The Journal News,

Westchester County, New York

Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Seeing 'Through Deaf Eyes'

A photography class opens a window on a silent world

Olivia Barker, The Journal News

Jennifer Ritter peers through her viewfinder and snaps a woman's pale green pump lying on a cracked pavement. Eddie Oquendo aims his camera at a glossy red fire hydrant and clicks. Charlie Lopez scrunches down and shoots a voluptuous mushroom blooming by a tree.

For these deaf teen-ages, seeing beauty in the commonplace comes easily; when the world's sounds are shut off, its images register sharply. And when words don't work well, pictures tell stories that are just as compelling.

Ritter, Oquendo and Lopez attend the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, where educators are increasingly weaving visual arts into traditional curricula to engage kids in learning, from social studies to science.

As school for hearing children ax the arts in favor of Regent-preparing programs, the NYSD, whose students must also pass Regents exams, is recognizing the benefits of mixing photography and drawing with reading and writing. Far from paint-by-numbers playtime., the school's art-centered projects promote critical thinking and inspire self-reflection, say teachers and students.

"We're really seeing that the way our students learn best, in the broadest and deepest sense of that term, is through the arts, "says Susan Murray, the principal of the state-supported private school, where teachers began integrating arts into the curriculum three years ago. Founded in 1817, the school draws 160 students aged 3 to 21 from the Bronx and Manhattan to Dutchess and Orange counties.

"It's ironic in a way, but the impetus has been our adoption of New York state standards of learning." says Murray. "We've identified the arts as a very meaningful way for our students to achieve those standards."

"Their primary limitation is being facile with the English language, because they never hear it, and it's a very tricky language to learn, " she explains. "Being able to work through the arts gives then a more level playing field. And art is a way to communicate, at its most basic level.

"It's another way for them to tell the words about themselves." Affectionately known as Fanwood, the New York School for the Deaf matches teachers with local artists, like Mark Scheflen, a veteran photographer from Manhattan. Scheflen has been helping Fanwood classes assemble phot diaries-multimedia journals of text, photos and drawings that illustrate what stirs and moves each child as they go about their daily lives.

In a basement classroom, as Scheflen gives a slide show of work by hearing children, students in baseball caps and pony tails chat amongst themselves just as any other teens would --except their chitchat is silent. Their fingers do the talking.

But soon the chatter stops-arms drop into laps and faces turn toward the projector screen. Scheflen shows pictures of pollution at its prettiest: graffiti, rusty bikes, a blob of motor oil bobbing along a mucky creek in Queens and undulating like amoeba.

"There's beauty in something very disturbing," Scheflen tell them. "Something so subtle can be captured with a camera."

On campus and at home, the students venture off to find their own images of beauty: a footprint in the mud, toes wriggling in the grass, friends caught in the act of flirting. Back in class they swap photos like baseball cards, using scissors to cut, crop and edit their journals entries. Fingerprints, verboten in the family picture album, are encourages here.

Scheflen calls their approach sensual.

"These kids are very intimate, subject-matter wise, " he says. "Their photos encompass a lot of social activity -not strangers, boats, river scenes or people's pets."They're really alive inside." When ears fail, eyes more than compensate.

"They're very perceptive," say Rosemarie Lynch, a global studies teacher who has worked with Scheflen. "They notice things that you and I would never see."

During a Bronx Zoo field trip to study animal kingdoms around the world, cameras squeak and whirr as zoom lenses extend and retract. Lynch's eight Fanwood students squat on their calves, lie on the floor and lean over railings, snapping swooping monkeys, a demure black leopard, a tightly coiled tree kangaroo and a gavial so gray and stony it looks like a statue.

Five children stand below, on a hollowed out log that's currently home to a nestling blood python. Yann Spindler is the only deaf child to reach up and casually stroke the snake. Spindler, 16, pokes Lynch to get her attention and then pounds his palm against his forearm, a sign that he understands why the log is part of the rainforest exhibit. In the jungle, the python's habitat is being chopped down.

Spindler shakes his head in resignation. He later tucks pictures of the rainforest into his photo diary.

"Yann thinks that images are a much more interesting way to communicate, and that has everything to do with the fact that he's deaf, "says his mother, Ginny Spindler.

"He's not the type who's going to tell you what's going on in his life," adds Spindler, a nursing student who lives upstate in Cairo. "Instead, he'll show you."

After the photos get picked out and pasted down, students pen captions that are sometimes passionate, often irreverent.

About that abandoned green pump, Ritter writes: "one of the teachers must've dropped her shoe." About capturing a moment of unrequited flirting, Oquendo carefully prints: "Luis tried to smell the gel in Nubia's hair , but he failed."

When Mike Russo graduated from Fanwood in 1976, art meant an hour of class drawing "whatever we wanted." It was play time, really," Russo, the president of the greater New York American Sign Language Teachers Association says through a tele-typewriter (TTY), a keyboard that electronically sends sounds representing letters to an operator or another TTY user. "There was no purpose at all.

"I wish I had had (Scheflen's) kind of class," adds Russo, who lives in Scarsdale. "I strongly believe visual arts are very important for deaf children, to expand their knowledge and imagination."

Scheflen's students rarely leave home without tucking a 35mm camera in their backpack or jeans pocket. "With English and math, there's some blocking to learning, "signs Hyatt Bolonos, 16 "but here, there's flexibility and creativity."

Luis Osario, 17 chimes in: "in regular math and science, I'm not as motivated, but here I get excited. We're encouraged to express out feelings and experiences."

Last fall Scheflen took several boxes of diaries to a school for deaf children in Kenya. After poring through the plastic binders for hours, the Kenyan students assembled their own photo diaries.

Beneath pictures of faces smiling and stoic, legs clad in raggedy socks and holey shows are printed pleas: " I wanted to make friends with you," "Don"t let me down because I have really liked you so you just have to communicate with me" and "I love you."

"They really mean it," Scheflen says. Murray says Scheflen's multimedia approach, and the students' enthusiastic response to it, convinced her of the project's value --its "beauty."

"Our students struggle with the curriculum, with access to the written word, but there's no struggle with this project," Murray says. "It's open and inviting to them.."

Murray has seen eight-graders who, for the first time in her five years at Fanwood, wanted their writing to be "absolutely perfect" when putting together their journals. Then there was the time two kids jumped out of their cafeteria seats to fill Murray in on the details of the project.

"Let me tell you, that doesn't happen very often," says Murray, who has 20 years experience in deaf education. "It just shows the interest level and engagement in their work. They take it very, very seriously."

In Fanwood's recent renovated TV studio, art teachers John Mucciolo explains to a half-dozen students the premise of his new class, "Through Deaf Eyes". To tell stories of deaf culture and tradition through photos first, then words.

Stephen Clarke, 16 jumps in: "To show (hearing people) what it's like to walk in our shoes."

When asked how, Hyatt Bolonos is the first to sign, her fingernails polished in powder blue.

"I plan to take pictures of flowers with no eyes," she says. "But they can smell and breathe."