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September 19, 2014

Top Tips and Tricks for Signing with Your Baby or Young Child: Tip #1

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Are you looking for the secret ingredients to help you successfully sign with your baby? In this new series of posts, I'll divulge my top baby signing tips and tricks. Although the primary audience for these posts are folks who are interested in signing with preverbal infants and toddlers, the tips and tricks can be useful for everyone who is signing with young children.

Top Tip #1: Use Signs Liberally, But Select One or Two Key Signs to Focus On at a Time:  

Frequently incorporate the signs you have personally mastered into songs, games, and routine communication with your child.  Focus more deliberately on high-use words such as 'more' and 'all done,' since there are many times throughout the day your child will want to communicate these concepts to you.  With the signs you select to focus on, gently show your baby how to make the sign with their own hands in addition to using the signs yourself. Once your baby learns these signs, select new focus signs. 

Want more details about using focus signs? Click here for a detailed post on the topic.

Want YOUR BABY's photo featured in this blog? Please contact me using the comments section below or the contact form to the left. 

Want more tips? Follow the blog. More tips coming soon! 

Happy Signing! 

September 5, 2014

How My Trip To Spain Will Influence My Creative Writing Life

My blog has been quiet the past couple of months. I spent the summer traveling with my family and soaking up life experiences. Now that the kids are back to school, I'm paging through my travel journal. Reflecting. Remembering. Re-living.

After a major trip, like our visit to Spain, our family does a "debrief" to record our most/least favorite parts of the journey as well as our learnings and ah-ha moments. These notes are invaluable in guiding future travel plans.

Some of these debrief notes are practical and logistical, such as, "Flying into one city and out of another worked well for us." Some of these notes are more philosophical, such as, "If it's hard to find lodging in a 'sleepy fishing village' (because our travel dates coincide with an annual festival), realize that even if we do eventually locate lodging, there will be other factors (such as crowds, 'high season pricing' and parking difficulties) that might influence our enjoyment of that particular town. A 'sleepy fishing village' is not very sleepy during a festival."  

As I reflect on my notes, I find myself considering how my travel learnings might apply to my creative writing life. Here are some of my musings:

Travel Note: Every new town feels unfamiliar at first. That unfamiliarity is jarring and destabilizing  each and every time we arrive someplace new. But in a matter of hours we will get our bearings, and once again feel comfortable.

Experiencing the unfamiliar is one of the primary reasons I love to travel, but for me, one of the hardest parts of traveling is experiencing the sensation of instability. When I'm out of sorts, I force myself to push through the discomfort and trust that the view from the other side will be satisfying. I want to find ways to similarly push my creative writing into new, less familiar landscapes.  Let go of my inhibitions. Trust the process. Try new things.

Travel Note: Every town has something to offer. It may not be what we expected or what we hoped for, and it may not be something we fully appreciate in the moment, but each experience is a gift.

This makes me think of the feedback I receive from my writing peers and mentors. It may be hard to hear in the moment. It may not be what I expected or hoped for. It may take time for me to sort through different perspectives and see the feedback as a gift. And, upon reflection, I still may not agree with some feedback. But the nudge to reflect is a gift. It is through this reflection that I become more grounded in my stories and more confident in my own creative instincts.

Travel Note: Pack only one CARRY-ON SIZED bag per person (EVEN if we plan to check one or more of our bags). On a related note, just because it fits doesn't mean you should bring it. Heavy bags are tiresome to schlep through subways, cobbled streets, and multiple flights of narrow apartment stairs.

This makes me think about the revision process. Have I packed my story into the right-sized bag? Am I carrying around extra story weight because I found a way to cram something in that I really don't need? Have I thought about why I originally tucked certain items into my story, and how these items serve this particular journey? Have I been courageous enough to unpack and remove that which is not necessary?

Travel Note: My husband and I value balconies, verandas and window seats with a view. If the kids are already tucked into bed for the evening, or if they aren't quite ready to seize the day in the morning, our quality of 'grown-up life' is significantly enhanced if hubby and I can "be outside," but still close to our "travel home."

I'm not a patient waiter. I get stir crazy when I feel stuck. I like to go, go, go. Now. My family moves at a different pace. Breathing the outside air calms me and helps me feel more alive. Looking beyond the four walls of a rented room invigorates me. The taste of mocha is better in the crisp morning sun, and a glass of wine fills me with warmth and possibility when I'm sipping outside.

Writing for publication is wrought with waiting. Waiting for agents. Waiting for editors. Waiting for the right words to spill onto the page. Waiting for the right ending to reveal itself . . . finally. So I open the windows. I walk. I dig in the garden. I look at the mountains. I breathe in the sun. I bring my ideas outside. And then I write. Warm, and full of possibility. Calm, and alive.  

August 5, 2014

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language: Post #10

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I've collected so many good memories over the past several weeks! This summer my family had the amazing experience of visiting Spain, and we once again hosted Pablo, (last summer's exchange student), in our home. My richest memories stem from interactions with the people we met during our travels. One of those experiences greatly reinforced my perspective that sign language can bridge communication gaps (especially when communicators speak two different languages).

One evening we gathered in Pablo's grandparent's home to meet his extended family: Grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. Pablo's youngest cousin, Eva, a preschooler, does not yet speak English (and I speak very limited Spanish). Eva was extremely shy, and seemingly a bit overwhelmed by all of the commotion at "Abuela y Pepito's" house. Her older siblings were headed off to overnight camp early the next morning, and she was being left behind to stay at "Camp Abuela."

We brought gifts for the family, including a couple of my books for the younger children. Eva opened her gift, then eyed me with curiosity from the safety of her hiding spot behind her mother's leg. I attempted to make friends with her and found myself talking in a mixture of English, Spanish, and ASL, saying things like, "Would you like to be friends? Amigas? I could read you this book. Un libro."

She eventually mustered up the courage to come sit near me, and we escaped into the world of story, exploring SEE THE COLORS together. I read some and sang some. I taught her the signs for a few colors and the word "baby," to go along with the repeating phrase, "little one." I used the sign for "where" and encouraged her to search out objects within the illustrations as I spoke enthusiastically in imperfect Español ("¿Dónde está mariposa? ¡Sí, mariposa!"). Before long, she was pointing to objects in the illustrations, signing along with me, and appearing completely at ease. When it was time to go, we waved goodbye and signed "friends" to each other as we said, "adiós."

The next day, I was told that she asked about me at bedtime and again first thing when she woke up the next morning. That following evening, we had another family gathering, (this time at Pablo's mother's house). When Eva arrived, she immediately smiled and signed "friend" to me and gave me this beautiful friendship bracelet.

This experience illustrates one of the reasons I especially love teaching sign language vocabulary to children in bi-lingual/multi-lingual learning environments. Although I may not share a verbal language with a particular child, I can communicate and build rapport almost immediately through sign language.

In classroom settings where some students (and teachers) are more proficient at speaking English, and others are more proficient at speaking a different language, incorporating sign language provides an opportunity for everyone in the class to be on equal footing. Since ASL is typically a non-native language for the students in the classroom, everyone starts as a beginner, and different children can emerge as the "top learners." I find it particularly endearing when a child who speaks a non-dominant language finds his or her "classroom voice" through sign language. Suddenly this child can be the language leader, answering questions and teaching others the signs they have mastered.

One of the things I appreciate about picture books is that children (and adults) can "read the pictures," even if they cannot read the words. When I read SEE THE COLORS with Eva, I read the words and she read the pictures. Another grown up could just as easily read the same book to her even if they could not read the English words, because they could talk about the story that is told through the illustrations and play games like, "Where is the mariposa?" like I did. As an added bonus, the sign language glossary images that appear on each page spread in the Story Time books make it possible for anyone who is reading the books to "read the glossary pictures," and incorporate the corresponding signs. This is a great point to remember when you are encouraging non-English speaking parents to read to their children. No matter what language they can read and write in, they can read any book with pictures . . .

As the summer progresses, my family continues to practice Spanish, and I've become very self-aware about the process of learning a new language. I'm finding ways to learn and practice Spanish that echo the ways I help others learn and practice American Sign Language. I'm listening to Spanish language recordings, and I am reading (and re-reading) stacks of Spanish/English picture books (with good 'ole Google Translate close at hand to help me decipher new words/conjugations). Some words I know, some words I recognize but can't quite remember, and some words are completely new. Each time I re-read a book, there are more and more words I know and recognize (and fewer and fewer words I need to look up). The repetition builds familiarity.  This is the same basic principle I emphasize when I teach people how to sign with their preverbal babies.

As I attempt to speak in Spanish and struggle to find various words, I notice that my hands begin to sign the word(s) I'm trying to say. It's as if my brain offers up the related "non-English word(s)" (e.g. ASL) that I know while it attempts to retrieve the less-familar Spanish vocabulary. Building on this idea, I've discovered that signing in ASL while I read in Spanish seems to help me remember the Spanish words. And, given that singing has been such an effective way for me to learn and teach ASL, I'm now on the hunt for songs that will help me build my vocabulary in Spanish. If you have any recommendations, please let me know!

I'd also love to hear how ASL has benefited your bilingual/multilingual family or classroom. Do you have a story about how sign language has bridged a communication gap in your life? Share your experiences via the contact link at the left or in the comment section below. And, if you'd like more ideas for enriching your learning environment with sign language, you can find the full series of posts here.

July 9, 2014

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language: Post #9

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My mother-in-law is one of the best parenting role models I know. She didn't take any fancy classes. She didn't read any how-to books. She didn't regularly network with other parents. In fact, she didn't even speak the same language as her husband when they got married (my father-in-law spoke Polish, and she spoke Russian when they met. . .  they figured out how to communicate). She is a natural at helping kids learn, making kids feel deeply loved, and figuring out how to get her own needs met along the way.

I love hearing her tell the story about the summer that the boys (my husband and his brother) moved the dirt in the back yard. She had a pile of dirt in the back yard, and when summer started, she told the boys it need to be moved to another corner of the yard. They filled buckets. They built roads. They dug holes. I suspect they threw a few dirt balls. When the pile of dirt was moved to the spot she had indicated (some weeks later), she told them it needed to be moved to yet another spot. They kept busy. She kept sane.

This is the same person who signed her kids up for swim lessons every morning all summer long. The kids got up and going and out of the house each and every day. They learned to swim. They made friends. They found things to do in and around the park where the lessons were scheduled. She survived summer.

Fast forward several years later, and this same person is a wonderful grandmother to my own two children. I learn so much from watching her interact with them. The way she listens without any distractions. The way she invites them to help her, (and they eagerly oblige). The way she knows the just-right gifts for each of them. The way she rubs their backs or brushes their hair and gets them to talk with her about anything and everything. The clever way she gets them to quiet down when their boisterous ways are too much for one household to endure . . .

She calls it The Quiet Game. When she announces that the game has begun, no more words or sounds can be made. You can point. You can gesture emphatically. You can mouth words. But you cannot make a sound. The first person to make a sound is disqualified. If you get disqualified too quickly (she is the judge), then the game starts over . . . and over . . . and over.

My family is noisy. There is no doubt in anyone's mind when we have arrived. We have very little that is quiet about us . . . except when we are trying to win The Quiet Game.

I've used this same technique in classes that are extra boisterous. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for encouraging the exuberance and energy that is childhood. But sometimes, my ears (and my psyche) need a break. The Quiet Game allows me to re-direct the energy into quietude (and allow myself a brief respite from noise).

The Quiet Game is easy to play. I like to use the sign for quiet to announce the start of the game. I also like to use sign language in place of spoken language while the game is underway. It's amazing how much kids can say with their hands when their voices are off. Give it a try. I'd love to hear your experiences.

If you want more tips for enriching your learning environment with sign language, you can find links to the full series of posts here.

June 25, 2014

Enrich Your Learning Environment With Sign Language: Post #8

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If your household is anything like mine, summertime can increase sibling conflicts. In a recent post, I discussed how sign language can make it more comfortable for kids to apologize. Today I'd like to share some ideas for how the sign, stop, can help children convey their frustration with one another without using physical force against one another.

When young children are in the midst of conflict, it's not unusual for those conflicts to become physical. Frustrated toddlers and preschoolers might push or hit to express their discontent. Parents can be heard saying, "Use your words. Use your words." When I think of this refrain from the prospective of a young child, (for whom a doll or truck or teddy bear is a large portion of their entire world, and for whom emotional maturity is still in the making), words alone may not cut it. There is ENERGY in those little bodies. Emotional energy that needs to come out somehow, someway. The sign for stop is one of the ways I've seen this emotional energy escape appropriately.

When you make the sign, stop, it looks similar to a laymen's impression of a karate chop. It is physical. It involves sound (try it out and listen). It involves force. It is visually noticeable. It feels satisfying to forcefully say, "Stop" and forcefully sign stop when someone is doing/saying/taking something to or from you that is not welcome. Using the sign for stop provides an opportunity for a child (or a grown up!) to use their words and express their physical energy.

I first heard about using the sign for stop in conflictual situations when I read about a pilot study at Ohio State University back in the late 1990's. Kimberlee Whaley said the initial idea came from watching the occasional conflicts in classrooms at Ohio State’s A. Sophie Rogers Infant-Toddler Laboratory School. According to Whaley, “When toddlers have a conflict, they often will push each other to communicate their displeasure. We wondered what would happen if we could give them another physical way to express their anger. Well, the sign for ‘stop’ is very physical -- one hand slamming into the other -- so we thought that might work.” The experiences at the school (and my own observations) indicate that the sign for stop is an excellent communication tool for children in conflictual situations. Similarly, this journal article summarizes a case study advocating for sign language as a general tool and outlet for students who can otherwise be disruptive.  

In addition to using the sign for stop in situations of conflict, I've used it to convey danger (in place of the over-used "No"), and I've used it in place of the word "Freeze," during dance and movement portions of my signing workshops. (NOTE: If you want ideas for a super fun dance and movement ideas, read this post written by a rockstar librarian).

I'd love to hear your experiences for using the sign for stop (or other signs) to help kids express their physical emotions in positive, acceptable ways.

If you want more tips for enriching your learning environment with sign language, you can find links to the full series of posts here. Next time I'll talk about the quiet game.

June 12, 2014

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language: Post #7

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When I meet someone who signs with their baby, and they find out that I write books and teach classes about signing with infants, toddlers and young children, it's not unusual that they want to have their baby "perform" their signs for me. The mom, dad or grandparent emphatically models some signs, and says something like, "Show Miss Dawn how you can sign cracker . . . or kitty . . . or please and thank you." Parents really love it when their babies can sign please and thank you.

As proud as these mamas and papas may be, in my experience, manner signs come later for babies than need/want-based signs such as more, ball, book. Yes, babies will sign please  but what they mean when they sign it is, "I WANT SOMETHING!" Thank you typically takes some time for babies to produce. Let's face it, when your baby wakes you up at two in the morning, they aren't waking you to thank you for the trouble you've gone through on their behalf. They've woken you up to alert you to their need for a diaper change, or some milk (or in the case of my daughter when she was an infant, an urgent craving for a banana).

That does not mean I would discourage you from including signs for manners in your communication with your baby and/or modeling them for your child. I would encourage you to sign these words regularly, but to do so in addition to signing a rich vocabulary of need/want, action/object words. When you say, "Please," sign please  When you say, "Thank you," sign thank you. When your baby is at the developmental stage of handing a toy to you (and then taking it back, over and over and over again), and you hear yourself saying, "Thank you" each time your baby hands you the toy, that's a GREAT time to also incorporate the sign for thank you  And yes, your baby will follow in your footsteps (or handsteps!) and begin signing those words (it's just not typical that they will sign those words as early as they will sign more concrete need/want words).

That said, manner signs are a fabulous addition to a home/classroom learning environment for older children (toddlers and preschoolers on up). When you say, "Please" and "Thank you" in your classroom, add the signs to your communication. When you notice a child has forgotten to use their manners for something, you can signal them with a signed reminder.

I also like using the signs for your turn and my turn when I'm working with a classroom of students. When kids' hands shoot up at a time when I'm not yet ready to take questions or comments from participants, I will say/sign, "It's my turn to talk. I'll let you know when it's your turn." Then, when I do open it up for questions and comments, I use the sign for your turn and say something like, "It's your/Katie's turn. What is your question?" to call on students.

Share is another great sign for older kids. I remember learning from the Signing Time videos that the sign for share looks like you are "dividing something up . . . some for you, and some for me." What I especially like about the sign is that it requires two hands. When my kids were younger, it wasn't unusual that they would argue over toys. When a conflict arose, they would each put a death grip on the object of interest and start pulling. IF I was having a particularly good parenting moment, I would say something like, "Use your signs. Tell your brother/sister you want to share " They had to put the toy down to produce the sign for share. Now, granted, my daughter, who is three years older than her brother, would sometimes put the toy down, QUICKLY sign "share," and then snatch the toy back up  again, but sometimes, signing would shift their attention from fighting over the toy (to arguing about who was better at signing!).

If you want to practice manner signs using music, one of my favorite songs is the Signing Time Magic Words song.

I'd love to hear some of your experiences incorporating signs for manners in your learning environment.   Send me a message using the form to the left, or leave a comment below.

If you want more tips for enriching your learning environment with sign language, you can find links to the full series of posts here.

May 30, 2014

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language: Post #6

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Sign language is a natural and effective classroom management tool. I use it regularly when I visit schools and libraries, even when my workshop topic or author visit is not centered on sign language. Because sign language is visual, it gives students a reason to look at you and focus their attention on you. Students come to realize that important information rests in your hands, and if they want in on that important information, they need to keep their eyes on you!

I discussed how signing can help you distinguish when a child has a question, comment or answer in this recent post, but signing is also really helpful for transition and dismissal routines. Some examples of words or phrases you might regularly use in your learning environment that you can easily add a sign to include:

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"Show me you're ready by getting your backpack on."

"I'm still waiting for good listeners."

"It's your turn."

"We'll need to share."

"Mia's table can line up."

"Join the line if you have a blue shirt on."

"Everyone should be sitting down now."

Although signing is beneficial for typically developing children, it can be extra helpful for students who are easily distracted, and for students with special needs that inhibit their ability to formulate eye contact. I recall a participant at a recent story time event whose mother gently cajoled her into giving me eye contact when we were introduced. By the middle of the story time, this child was giving me regular eye contact (albeit in sneaked peeks). She could not resist looking at me from time to time to get the information she wanted/needed (e.g. the signs I was demonstrating for the group of children attending the story time). As the event came to a close, this child was able to look straight at me as I thanked her for coming and said/signed goodbye/friend.

Signing can also be helpful for students in your classrooms whose dominant culture does not engage in high levels of eye contact. Although these children may not routinely look adults in the eye at home, the adults they come into contact with at school (and eventually in the workplace) are going to want/need some eye contact. Signing in your classroom is a gentle, comfortable way to give these children an opportunity to practice looking adults in the eye (or at least at their nearby hands!).

I'd love to hear how you use sign language as a classroom management tool. Share your tips in the comment section below, or send me a direct message. Happy Signing!