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The following article was printed in Artemisia, the newsletter for practitioners of Anthroposophical Healing Arts:

Signs of Genius: Deaf Children in the Waldorf School

Long ago and far away in a land of fog where the sun rises and sets but is seldom seen--a place called Medical School--I recall a weekly class at the very end of a very long lecture day. This class in retrospect was perhaps one of the least appreciated yet most worthwhile classes of the curriculum. The class focused on the human element of medicine through patients sharing their medical biographies with the students. I recall a particular mother who came before 140 of us to share her experience with her child born with Downs’s syndrome. She presented her child with Downs as a "wonderful gift" to herself and her family, claiming this child taught them a "different way of being in the world". She said that given the opportunity, she would not choose to change this experience. At the time, I rolled my eyes and said, "Who is she kidding? She sure rationalized this one to make an impossible-to-accept situation look like a gift!" I saw her tears as she spoke and I knew they were tears of grief. Today I know that they were not tears of grief but tears of profound gratitude for the understanding of a deep truth-- A gratitude and truth I now share because of my third child who was born Deaf and other Deaf children I have since worked with. I now occasionally find myself misty eyed as I share my biography with others. I am sure they cannot and may not even care to truly understand as I try to describe this "gift". Rudolf Steiner with his insight described it beautifully in the following opening lecture to would-be curative educators (1924):

"The only possible grounds we can have for speaking of the normality or abnormality of the child’s life of soul, or indeed of the life of soul of any human being, is that we have in mind something that is normal in the sense of being average. At present there is really no other criterion. That is why the conclusions people come to are so very confused. When they have in this way ascertained the existence of ‘abnormality,’ they begin to do---heavens knows what---believing they are thereby helping to get rid of the abnormality, while all the time they are driving out a fragment of genius."

The uppercase "Deaf" is used to denote a group who consider themselves part of a separate Deaf culture. These are individuals striving to epitomize what it means to be Deaf rather than identifying themselves as a less endowed or broken version of the hearing human being. They are trying to defend this "fragment of genius". This cultural identity stems in part from the development of true signed languages. Part of the "genius" I experience in Deaf children is the ability to meet other human beings through this language in a common world of pictures--a world, which demands that two people stop and truly meet. Deaf people cannot communicate in passing as they walk away or continue another activity. They must stop and focus on the exchange. One cannot make dinner while carrying on a casual conversation with a Deaf child in the other room. Instead, one must stop, free the hands, establish eye contact and exchange pictures through signed conversation. Further, both parties must want to be involved for conversation to occur. A hearing child may cover her ears when she doesn’t want to hear but she still hears. A Deaf child merely closes her eyes and communication ends. All of this means that while using signed languages human beings must truly "meet"--dare I say on a soul level?--in order to communicate. In these days of doing at least three things at the same time--talking and walking and thinking of something else--this intense, focused meeting is truly a gift. It is a different way of being in the world, a way of being, which many of us have almost forgotten. A way perhaps of bridging our separateness by meeting in a shared picture painted by a visual spatial language, which imparts its experience sometimes better than spoken languages.

In the last century there existed in Martha’s Vineyard a bilingual sign language/English community due to a high incidence of deafness among its residents. Even today a few residents remain who are completely bilingual. Their conversations at times will lapse back and forth between sign and English because some ideas are better suited for one language or another. Steiner describes in "The Work of The Angels in Mans Astral Body" —"pictures which work on a definite principle, namely, that in the future no human being is to find peace in the enjoyment of happiness if others beside him are unhappy. An impulse of brotherhood in the absolute sense…" He also describes pictures which "inculcate into the astral body their aim that in future times every human being shall see in each and all of his fellow men a hidden divinity." There is in signed languages a remarkable quality, which demands that we begin to meet each other in this way. The sharing of pictures allows us to live into the other’s sense of perception more fully--perhaps in that common space that lies between two human beings. Even beyond the mode of exchange, the language form itself is more active. For example there is no form of be in American Sign Language. One does not share a somewhat removed "I am hungry" or "I have hunger". Rather the form is "I hunger."

Following the realization that my child was Deaf, the search began for an educational environment for this child. It soon became clear to me that Waldorf Education was at that time completely inaccessible to Deaf children and Deaf families. Mainstream Deaf education tends to focus on early reading and use of media and computers. Yet, the Waldorf pedagogy, as an alternative, fits Deaf children very well in many ways. Drama is ideal for development of the Deaf child’s communication skills. Movement and touch continues to develop and support the other senses, which are often keenly developed to compensate for the deafness. (Or perhaps it is not as a compensation but rather that this is part of the gift the Deaf child brings, the high development of the other senses and demonstration of the possibilities which exist in the human potential.) Because sign language also has no true written form, Deaf culture parallels other cultures with oral traditions in the importance of storytelling and the great archetypal stories used in the Waldorf curriculum are a natural fit. The social isolation experienced by many Deaf children even in their own families (90%of deaf children are born to hearing families who have no skills for communicating with these children) makes the social impulse of the Waldorf classroom ideal.

At the same time the Deaf child brings to attention many questions for Waldorf educators and Anthroposophical therapists. It is not enough to say Deaf children cannot hear music and therefore skip that part of the curriculum. One must ask what is the soul experience of music and how can that experience be brought to Deaf children. Yes, Deaf children can feel vibrations of stringed instruments but does this really give the same rich experience as the hearing of music? What is the soul experience we seek through music? What are parallels? Also, in our times comes the issue of cochlear implants now available for Deaf children. As a parent myself I struggle with the availability of this technology and how it might improve my child’s access to sound. Yet as I review Steiner’s words I wonder what a Deaf child loses if we "fix" this genius she expresses. What also is the karmic effect of "curing" the deafness? Does this stop a process that she is growing through in her own spiritual evolution? Why are so many Deaf people so adverse to cochlear implants in children, even going so far as to refer to it as "genocide"? The Deaf children I see now are wonderful, beautiful, human beings in a world that doesn’t know how to communicate with them or accept their differences. Can we change the world? Some days it feels that in some tiny way we will change the world. Other days it feels absolutely impossible. What does the Deaf child bring and how do we best prepare her for her work here? These questions haunt me. What will I see when I look back 50 years from now. As the incidence of cochlear implants skyrockets, will unimplanted children represent a few remaining natural Deaf human beings isolated in a world of "bionic cures"? Is a bionic ear like taking antibiotics to stop an infection or Tylenol for a fever? Or is it merely like wearing glasses for weak vision or wearing a hat to keep your balding head warm? Or is it something else?

My work with the Deaf community has led me to strive to develop a Deaf Community Waldorf School. Currently we have a small program with Deaf children integrated into a Waldorf preschool/kindergarten setting. A Deaf teacher-in-training team-teaches with an experienced and signing Waldorf teacher to make a truly bilingual environment equally accessible for all the students. This has been a wonderfully heart warming and educational experience for all involved. It is interesting to watch the evolution of the children. The youngest children (Deaf and hearing) will play together without the use of spoken or signed language and seem not to notice any difference. At this age they don’t need language to communicate. This progresses to hearing children flapping their arms and hands about in unintelligible gestures to which the Deaf children nod their agreement as they go on merrily playing together. Or in reverse, the Deaf child may vocalize incoherently to the hearing child who may gleefully imitate the noises and return to their play together. By the last year of preschool and first year of kindergarten, both groups of children are picking up the other’s language, asking for assistance with signs or words and attempting to use these for communication. Without judgment, the hearing children describe the Deaf children as "talking with their hands". Many hearing children brought gesture into their homes especially at the table and for the blessing. Even parents who began the year with grave concerns, later requested books to support the development of signed language at home and expressed their desire that the program continue.

Development of the school continues with the goal of opening a first grade in the fall of 2001. We also continue to explore the use of therapies for the Deaf child. Eurythmy for example has proven to be very exciting to Deaf children who clearly understand it as a form of visual speech. The children I work with have discovered several new sounds through Eurythmy. A diluted form of Eurythmy has been introduced into some oral deaf programs to aid with pronunciation of sounds, which are difficult to lip-read like K, G or S. Chirophonetics is another therapy, which may prove useful to Deaf children. The further exploration of the role of music and how this experience can be provided to Deaf children through color, light, tonal eurythmy and movement is a whole area of investigation wide open and desperately needed. Any ideas, information and experience other physicians and therapists are willing to share would be greatly appreciated by our group as we continue to explore ways to develop this program. We also continue to reach out to contact families with Deaf children who are interested in Waldorf education and invite them to explore our program as an educational option for their child. Interested professionals with a combined experience in Waldorf education or therapies and Deaf education or the Deaf community are especially needed to carry this initiative forward.

It is my hope that we all can find room in our hearts to support this initiative; for, I firmly believe that Waldorf education is itself a healing therapy and therefore the best form of education for all children. I am reminded of an Asian fable about a fox and a heron. The fox invited the heron to dinner where he served a wonderful soup in a flat shallow plate. The heron struggled and struggled but could not eat the soup from the plate with his long beak. The fox ate all the soup himself and was quite satisfied. The heron went home hungry. Soon afterwards, the heron invited the fox to dinner and served a marvelous smelling soup in a deep narrow vase. The fox struggled and struggled but could not eat the soup with his thick snout. The heron noticed this and transferred the fox’s soup to a shallow bowl. Both ate their meals with relish, were well satisfied and remained good friends from that day forward.

Presently, Deaf children and the Deaf community are knocking at the door--will we welcome them in and accommodate them? I need all your help to throw open the door of accessibility and inclusion. Thereby we create a loving space into which something wonderful may grow and in which we may all as brothers and sisters revel in the gifts our differences bring--not as variations on the theme of "normal" but instead as our own unique "forms of genius".

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The Deaf Waldorf Kindergarten:

The Deaf Waldorf Kindergarten is a play-centered experience, which provides a foundation for creative thinking, language development and enthusiasm for life—both work and play. Love of meaningful work is fostered through the rhythm of the domestic arts and crafts. Imagination is strengthened through creative play and the rich pictures and language of fairy tales. Reverence for nature and for other people is fostered by following the changing seasons and the festivals of the year in our signed poems, games and stories. The young child learns deeply through imitation, so we strive to create an environment that is worthy of this imitation through joy, beauty, rhythm and movement as well as providing role models for Deaf communication through routine daily activities.

The Kindergarten meets from 9:00 to 1:00, four days a week, with a daily rhythm carefully planned between active and quiet activities. The morning begins with a period devoted to creative play and social interaction, finished with tidying. Then the children are called to circle by dimming of the lights and a candle is lit for a signed morning verse. This is the beginning of circle-time, where finger plays, signed action poems, visual rhymes using hand shape continuity or pattern, sign transformations and games are enacted with themes surrounding the seasons and festivals. A fairy tale may also be signed and told from memory and repeated over a one to two week period during which the same story maybe acted out with puppets and dramatized by the children. The children are then excused to return to free play and practical activities. Next the table is set and it is snack-time, with table manners and the art of signed conversation being practiced. Active, outside play with the other Kindergarten class follows, with swinging, sandbox play and tree climbing in our Kindergarten play area or a walk or field trip. The children then return to the classroom for a hot lunch often they have helped prepare the meal during morning activities such as kneading and shaping bread or chopping soup vegetables. After lunch the children are picked up by parents.

An overlying rhythm is established for the week through the different activities of painting, drawing, baking, beeswax modeling, or handwork (sewing and woodworking). A main part of lunch is often made by the children, with each day of the week including a different grain, e.g. rice, oats, millet, vegetable barley soup, or classroom-made bread.

In the Kindergarten there is a teacher and assistant with approximately 15 children ranging in age from three to six years old. Many children have two or three years in the Kindergarten before entering the First Grade. One of the Kindergarten teachers is always a teacher who is Deaf and fluent in American Sign Language and Deaf Culture.(To schedule a visit to the kindergarten, contact us via email.)

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Following article, on developing a Waldorf curriculum for Deaf children, was printed in the Waldorf Kindergarten and Early Childhood Newsletter as well as Anthroposophy Worldwide.

Outside the stars twinkle in the night chill. The young children are tucked in their beds. The house is put in order and the tea water is warming---but the day is not yet done. Bundled against the chill, rosy cheeked, the kindergarten teacher arrives and with her that sense of cozy nurturing. But around that coziness another energy dances, a creative impulse, a determination, an inspiration. Two others arrive and strangely the silence is unbroken except for the swish of jacket sleeves, an occasional clap of hands or laughter as greetings fly about and news is exchanged in a language unspoken.

The two silent visitors are brave soldiers indeed, crusading on a lonely and often difficult quest. They are Deaf teachers in training to become Waldorf teachers. Long distance relationships, long hours, enormous interpreter bills, low pay and no job security, isolation, prejudice and the pain of others’ ignorance are endured to follow a dream: A dream of bringing Waldorf education to Deaf children.

This task has led to a scrutiny of each verse, circle, rhyme and artistic endeavor used in the classroom, in an attempt to find a way to translate its soul experience to one which is accessible to Deaf children. Teacups settle to bookshelves and windowsills as the work begins. "The North wind doth blow, And we shall have snow, What will poor robin do then? Poor thing…" How do we sign this? The concept is easy enough to literally translate, but the experience, the playful lilt of the language, the rhythm and rhyme, are then completely lost. How do we create a visual experience of rhyme? One way is to use handshapes. The group plays with finding a handshape or two that can change and move and dance and transform to represent the changing images and experiences in the verse. They settle on the "five handshape" palm open and five fingers extended. This handshape is the basis for gestures representing wind, blowing, snow, will, what, fly, wing, warm, house and many, many others. They play with the movements, the transformation from one sign to the next, and weave into that a breathing of large and small gestures and varied pace, rhythm and pause. The result is a rich and beautiful visual rhyme enriching the experience of language for Deaf and Hearing children alike. We all watch it one more time, acutely absorbed as we are carried by the movement of the limbs right into the formed image and as one image transforms and flows into the next.

The work continues, as silently the group discusses ways to transition. Rather than a song or music as are used to gently suggest to the hearing children a change in activity, what visual cues can serve to create the same change for Deaf children? Traditionally in Deaf schools, the lights are flashed on and off. One person suggests using a dimmer switch, curtains and skylights to enhance or dim lighting. Another offers the idea of a clean-up puppet designating tasks and perhaps inspecting afterwards. One of the Deaf teachers creates a lighthearted visual rhyme for a clean-up song and we notice we are all smiling.

Other challenges are brought to discussion from classroom experiences. We realize resting with closed eyes is a different experience for Deaf children who cannot maintain their connection with the surroundings through hearing. Perhaps they can rest with eyes open. Or the teacher can give them a tactile cue when the time has come to transition out of rest time. What about holding hands in the circle or on the way to the bathroom. Neither teacher nor Deaf child can communicate effectively during this activity. How does the puppet show work? Deaf children cannot watch the story and the puppets simultaneously unless the field of view is overlapped and the timing of storytelling and action alternate. Every age-old technique must be re-evaluated for efficacy with these children’s special needs. The Deaf teacher’s experience is invaluable in realizing how subtle changes can make all the difference to the Deaf child’s access to communication.

The tea has grown cold now; flying hands have been too busy to drink. Much is accomplished and much remains for the next meeting. Pedagogical, medical and deeper philosophical questions or observations that arise are jotted down to be brought to the monthly Curriculum Development Committee meeting for consideration by specialists in Eurythmy, Speech, Medicine, Deaf Education and Waldorf Pedagogy. We bundle up, sign our goodbyes and step from bright warmth out to crisp winter darkness, full of our endeavor and eager to return to waiting families. In the car, fingers twitch remembering the verses or working out a particular visual rhyme or sign transformation. The night is quiet.

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