English Language Specialist Scott Kupferman embarked on a multi-phase project in the Philippines, focused on addressing the unique English language learning needs of Deaf students. While each phase of Kupferman’s project had distinctive objectives, the characteristics of his audiences were consistent. “Across all three phases, I engaged with amazing Deaf students, collaborated with passionate educators, and was welcomed into the Filipino Deaf community with open arms,” he says.
Making an Impact, In-Person and Virtually
The first phase of Kupferman’s project was an in-person needs assessment designed to identify the language learning requirements of Deaf students, with the goal of facilitating their transition from high school to college and into successful careers. “Everyone expressed a desire to expand access to college and career opportunities for Deaf students, leading to their increased independence and meaningful inclusion as members of society,” he says. A second virtual phase saw Kupferman developing an assessment tool and instructional modules based on the findings from the initial phase. These tools incorporated English and Filipino Sign Language (FSL) samples, ensuring inclusivity. The third phase included in-person Training of Trainers workshops and a public event to share the project’s results.
While Kupferman and the College were pleased with how the objectives of each phase of the project were met, it was the unexpected outcomes that Kupferman saw as a “true reflection of the bright future of Deaf students in the Philippines.” For example, participants noted a desire to share resources beyond Manila, develop a summer bridge program for Deaf high school students as they transition to college, and create a curricular framework for middle and high school teachers. In addition, employers of Deaf college graduates stated their plans to incorporate content from the Specialist project into their employee training programs.
While reflecting on the most meaningful aspects of his project, Kupferman shared a touching experience where a Deaf student signed, “thank you for being as bright as a flashlight.” This sentiment was a testament to the positive impact of the project. Moreover, his students further honored him with a new moniker. “In a show of respect, they gave me a sign name: the letter ‘S’ for ‘Scott’ in a downward motion along my jawline, which represents my beard,” he says. Kupferman has continued to learn Filipino sign language in the time since his project’s completion, proudly sharing this new name with family and friends in the United States.
Biking, Boxing and Brainstorming: The Value of Daily Routines
Kupferman says that establishing a daily routine early on is an important part of any international experience. In the Philippines, this involved morning walks along the Manila Baywalk Dolomite Beach (or Robinson’s Mall, when it was rainy) and visits to local coffee shops. His favorite was the Aristocrat, a mainstay with locals since pre-World War II times. He enjoyed sharing stories with the Deaf students and educators, deepening his cultural connection through bicycle and food tours. His in-person experience even involved being a guest of honor at a local boxing match, invited by none other than pro-boxer and Filipino politician Manny Pacquiao!
Building Support and Respect, at Home and Abroad
The multi-phase project format, blending in-person and virtual elements, proved to be highly effective. “The longer duration [of the project] allowed me to gain a more in-depth understanding of the unique English language learning needs of Deaf students in the Philippines,” he says. “It also allowed me to build rapport with key stakeholders, earning their trust and respect.” To facilitate the sharing of resources throughout the project, Kupferman established an online Canvas course, which is still in use after the project’s completion. Indeed, the course now serves as a community hub for all things English learning and Deaf students in the Philippines.
Casting a Wide Net: Guidance for Assessment-Focused Projects
Kupferman offers valuable advice for participants embarking on assessment-focused projects. He stresses the importance of comprehensive data collection, “casting a wide net” to gather diverse perspectives and insights. Kupferman held focus groups with high school and college level Deaf students, educators, and administrators as part of this assessment; he also held classroom observations, took facility tours, and held a literature review.
As extensive as this process has been, Kupferman says he is still in touch with these educators and is happy to give them feedback on their work. “I am currently trying to help build capacity among my Filipino colleagues as they implement a continuous improvement cycle with ongoing needs assessments,” he says. “The resulting data points will refine and expand English language learning opportunities for Deaf students far beyond my project’s scale and scope.”
“Dynamic Assessments” and the Value of Varied Contexts
Kupferman emphasized the complexities of assessing Deaf students, acknowledging factors such as language choices, assistive technology, and available services as components which come together to form a more complete image of each individual’s language journey. To address the multitude of factors his students were bringing with them into the language learning process, he adopted a dynamic assessment approach, looking beyond their language skills to their skills in other more varied contexts. This approach to assessment provided for “a more productive learning experience that allowed the Deaf student to develop language skills, metacognitive strategies, and problem-solving insights,” he says. Kupferman also integrated language samples from both English and Filipino sign language in his work, gathered from conversations, interviews, narratives, and expository samples.
The Good We Can Do Together
When asked about cultural exchange, Kupferman refers to Benjamin Franklin’s quote regarding his partnership with the French during the Revolutionary War, that “the good we can do together surpasses the good we can do alone.” Cultural exchange, to Kupferman, means collaboration, listening, learning, sharing, understanding, respect, and patience. “My colleagues in the Philippines have truly become friends, as we shared everything from our kids’ school photos to our dreams for the future,” he says. The desire to build those kinds of long-lasting connections are central to his approach towards representing American culture abroad.
Professional Growth and Future Plans
Kupferman says that in many ways his project in the Philippines has facilitated his growth as an advocate for his learners. He plans to continue collaborating with his Filipino counterparts; having submitted a grant to fund their in-person travel to the United States, he is working to facilitate a tour of the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. Kupferman is also developing a virtual pen pal program that will connect Deaf students in the Philippines and Colorado, fostering friendship while encouraging more English language usage. “Filipino Sign Language and American Sign Language are similar enough to bridge language differences, yet different enough to add the excitement of learning a new language,” he says.
Gratitude and Lasting Memories
Kupferman expressed his gratitude to RELO Dr. Carleen Velez and her team at the U.S. Embassy in Manila for facilitating the Specialist experience. He also thanked his partners from De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies for their warm embrace and cultural exchange. Filipino delicacies, Jeepney rides, and the unforgettable taste of halo-halo added to a truly unique experience.
Scott Kupferman, Ph.D., is a Professor and Special Education Program Coordinator at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, as well as a 2022-2023 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Tokyo in Japan. He is also Director of the National Collaborative for Disability and Technology (NCDT), which is a federally funded network of 300+ people with disabilities, researchers, and technology companies who co-develop accessible and educational technology. Focused on access and inclusion for students with disabilities, Dr. Kupferman has 30+ publications, 300+ presentations, and approximately 8 million dollars in grant funding. His research and teaching efforts have led to several awards, including invitations to be a delegate at the United Nations (Geneva), delegate at the National Council on Disability (White House, Washington, DC), and recipient of the U.S. Department of Education’s Commissioner’s Award for Excellence. Dr. Kupferman has served as an English Language Specialist in Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Philippines.