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Deaf students blaze trails for others who are deaf

Ann Arbor News
November 21, 2004

Trailblazer mentors work with preschoolers

News Staff Reporter

Nicolette Dabney was theatrical as she told the story of "Beauty and the Beast" to the preschoolers in Lyn Kirkwood's classroom at Bach Elementary School.

She smiled, then scowled, then raised her eyebrows as she directed her intense brown eyes at the three small children in front of her. Next to her sat her friend Tania Greer, who turned the pages of the colorful Disney picture book.

The only sounds during the storytelling session were the hum of the radiator, an occasional burble of enthusiasm from one of the children and the soft background conversation of Kirkwood and a classroom visitor. That's because Nicolette used American Sign Language, not spoken words, to tell the story.

She and Tania, both 17, are deaf, as are the three preschoolers they work with four days a week as part of Pioneer High School's Trailblazers mentoring program.

While the two seniors are among 70 Pioneer mentors who help at four Ann Arbor elementary schools, their placement is perhaps the most unusual. Nicolette and Tania were once students themselves in Kirkwood's classroom, when they were just beginning their journey through the Ann Arbor school system 15 years ago. There is even a picture in Kirkwood's photo album showing Nicolette and Tania posing together with bright smiles when they were just 3 years old.

Today, the pair seem like typical teenagers. Nicolette, who favors black and pink outfits, loves to draw and watch the Lifetime channel on TV. Tania, whose resting expression hints at a smile, likes to chat with friends online or with her boyfriend, using a system in which a special operator relays her typed words to her boyfriend via spoken words.

Nicolette, who may attend the National Technical Institute for the Deaf next year, said she's considering a teaching career. Tania, who may attend Washtenaw Community College, is undecided about her career direction.

It was Kirkwood who urged Tania and Nicolette to return to her classroom as part of Trailblazers, which awards participants one elective credit for the year. The girls, she says, have high-level signing skills and an instinctive understanding of what confuses 4-year-old Kalib Jones and 5-year-old Xavier Hall, the two children they work with most.

"They're very flexible and very good," said Kirkwood.

The preschoolers, in turn, seem to be especially receptive to their mentors.

Jonathan Stern, a social worker at Pioneer and the Trailblazers site supervisor at Bach, said, "They are absolutely rapt. They just tune in very quickly to those girls."

On a recent afternoon, as the girls prepared to play color and shape bingo with the children, Tania noticed Kalib seemed droopy.

"What's wrong?" she signed.

"I'm sleepy," he signed back.

A few minutes later, though, Kalib was gleeful as he covered the brown triangle on his bingo board with a red chip. The grin on his face said what words and signs couldn't.

Ann Schimke can be reached at or (734) 994-6855.

© 2004 Ann Arbor News.



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