Navigating the Moving Staircase: Supporting Students with Hearing Loss in Rural Areas

“Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible. I think it’s in my basement… let me go upstairs and check”. -M.C. Escher

The issue

In schools for deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) students with small populations, like those that are in or that serve rural areas, it is challenging to serve students of diverse ages and ability levels.  With improved early identification over the past 20 years, we have students arriving at schools with better skill sets and identifications of multiple diagnoses, challenges, and strengths that aid in adjusting instructional delivery.  But, when schools need to have classrooms with multiple ages and multiple cognitive and language skill levels, juggling classroom management and curriculum is similar to the moving staircases in the popular Harry Potter movies or the painting by M.C. Escher.  These constantly changing staircases reflect the upward, lateral, and sometime confusing task that teachers and staff face in bringing students to learning and the curriculum to the moment of learning in diverse students.

What we know

We know that this complex navigation is a challenge: Diverse student needs meet traditional teaching styles and methodologies in deaf education.  In addition, we know that a great deal of learning and language facilitation needs to occur outside of as well as within the curriculum.  This facilitation often requires a great deal of intuitive skill on behalf of staff.  It also requires greater staff skills in sign language and concept conveyance.  However, the provision of language expansion in concept and social language might fall short in some rural areas simply due to the lack of skills, exposure, and teaching talent available.  Many smaller and rural DHH programs struggle even more with continuity and staff turnover than the field at large.  This further challenges the knowledge foundation that our students and academic teams face each year.

With varying skills and age levels in one classroom, it is a challenge to provide rigor at all levels, keep all students actively engaged, and ensure effective communication among all learners. Building a community of diverse learners and maintaining a critical mass in student numbers helps maintain student progress. Often times deaf education teachers will rely on their support staff and teaching assistants to create learning (level) groups to maintain a content focus among diverse learners in areas such as math, science, or language arts.  This “divide and conquer” concept works well enough when there are ample numbers of students in each learning group and enough staff to handle them.  Problem occur when single students are in learning groups on their own. Regrouping students is then necessary to handle multiple learning levels in different areas at one time. The challenge in regrouping is to remain acutely aware of student success, comprehension, frustration, and feigned comprehension.  All of this happens within the dynamics of multiple skill, age, and communication modalities. It seems likely that technology might help in such situations.

What we don’t know

With the impact of rapidly-changing technology and greater auditory access for DHH learners, we tend to expect better progress in learning and generalizations for our DHH students.  In rural areas, we often struggle to get adequate numbers of students to build classrooms of learners. Can we serve the multiple groups and levels using technology? Utilizing such tools might alleviate the challenges of juggling the curriculum through self-paced programs or apps that allow students to proceed independently. How do we deliver such training to staff and providers? Is there time built into the work day for staff to explore alternative media and apps to address the needs of individual students who are not “cookie cutter” DHH students? How can our leading institutions help broaden our teachers’ skillsets to meet the constantly growing and changing technologies and media platforms to better serve our students?


Technology offers rural and smaller schools for DHH students new opportunities. This implies skilled individuals in apps, media, and programing to help meet the variety of diverse needs of our diverse DHH students.  Taking this technology and media to each of them via teachers of the deaf, speech language pathologists, and support personnel is a challenge, but one that should pay off in the near future. Do we rely on special education assistive technology departments to bring this information of technology to our classrooms? Or, do we grow our own?  The staircase moves again.

Posted on Oct. 10, 2017 by
Ann Curry
Alaska State School for Deaf & Hard of Hearing
curry_ann {at}


Further reading

Dirks, E., & Wauters, L. (2015). Enhancing emergent literacy in pre-school deaf and hard-of-hearing children through interactive reading. In H. Knoors & M. Marschark (Eds.), Educating deaf learners: Creating a global evidence base (pp. 415-441). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Leigh, G. & Crowe, K. (2015). Responding to cultural and linguistic diversity among deaf and hard-of hearing learners. In H. Knoors and M. Marschark (Eds.), Educating deaf learners: Creating a global evidence base. (pp. 69-92). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Marschark, M., & Leigh, G. (2016). Recognizing diversity in deaf education: Now what do we do with it?! In M. Marschark, V. Lampropoulou, & E. Skordilis (Eds.), Diversity in deaf education (pp. 507-535). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details