By MICHAEL BRINDLEY, Telegraph Staff
Published: Sunday, May. 6, 2007
Class was about to begin at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Boston, and Cher Garbos was frantically going through notes she made the night before.
“Crooked index finger, curved down,” she whispered to herself, making the motions with her right hand. There was a look of intense concentration on her face as she practiced sign language. She was forming the word “must,” and she wanted to make sure she got it right.
“I think they appreciate that we’re trying,” said Cher Garbos, as she finished her pre-class rehearsal.
Since the fall, Cher and her husband, Ray, a retired couple from Mont Vernon, have been volunteering at the Boston public school, designed specifically for students with full or partial hearing loss.
On Thursdays, they make the hour-and-a-half trek and spend the afternoon with the students, teaching them about robotics.
Over time, the students have learned how to use computer programming to get their robots to move around and complete different missions. But to get to that point, the Garbos had to figure out a way to break through what they described as a significant communication barrier.
With the students working hard to learn about robotics, Cher and Ray Garbos felt they needed to do their part by learning more about sign language and deaf culture.
So they signed up for a six-week course on American Sign Language offered by the Adult Learning Center in Nashua. It was there they learned some of the basics,
such as the alphabet, how to say their names, and how to finger spell.
It hasn’t been easy, however. Despite their progress with the language, they still need the help of translators provided by the school.
“(The students) know we’re struggling with the sign language, but they’re very patient,” said Ray Garbos. He recently retired from BAE Systems, which donated all of the LEGO Mindstorms kits for the program.
The IGNITE Foundation, based out of Shirley, Mass., helped get the Garbos in touch with administrators at the school. The Garbos have experience teaching, but this was their first time working with deaf and hard of hearing students.
“Was it intimidating? Yes,” said Ray Garbos, while hanging up posters in the classroom.
But the couple said the experience has been nothing short of extraordinary.
“We have entered an amazing world here,” said Cher Garbos.
This particular day in April three weeks ago was a milestone for both the students and the couple.
For the first time, the teens were going to be working on their robots independently. They had spent the previous classes learning how to use them, but now they were on their own.
And for the Garbos, this was their first trip to Boston since finishing their ASL course.
The students began to filter into the classroom and greeted the couple with hugs. It was clear the students had not only taken to their work with robots, but also to their new teachers.
Cher Garbos said after their first visit to the school, the students gave she and her husband sign names.
“You’re special in the deaf community if they give you a sign name,” she said.
After settling down, the students broke into their four groups and got to work on their projects.
The sounds of LEGOs hitting the tabletops and the whirring of motors filled the room. But for most of the students, there was silence.
“How’s it going? OK?” signed Cher Garbos, walking over to one of the tables in the room. Student Edward Gomez responded by holding up his robot, showing her that the gears were working.
Many of the students, speaking in sign language, expressed enthusiasm when asked about their work on the robots. Dominick Boyd, a sixth-grader, said it’s been interesting and fun. He even said it has inspired a possible career path.
“I want to be a scientist, he said”
Tenth-grader Alexandra Pena said it’s been fun, but “somewhat difficult.”
The Horace Mann School is the oldest public school for deaf children in the country. Fiona Bennie, a science teacher at the school, she has tried to give students more opportunities to interact with people from the science and space community.
Last year, NASA astronaut Dan Burbank visited the students, she said.
Bennie said having the students work on robotics has been a great change of pace to the curriculum. Earlier in the week, they had been dissecting animals.
“It’s been intense,” she said, signing as she spoke.
The students’ work would be used as part of their digital portfolios for the MCAS, or the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, she said.
The students involved with the robotics program were selected because they’ve either had academic problems in the past, or just needed something to make them feel like they were part of a team, she said.
For one of the girls in the class, Rena Cheek, this was her first day at the school. She was assigned to a group and immediately became engaged in the project.
Lori Hope, one of several interpreters at the school, helped translate what the students were saying. She said the school is just like any typical school, but many of the classes are smaller, and some of the teachers are also deaf.
Some of the students have been deaf since birth, and others had been able to hear at one point in their lives, but it has deteriorated over the years, she said.
“We have a wide range here,” said Hope.
There are 145 students at the Horace Mann School, ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Unlike many robotics teams, these students are not going to be competing against other teams or schools.
Cher Garbos pointed out that while she and her husband made progress in learning sign language through the Nashua class, they also learned a lot from the students.
Like any teens, they have their own kind of language and slang, she said.
“They tend to simplify things a lot,” she said.
Since they started the sign language course, “we’ve really been able to engage (the students) in signs,” said Cher Garbos.
And they are committed to learning more. They signed up for a second, more advanced session of the ASL course with the Adult Learning Center.
“I’m looking forward to coming back when I can really speak sign to them,” said Cher Garbos.