In a hot, muggy warehouse near Chicago in late August, a group of D/deaf education majors and faculty from the College of Education worked to make a difference in the lives of D/deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) students in Chicago and throughout the state.
This group of senior students are part of Dr. Stef Gardiner-Walsh’s Special Education Literacy for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children (SED 359) course at Illinois State University. Gardiner-Walsh, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education (SED), wanted to create an impactful learning situation for her students which led to a relationship with the Chicago Hearing Society (CHS) Youth Connections Program.
Dr. Karla Giese, non-tenure track faculty in SED, also serves as a coordinator with the CHS Youth Connections Program. As part of their READ Program, the organization works with the American Library Association after their conference in Chicago to receive leftover books that are donated from several partners. These books are then given out to adult mentors in the program to visit DHH children in the community and read to them, leaving a book behind for each child to keep afterwards.
However, before the books can be distributed, significant organization needs to take place to ensure the children are receiving books appropriate for them. This is where the SED 359 students stepped in to help.
In the SED 359 class, students not only focus on what general literacy is, but how it can be applied to D/deaf children. Students gain proficiency in how to identify whether a book is developmentally appropriate for a student and whether they can access its language and content. Volunteering in the warehouse allowed the students to practice their skills by sorting the books into categories for a variety of age groups from infants through adult.
“I can talk about children’s literature in the classroom, but it was extremely important for the students to interact directly with it to understand how impactful it can be to the reader,” said Gardiner-Walsh.
After sorting the books, students then selected a blend of books representing each age group and boxed them together for distribution to the mentors from CHS Youth Connections Program. This can be a big challenge, as the students had to balance the reading level of the D/deaf student with where they are developmentally, which can vary widely.
“You may have an older DHH student who is not an independent reader yet, but they would quickly lose interest if you handed them a book that was designed for a four-year-old,” said Gardiner-Walsh. “Balancing their reading ability with their interest level is hugely important to keep learners engaged.”
The Chicago Hearing Society was founded in 1916 and has provided assistance to the DHH community in a variety of ways. Through the Youth Connections Program, the peer mentors get matched with students, and may read to their mentee either in the student’s school or home. In either setting, the student gets to keep the book afterwards.
“Through this program, we are able to get new books into the hands of 500 DHH students annually,” said Giese. “I love seeing the joy on the students’ faces when they receive their own books. They often double and triple check that the books are theirs to keep and bring home.”
Mentors are matched to students based on their level of hearing ability. For instance, a student who primarily uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate would be matched with a mentor who also primarily uses ASL. A child who may be hard of hearing and using technology to listen that way would be matched with a mentor who uses that same technology.
Matching the mentors and mentees in this way obviously helps them communicate and connect with one another, but it can help the family dynamic in other ways as well. When parents meet their child’s mentor, they can see a success story for their child in what they might be as an adult. The child can see themselves in someone that communicates the same way they do and develop valuable strategies to help them thrive. The peer mentor can also coach their mentee’s family how to read with their child, provide other resources, or connect them to services and activities in their community.
“With over 90% of D/deaf babies being born to hearing parents, communication barriers can occur that may delay a child’s emotional, cognitive, and social development,” said Giese. “We believe that one way to minimize this impact is through an early exposure to books.”
At the end of the long day in the warehouse, nearly 2800 books had been sorted and prepared for delivery to the mentors. Volunteers also brought boxes back to campus to be distributed to the Laboratory Schools and the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville. They were even able keep a small starter box for themselves to use once they start teaching in the field.
Gardiner-Walsh’s favorite part of the day was the ride back home to Normal, listening to the excitement of the students as they recapped their day and read their new books to one another all the way home. “I don’t really think they realized how much they learned until we were driving home, and they started to think about the content that we had just applied throughout the entire day in that warehouse.”