Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hearing Loss in Children's Literature

When I first began working with students with hearing loss in 2005, I wanted to find pictures books featuring characters with hearing loss that I could read with my preschool students. I went to my local library, excitedly checked out a stack of picture books, and raced home to preview them figuring I’d choose my top two favorites to share with my class the next day. Wouldn’t the kids be excited to see characters with hearing aids in a picture book! As I read, I became increasingly disappointed. The characters with hearing loss were often portrayed as lacking in ability compared to the characters with typical hearing. The story lines were a weak attempt to educate the reader about hearing loss without any real plot. The language of the text was overly simplified and dull. There had to be better books out there!

Over the next few years, through Internet searches, interlibrary loan and conversations with a librarian friend, I found books that feature strong characters with hearing loss, normalizing the hearing loss and making it one theme of the book rather than the single focal point. I found books with rich narrative language and books with story lines that students with and without hearing loss enjoy. Although there are numerous picture books like this, I wanted to share a few of my favorites with you. Instructional texts (about visits to the audiologist or getting hearing aids or cochlear implants) have their place and can help students with hearing loss, as well as their typically hearing classmates, understand the amplification. In addition to instructional texts, books such as the ones listed below provide all students with an engaging plot and an integrated view of living with hearing loss.

Lakin, Patricia. Dad and Me in the Morning. Albert Whitman and Company, 1994.
Jacob and his dad wake up early one morning before the rest of the family for a special walk out to the nearby beach to watch the sunrise. The author incorporates hearing loss while focusing on the special father-son bond. Hearing loss is mentioned as Jacob puts his hearing aids on in the morning, speechreads his father in the house so as not to wake the family, and uses ASL at the beach to tell his dad that he wants to repeat this event.

Uhlberg, Myron. The Printer. Peachtree Publishers, 2003.
Told from the perspective of a young boy about his father, The Printer is the story of the father’s life working in a print shop. His feelings of isolation related to his hearing loss and bonds with fellow deaf workers are presented in a matter of fact manner. During a fire in the print shop, the father is the first to notice. He signs, “Fire!” to fellow deaf workers who then spread the message. Due to the noise of the printers, the hearing workers did not hear the fire or crashing wooden beams. In the end, the hearing workers learn to sign,“Thank you” so they can directly thank the father for saving them. The father is presented as the hero and respect from others is also acknowledged. The tone of the young boy is one of admiration for his grandfather’s deeds rather than pity for his hearing loss. One of my students loved this book so much that she chose to present it to her class!

Hesse, Karen. Lester’s Dog. Crown Publishers, 1993.
In this book, told from the perspective of a hearing boy, a neighborhood dog terrorizes the children. Corey is deaf but depicted as the braver and more thoughtful of the two boys. He leads his friend past Lester’s dog to rescue a kitten. On the way back, Lester’s dog is waiting in the shadows. The boys escape and Corey indicates that the kitten should be given to a lonely neighbor. In this way, the author subtly suggests that perhaps Corey feels the same way and so is able to relate without having to state this explicitly. Hearing loss is part of the book but not the focus. Corey’s hearing aid is mentioned when the kitten’s paw catches on it, and his limited auditory ability is apparent when the friend calls and Corey does not respond. The presentation is simple and clear. This book is really about a typically hearing boy who happens to have a friend with hearing loss.

Seeger, Pete . The Deaf Musicians. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006.
This book tells the story of Lee, a piano player who loses his hearing. Upon losing his hearing, Lee is dismissed from the band by the leader, being told, “…who will listen to a deaf musician?” Not one to be discouraged, Lee learns ASL after seeing a flier for a class, comparing the rhythm and fluidity of the hand movements to that of music. Lee meets Max in the class, another deaf musician. Together with people that they meet, Lee and Max form their own jazz band. In the end, Lee runs into his former band leader and states, “Remember when you asked me, ‘Who will listen to a deaf musician?’” and the final page states, “Everyone!” in large colorful letters. This book sends the message that hearing loss may not be understood by others, but that should not stop a person from pursuing their dream.

Booth, Barbara D. Mandy. Lathrop, Lee & Shepard Books. 1991.
Mandy wears hearing aids and she communicates with ASL as well as spoken language. She loves to visit her grandmother and hear stories about her mother and grandfather, bake, and simply spend time together. During one visit, Mandy and her grandmother take a walk at dusk and grandmother loses a special pin that was a gift from her husband. They are not able to find it in the field. Late at night there is a storm. Although Mandy is afraid of the dark, she draws up the courage to go outside… and finds the pin! Mandy is the hero in this book but her act is about conquering her own fear of the dark just as much as it is about finding the pin. One of my fifth grade students particularly loved this book and wrote to her school librarian requesting that she buy it for the school library – which the librarian did! As part of her letter, she wrote,

This is a book about a girl with hearing aids and very sharp eyes.  When her grandmother loses a pin that Mandy's grandfather had given her grandmother for their 25th wedding anniversary, Mandy rushes out into the woods when her grandmother isn't looking.  It's storming but that can't stop her from finding her grandmother's pin.  In the end, she found it! This is a very good book that explains to people that aren't deaf what being deaf is actually like.  People who are not deaf and also people who are tired of being deaf should read this book.”

Stryer, Andrea Stenn. Kami and the Yaks. Bay Otter Press, 2007.
Inspired by a true story, this book tells the story of Kami, a deaf Sherpa boy in the Himalayas. Kami’s whole family must work in order to provide for basic needs and Kami is not excluded. Early one morning, the Yaks cannot be found. Kami sets off to find them despite the impending storm. Kami’s cleverness leads him to the Yaks where he discovers that one has been injured. His family is not able to hear his whistle over the loud thunder so Kami is forced to make the treacherous trek down the mountain to get help. Kami finds his father, but father is not able to understand what Kami is trying to tell him with his hands. Again, through his cleverness, Kami is able to get his point across and a team is able to rescue the injured Yak.  Kami’s cleverness is the focal point of the book rather than his hearing loss, and while he is presented as the hero, he is also shown to be a contributing member of his family and community through ordinary tasks.

What are your favorite picture books featuring characters with hearing loss?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Although it sure doesn't feel it here in Massachusetts, spring is rapidly approaching. The end of the school year is busy with report writing, testing, IEP meetings and discussions of transitions to the next grade or school. I’ve been thinking about one of my preschool students who will start kindergarten next year. He will be in a new building with a new teacher, a new SLP and a new special education teacher. Many people in the building are familiar with hearing aids (I work with another student in that building as well), but they may not have experience with cochlear implants. I am fortunate that his team has already begun to think about what kindergarten will be like for this little guy and that they have welcomed my request to observe the kindergarten classrooms now in order to find the best fit for next year.

As teachers of the deaf, it can be helpful to observe the upcoming teachers and classrooms to think about the optimal placement for our students with hearing loss. This requires a trusting relationship with administrators in the district, as well as the ability to explain why we want to observe and what we are looking for. Additionally, such observations require time. Knowing that IEP meetings will occur throughout the spring, I start observing in March so that I have time to thoughtfully consider all options and work with the school team to make a recommendation. I cannot demand a particular classroom, but I can certainly make a case for optimal placement!

With my preschool and elementary students, I begin by working with each student’s case manager to explain why I want to observe and what I will be looking for. Many times I am told by the case manager why one teacher may be a better fit than another, which is helpful information to have when I go in to observe. Sometimes the case manager facilitates arranging the observation, other times I send an email or speak to teachers directly in order to set up the observation. My email explains my role as the teacher of the deaf as well as the purpose of this observation. Here are the things I look for in the classroom:
  • Where is the classroom located? At the end of a quiet hall? Beside the music room? Some noise sources can be reduced, others cannot.
  • Use of technology in the classroom – a  teacher who appears comfortable using the Smartboard, computers and other classroom technology may be more comfortable using an FM system than a teacher who appears to avoid or get frustrated with the classroom technology.
  • Classroom acoustics – Is the room carpeted? Are there high ceilings and cinderblock walls? What about hallway noise? Is this classroom near a “heavy traffic” area? Sometimes within a building, classrooms may have different acoustical treatments. Again, some sources of noise can be adjusted such as re-routing the path classes travel to get to gym to avoid constant noise outside the classroom, others may not be so easy to fix.   Once students get to junior high and high school, there is less flexibility. Many times there is only one eighth-grade English teacher etc., and so there are limited or no options. In such cases, I may still observe if I am not familiar with the school in order to get an idea of what instruction will be like for my student, but it is rarely possibly to observe every classroom in the spring. At the middle school level when there are choices of “teams” rather than choices of specific teachers by subject, it can be beneficial to observe and compare the different teams in terms of best overall fit for the student with hearing loss and weigh the overall characteristics of one team vs. the other. If a student is particularly strong or weak in a certain subject area, it is important to look more closely at those teachers which can make the difference in team choice. Additionally, observing even when there are not many choices can help identify specific things for teams to consider and adjustments to be made ahead of time (i.e. ordering coverings for chair bottoms, addressing noisy ventilation systems; a transition from one elementary teacher to several middle school teachers who use the smartboard may mean suggesting multiple splitters be purchased, etc.)

When I am watching teachers, I am looking to see:
  • Is the teacher using visual supports? A teacher who incorporates visuals as part of her teaching will be more likely to refine visual supports for my student with hearing loss than a teacher who does not use them inherently.
  • How does the teacher handle group discussions? When there is a clear, organized system in place for how group discussions will occur and the teacher demonstrates strong management skills, the student with hearing loss will benefit.
  • What do small group and independent work times look like? Is the room noisy? Are there quieter areas in the room where students can work? Are the expectations clear – do students appear to understand what is expected of them? The more organized and clear the expectations are, the more likely that the student with hearing loss could be successful in this classroom.
  •   How does the teacher speak to the students? If the teacher uses a lot of sarcasm, figurative language, lengthy explanation and tangential discourse, lessons will be difficult for the student with hearing loss to follow. In contrast, a teacher who is explicit in her instruction, breaks down information and notices when students do not understand may be a better fit for my students.
  • How do students talk to each other? Peer interactions in the classroom can be a reflection of what the teacher models or tolerates. When students are permitted to be short with each other, subtly tease or giggle when mistakes are made, or resist working with particular partners, this will create uncomfortable situations for our students with hearing loss. However, when such behavior is not observed or when teachers quickly put an end to it, these could be signs of a more supportive social environment.

There is no sure formula for identifying the perfect classroom and the perfect teacher, but observations are one way to help the team make an informed decision about placement for the upcoming school year.  The ability to observe and make recommendations is dependent on the relationships that have been built throughout the year. What role have you been able to play in making recommendations? What difference has this made for your students?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Considering Captioned Media

I arrived at a school recently to observe a seventh grader in English class. The class had just finished reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In preparation for performing selected scenes in small groups, the class would be watching the movie for character inspiration. The shades were drawn, the projector shone blue on the screen and the desks were pushed aside to allow space for students to sit closer on the rug. As the students filed in, excited chatter about a movie filled the room.

A boy (not my student) approached the teacher. “The movie will have subtitles, right?” he asked. After the teacher confirmed that, yes, there would be subtitles, the boy exclaimed quietly, “Yes!” and headed to the rug. In this class, captions are for everyone, not just my student with hearing loss.

As teachers of the deaf, we often remind school teams about the importance of using captioned media in order to ensure that our students have access to the information presented. As students get older, it is important to engage them in the process as part of building self-advocacy skills. Once captions are used consistently, all students begin to see the benefits, as with the student above. Helping classroom teachers see how captions benefit the whole class lessens the burden on the student with hearing loss and increases the likelihood that captions will be used as a matter of course. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working with school teams:

  •  Many factors make it especially challenging for students with hearing loss to access information presented in documentaries and educational videos through listening alone, including background music, narrators with accents, unfamiliar vocabulary (including names and places), and the inability to always see faces for speechreading cues.
  • Watching an educational film is different from watching a TV show or movie for fun. Most of my students use closed captions at home as well, but for those who do not, sitcoms and “fun” movies typically have an easy to follow, predictable plot line and missing pieces may not affect the overall meaning. In contrast, educational films do not have the same predictability, students are generally less familiar with the topics and are expected to walk away with a comprehensive understanding of the information presented. Missing even a small piece will affect their understanding of the overall meaning. Even when movies are “just for fun” at school, captions are still necessary in order for our students to feel included and to participate in casual conversations afterwards. 
  • Media is frequently used to enhance a lesson, introduce a new topic or conclude a unit. Without captions, students with hearing loss may misunderstand or completely miss information, creating confusion rather than improving their understanding of a topic.
  • When new information is presented through media, enabling the captions allows all students to correctly identify people, places and events. Teachers can pause the video with the captions on the screen to discuss aspects of the video, providing all students with access to the information being highlighted by the teacher.
  •  The student with hearing loss, as well as a few typically hearing peers, can take ownership of captioned media. I’ve worked with students as young as third grade who have learned to enable captions on the classroom computer and projector with adult supervision. These students have written out directions in their own words and included illustrations for turning on the captions. This ensures that even when the teacher is out, my student with hearing loss will have access to the media presented.
  •  That said, movies are often left for substitute teachers. Captions should be enabled, or clear directions for how to do so must be left.
  • Many websites claim to host videos with closed captioning. Be sure to preview any media with the captions enabled if you are not sure about the quality of the captions. For example, while YouTube offers a closed- captioning option, if the captions are not already embedded, the captions that can be viewed will be via Beta Captioning. These instantaneous captions are often incorrect – or even inappropriate –because the technology is not quite there yet in terms of accuracy. More reputable options are BrainPop or Discovery Streaming. Both require the school to purchase memberships but host videos on a variety of topics with reliable captioning. You might also encourage schools to sign up for a free membership to the federally funded Described and Captioned Media Program ( Captioned DVDs can be accessed free of charge from their lending library, and webstreaming is also available.
  • Enabling captions does not mean that students with hearing loss can take notes while watching films. Students will continue to require notes from a teacher (preferably prior to watching the movie) or from a peer so that they can read the captions without having to look away to write, missing the next segment.
  • Placing the FM microphone near the speaker does not enhance the quality of sound for most students with hearing loss. Use of a splitter is preferred by my students; it allows the FM to be plugged directly into the computer or TV without changing the sound for the rest of the class. (See “Maximize FM Use” for more information on use of splitters).
  •  All students can be encouraged to add captions to their own media projects when shared in class. With the increasing integration of media in the classroom, students are expected to create projects using a variety of computer programs. iMovie, for example, makes it easy for students to add subtitles to their own movies using the “subtitles” option.
  • Work with your student to determine how teachers should discuss captioned media in class if questions arise. Generally, statements that highlight the full class benefit rather than singling out the student with hearing loss are preferred.
The most recent AG Bell email newsletter included links describing the new captioned media guidelines. That information can be found here:

On a final note, my colleagues and I often find that once teachers become used to using captions and they see how they benefit all of their students, they often continue to use them as standard practice long after the student with hearing loss has moved on to the next grade. It can be reassuring for a first-timer know this! How do you help teachers incorporate captioned media?