Sometimes, you can learn writing skills in the oddest way! Read on to see how deaf students helped me become a better writer!
As I said in a previous blog, before I became a writer, I was a teacher of the hearing-impaired. This was for about a three-year period way back in the 70s. Two of those years were spent teaching at the North Rocks School for the Deaf in North Rocks, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. At that time, “Down Under” was recruiting teachers from around the world to fill vacancies. It was a chance for me and my then-wife to see a different part of the world and enjoy being tax-free at the same time!
Once we got acclimated, it was a wonderful experience for us. Geographically speaking, Australia is an ancient land full of flora and fauna you’ll find nowhere else – kangaroos, emus, goannas, and all the other creatures you’re undoubtedly aware of. However, for me, the wonder was diluted by frustration with the New South Wales education bureaucracy.
You see, I’d been trained as a classroom teacher at the University of Minnesota, but when I got to the North Rocks School, I found that the central administration had assigned me to teach speech to pre-lingually deaf children in the junior high to high school age range. And I had to do it in 15-minute classes with two children each all day long. The problem was at that time, there was no real way to effectively teach speech to students deaf from birth! Depending on the level of hearing loss, most had never heard the words in the first place and had no idea of how to pronounce them.
My initial reaction was to get depressed. How was I supposed to spend two years teaching a subject in I wasn’t qualified for to students who didn’t have a prayer of learning it in the first place? After listening to my pupils, I realized that if I couldn’t teach them speech, I could teach them language and give them a voice through their own stories. You see, they were coming in every day with the tales of their lives and telling them to me through sign language. So, why not have them tell those stories in their own way for everyone?
But how to tell them? That was the first question. My students could tell marvelous tales through sign language, but had no idea of how to write one down on paper. So, I’d have to teach them how to do that. The second question was, “If they can’t write short stories, what form should we use?” It became quickly obvious that video scripts were the way to go. My students absolutely loved movies and television, the most visual of media. The third question was, “How the heck am I doing to do this when I have only 15 minutes with these students? There simply isn’t enough time.”
The answer was to go to their English teacher and hope he’d like the idea. I breathed a sigh of relief when “Tim” greeted my proposal with great enthusiasm. So, to get my students started, I wrote my first video script. I knew it had to be short, highly visual, and easily understandable. I wracked my brain for a subject until I remembered that physical humor is understood in any language. So, I came up with a variation on that old chestnut, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”* The variation was, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my pie!” It worked because there a lot of flies in Australia during peak season – and I mean lots! They’re incredibly persistent and annoying, making most American flies look like wimps.
*There are endless gags on the subject such as:
Customer: “Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”
Waiter: “I think it’s the backstroke, sir.”
It took me a week to write my first 10-minute script and was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done because I couldn’t write any English major b.s. and use lots of words. I had to pare the lines down to bare minimum. It taught me to throw out adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. When I finally got the “teleplay” finished, I acted it out for my chosen students – and they nearly hit their heads on the ceiling from bouncing up so high with excitement. I taught the students how to use a video camera (VHS at that time) and everything else involved in a production. The only thing I ran was the sound system. We practiced in the English teacher’s classroom until we got it right and filmed it for not only my students but for the entire school.
It was a huge hit (especially when one of the actors was hit in the face with a pie), and one of the proudest moments in my students’ lives (and mine, as well). After that, I simply stood back and let my pupils take over. I had them tell me their stories and then wrote the scripts. Along the way, the English teacher and I taught them the use of similes, metaphors and the like.
The results were quite remarkable – “The Spider That Ate Sydney” was very popular. And, during the centennial summer of 1976, we staged the entire American revolution in the hot Australian outback using wooden muskets, baby powder (for musket smoke) and two bean bag chairs (the white plastic “peanuts” doubling as snow!) Now that was story telling! 🙂