It Doesn’t Apply to Me

by Bethany Davis

I’ll start this off with a confession: a good number of my first years in teaching, I would sit through days/weeks/months of training I was obligated to attend and think to myself, “Yeah…but this doesn’t apply to me.”

A bit of background as to why I egregiously thought this. I am an American Sign Language (ASL) Teacher. In the realm of education, teachers of languages other than English tend to feel a bit side-noted because we are not formally a graduation requirement. We don’t get booster clubs, we don’t have large sporting games that are attended by fans and promoted by pep rallies, we don’t get Fine Arts performances or shows, we are not part of the core content that has standardized testing, we are not part of the statistics that our schools are rated by, and only a few of us have AP/IB opportunities that make us marketable. Sure we may have interest clubs, but it’s hard to entice students to join because they have other clubs that will look better on a college application.

ASL teachers feel even more side-noted. When LOTE curriculums and programs advertise to us, my favorite game to play is, “Yes, great, but do you have ASL?” Many times the response is, “No, but we can look into that.” But they don’t. Finding ASL-specific training is like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Administration observations most times have feedback that tickles our bones because they don’t understand the language, but they can see we’ve completed the checklist they provided. Professional learning communities training? What we wouldn’t give to not be the “island” teacher, the only one on our campus and, many times, the entire district. I used to sit back and laugh and laugh about all the conversations I would have with myself when setting agendas, establishing norms, tracking minutes, and summarizing the meetings. Or when the administrators felt I needed a support system, so they put me in PLCs with other languages even though their content did not apply to me.

There is no AP exam for ASL, so students are hesitant to take the higher levels because it will not benefit them for college credits. Even more so, not many colleges will accept ASL as a foreign language/LOTE credit, and IB will not accept ASL into their program because it is not a universal language. Our student motivation to take the course comes from pop culture exposure, such as the TV show Switched at Birth and, most recently, Academy Award-winning film CODA

I have experienced and heard so many stories from my ASL colleagues about how their class has become a “dumping ground” for challenging students because administrators and counselors view it as “easier” than the other languages offered. In reality, ASL is considered by the Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute as being the most difficult level of language to learn for English native speakers. The reason is that ASL has a very complex grammar system and significant structural and cultural differences compared to English or other spoken languages.

District/campus writing initiatives? ASL does not have a written system. While our spoken-language LOTE colleagues are focused on speaking, listening, reading, and writing, we are focused on training the eyes to read nonverbal communication, expressing body language, using space around the signer to organize concepts and ideas, as well as other complex grammatical structures of a visual/gestural language. For ASL teachers, sitting through writing exercises and trainings is an instant buy-out because our first thought is, “But we don’t have a writing system, so I won’t be able to use this in my classroom.”

Then, in just one full-day workshop, my whole thinking changed.

Anna Matis from Seidlitz Education came to our district to train all the teachers in 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Foreign Language Classroom. Of course, with my pessimistic outlook, I rolled my eyes and thought, “This won’t apply to me, but let’s see what she’s got.”  Anna told the group that, at the end of the workshop, we would be speaking, listening, reading, and writing in Italian. Again, I was skeptical. Skeptical, but wrong. Indeed, at the end of the workshop the entire group fulfilled the learning objective. My mind was blown. 

Throughout the workshop, I was concerned about how this could be accomplished for my Deaf/Hard of Hearing colleagues and their interpreters. Certainly, reading/writing could be achieved in another language, but what about speaking/listening? Also, how do we overcome the writing obstacle in our own classroom? I met with Anna after the workshop and asked her those questions, and she responded that she had asked multiple ASL teachers, both Deaf/Hard of Hearing and Hearing, but no one had had an answer.

I could have been disappointed and quickly dismissed the training as I have done so many others, but something told me it was time for change. I went back to my lesson planning and started thinking about how I could make this workshop apply to me. I realized I was only closing myself off in my professional growth and would constantly hit my head on the wall with frustration if I kept dismissing crucial workshops like this one. 

Instantly, my classroom became a more interactive environment. When I found success in that, I started bringing this new mantra—“Make it apply to you!”—to more workshops. I’m not going to lie: it’s hard to change a behavior, and it took me some time to look at different trainings with a new perspective, but nevertheless, I persisted.

Soon enough, I was seen as “innovative” and a “team player” on my campus. I started building more positive relationships with campus and district administrators because I wouldn’t sit back and dismiss their initiatives. I collaborated with AVID coordinators on how to adapt my unique class to their goals. I made myself known and expressed my willingness to adapt, which led them to consider me in decision-making and advocate for ASL in their conferences and workshops outside the campus/district. I was no longer a side-note. Instead of “I don’t know,” they started saying, “I have an idea from this ASL teacher who found success.” Most recently, general education teachers conducted Instructional Rounds (observing other classrooms and looking for the teachers’ use of key strategies the district was implementing), which led to a large discussion on AVID strategies in a specialized setting after observing my class. I started taking my adaptations and presenting at ASL conferences and workshops, and guess what? Many colleagues gave me feedback like, “My campus/district did this workshop, but I had no idea how to adapt it until now; thank you!”

I encourage you to make it apply to you. When you do and you find success, please share. There’s still so much more I and others can learn, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

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