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When looks mean everything

Feb 18, 2008
by Liz Daube, '05

For Flagler’s deaf and hard-of-hearing education students, a relationship with the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind offers a unique chance to immerse in sign language and deaf culture Photography By Scott Smith (‘04)

Click play to hear excerpts from an interview with Margaret Finnegan

In Tasha Walden’s classroom, six fourth-graders sit around a table in silence. When Walden asks a question, three arms dart up to answer. When one girl is picked, she walks to the Smart Board, touches a set of numbers and slides it across the screen.

“Put the numbers in order from least to greatest,” Walden says. As she talks, her hands are a flurry of movement, stretching apart on the word “from” as if pulling taut a piece of string. When a student gazes at his notebook-sized white board, Walden taps the desk in front of him to get his attention. When the whole group works together to find an answer, she smiles and cheers, “Yaaaay! Good job,” her hands rising above her shoulders and fingers wagging.

Meanwhile, on the floor, a girl is sprawled in front of a laptop playing a loud math game. “Pedro has 46 cents,” the computer asks. “What can he buy?” She punches some keys and gets a loud, cartoon-y failure tune in response: “Wamp wamp waaaaah.”

But the sound means nothing to her, and her classmates don’t glance over. None of them can hear it – in fact, many of them can’t hear anything at all. Walden, a 2004 Flagler graduate, is the only one in the room who hears, speaks and signs clearly.

And she’s responsible for helping her students learn despite a disability that can make everyday communication difficult, if not impossible. As Helen Keller once described it, deafness can mean “the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man … to be cut off from hearing is to be isolated indeed.”


Like many of her peers, Walden wanted to study deaf education and sign language because she sympathized with the challenges facing deaf people. Her interest started in high school, when one of her good friends had a deaf sister.

“I was like, ‘I can’t even tell her happy birthday,’ ” Walden said. “I’m not the kind of person who would just go, ‘I can’t sign, so I’m just not going to learn.’

“I didn’t want her to feel isolated or left out … So the first thing I learned to sign was ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”

Walden chose Flagler’s deaf education program because it offers an uncommon opportunity to spend time at the nearby Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB) — the same place where Walden teaches professionally now. Each year, Flagler’s close ties with FSDB help about 55 deaf ed majors gain American Sign Language skills, teaching experience and familiarity with deaf culture. The Flagler deaf ed curriculum requires students to complete observe-and-assist hours and internships at FSDB before they graduate.

“We have a relationship with FSDB that’s almost as old as the college,” said Margaret Finnegan, professor and director of Flagler’s Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program. Flagler Chancellor William L. Proctor served for numerous years on FSDB’s board and as its chair, and Flagler Assistant to the President Mary Jane Dillon is the board chair today. “FSDB is the largest school for the deaf in the country … You get a sense of what the breadth of the [deaf] population is. Some students have cochlear implants, some don’t. Some parents are involved, some aren’t.

“It gives our students an opportunity to work with all those different dimensions of deafness and to have a broader perspective of what their role is going to be and how they’re going to refine their skills … The more authentic experience our students have, the more likely they are to make good decisions as teachers.”

Deaf and elementary education major Jillian White agrees. She’s been spending three hours a week with an FSDB kindergarten class helping with various activities: math practice, reading, playing games, planting lima beans. White says the observe-and-assist has affirmed her interest in deaf education.

“I am amazed at how well I can communicate with the students,” she said. “Also, obviously, the experience helps. I want to work there, and the people that I meet are so amazing. I see my future in the students and faculty.”

Jessica Kaspar, a 2004 Flagler graduate who teaches second grade at FSDB, says her FSDB internship and volunteer experience helped her prepare as much as possible for a challenging first year in the classroom. For her, the biggest benefit was a chance to acclimate to the nuances of deaf communication.

“It’s like if you were going to go to a different country for a year,” Kaspar said of her preparations. “It was getting in there and doing it and learning from my mistakes.”

Walden experienced a similar period of initial awkwardness when she interned at FSDB.

“It’s a scary experience when you first come in and you get a chance to be on the other side – you’re the one who can’t communicate as well,” she said. “It was tough, and you have to think, ‘How can I say that conceptually accurately?’ But when you’re educating the future, you have to think about it.”

Contrary to popular belief, most sign languages – and there are vastly different versions used throughout the world – have developed independently of oral languages. That means signed messages have their own complex forms of grammar, and meanings can be altered by seemingly unimportant factors like body posture. In short, American signs are not necessarily word-for-word translations from English.

And deaf culture is like any other, according to Finnegan, who previously taught at FSDB and has a deaf daughter: it’s interesting and different, but a difficult adjustment. She used homecoming at FSDB as an example.

“Homecoming at a deaf school is unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” Finnegan said. “It’s just a big sign fest … It’s very expressive, very touchy.”

And it’s surprisingly loud.

“Deaf people don’t know how noisy they are,” she said. “When I’m at home with her [my daughter,] doors are slamming, water is left running … she scoots her chair across the floor.”


The deaf and hard-of-hearing classes at FSDB are small compared to public schools. There are typically five or fewer students in a class, and they come from all over the state. Many of them live in the FSDB dormitories and go home for weekends and holidays. Some of their families sign, others don’t.

Kaspar says deaf and hard-of-hearing students often face a variety of unique emotional and educational challenges – but technology has helped teachers overcome some of them. She and Walden have Smart Boards that allow them to project a computer screen or document on the wall; students can even touch and move items on the board. And when a lesson is over, Walden says, she prints out notes – which, when students have to keep their heads up and eyes alert to receive a lesson, can be difficult to jot down on their own.

Still, there are rough days. “It’s sometimes such a struggle,” Kaspar said. “They [deaf children] develop language in the same way hearing kids do, but it’s a little delayed.

“I think all good teachers, though, they have to change and modify … I think when people think of teaching, they think of big manuals. They think of ‘Open your book to this page and answer that,’ ” Kaspar continued, her hands running down an imaginary list on the table. “People don’t think of crying kids or ‘I don’t understand, I’ve never been to a zoo.’ … How do you explain when they don’t understand that the past is two weeks ago and yesterday?”

Walden says she has the most difficulty adjusting to the broad range of individual academic levels in her classroom. Deaf children learn at different speeds, just like public school children. Whenever she gets frustrated, Walden looks for inspiration in her students.

“I had all the kids write a paper about what it’s like to be deaf,” she said. “There was one kid, I was almost in tears reading his paper. He loved the signs and the people and the culture … other kids say, ‘I don’t know why I’m deaf. It’s not fair.’

“It’s important at the beginning of the year to find something special about each child … and I keep journals of those little ‘a-ha!’ moments when they got something.”


Kaspar, who never wanted to be a teacher growing up, says a family-like sense of connection drives the deaf community. There’s a closeness that makes the task of teaching – and mastering a new language with both head and hands – worthwhile for her.

Both Kaspar and Walden find it difficult to stop signing now. Their hands move in rhythm with their speech long after their students have gone to lunch. If you don’t sign, it’s easy to feel a little flat in their presence – as if your own hands somehow have less life in them, and are leaving important things unsaid.

“With sign language, if you say ‘I’m proud of you’ and your face is like this,” Kaspar said, her face falling into a blank expression and snapping back into motion, “it doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes I’m a better communicator with sign language than verbal, now.

“I remember when I was a little girl, I was so shy. I didn’t talk at all or show body movements…I got to college and became more expressive. Especially being here – it helps.”

Before Walden’s class can leave for lunch, the students have one more assignment to complete – a written one. A boy bends over his directions and mutters to himself, mulling over the problem. The girl next to him, who has a small, tan device curved above her ear, glances at the hearing people sitting in the back of the room. She glares at the boy and shakes her head.

He doesn’t see her, so she taps his shoulder and makes an exasperated face, all raised eyebrows and dropped mouth. Her hands clasp over her ears. She doesn’t say a word, but we know what she means.

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