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American Annals of the Deaf

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Working Text: Teaching Deaf and Second-Language Students to Be Better Writers
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Topics should assist students in addressing the issue, question, or problem being raised by way of a single thesis statement. Here are two sample topics, the first from our study of Laura Esquivel’s (1989) Like Water for Chocolate and the second from two short stories on the theme of stereotyping. Notice that the assignments give students a key idea from the readings to support or not support, as well as specific questions that will extend their thinking about the idea so that their essays say something significant and have a finished feel to them.
At the end of the April chapter in Like Water for Chocolate, Mama Elena shouts to Father Ignacio, “Men aren’t very important in this life, Father.” Using examples from the first four chapters of the story, show how this quote either does or does not accurately describe the way Mama Elena leads her life. What reasons can you offer for the behaviors you describe?

In “What my Mother Knows” by Carole Glickfeld and “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, a Deaf person (Ruth’s mother) and a blind person (Robert) are stereotyped by people who do not know them. Have you, like Ruth’s mother or Robert, ever been stereotyped? Citing examples from each of the stories, show how your experience is either similar to or different from Ruth’s mother’s and Robert’s experiences. Why do you think you have or have not been stereotyped?

There is no more time for vapid writing topics about funding space exploration or writing letters to deans about more computer labs. Brenda Jo Brueggemann (1999) would say that writing topics such as these appeal to those who value literacy for communication rather than for its use as language. Brueggemann writes, “When literate acts are seen as being only about or for the purpose of communication, when literacy is only about or for the correct use of skills to convey a message clearly . . . then the beauty, of what language can do, as well as its power, is lost” (37). Brueggemann relates the story of Ellen, a Gallaudet University graduate, a gifted user and teacher of ASL, and a comedian, storyteller, and poet in the Deaf community:
Despite the enormous troubles she has had, and continues to have, with English, Ellen professes a “love” for it. She has a history of “lousy grammar”—a picture of herself as a somewhat “screwed up” user of English that she’s come to internalize after all these years: “I always had a problem with writing because [just as] with lipreading, I could catch certain things, but then I would miss so much. I put things together, but it was usually screwed up”. . . . She has spent more than enough educational time trying to learn to just communicate in English: “ . . . I was giving up my recess at the deaf schools so that I could have private speech lessons one on one. I benefited, yeah, because I can communicate with my family better and with some people. And sometimes I feel like I can talk and that is really nice. But really skilled sentences, no. Little phrases I can say, short and sweet.”. . . [Ellen] is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in a state university, and it is through that program, she tells me, that she continues to use and attempt improving her “English reading and writing.” And she does so for far more than purely functional, instrumental, communicational reasons: “I love English because it really broadens my horizon so much. . . . English helps me express more, writing jokes and stories—like that. . . . I find it a challenge to find a way to say things that will make people laugh in English too.” (44–45)

For Ellen, then, writing is for learning, through reading, how to be a better comedian. The more she reads and writes, the more she broadens intellectually, and, I am sure, the funnier and more interesting her jokes and stories become. Ellen’s reading and writing work is purposeful; she does it not to prove her competence in English in order to pass a test, but to write a piece that is a creation, something that is branded with her distinct thinking, something that sustains her interest over time, something that engages her. And this, according to Brueggemann, is exactly why Deaf students should write. This is how literacy becomes language: “Literacy is about ‘broadening’ oneself and one’s community—about expression, laughter, challenge, and appreciation shared across, through, within that language” (45). If we, as teachers, can offer readings that students enjoy and that inspire them to think about and learn from, the hardest part of our job as teachers of writing has been done.

Writing into Reading

In order to produce a well-written essay, students must have a solid understanding of the stories they are being asked to analyze. For lower-level readers, this means we must create ways to pull students into the text and have them interact with it. They must read a text slowly and deeply. Most students, for a variety of reasons, do not spend enough time on their reading assignments. They rush through them hoping to come upon the gist of the author’s purpose, missing details that could tie important connections together. This is not to say that their actions are always deliberate; many times, given the fact that most Deaf developmental writers are also developmental readers, certain texts are too difficult for students who are Deaf to digest on their own. I tell my students that to better understand what they read, they must sit down with their tools: something to write with, a good dictionary, their reading, and their writing-into-reading activity.

Guide or Comprehension Questions

Writing-into-reading activities such as answering guide or comprehension questions slow students down in their reading and provide opportunities for them to try to piece together text details on their own. Part of the appeal of guide questions is that inside many of these questions lies a true statement about the text. So, for the short story “Lifeline” by Gloria Anzaldúa (1991), inside the question “How does Suel reject la Prieta?” is the information that Suel rejects la Prieta, which helps students through their reading. These hints that students decipher by reading the questions slowly and carefully, as well as with diligent use of an accessible dictionary such as the Newbury House Dictionary of American English (2004), offer ways of digging deeper into text that cannot be read independently. The Newbury House Dictionary, a learner’s dictionary, is particularly helpful because definitions are easy to understand and sample sentences show how words are used in everyday life. Students have told me that the practice of writing the page numbers where the answers to the questions can be found right next to each question also helps them navigate the text on their own.

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