Learning Language in a Physical Way
We are a very small state school for the deaf in the very small state of Rhode Island. Students come to our school at the age of three and many stay until they graduate at the age of 18 to 21 years of age. Each and every student has a hearing loss and some students have other challenges as well. Our primary language is sign language but we support sign language with spoken language, as well as with pictures, depending on students’ need.
As an occupational therapist, I am passionate about learning by doing. I believe that hands-on learning or project-based learning is the key to teaching deaf students. Clearly many of the teachers at the school believe the same and this is why we have a school garden, and why we have had a school garden for many years.
The garden is used to teach language as well as to teach concepts. One example may be the preschool classroom reading the book The Enormous Watermelon by Brenda Parkes. The students will go out to the garden and see, touch, feel, and actually pull a huge watermelon from the garden. “Doing” supports teaching when learning language in a physical way.
Our Life Skills classroom for older students is a pre-vocational classroom. The goal is to teach good work habits and work skills. Last year we received a very generous donation of 30 tomato plants. The students planted them all in our 15 square foot boxes and yielded a bounty of beautiful, ripe tomatoes at the beginning of the school year. When students collected the tomatoes from the plants, they were thrilled to see that after all of the watering and the waiting, they were finally able to pick the fruit. After collecting them, they chopped these fine red beauties and learned how to make a fresh tomato sauce. We had huge pots simmering on the stove. The students were in their glory.
After all of the chopping of the tomatoes, I knew the students were comfortable with knives and handling hot pots. With much deliberation and some resistance from the school administration, we were finally able to serve our sauce with pasta for lunch in the school cafeteria. Our lunch lady was very reluctant but inwardly knew that she was doing the right thing by allowing this event. The administration also came by to share in our lunch. Our student gardeners were so very proud they had made the sauce that everyone was eating.
Although one would think that a school for the deaf is a quiet place, our school lunch room is usually a very noisy place -- lots of action -- just like any other school cafeteria. But on this day, our cafeteria was silent. With prompting, two of the six students who helped to make the lunch got up on chairs to get everyone’s attention to tell of the preparation that went into growing and creating the meal we were sharing. They enthusiastically pointed towards the garden and then toward their audience, communicating their pride and understanding of the connection between the garden and what they were eating, as well as who made it. Hand waves for the students!
Our goal is to permanently add our fresh organic produce to our school lunches and have as many students as possible involved in the growth and preparation of the food. Cooking and kitchen responsibility gives our students purpose and ownership -- skills which make them feel useful and help to boost their self-esteem within the larger world around them.