Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Deaf teacher at Florida high school inspires students' interest in ASL

From the Miami Herald:

When Cathy Oshrain first became a teacher, she wondered how she would communicate with her students.

Oshrain, who was born deaf, had been hired to teach hearing students at North Miami Beach Senior High. She was one of only six deaf teachers at traditional public schools in South Florida.

But for Oshrain, an expressive and energetic woman with an obvious passion for her craft, connecting with students was never a problem.

``It was easier than I thought it would be,'' said Oshrain, 53, who was interviewed for this article through a student interpreter and e-mail. ``It came naturally. They understood me and I understood them.''

Today, all of Oshrain's sign language classes are full. And more than 50 students are active in the school's American Sign Language Club.

``It's a big thing here,'' said Cat St. Preux, a junior. ``People see us signing in the halls and they want to do it, too.''

Ruth Doirin, 18, credits her teacher.

``She's an inspiration,'' Ruth said. ``She shows us that we can do anything we put our minds to.''

Both Oshrain and her older sister were born deaf. Their mother worked hard to make sure they had a normal childhood. But growing up, the girls were sometimes teased by their classmates.

``It was difficult,'' Oshrain recalled. ``I didn't understand why my friends would make fun of me.''

Oshrain remembers wanting to be a teacher at 9. She was inspired by her teachers, many of whom had treated her well.

``When my friends had trouble in math, I would help them with their homework,'' she said. ``I knew I had it in me.''

At the time, however, deaf people were rarely offered jobs in the classroom. So Oshrain become a lab technician. She held the job for 15 years -- until she decided she needed to pursue her passion.

``By that time, things were different,'' she said. ``I knew in my heart that I could get a job as a teacher.''

Oshrain enrolled at Florida International University, where she earned a bachelor's in liberal arts. She later pursued a master's degree at Barry University.

In 1996, Oshrain was hired as a part-time teacher at North Miami Beach Senior High. She became a full-time teacher in 2000 -- and a nominee for the school district's prestigious Rookie Teacher of the Year award.

Oshrain's program at North Miami Beach has grown since then. Oshrain now teaches three levels of American Sign Language. She also runs a class for students interested in becoming interpreters.

It's a unique operation: Only five other Miami-Dade schools and 12 Broward schools offer sign language classes for hearing students. Few, if any, offer as extensive a program as North Miami Beach Senior.

``I couldn't ask for a better career,'' Oshrain said.

In class, Oshrain communicates through student assistants. She has become an expert at reading lips. Oshrain understands about 70 percent of words -- much more than the average of about 20 percent. She can read lips from the side, too.

Her classes go beyond teaching sign language. Oshrain also teaches her students about deaf culture. Each experiences deafness by wearing ear plugs for a day. And Oshrain constantly talks about things like tolerance and respect.

``Not only do I teach them the subject, I teach them to be responsible and develop respect for every individual,'' she said.

Her students give her high marks.

Senior Desmond Bender, 18, said he was once uncomfortable around deaf people. But he's since learned to be at ease.

``We shouldn't be scared of deaf people because they are regular people, just like me and you,'' he said.

This year, seven of the teenagers in Oshrain's advanced sign language class hope to become professional interpreters.

Oshrain hopes her teaching will help open doors for deaf people -- and in particular, make it easier for deaf people to find jobs.

``I want my students to break down the barriers,'' she said.

On a recent afternoon, the students in Oshrain's advanced class each signed a short essay.

Veronica Forte, 17, was among the first to make her presentation.

``I am a very random person,'' she signed. ``I love laughing and I love eating Panda Express.''

When Veronica finished, her classmates applauded by waving their hands in the air.

Cat was the next to go.

Her presentation was near perfect, except she signed ``postpone'' instead of ``explain.''

Oshrain complimented her, and then corrected the slight mistake.

Later, the students discussed a conspiracy theory they have: Oshrain can actually hear.

``She has this keen sense,'' said senior Kahreem Dubuisson. ``We say her name and even if she's not facing us, she turns around.''

``She's going to tell us at graduation that she can actually hear,'' Ruth added.

As if on cue, Oshrain turned around.

``I have eyes on the back of my head,'' Oshrain signs in response. ``And under my hair.''

The class laughed for a minute, and then returned to the lesson.