An Electronic Voice
by Brian McDonough
First photography, then digital video,
gives deaf students a powerful way to communicate, learn and teach.
The video, shot in the shaky, handheld style of
a documentary, begins with a simple statement that seems familiar
for only a second: "This film has been captioned for the
Told largely in sign language and voices that
can be hard for the untrained ear to readily follow, the captions
come in handy. The video, "Language of the Listening Eye," is
the work of a group of deaf students at Oakland, California?s Bret
Harte Middle School. The digitally shot film, edited on a borrowed
Mac G3, was the culmination of an image-based experiment that
allowed the students to communicate ideas they'd never been able
to share. It also let them reach and touch an audience that might
not have taken the time or had the ability to listen, otherwise.
"I think there's a fundamental aspect of our
humanity involved in what they were trying to get at," says Kaho
Kingsland, the teacher/interpreter who led half a dozen sixth-
through eighth-graders in the project. "Can we use this technology
as a voice? Can it really be not just a tool or a toy, but a voice
for people who really don?t have a voice, even in their most
Kingsland is an interpreter for the deaf, one of
three in the classroom with two certificated teachers of the deaf.
The interpreters translate for the students when they're in
mainstream hearing classes, and work directly with small groups in
their non-hearing-only English/Social Studies core class. In that
room, the students were grouped in the class by ability, rather than
age, because of the wide range of factors regarding their deafness
that had affected their ability to communicate and learn.
?Often with late language learners you see
cognitive delays,? Kingsland says. ?So one thing I?ve read
about happening when you have an absence of language in early
development ?? abstract thinking is very difficult. People
become cognitively very concrete.?
In Fall 2000, she had a group of three or four
students writing journals, and she began pushing them toward more
abstract skills. ?Not just reading and writing, but to reflect,?
she says. She wanted to help them communicate their feelings,
knowing that the children had various difficulties in their home
lives. ?And some had everyday experiences of being mocked and
teased at school by their peers. In journal-writing, I thought there
might be a way to be able to talk about these experiences, a venue
for self-reflection, about how painful those experiences are.?
And it didn?t work.
?No matter how different the assignment ?
the scariest thing that happened to them that day, or when they felt
safest ?? every day I?d get back these entries saying ?I
went home, ate dinner, we ate hot dogs. I ate hot dogs with my
brother. I went to bed,?? she recalls.
Asking them to go deeper didn?t help. ?I
just got these blank looks. I thought, ?What is it? Are they not
having these feelings? Are they not acknowledging them?? I went to
counselors and social workers, everybody I knew who knew more about
deafness than I do.?
She got no answers, so she made what turned out
to be her smartest move: She gave up.
One day, they were journaling, trying so hard,
and I said, ?Let?s forget this. We?re going to do something
different.?? At lunch, Kingsland went to the nearest drugstore
and bought an armful of cheap Vivitar cameras for about $9 each.
?The assignment was to take the camera home, and photograph
anything you want to. Someone you love, something you?re scared
of, your dog, your room, your house.?
The excited children brought their cameras back
the next day, but Kingsland couldn?t pick up the developed film
until after the students had gone home. ?I was so blown away. I
wept and wept. Not only was the photography pretty extraordinary,
the subject matter was so deep.?
The first photo to strike her was a little
girl?s image of an old chain-link fence with razor wire. ?A
whole group of her friends were all behind the fence, which was
padlocked,? Kingsland says. ?And she?s on the other side.?
On each of the four students? rolls were three
or four shots with similar emotional impact. Kingsland realized
she?d hit on something. ?As we worked on this, their pictures
became more specific,? she says. She?d tell them to capture
abstract concepts ? freedom, for instance. ?One kid, for the
first time, his hand shoots up right away and he says, ?Like a
bird.? That?s a clichÈ for hearing people, but for them it?s
so fresh, so sincere. They really can make that connection.
Visually, they can talk about abstract things, which supposedly they
can?t do ever, if they?ve acquired language so late.?
Kingsland was amazed, as she moved them on to
discussions and assignments of much more difficult concepts ??
honesty, community ?? at the difference, as commonplace and
inexpensive a technology as still photography, made in these
students? ability to communicate. Taking only volunteers to
continue with the photo project, she ended up with six or eight kids
energetically trying to explain their worlds.
As the students discussed topics they wanted to
address, Kingsland found only one thing common to each of them:
?On each list was, ?I get teased every day for being deaf, and
it really hurts,?? she says. ?So I asked how we could tell
people we feel this way, and did we think they?d change. We had a
vote. I think we only had two who thought we could change opinion,
but we went ahead and tried.?
The class had arranged to exhibit their photos
at the Lake Merritt Boathouse over a January 2001 weekend. They were
also going to contribute some photos to an archiving project at the
Oakland Museum, and it was to accompany that contribution that they
made the video.
When Kingsland found that the Hearing Society
for the Bay Area had video cameras and an Apple G3 PowerBook she
could occasionally loan to the classroom, Kingsland suggested they
shoot a documentary.
?As part of the documentary, we wanted to take
the video camera in to teach sign language to a group of students at
Bret Harte, including one or two of the kids who?d been teasing
them the most.?
Kingsland?s kids had been interacting in the
classroom with hearing students in Elizabeth Lonnecker?s
seventh-grade English/Social Studies class. ?Kaho?s kids used to
come in for a shared ?community circle? session, and it turned
out that some of the kids who teased them most were there,?
The two instructors made time for some of
Kingsland?s students to come in once a week and teach some basic
sign language. After a very brief tutorial from the Hearing
Society?s tech specialist, who had originally intended to provide
a similar program for high-school students, the children shot
digital video of a session or two in Lonnecker?s class. They also
shot elsewhere around the campus, illustrating their experiences.
?We had two cameras. We shot film for a month,
and taught sign language for about four sessions. We probably had
six or eight hours of film to go through.?
Because the film needed to be ready for the
January 2001 photo exhibit, Kingsland had to do the bulk of the
actual editing after hours, though the kids led the process of
conceptualizing the finished film, she said. ?The kids and I sat
down and we?d go day by day through the film before I did the
editing. We?d sit down and find pieces of the puzzle.?
A Voice is Heard
The video was finished and shown at the
exhibition, where the students? families saw it, along with such
prominent figures as Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. The video, in which
Kingsland?s students explain what it?s like to be deaf, apart
and ridiculed, was also shown to its co-stars, Lonnecker?s class.
?When I saw the film, I cried,? Lonnecker
recalls. ?I think my kids were really, really touched. After they
saw the video, on their own, they started circulating a petition in
class to have ASL (American Sign Language) taught as a language at
the school. In the community circle, I saw a piece of paper being
passed around. I said, ?All right, what?s that?? And it turned
out to be a petition.?
The petition didn?t lead to ASL as a second
language at the middle school, because of budgetary and other
considerations, but both teachers focused more on the success of the
video as a communications tool. Kingsland said the video project had
allowed the children to advocate for themselves and get their
message across in a way that truly affected the people they were
reaching out to.
?Every one of those kids at the end felt like
a human being, like they had choices,? Kingsland says. ?After
the film, they were contacted by people ?? people came and
talked to us.?
The video and its makers also were honored at
the 2001 California Student Media and Multimedia Festival at CUE?s
fall conference. The project was named best overall in the secondary
school media category.
Planting New Seeds
Most of Kingsland?s students for that project
have moved on, but her current class still gets infrequent use of
the borrowed computer, with projects planned including a February
effort to produce a short video on gardening for deaf elementary
students. The point of the project, she notes, involves more than
?We?re working on community building ??
it gets the kids engaged in social service,? she said. And it will
say something important to the hearing-impaired second- and
third-graders who will watch it. ?They?re not learning it from
hearing people using interpreters, but from other deaf kids, in
their own language.?
Kingsland looks forward to further projects, and
beams with as much pride of accomplishment as her students.
?We?re a group of people who had no experience with technology,
no access to this stuff,? she notes. ?After two one-hour
sessions, we did everything else ourselves. We really did make the
film ourselves, from the ground up.?
Brian McDonough is a freelance writer in
?Language of the Listening Eye? is a digital
video by students Dani Paniagua, Howard Harper, Hector Rodriguez,
Alma Rangel, Mayra Ramirez, Erica Ruvalcaba, Kevin Jackson and
teacher Kaho Kingsland of the Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland,
Calif. It won Best Overall Secondary School entry in the media
category of the 2001 California Student Media and Multimedia
For all the success and recognition of
?Language of the Listening Eye,? Kaho Kingsland says her
students are limited by a lack of equipment. Relying on the Hearing
Society for the Bay Area?s ability to occasionally loan the needed
PowerBook computer and video cameras limits how much or how often
digital technology can allow new classes of deaf students to break
their isolation from the hearing world. ?I feel like, if the film
were only seen by people who had the resources to say, ?If this is
what those kids need, to have voices, here?s some computers, some
cameras,? or ?Here?s a multimedia lab,?? Kingsland says.
?Trying to create without the resources is heartbreaking.? Kaho
Kingsland can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com