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Sign Language Studies

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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I had my class read chapter 9 of In This Sign by Joanne Greenberg (1970). Margaret Ryder, the seven-year-old hearing daughter of Abel and Janice Ryder, who are Deaf, must negotiate the purchase of a coffin for her four-year-old brother who recently died. She is with her parents, but she alone must speak with the funeral director and for her parents. In our discussion of this chapter, students felt that Margaret, Janice, Abel, and the funeral director are all to be held accountable for the breakdown in communication that transpires at the funeral parlor. This became a big discussion idea that we wrote on our whiteboard. After the discussion, I sent the students back to their reading notes to fill in this big idea with smaller ideas that would serve as proof of their thinking. As I walked around the room, I saw that students were thinking in chunks fairly well. I saw things like this:
Margaret’s Fault
should have told the funeral director she didn’t understand his big words like coffin and deceased

had never heard those words before

messed up the interpretation of value when the funeral director asked her

if Bradley’s life had any value to her parents. Thought he was asking if Bradley was expensive to raise

Abel and Janice’s Fault
should not have allowed a 7-year-old to interpret for them—too young could have written back and forth with the director themselves

should have known that Margaret’s vocabulary was limited because

she didn’t go to school

The Funeral Director’s Fault
knew Margaret wasn’t understanding but kept on talking

screamed at Margaret and insulted her parents which made Margaret silent

This was a fine beginning. Then I asked the students to think back to our discussion of an even bigger point. For a conclusion to this prospective essay, I wanted them to think about this question: “What was Joanne Greenberg trying to tell us by writing chapter 9?” They went back to their discussion notes and found the following ideas:
- Some Deaf parents might depend on their hearing children to interpret too much for them, stealing their childhood from them.

- Mistakes in interpretation can ruin communication between Deaf and hearing people.

I am not a proponent of very detailed outlines because I feel that rigid forms constrict composing; writing from outlines often results in the outlined ideas transposed into connected prose and nothing more, which I find disheartening. If I can see a certain logic to my students’ thinking, I’m satisfied. I want my students to think on their feet, if you will, as they are composing, and see where this freedom takes them. I know they will come up with more ideas because they will be thinking more about their topics, and this sustained thought will trigger a new idea here and there.

Our discussion on the book chapter spawned good ideas, and those students who wanted to pursue this topic further were ready to grow an essay, which I assure you did not take eight years to write! But consider what went into this particular essay thus far: Students answered guide questions and kept focused reading notes. They marked up their copies of the chapter and kept discussion notes. They did a rudimentary chunking of their ideas. It was a lot of work, and it extended into several class sessions—before the students wrote one word of their essays. There was just too much writing into reading, thinking, and discussing to worry yet about drafting.

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