Wearing ear stopples in ASL classroom

Sometime in the middle of the first month of the semester in ASL 211 between 2012 and 2017, each of my ASL hearing students received a pair of the earplugs or ear stopples to give them an experience of the sensory enhancement (well, I wouldn't rather say 'sensory deprivation') during the class.

Then, the students were expected to report their experience in their reflection papers. A few students continued wearing them after the class as I encouraged them if they wished. Below are the highlights of some common experiences and unique comments in categories.

Anticipation prior to using the stopples

A student didn't expect to enjoy the experience but later did enjoy. Another felt a little excited, then a little afraid when putting the plugs in, and then calmed down. Another, "the idea of the earplugs very creative and amusing", "ear stopples which I had to google after class, as I had never used earplugs", ...

One student was puzzled why they had to wear earplugs when they were already refraining from using voices and staying silent in class and she thought they did very well in previous classes that were silent enough. However, she discovered that the experience of silence with earplugs was very different from silence without them.

Similarly, another student didn't think that wearing earplugs would really impact her perceptions because they weren't supposed to talk (voice) in class anyway. But, she discovered that the experience was "much more intense and authentic."

A common assumption is that some students didn't think there would be much difference but it turned out to be incorrect.

Wearing stopples during the class

Sometimes, some students could hear muffled sounds. For others, it was more silent.

Some students found that they were not used to not hearing common backgrounds noises such as coughs, fans, the scratch of a pencil on paper, giggles, desk moving, shuffling around, papers rustling, classmates shifting in their seats, opening a food wrapper, etc. "Strange". "Similar to the feeling of being under water", "found myself into another world", "very strange.. foreign", "After securely putting in the earplugs, I quickly noticed the obvious changes."

In the meanwhile, they generally found that they were "able to concentrate much better", "much easier to concentrate", "greatly improve my learning in class", "minimize distractions during class", "no distractions", "enhanced focus", "heightened my other senses such as sight and smell", "more alert with using my vision to focus on what was being taught and to take in what was going on in my surroundings," "pay more attention to facial expressions. Just like the tone of a voice can help you decipher meaning behind a phrase, facial expressions provide meaning to understand what is being signed."

A student noticed that their awareness of their own bodily functions was "heightened". More "aware of the impact of my fingertips upon my chest when signing, for example, 'happy'". Another took note of her breathing patterns, "very aware of internal sounds such as my own breathing or the clearing of my throat", "more aware of my own heartbeat which was really cool", "very self-conscious", ...

"The earplugs forced me to rely primarily on my visual perceptions, as opposed to falling back on the habit of using my auditory perceptions as a crutch." Another, "found myself noticing things out of the corner of my eye that I would have likely previously ignored."

Occasionally quite the opposite from students: "At first, I found it more distracting because I was so used to having small noises continuously going on around me. By eliminating the background noise it was a little more difficult to focus on signing, possibly just because the experience was new."

A student found that she was "an island of my own thoughts.. not frustration.. nice to be able to have all of my thoughts so clear and uninterrupted for a long period of time."

Another, "It emphasized the sounds of my own voice in my head." Others, "a certain serenity and clarity of thought...refreshing to be alone with my thoughts", ....

Taking off the plugs

"stimuli come rushing back", "a little weird to be able to hear so clearly again, it was a foreign feeling", ...

"when I took them off, everything was much louder and it took some time to become accustomed to the noise as I did previously with the earplugs. After taking out the earplugs, noises sounded more intense, and I again was more aware of all the different sounds." (2013)

Wearing earplugs after class

Many students removed their earplugs at the end of their class, but a few ones decided to continue wearing them on their way out of the class.

"extremely peaceful so much that" she decided to continue wearing them on her bus ride and indulged "in a perfectly quiet bus ride for the first itme in my life."

"I personally decided to keep the earplugs in for a while longer as I walked across campus to meet my friends. Throughout the whole experience I noticed that I became more aware of my surroundings, focusing more on details."

A few exceptions: One 200-level hearing student (2019), who has been involved in the Deaf community and acquired ASL before taking her first ASL course, wear earplugs every night to sleep and took them off in the morning. So she found wearing the earplugs was more tiring and her receptive skills were a bit worse for missing other students signing a few first words. For her, it's useful for peaceful moments but not in ASL class.

Some interesting notes: "My parents are always nagging me about not listening to music whenever I cross the roads and stuff as I wouldn't be able to hear for vehicles, horns, etc. Well, having ear plugs in definitely makes me look out more for cars."

"On a random note, I did not hear the oven go off and my fish was (ALMOST) burning in the oven, but I smelt it and saved it on time so it was still edible."

Results of the experience

Many students find their experiences: "very enlightening", "fun and eye-opening", "enriching", "very unique and worthwhile", "interesting", "a great experience", "uncomfortable", ...

One student decided that she wouldn't mind using earplugs for the rest of her ASL classes. Likewise, another "would most definitely wear the ear stopples during every ASL class."

"I frequently wear ear plugs while practicing my signing at home, but I've never worn them in a classroom setting before, and the experience was really different. (in classroom) significantly larger receptive part, and there is no 'replay' button", ...

"I also noticed I paid more attention to facial expressions, when in conversation, even after the earplugs were out. I did notice that over time, I became used to the silence and I didn’t think twice about it." (2013)

"This experience made it more obvious on how different cues are used in life between the hearing community and the Deaf community, whether it’s getting one another’s attention or just a simple conversation between two friends." (2013)

Overall reflections

"...made me appreciate my hearing."

"Because I am a hearing person, having my hearing taken away was uncomfortable, which I don't think is the same experience that a Deaf person has (I assume). I say this because Deaf people are accustomed to that way of life, they have their own culture and identity that hearing doesn't make whole. I know if I was permanently without my hearing, I would eventually learn to adjust and it wouldn't be as uncomfortable anymore. This was a good experience and it helped us students see a little bit of a Deaf persons reality." (2013)

Posted 2016. Updated 2019.

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