area. Last spring, a group of Flagler College deaf education students traveled to San Miguel for a week to help the school take its next steps.

Led by Flagler’s Deaf Education Coordinator Margaret Finnegan and adjunct professor Patricia Wilmore, students Bianca Vasili, Taylor Whitesell, Mary McAteer and Madyson Rynne took over the Escuela de Educación Especial de San Miguel de Allende while its faculty went for some much-needed training.

“The school’s teachers are not trained in deaf ed,” explained Finnegan. “They are wonderful people. They just have no real experience working with deaf children. So our students went down, shadowed the teachers for a day and then they went to their workshop.”

Finnegan explained that the way it works in Mexico is very different than how we handle children with disabilities in the United States.

“Here we have rules where a deaf student can go into a public school and the school has to support them and work with them,” said Finnegan. “In Mexico, they can go into a public school, but it is on them to learn.”

Patricia Wilmore, an adjunct at Flagler who teaches American Sign Language, said she was heartbroken when she saw the conditions these children had grown up in.

“It really hit me hard,” said Wilmore, who is also deaf. “Many never learned to read and write.  When I got there, these students looked at me as a deaf person and they were shocked that I had gone to college, that I was a teacher.”

Wilmore, who taught at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind for 32 years, explained that in some countries, the deaf are not seen as equals, so they are not given the resources they need to learn.

And while people like Wilmore and Finnegan are trying to help give them those resources, it’s not always easy. Flagler sophomore Madyson Rynne learned that pretty quickly.

“I started with a middle school class, and when you think about a certain age, you associate that with the knowledge you think they should have. So you have this lesson plan and everything ready to go based on that,” said Rynne. “I was going to talk about countries and places around the world, so I introduced this concept and I was shocked because some of these kids didn’t know what a country was. So you have to backpedal, regroup and start over.”

Rynne said that while she didn’t anticipate the changes she had to make on the fly to her lesson plans this trip, that knowledge will help the next time she visits.

“Next time, I want to try to think of activities that can be expanded to higher levels for students who grasp it faster, but also can be eased back and slowly developed,” Rynne said. “I’d like to work more on problem-solving skills. Let them learn how to figure things out on their own. I want to continue to challenge them and get them thinking on levels they aren’t used to.”

But Rynne made it clear that their lack of knowledge was not because of a lack of desire for learning.

“They were so motivated and so excited to learn,” she said. “They only go to school for three hours a day, but they were hanging on to every word.”

And the limited classroom time is just one obstacle facing the students of the Escuela de Educación Especial.

“There are no deaf role models, there are no deaf teachers and there is no standardized method of learning,” Finnegan said. “So you can teach one group of students one thing and then next group you teach won’t understand what they did because they learned a different language basically. There is an official Mexican language, but it’s the exposure to it, and most of these kids don’t have it.”

With the training being provided to the faculty of the school, there is hope that can change. But just three years ago, that hope did not exist.

With no publicly funded schools for deaf children in the state of Guanajuato, where San Miguel is located, the Rotary Club of San Miguel was tasked with the idea of creating one.

Dr. Walter Scott, a retired oncologist from St. Augustine and Jacksonville, has a home in San Miguel and is a member of the club. Because of his knowledge of deaf education opportunities in St. Augustine, he agreed to take on the project.

The school opened in September 2012 with just six students and now has 15 enrolled between the ages of 4 and 31.

“It is a really small school, but there is so much potential there,” Rynne said. “If they have the right teachers, the right volunteers and the right training, I think it could do amazing things for that community.”

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