ASL – A Lesson From the Students


Posted by on July 19, 2016

By: Ms. Mary

As the school year came to a close at Benedicite, a few students started showing a strong interest in American Sign Language. Since school was ending families voiced interest in a Benedicite ASL Summer Club. I agreed to teach a six session ASL class. A week before the class, I set out to research different ways to teach ASL. After skewing multiple websites, books, videos, etc. I developed my very own curriculum. I was so pleased.

The night before the class I reviewed my first lesson to make sure I was well rehearsed and thoroughly prepared. I went to bed that night excited and feeling overly confident. After playing catch up and hearing all summer activities, I started to preach from my thoughtfully written lesson plan. We started with signing the Pledge of Allegiance, moved into singing and signing the alphabet, and now it was time for the “meat” of my lesson. As I opened my PowerPoint with a very carefully crafted list of signs, we began our direct instruction portion of the lesson. Direct instruction can simply be defined as when the teacher stands up in front of the class and informs the students on a specific skill. I made it three slides in before I started to see the glazed over eyes. Many thoughts went through my mind.

Embarrassingly, the first thought was a defensive one, I blamed the students. I mean how else did they expect to learn ASL if I didn’t tell them how specifically! As class continued, glazed eyes started turning into lack of participation. My next thought was how can I make this more fun for them? By the time we made it to the tenth slide, lack of participation turned into what some might view as an inappropriate behavior or lack of focus. Students started having side discussions and attempts were made to entertain each other. Worst off, some students asked to learn a specific sign and I informed them we weren’t working on those signs right now. After I made that comment, my mind woke up and realized it’s not the students I need to be blaming and looking at, it’s me! Once I saw this, I encouraged them we only had two more slides to make it through and we would be finished with the current activity. I ended up ditching the lesson plan after the last two slides, and allowed the next ten minutes freedom to practice signs with a friend. I also made sure to motivate them by stating after they worked hard for ten minutes, they could end the session chatting with friends. Clearly, they were all looking forward to the last three minutes.

As we dismissed, they were all smiles, but my mind was already in reflection mode screaming that did not go as I planned! I waited with a student and asked her how she liked class. Preparing myself because I already knew the answer through observing this child during class and I knew I would be getting a truthful, blunt response specifically from this child. She informed me she did not like the PowerPoint and she did not like the signs that were hard for her. I validated her response and knew she was right. I encouraged her to give the class one more attempt and if she still wasn’t a fan, she did not have to finish the session. She agreed.

That night I knew I had lost sight of Benedicite’s mission and values. There was no reason for me to drill a specific skill upon these kids. I was disappointed, but eager to adapt my layout. As I ditched my curriculum with lessons, I started to think about how I would teach this topic during the typical school year. After reading the book OPEN, by David Price, I realized there was no reason the students could not learn ASL the same way I prepared for the class. They have access to a computer, a phone, an iPad, and books which meant learning ASL was literally at their fingertips – I had gotten in the way! It was clear, the students needed a prepared environment. They didn’t need me feeding them instruction or putting on a show to be engaged. If ASL was a true interest and passion, there is no need for entertainment! I decided to have multiple avenues for them to explore ASL, allow freedom to choose, and offer them guidance. I did prepare another PowerPoint with signs I felt were beneficial to learn, but adapted to fit the flow of the session instead of feeling forced and rigid.

We have now completed our fourth session. I knew from evaluating the last class, the students moved from forced memorization, to meaningful engaged learning. My evaluation wasn’t based on grades or a product, students remembering all the signs they have learned thus far, but on the process of their learning. During the fourth class one student asked if they could make an ASL movie.

After collaborating, they all decided to participate and put a plan of action in place. They wrote a script, looked up signs, rehearsed, and finally published their movie. Thank goodness we ditched my original lessons, otherwise the students would have missed out on team work, problem solving, research skills, social skills, reading, writing, trial and error, and fun!

Watch the ASL video here.

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