Learning enrichment goes both ways: NZSL at St Theresa’s

Issue: Volume 96, Number 21

Posted: 27 November 2017
Reference #: 1H9gUs

Education Gazette checks back in with a school that’s put New Zealand Sign Language – one of New Zealand’s official languages – at the heart of their approach to inclusion.

This time last year, Education Gazette featured St Theresa’s School in Plimmerton and their stand-out effort to enrich profoundly Deaf student Andre’s learning journey by making New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) a key part of their programme.

When Andre started at St Theresa’s, he was their only profoundly Deaf student. Yet within a few months, the programme they’d implemented to learn NZSL and make Andre feel a part of their learning community in every possible way had won them an award – they were named the winner of the Schools section of the Deaf Aotearoa NZSL in Action Awards in May last year.

More than a year on from that recognition, principal of St Theresa’s Donna McDonald says they’ve attracted a lot of attention as a result, which, while gratifying, can also be a bit intimidating – Donna emphasises that awards don’t make them experts at inclusion for Deaf students or NZSL. The award does, however, show what can be achieved when a board, principal, staff and community are all aligned to a common goal.

Since the award, St Theresa’s has been working closely with van Asch Deaf Education Centre so that staff in both organisations can learn from each other and share lessons that might be helpful for other schools. As part of that work, St Theresa’s was encouraged to create a short video about their NZSL journey, which can be viewed here: https://goo.gl/P6hebd(external link) 

In turn, the video has led to some unforeseen and positive outcomes – for example, a Deaf student from Newlands College in Wellington whose ambition is to be a teacher is currently doing some work experience at St Theresa’s. It’s a two-way street, says Donna – Andre is getting to work with another Deaf student and they are both learning from each other every day.

While she’s very humble and wants to remind readers that they’re not NZSL gurus, Donna says their journey has been progressing rapidly. They started that journey with a question: ‘How do we hook everybody in our school into using sign language?’.

“We’re getting a lot of other schools asking for our advice, and of course we’re happy to support them, but really we’re on this amazing journey – we’re all learning, and we’re all still working hard!”

“As Andre grows up and moves through each learning level, we want to be ready. It’s about ensuring that his next teachers are going to be able to keep the momentum going. Andre’s teacher for next year is currently going to night classes to learn NZSL.”

Of course, Donna and her team will in due course be helping to plan Andre’s journey as he progresses to higher schooling too. Donna says

that their strong relationship with van Asch Deaf Education Centre has meant that Andre is able to mix with other Deaf students on a regular basis. 

Another development that Donna says the whole staff are looking forward to is undertaking PLD (professional learning and development) to upskill in te reo Māori. Te reo Māori and NZSL are separate languages so the staff will be looking at how they can present Māori concepts in NZSL, and vice versa, as they head towards becoming a trilingual school.

“For example, we’re learning the Māori word for ‘sun’, and the NZSL sign for ‘sun’ side-by-side. That, I think, will help keep the momentum we’ve built up going.”

St Theresa’s is also ensuring that Andre has some key supports that follow him throughout his time at the school, says Donna. She says bilingualism from an early age is a real advantage for any learner, and that she couldn’t do without the students who have really taken to NZSL.

 “We can help by making sure Andre has peer support when he wants it. What’s been working for us is that there are some children who have connected really quickly to the NZSL language, and they are the ones that are most likely to be supporting Andre with the little things to help.

“For example, I was teaching the class the other day, and Andre’s teacher aide happened not to be there at the time. I was trying to communicate with him – he thinks I’m hilarious because he thinks I just make signs up sometimes! – and a couple of our key children said, ‘Oh, Mrs McDonald, this is actually the sign for ‘writing’ – you’re signing ‘reading’! They’ve become our little experts, and we want to capitalise on that.” 

In their words: St Theresa’s NZSL journey continues…

Andre’s classroom teacher Deana Collis says that embedding NZSL at St Theresa’s is a mutually beneficial project that’s helped to enrich her practice.

“Andre has become more confident in himself as a Deaf child now that we communicate in NZSL. He is not afraid to ask questions and to share information when he wants to. I believe Andre feels included in the school as all teachers communicate with him using sign – even if at a range of levels! When he is signing with a teacher who may not have a lot of NZSL knowledge, Andre shows patience and is beginning to think of other ways he can express his ideas.

“My practice is definitely being enriched by having Andre in my classroom. I have become more aware of Universal Design for Learning and ensuring I am delivering content that can be accessed by all children. I have learned a new language teaching Andre. I try to incorporate signing into my daily programme where appropriate and have seen the positive impact this has on Andre. I often sign our reading activities, the roll, prayers and some instructions. My sign has also increased through having conversations with Andre. I find I am able to better understand him now and he also responds when I sign with him. This is very valuable and rewarding for my teaching.”

Teacher aide Vinny Thompson:

“I think of it as the teachers and students becoming aware of this new language and culture that Andre has brought into the school, and adjusting their mode of communication so that they can ‘chat’ together.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:00 am, 27 November 2017

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