Author: Katharine Edwards, M.A.T., Trinity University

A survey from The Center for Assessment and Demographic Studies’ at Gallaudet College indicated that approximately 40 percent of youngsters in programs for deaf students were from racial, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds that differed from the majority white, English-speaking culture” (Sass-Lehrer, Gerner de Garcia, & Rovins, 1997, p. 1).  These students not only attend to the challenges of being hard of hearing, they also address concerns and norms within their own ethnic background, the Deaf community, and the general community.  Statistics on deaf children failed to note that African-American and Hispanic children who were hard of hearing or deaf fell behind in academics compared to their Caucasian counterparts (Sass-Lehrer, et al., 1997, p. 2).  Authors such as Janice Hale (author of Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles) suggest that individuals from different cultural groups learn, communicate, and interact in different ways.  Teachers must be aware of these differences so they can incorporate them into the classroom, making the learning experiences stronger for all students.

Children who are hard of hearing or deaf may have a difficult time picking up on various cultural aspects and “acquiring a complete understanding of the accepted values, traditions and behaviors of the cultures into which they were born” (Sass-Lehrer, et al., 1997, p. 2).  Because of this, it is imperative for teachers and schools to incorporate different styles of learning and knowledge of diverse cultures into the classroom and school communities.  There is a large amount of literature addressing multicultural issues in education of which teachers and administrators should take advantage.  These resources can show schools how to incorporate cultures into classrooms and curricula to help modify teaching strategies allowing students to make strong connections and insights.  Teachers should also keep in mind that all students will benefit from these strategies.

Not only does this knowledge of various cultures help students within the classroom, but it also affects them indirectly through parent-teacher contact.  Schools must help support families with children who are hard of hearing or deaf.  Yet when there are communication barriers between the school and family members, complications develop.  Sass-Lehrer et al. (1997) state that “barriers to providing families with information and services arise when professionals and school programs respond inadequately to cultural or linguistic differences” (p. 4).

One key element in school to home communication is language awareness.  If the main language at home differs from that at school, parents may find it difficult to understand the school’s needs and requests.  In turn, school may not correctly interpret the needs of the family.  Teachers and schools can resolve this issue by providing translated texts such as letters home, announcements, and newsletters.  Through this extended effort, schools are showing that they care about parental involvement and want to help all families be part of their child’s education.  This also empowers parents by giving them control rather than relying on others (possibly their children) to translate information for them.  

One of the main goals when incorporating cultural awareness into the classroom is for all students to appreciate diversity and develop an understanding of the needs of others.  An atmosphere of comfort and acceptance must be established within the classroom and school to initiate exploration and creativity.  This will encourage students to participate more, both academically and personally.

The curriculum in a culturally-aware classroom should incorporate various aspects of all cultures into the students’ learning.  Sass-Lehrer et al. (1997) suggest that teachers should not only discuss several main figures from different cultures; they should, “…integrate [a] study of the languages, history, customs, and perspective of different peoples” (p. 6), allowing students to attain a true understanding of the different cultures.  This can also be applied even further within the curriculum by evaluating certain events throughout history and looking at them from different cultural perspectives. Teachers should immerse themselves and their students in different cultures, creating an atmosphere of accepted diversity and exploration, including such areas as art, music, food, history, and holiday celebrations.

Students should be active learners within the classroom, making connections and applying them to everyday life.  It would also be beneficial for teachers to involve students in the decision-making process by having the students decide on different issues that interest them.  Students might make suggestions to the larger class for group projects, then selecting which ones they might enjoy exploring.  Or, with teacher support, individual students might select areas of interest to explore independently, later sharing with the class.  Instead of the teacher delivering information to the students, teachers might create projects where the students are doing their own discovering and researching what interests them (Waldron, 2005). 

As a functioning institution within the community, schools should help students see the important roles they as individuals play within their community as well.  Projects can branch out further than classroom walls to affect the community.  Students can participate in jobs or volunteer opportunities such as visiting nursing homes, mentoring programs for younger students, cleaning up the environment, or helping different community based companies. 

Teachers might also invite members of the community into the school and classroom to serve both as role models and as a means of demonstrating adult interest in education and encouraging the exploration and acceptance of diversity.  It is important to include individuals with hearing impairments into the classroom to explore areas of interest and concern.  While at times, it will be important to explore deafness and the Deaf culture, this should not be the only focus of invited speakers.  It is not necessary for adults to focus solely on hearing loss during their interactions with students.  They should be invited to explore hobbies and professional interests as naturally as do hearing guests to the school.  Creativity and excitement over shared experiences will create a greater acceptance of diversity than will a focus on sensory differences (Waldron, 2005).

Utilizing these strategies, educators can appeal to not only the ethnic differences within the classroom but also to other populations such as the Deaf community.  Students and families begin to feel empowered and the relationships between school and home are strengthened.