Teaching Poetry: A Descriptive Case Study of a Poetry Unit in a Classroom of Urban Deaf Adolescents

Article excerpt

A QUALITATIVE STUDY was conducted that reflected an analysis of a 6-week poetry unit in a language arts classroom of 6th and 8th graders at a school for the deaf in a large city in the northeastern United States. The school served a large population of children of poverty who were of Latino and African American descent. The study was guided by 4 research questions: (a) Would students benefit from having American Sign Language (ASL) poetry as a part of the unit? (b) Would teachers' signing of poems increase students' understanding of the poems? (c) Could students analyze the meaning of poems independently? (d) Would students view writing poetry as a vehicle for expressing their feelings and ideas through themes that were important to them? The evidence provided support for affirmative answers to questions a, b, and d.

Poetry is a valuable and powerful form of expression that deaf students can appreciate and use as a way to express their feelings and ideas, as well as to enrich conceptual understanding. We contend that if poetry is taught in a way that provides access to the richness of diverse themes, students - whether hearing or deaf - may be inspired to create meaningful poetry that is reflective of their feelings, thoughts, and lives. Another potential outcome is that poetry will not only reflect their lives, but become a part of their lives.

Unfortunately, little research exists on teaching poetry to deaf students, whether in written English or American Sign Language (ASL). However, there is literature that suggests that there is value in teaching poetry to deaf students. For example, Kramer and Buck (1976) conducted an analysis of poetry written by deaf children to determine the complexity of thinking reflected in the poems. They concluded that the children in their study demonstrated "considerable capacity for creative expression" (p. 31). Problematically, there is also evidence to suggest that children who are deaf have difficulty understanding figurative language (Fruchter, Wilbur, & Fraser, 1984), which pervades poetry. However, in talking about children who have hearing, Erickson (1987) noted that students who are working to read beyond literal meanings can learn to read more critically if they are exposed to advanced texts that reflect their thinking abilities rather than their reading level.

Although we found no research on using ASL poetry in the classroom, individuals have advocated its use. "To deny the Deaf access to their own language as an art, as the American educational system has done, has succeeded only in creating a negativism, a blindness toward language and art" (Cohn, 1986, pp. 270-271). ASL poetry has been studied and found to have features comparable to those of written poetry, such as the use of rhyme based on sign formation and the use of signing space and poetic language to convey certain messages (Ormsby, 1995). As is the case with written poems, grammatical, semantic, and pragmatic rules that normally exist when ASL is used can be changed to reflect poetic language. A Deaf poet, such as Clayton Valli, "enriches the identity of the deaf community by affirming the literary status of its language" (Ormsby, 1995, p. 241).

Two highly important ideas presented by Georgia Heard in her 1989 book For the Good of the Earth and Sun guided the work described in the present study: (a) giving students access to a wide variety of poems that will reflect different styles and themes, and (b) letting students choose their own topics to write about. Although Heard discussed her experiences in a hearing classroom, her observations could easily be extended to the education of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Heard advocated reading poems aloud to students as a way of exposing them to poetry from which they might not gain meaning if they read them on their own, since these poems might well be above their reading ability. Regarding the idea of being free to choose the topics of one's poems, she noted that students should be allowed to write about things that are meaningful to them, or they might lose interest in poetry forever. …