April 28, 2014

An Interview with Kathy MacMillan

I initially entitled this post "An Interview with Author, Kathy MacMillan," but in addition to being an author of several books, Kathy is also an ASL interpreter, sign language workshop presenter, a trained librarian (and probably a host of other things I haven't learned about quite yet!).

I was first "introduced" to Kathy when I read her book, "Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together." Kathy and I share a love for signing with hearing children of all ages, and I really connected with her simple, accessible approach to signing with kids. I did a little research and found out that she is the author of several other books (some of which are pictured later), and she blogs and presents regularly at libraries and other community venues.

I wanted to get to know Kathy a bit better, and she was kind enough to participate in an interview:

Dawn: How did you first become interested in sign language (and in particular, signing with hearing children)?

Kathy: Before I became an ASL interpreter I was a children's librarian.  At the library where I worked, there was a Deaf kindergarten teacher who used to come into the children's section all the time to look for books for her classroom.  I would gesture with her, write notes, and so on, and finally I got frustrated with my inability to communicate.  So I started taking ASL classes at the local community college - which, as it happened, was the only interpreter training program in the state of Maryland.   I kept taking classes, and eventually volunteered as a counselor with Deaf Camps, Inc. (www.deafcampsinc.org)  (I have been involved with this nonprofit, volunteer-run organization ever since!  I now direct the Middle Deaf Camp and am the President of the Board of Directors.)  But that first year, in 2001, I had just finished ASL 4 and my experience volunteering at the camp made me interested in working with deaf kids.  When I came home from camp I decided to look into jobs working as a school librarian at a school for the deaf - you know, for the future, when I became fluent.  At the time, I was entering ASL 5.  But it just so happened that the longtime librarian at the school for the deaf fifteen minutes away from my house had just retired that spring.  I didn’t apply for the job at first though, because I was not fluent in ASL.  Over the next month I had several interactions with people in the Deaf community who encouraged me to apply for it anyway, because they weren't getting any qualified applicants for the position.  So eventually I did and I became the library media specialist at the Maryland School for the Deaf, Columbia campus.  I worked there for 4 years while I was pursuing my interpreting degree.  My signing skills improved rapidly because I had the chance to interact with every single student and staff member in the school.  I finished my interpreting degree in 2005, about a month before my son was born, and I have been freelance interpreting ever since.  It was during my summers of from MSD that I first started performing in Maryland public libraries, offering interactive storytelling programs that taught basic ASL (www.storiesbyhand.com).  I also started teaching baby sign language programs at libraries, baby stores, parent groups, and so on.  Since I was a children's librarian before I became an interpreter and I always loved to present storytimes, it was a natural thing to incorporate sign language into my storytelling.  I also learned a great deal from my students at MSD, many of whom had additional disabilities, about how to make stories more visual and interactive, using props, manipulatives, and activities.

Dawn: Wow, that's a great "getting started with signing" story! Do you have any favorite anecdotes that cemented your advocacy for signing with hearing children?

KathyWorking with the deaf children at the camp and at the Maryland School for the Deaf really helped me understand how vitally important communication is.  Learning to communicate is absolutely the most important skill a young child can attain in the first couple of years of life - it's the skill that helps them get all their other needs met.  When my son, who is hearing, was born I signed with him all the time, and he didn't produce his first sign, to my chagrin, until he was 14 months old!  But he spoke very early and very clearly - I do think a large part of that was a fact that I signed with him.  He also taught himself to read when he was 3 years old - and we weren't doing any of those my-baby-can-read sorts of things with him.  He was just constantly exposed to language and communication and he always was able to express his thoughts.  Communication is one of those things that, when you have it, you take it for granted.  But when you don't have it, it has a negative impact on everything else.

Dawn: I absolutely agree with what you've said, but how do you respond to people who are hesitant to sign with their preverbal children due to concerns that signing will delay/interrupt speech?

Kathy: First off, I try not to roll my eyes. :)  It is a little frustrating that this myth persists, when there is absolutely no research to support the idea that signing with children inhibits their speech.  In fact, all the research says the opposite - that signing with young children expands their vocabulary, encourages communication, and helps develop their self-regulation skills. It's also important to understand that language does not mean speech.  Language comes from the brain, not the mouth.  Language development and having the power of communication is much more important than learning how to speak.  We need to be very careful that we don't send the message that speaking clearly is more important than having something to say.

Dawn: I really appreciate your distinction between language and speech, Kathy. Given that ASL is a language, what about people who are interested in signing, but afraid of making mistakes and/or offending people in the Deaf community?

Kathy: This is a normal fear for anyone learning a new language.  Most Deaf people, though, are so supportive of new signers.  It's just like if you meet someone who speaks a different language and is trying to communicate in English.  You don't assume that person is stupid just because of a mispronounced word, right?  Well, that's how most Deaf people react if a hearing person signs something incorrectly - they can usually figure it out from context.  

Dawn: That's been my experience as well, Kathy! So what are your favorite resources for parents/caregivers who are interested in signing with their children?

Kathy: Well, my book, of course. :)  Also SIGN WITH YOUR BABY by Dr. Joseph Garcia, which is *the* introduction to signing with babies that all parents should have.  As for DVDs, you really can't do better than the SIGNING TIME series, which is just wonderful.  I tell you, I have been reviewing sign language materials for a long time, and I have yet to come across any DVD series that does it better than SIGNING TIME.  They combine accurate information with engaging presentation.

Dawn: I couldn't agree more! What are your favorite resources for teachers and librarians who are interested in incorporating sign language into their story times?

Kathy: SIGN TO LEARN by Kirsten Dennis and Tressa Azpiri is a wonderful guide for incorporating ASL into the classroom.  The SIGNING TIME CLASSROOM EDITION is also a fantastic product - it has the lesson plans and videos all worked out for you, so that even if the teacher has only a rudimentary knowledge of signing, teacher and students can learn together in ways that support the curriculum. I would also point teachers and librarians to the STORYTIME MAGIC series, which I co-author with Christine Kirker.  There are four books in the series so far: STORYTIME MAGIC, KINDERGARTEN MAGIC, MULTICULTURAL STORYTIME MAGIC, and BABY STORYTIME MAGIC.  All of these books feature original songs, rhymes, fingerplays, flannelboards, etc. for storytimes or classrooms, and though they are not exclusively ASL, there are *many* ASL entries too.  We also have a website featuring a searchable database of free resources for educators and librarians at www.storytimestuff.net.

Dawn: I wasn't familiar with "storytimestuff." I've added it to my blog roll! Shifting gears a bit, do you have any suggested resources for older kids who are interested in signing?

Kathy: There are lots of ASL books out there, but for older kids interested in learning to sign, I usually recommend a class.  You can only get so much about a three dimensional language from two dimensional pictures!  There are several free or low-cost self-paced classes available online - I have a listing of some of my favorites at http://storiesbyhand.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/learning-american-sign-language-online/.
But even better is the chance to sign with actual Deaf people in person!  This can be tough depending on where you live.   I mentioned the Deaf Camp I am involved with earlier, but this seems like a great place to mention that our organization also offers American Sign Language Camp for kids who want to learn ASL.  This camp takes place alongside Deaf Camp, and ASL campers get to participate in fun camp activities like rafting, hiking, and swimming - all the way learning ASL through immersion.  The camp takes place in Knoxville, MD, but we get campers from all over the country (and even from outside the U.S.) because it is one of a very few programs of its kind.  You can find more information about ASL Camp at www.deafcampsinc.org.

Dawn: Those are GREAT online resources. Thanks! Also, that camp sounds terrific!  I wish I could fit it into MY summer plans. Speaking of which . . . what are your suggestions for people who are overwhelmed by the idea of adding sign language (one more thing!) to the “must-do’s” in their home or learning environment?

Kathy: The beautiful thing about signing with your child is that you can do as much or as little as you feel comfortable with.  I always tell parents that even if they just choose one sign and use it consistently, they will see benefits from it.  Signing with young children is not about creating super babies or being perfect parents. It's about giving parents and children a tool for communication and relationship-building.  Ultimately, it's about making your life easier.

Dawn: What have I not asked that you would love for people to know?

Kathy: Fun fact: I once led my library's Bookcart Precision Drill Team.  It's not related to signing with children, but it's something I simply don't get to mention often enough.   :) 

Dawn: I would have loved to have seen that! I also recently learned that your agent is Steven Malk (for those of you outside of the publishing world, Steven Malk is quite the catch for an author!). Well this has been fun! So what is the best way for folks to get in touch with you or get their hands on your books?

KathyThrough my website at www.storiesbyhand.com or by email at info@storiesbyhand.com.  You can also order all of my books through amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.  

Dawn: Thanks Kathy! I've really enjoyed learning more about you. 

Readers and Signers: Here are images of some of Kathy's other books. Go get 'em! 

What are YOUR favorite signing resources? Add them in the comment section below! 

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