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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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John Bean (1996) describes an approach to writing into reading called “focused reading notes” (144), in which teachers create four or five topic headings for students to fill in with notes from their texts. Each topic heading represents a key idea from the readings that teachers want students to walk away with. Topic headings for “The Necklace” might include “Mathilde’s Wants and Desires,” “Husband’s Response to Mathilde’s Needs,” “The Cover-Up,” and “The Debt.” Under each heading, teacher and students jot down story information in note form. Marie Clay (1982) notes that many times students need only the slightest of clues to facilitate their understanding of a text—just a taste of what the text is about helps students orient their thinking. Having the students take focused notes serves this purpose well; the category headings provide frames of reference for story parts from which students can piece together the details of the specific part on their own. Teachers can also include the number of bullets that would satisfactorily fill out a frame, so students know to keep digging if they discover fewer than the requisite number. This requires students to do some rereading, which few students might do on their own.

(2006) claims that in order to offer a response to a text, students first have to come to terms with it by offering “an accurate account of [the] work” (5). Writing-into-reading activities lead students into a text’s meaning and from there into more substantive class discussions. When students have put in the time necessary to understand the specifics of a particular piece, class discussion flies with more accurate gists, insightful comments as well as personal opinions, and thoughtful lingering questions. It is during this discussion that teachers can entice students to think about their reading from a different angle—to think of something different to say about it. As Janet Angelillo (2003) explains in Writing About Reading, we want students “to be changed by what they read, and to use some of that change as the basis for their writing” (107). After having read several chapters in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Philip, a student studying to become a priest, was taken by the immoral behavior of Tita, the main character in the novel. In class, he said that he was convinced that Tita was not the victim the author was making her out to be, and that rather than being the unfortunate daughter condemned to take care of her mother for the rest of her life instead of marrying and having her own family, she was a temptress who took pleasure in flirting with her sister’s husband. You can imagine the stir this discussion caused! Philip’s deeper thinking spoke to his particular take on the text. As Laura Hennessey DeSena (2007) would say, he “talked back” to the text and took his own unique stance. There was a plethora of information in the chapters that we had read up until that point that he could use to back up his theory.

Ideally, teachers will propose more than one text to consider for an essay, so that parallels can be drawn between and among texts. Harris (2006) refers to taking concepts from one text and applying them to another as forwarding, or extending the range and power of ideas (62). The more students see an essential theme of a particular text appearing in another, the stronger the understanding of the ideas under discussion. One grouping of essays whose themes I have asked students to think about includes “An American Dream” by Rosemarie Santini (1990) and “The Struggle to Be an All-American Girl” by Elizabeth Wong (1990). Both essays relate the difficulties that immigrant parents face trying to preserve specific cultural traditions in their children once they move to America. The essays introduce us to children who would prefer to be more American than Italian or Chinese, respectively. Class discussion meanders. We talk about rigid and unrealistic parenting as opposed to flexibility in decision making, lack of respect as opposed to respectful independence, and creating new allegiances at the expense of losing family connections. Discussed from the perspective of the different characters in the essays, the theme of cultural conflict between the generations, broached over and over again, becomes easy to understand and subsequently to jump off from. My student Olga argued that because the immigrant parents made the decision to bring their children to America, they now had to accept the consequences of this decision—only a high level of engagement with the text could have evoked this response.

As discussion flies, I jot down notes on the whiteboard. The form of these notes is dictated by the meanings that are being formed through discussion of the text. Notes can be just phrases alone, or phrases structured into concept groupings, depending on how many similar ideas are generated. The more savvy of my students begin to see that the quality of their essays is directly tied to how well they understand their readings and the ensuing class discussion, and I notice them taking extreme care in jotting down these notes as we talk. Here, then, is perhaps the most important writing-into-reading activity that I think has been overlooked by teachers of Deaf students. Deaf students do not necessarily know how to take notes, how to choose from among the phrases that pop up in class discussions the ones they may need for their essays and should write down. Participating in a discussion and sharing ideas in asl does not necessarily mean that students will know how to phrase those ideas in English, because ASL is not English. Most hearing students discussing that Mathilde in “The Necklace” “wished for a lifestyle that she could not afford,” or that Monsieur Loisel “lived to please his wife” or that Madame Forrestier “was just as guilty of pretense as Mathilde” would have no trouble jotting this language down because they would know how to spell most words and how to order them. They lean on everyday words they have heard again and again and use their knowledge of sound patterns to help them attack words new to them.

While good Deaf readers might have no difficulty with translations from asl to print, most Deaf students in developmental reading and writing courses need to see the discussed language in print. When the language of key ideas is made accessible, students walk away from class discussion with phrases they can integrate into their essays, and they produce more fluent first drafts. Typically, this is language that is idiomatic, uses advanced vocabulary, and is syntactically embedded —and is therefore important for college-level writing. As with writing-into-reading activities, there is no better motivation to learn a language than the need to create an important message with it.

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