Academic Freedom

Quick, think back to your high school days. What are the first things that come to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably thought of dear friends, exciting events, or perhaps a favorite teacher who always made you laugh.

But what about academics? Do you remember the quadratic formula? How about Newton’s laws of motion? Would you be able to explain them in perfect detail if someone asked you? If you studied a foreign language, do you actually use it every now and then (and fluently at that)? If you're anything like me, the answer to all of the above is nope, nada, zilch, zippo.

So what’s the purpose of school, then? It does appear there’s some degree of truth to the book that boldly declares Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.

Granted, grade school and high school provide the building blocks for skills you use throughout your life. But the odds are most people latch onto one primary skill and continue to develop it further beyond their academic years.

For example, if you loved computer science in high school, then that’s what stuck with you if later on you became a computer programmer or website designer.

But as for the other courses -- foreign languages, history, social studies, home economics, English literature and much more -- who remembers? I don’t. Creative writing was my one true joy in high school. All of the creative writing advice my teachers offered sticks with me to this very day. But what about math? Nope. History? I can’t even remember what I did yesterday, let alone what some Mongolian invaders did in the year, uh, whatever.

So if I can't remember any history or math, what’s the point? Why did we even bother? If I can’t recall a danged thing from Mrs. Kerr’s history class or Mrs. Wagner’s geometry class, then did we waste each other’s time?

Absolutely not. Mrs. Kerr, Mrs. Wagner, and several other inspiring teachers gave me something far more valuable than the stuff you find in textbooks. They gave me academic freedom.

Granted, I hardly remember anything they taught. But I do remember the way they taught, and it changed my whole line of thinking. These teachers often asked What do you think? and bombarded their students with “what if” questions as much as possible.

It was Mrs. Kerr who woke me up by critiquing a paper for being too factually accurate. I had simply regurgitated factual information from a textbook and she wasn’t satisfied.

“Come on, Mark,” she implored. “Put yourself in the Emperor’s shoes. Imagine yourself being right there. What are you thinking? How does it feel? What do you want? What errors in judgment might you make in the heat of the moment? What if you did things a bit differently?”

My brain was spinning. She dared me to be original, to challenge conventional wisdom, to look behind the scenes. We got rid of the box long before they invented the catch-phrase “think outside the box.”

What’s the big deal, you ask? It’s a big deal to me because I don’t think we’ve done enough of this for deaf students. We need to continually encourage our deaf youth to think for themselves.

The most important question you can ask deaf students -- actually, any students -- is still What do you think? This is essential because it shows students their opinion is valued and that they can indeed have an impact in this world.

For example, recently I witnessed a nice class presentation where the kids were in charge. They needed to summarize everything they’d learned that year, and they had to present it in such a way that it would be appealing to incoming students and their parents. The goal was made clear, but how they got there was entirely up to them.

They did just fine. They delegated their own assignments and chose various presentation methods (bulletin boards, posters, PowerPoint, and an assortment of graphs, charts, and color photography). Their overall presentation was a success. But as much as I enjoyed the end result, I also enjoyed the process leading up to it.

Ten years from now, they may or may not remember the factual details of their presentation. But they will definitely remember the exhilarating freedom that came with planning their own project. They will incorporate the leadership skills that emerged from this experience.

Unfortunately, not all deaf students are blessed with such open-minded staff. Many have to tolerate a sit down and shut up mentality. In essence, they are simply put in their place. Their creativity is suppressed, not allowed to shine through at all.

In Lou Ann Walker’s fascinating book, A Loss for Words, she shares an experience where a deaf student in an auto body shop completely loses his cool. His teacher simply asked him a “what if” question, wanting to know what the student thought about an alternative method for assembling an engine. It was a method that was not in the textbook but just as effective nonetheless.

The student, who was used to being told exactly what to do, couldn’t handle the opportunity to think for himself. Too many years of sit down and shut up had turned him into an automaton. It was the first time he had a teacher open-minded enough to challenge his thinking but it came too late. He snapped and threw one of his tools at the teacher. Do we want this for the next generation of deaf students? I don’t.

We need to ensure that deaf students have a safe yet challenging academic environment where questions, not automotive parts, are tossed around freely. Not only should we ask students more questions, we should encourage them to question us. Look at it this way: Are we telling them what to think, or are we teaching them how to think? It’s a big difference. Think about it.

Note: This article was originally published in Anything But Silent (Handwave Publications, 2004).

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