Starting Seventh Grade

Grace started her second year of Middle School yesterday. She knows how to take the bus. She knows her way around the building. She’s got a lot of friends. She was still nervous, though – nervous enough not to be able to take more than a couple of bites of her pumpkin bread. Usually she eats three whole pieces of pumpkin bread.

 You know who was a lot less nervous this year than last year? Me. Last year, I spent the summer trying not to hyperventilate at the thought of my kid not getting off at the right bus stop and then getting lost trying to find her way home. I narrowly avoided weekly nervous breakdowns throughout July and August, imagining her trying to navigate through a noisy school where she was about to be one of 430 sixth graders, after coming from a school with only thirty kids in her whole fifth grade.

 She did great last year. None of the stuff I was anxious about phased her. She aced sixth grade.

 When I went to meet with the 504 coordinator at the end of the school year last year, her teachers stopped in during the meeting. I learned something. Her language arts teacher, a young guy with a pretty dynamic teaching style, doesn’t understand the meaning of 504 plans. He said that when Grace told him at the beginning of the year that she is deaf and uses cochlear implants to hear, and that it would help her if she could sit up front in the class, preferably in the center of the row of desks, he said, “Why don’t you stay where I’ve put you [at the back of the room] for now. If it’s a problem you can let me know later and we can talk about moving you.”

 It isn’t really a big deal. Grace did fine in that class. She did fine in that seat. But that’s not the point. At the time, during the meeting, I just nodded. When I got home, and started replaying the conversation in my head though, I got kind of pissed.

 So when the 504 coordinator checked in with me a week later to finalize the plan, I tried to be pro-active. This is Me Learning A Little from one year to the next. First, I wrote up a short-ish explanation of how Grace hears, and the sorts of auditory challenges she might face in the classroom. I asked the 504 coordinator to give it to every one of her 7th grade teachers. I’m putting a copy of the write-up at the end of this post for anyone who wants to see it – feel free to copy and modify it for your own kids.

 I also said this in the email: I wasn't sure how to respond when Mr. M_ mentioned that he had overridden Grace's request to sit up front at the beginning of the year. I did confirm with her that she asked to move, and that he did indeed say something to the effect of "let's leave it like this for now and if it's a problem we can re-assess..." Its not always easy for Grace to advocate for herself in this way, as she prefers not to call attention to her CI situation whenever possible, so I'm really proud of her for asking. I know Mr. M_ is young, but I think it's important he understand that this is an accommodation she has a legal right to, and that in the future, if a child asks for an accommodation to be implemented, they should be commended for standing up for themselves and promptly have that accommodation met. Grace did indeed do fine in his class, but any time a teacher refuses to honor her legal request, it makes it that much harder for her to ask next time... 

 Yesterday when Grace came home and we talked about how her first day had gone, she told me she’d spoken to every single one of her teachers. She told them she was deaf. She told them about her CIs. And she told them it would help her to sit at the front of the class. I don’t know if her teachers received the write-up I provided, especially because the coordinator I met in the spring is no longer working at the school. I plan to follow-up with the new coordinator this week. What I do know is that this kid knows what she needs, and knows how to get it. I'm pretty sure she’s going to ace seventh grade.


Grace, and Hearing With Cochlear Implants in the Classroom

Background –

Grace is deaf. She was born with a profound hearing loss in both ears. When she was one year old, she had cochlear implant surgery for her left ear. When she was eight, she decided to have surgery for her right ear.

With her CIs on, the results of her auditory testing are similar to those of someone with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss. But she still hears differently than someone who is hard of hearing.

Grace has been in a mainstream classroom setting throughout her entire life as a student. She is a great learner, and had a terrific and successful year as a 6th grader.

 Cochlear implants –

A cochlear implant (CI) gives deaf people access to sound. A microphone picks up acoustic sound, and sends the sound signal to the speech processor in the earpiece, where it is converted to an electronic signal. This electronic signal travels up a cable to the transmitter (held onto the CI user’s head with a magnet), and across the skin to a receiver. Then the signal travels into the inner ear (cochlea), where an electrode array has been surgically placed. The electric signal stimulates electrodes along this array, which travel to the auditory nerve and then the brain, where the user interprets the sound.

 For Grace, 22 electrodes in each ear do the job that is normally assigned to tens of thousands of tiny hair cells inside the cochlea.

 How Grace is impacted as a CI user in the classroom

Volume: It is difficult for Grace to hear quiet sounds, especially those that fall in the higher frequencies (e.g., whispering, soft voices, birds chirping).

 Location: Because Grace now has two activated implants, she can locate the source of sound, within about a 45 degree range; this means she can find the general area where a sound is coming from, but may not be able to pinpoint the exact location/speaker just by listening, the way you or I could.

 Hearing in noise: Grace’s CIs are less nuanced than our natural ears. This means that it is much more difficult for her to tease out the “important” auditory information when there is other noise. “Noise” can mean many kids talking at once, or sounds from a construction site. But other, less obvious noise also makes it difficult for Grace to hear: whirring from electric fans and air conditioners, bubbling from a fish tank filter, chairs scraping along the floor, all interfere with Grace’s ability to hear and make her have to work harder to concentrate on the important stuff.

 Pitch: Grace does better distinguishing pitch than many CI users, but there are definite limits to her ability to hear tone and pitch differences. The smaller the difference, the less likely she is going to be able to distinguish between them.

 Sound quality: Listening to a less-than-optimal auditory recording poses increased challenges for Grace, particularly if it is unaccompanied by video (she uses lip reading to supplement what she hears).

 How you can help

Seating: Many of these challenges can be alleviated, at least in part, by allowing Grace to sit in the center front of the classroom. This way, she will be closer to the source of your voice, and can also balance the sound coming from all sides to help her with sound location.

Subtle Check-ins: Grace has learned to advocate for herself if there is something she hasn’t heard or doesn’t understand. You can support her further by checking in after providing important auditory information by making eye contact with her, giving a thumbs up signal, etc… to confirm that she has grasped what you’ve just said.

 Support with written notes: On days when you will be using audio recordings, lessons that involve pitch discrimination, or other auditory strategies, please consider providing Grace with a written summary of or visual supports to the auditory content, and/or checking in with her before or after class to discuss/explain what is being taught.

 Strategies for noise reduction: These can include closing the windows if there is recess noise, traffic, or active construction sites outside, or closing the door if there is noise in the hallway.