Saturday, January 9, 2016

With the hearing-impaired children of Batticaloa

We hear a lot about the fabled singing fish of Batticaloa, a town that was weakened by the thirty year conflict and devastated by the 2004 tsunami. But there's little press given to the hundreds of kids in this region who are deaf, mute, or both. Nor is attention given to the services they receive, interventions that affect many futures. South Asia is a locus of deafness and in eastern Sri Lanka it's a way of life. I don't know how many children are affected by deafness here but I have visited with some of them up close. 

We visited the YMCA school for the deaf back in October. I was moved by the genuine greeting we received, by the homey classrooms I observed, and by the handwork students had produced. Not able to make much headway with the Zometool set I brought for the design students at Moratuwa (actually no interest was shown by my colleagues so they never came out of the box) I was eager to share this amazing building toy with the kids here at the YMCA school when I came back to visit this January. 

I've taught in every conceivable setting with zometools. My students at Boston University, who I thought would be a tough group to work with, have used them now for years to build scientific models. Specifically I've had them working on models of membrane systems and enzymes, two very abstract scientific concepts that are difficult but important to get across, especially for non-science majors. I've taken zometools to teacher training sessions in the Azores, to adult design students at the Boston Architectural College, used them at a child-friendly community building activity at a city-wide science festival, and most recently introduced them to the hardworking  staff at my guesthouse in Colombo. Everywhere they go zometools make friends and people use them creatively. 

I love to hear the chatter people make while using zometools, a chatter that's underlain by long periods of intensity and concentration. I like to see how people interact using this building toy, through what is usually solo construction punctuated by interaction, consultation, and collaboration. How would things turn out with young people who don't speak?

I was especially interested to bring them here to Batticaloa, partly because when it comes to language transmission in Sri Lanka, especially in the Tamil-speaking east, I myself am, for all practical purposes, without hearing or speech. I also wanted to see how these kids, so accustomed to "handwork," would respond to a sophisticated building toy like Zometool, whose sensitive parts require concentration and care. I was also interested to see what these kids, so culturally different from any group I've taught, would produce with the zometools. I wanted as well to watch behaviors that the kids would display. What I saw was not expected. 

Head teacher Judy, who signs in English and Tamil, told me to start playing with the zometools and let her follow suit. The children would observe and pick up the play. The only instruction I gave her, and she passed it on to the children, was to pull the pieces apart gently and not to bend them so as not to break them. It was shown with two movements and not a single piece was broken the whole afternoon. 

Judy built a kind of house. I built my usual amorphous thing. One teacher built a table. The kids did whatever they wanted. There was quiet and concentration and also animated signing and showing. Many students made some kind of a cross. Predictable I guess since this is a YMCA. After about half an hour, teacher Judy told me, "using this tool changed my mind.""How?" I asked, puzzled. "My sister died last week of a brain tumor. Only 25. I was very sad. Now I feel more happy." This sad note colored the afternoon and explained in part why poor Judy seemed so tired and unconnected to the goings on (this changed later when she braved a vigorous game of hopscotch with the girls). 

Some patterns emerged as the afternoon went on. One small boy who Judy told me was nine, built a marvelous structure that was like no one else's (I noticed that many of the kids copied one another-at least initially. There is no "right" way to build with zometools but newcomers often display their shy side before launching off). His shapes got bigger and after an hour or so of concentrated play, as other kids started to pull apart their sculptures and put the blocks back in the box, other kids helped him gather and use the remainder. It was a kind of group coordination in which everyone participated and ultimately, in which everyone delighted with the sculpture he created. 

For better or worse his shape turned to an imaginary weapon. First it became a ray gun but then out of a clear blue sky he built an elongated series. Longer and longer the series got until he had created a bow and arrow. I wonder how he came up with it. What spark of an idea moved him? What helped the idea develop? Lots of miming, smiling, and mutual admiration among the kids. And never a cross expression or hand lifted one against the other. Teacher Judy never had to use discipline over the couple of hours I was there though she did tell me "they do very, very mischievous things." 

Not a piece broken or left on the floor, my nine year old did have to empty his pockets of a few zometools. He also used his teeth to take them apart. Something I chalk up to engagement with the material and the process. After the session he was showing the other boys a piece of a circuit board. Just as I started to wonder what his future might bring teacher Judy brought me back to the present. "Both of his parents and three of his siblings are deaf," she mentioned. And I was happy I left the box for them to play with as time goes by. 

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