December 26, 2014

2014 Year-End Post

It's no secret that I like words. Cards and letters from friends near and far are one of my favorite parts of the holiday season. I also enjoy the process of reflecting on my past year and preparing my own annual update. I do resist writing a typical letter. I greatly enjoy providing a relevant update embedded in some creative format (here are examples from 2012 and 2013). 

For this year's update I made a word cloud using Taxedo (you may be more familiar with Wordle).

As you'll see if you scan the word cloud, a major personal highlight of the past year was our family's experience traveling to Spain and having Pablo, our "Spanish son," return to the U.S. with us for three weeks this summer. (Our decision to host an exchange student in 2013 has enriched our life in so many ways, not the least of which is the wonderful friendship we have developed with our new extended family in Spain).

I've had many professional highlights in the past year as well, but the most rewarding work has been the volunteer advocacy effort I've been involved with to strengthen the school libraries in our local area. I also treasure every opportunity I've had to engage with young readers during author visits at local schools and libraries and via Email and Skype (as well as good old fashioned snail mail)! Thank you friends and colleagues, for supporting and encouraging my work, and for sharing my books with the children you love. You've helped me make a small difference in this world. 

In addition to preparing our annual holiday card, I also enjoy working on an annual craft-y project with my kids. In recent years we've made holiday decorations, scarves, hand & foot scrubs and scented fire starters. This year we made Love Rocks as a way to honor a family in our area who has endured an unimaginable loss. I don't know the family personally, but the process of making hundreds of Love Rocks and sharing them with others helped me stay grounded and focused on the treasure of time spent with friends and family. 

Thanks to each of you who have contributed to my blessed "world of words" in 2014. You are a gift to me. Here's to the adventures that await us in the coming year!

December 8, 2014

Top Tips and Tricks for Signing with Your Baby or Young Child: Tip #3

Today's tip for signing with your baby or young child is, "Follow Your Child's Lead."

Take a moment to consider what your child is most interested in communicating about right now. Is your child fascinated with the candles on your table or the train you've set up in your house? Maybe you have a tree inside or there is snow or rain outside that has captured you baby's attention? What are your child's favorite activities or objects. Does your baby love eating bananas? Is your toddler preoccupied with balls or books? These are the signs to focus on in the beginning.
Image Source Here

Interact with your baby around these interests just as you ordinarily would. By this I mean, continue having conversations throughout the day that sound something like this:

"Look at the train. Here it comes again. Whoo! Whoo! You like that train, don't you?"

"Where is the ball? There is the ball! Yay! You found the ball!"

"Who wants some bananas? Yum, yum. Do you want more bananas?"

Express yourself verbally just as you normally would. The only change to your communication is to casually add a sign for key words, such as trainball, or banana. Also, as you identify particular interest-based words you want to place additional emphasis on, make a point to incorporate these words into the songs you sing and your playtime activities with your baby.

Before long, your baby or young child will actively point to objects of interest and use eye contact and grunts to let you know that they want labels for more and more of the things around them! Offering word labels will be fairly easy for you because it is something that comes naturally. ("That's a kitty. Do you want to pet the kitty?"). As you notice yourself offering word labels, make a point to look up the sign for key words, so you can easily add a sign label to that conversation the next time (and the next time) it occurs. Here are a couple of helpful online dictionaries to turn to:

Signing Savvy


Signing Time

As your baby sees you signing more often, he or she will gradually develop a signing vocabulary as well. Watch out for the FUN to come!

Feel free to reach out via the comments section below or the contact form to the left with specific questions or good news stories as your child develops a growing signing vocabulary. Also, get in touch if you would like YOUR BABY'S PICTURE to be featured in an upcoming blog post.

Happy Signing!

November 4, 2014

Top Tips and Tricks for Signing with Your Baby or Young Child: Tip #2

I've spent the last several weeks focusing on the importance of Strong School Libraries. Although #SchoolLibrariesMatter has been trending on Twitter, there is still much work to do! If you have a story to tell about the importance of school libraries, I encourage you to get involved and share your story here.  
Click Here for Image Source

Today, I return my attention to another great passion of mine, Infant/Toddler Sign Language, and I'll continue with the next installment in my latest series of posts: Top tips and tricks to help you successfully sign with your baby. 

Top Tip #2: Resist the Temptation to Focus Only on Signs that Gratify You:  

We all want our children to learn to say please, thank you (and sleep!), and these are definitely great signs for you to use as your signing vocabulary grows. However, in my experience, these concepts are not the best signs to focus on in the early stages of signing. Instead, begin by focusing on the actions and objects your baby has a distinct need to communicate on a regular basis.

Babies will absolutely learn to sign please, (and they will usually learn to sign this word quite quickly). But in my estimation, what your baby is really saying when he or she signs please is,  I want, or more! Babies don't yet have the ability to distinguish between their needs and our societal niceties.  

The sign for thank you takes longer for babies to produce (often, much longer). This is not because the sign for thank you is particularly difficult to maneuver--it's not. It looks similar to blowing a kiss. The issue is that the sign for thank you doesn't generally yield anything tangible for the baby in return for producing the sign (whereas producing the sign for please often results in getting a want or need met).

I have yet to meet a baby who has woken their parents in the middle of the night just to thank them for all of the trouble they've gone through on their behalf. Babies cry in the night to convey that they want milk, or need a diaper change, or that something is hurting them (or, in the case of my daughter, that she was hungry for a banana), but babies don't wake up  their parents just to say, "thanks." It's the things they want to say to you (not the things you hope to hear them say), that babies will most likely sign first. 

All that said, it's absolutely fine to use the signs for please and thank you when you verbalize those words to your child. My point is to resist the temptation to emphasize these signs when you are first getting started, (particularly at the expense of other, more want/need-focused signs), realizing that babies tend to be most motivated to sign the words that help them get their wants and needs met.

I do have a suggestion for a fun game to play that provides an opportunity to practice the sign for thank you when your child goes through the developmental stage of giving and taking back a particular toy over and over again. You know this game. The child hands you a ball. You say thank you. Then they take it back. Then they hand you the ball. You say thank you. Then they take it back. To add signing to this playful game, just add the sign for thank you every time you say the words thank you. You can also add the object of interest if you know it. For example: "You have a ball. May I have the ballThank youUh oh. Where did the ball go? Oh, you have the ball. May I have the ball? Thank you . . ."

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 28, 2014

Why I'm Passionate About School Libraries

At a recent School Library Advocacy Council Meeting, a parent of a second grader asked me to list the reasons teacher librarians are so important. I showed her an info graphic from the American Association  of School Libraries and pointed her to countless advocacy articles and research studies such as this (and this and this and this). I pointed out that Oregon's Strong School Libraries Act (HB 2586) requires school districts to account for "Strong School Library Programs," and I blathered on about reading and writing achievement, educational equity and information literacy, the fundamental importance of nurturing a lifelong love of reading and how libraries are the cornerstone of a strong democracy. I might  have started singing the national anthem, given more time.

The other parent listened patiently and took copious notes, but she said she needed something more  tangible. Maybe a power point presentation, or an organized list of benefits she could photocopy and share with the parents and other leaders at her well-resourced, tech-focused school.

I told her I'm not very good at reciting facts and figures and academic research studies and that I don't have a power point summary to share with her, but that I know from personal experience that my two children (who had teacher librarians in their schools through 5th grade and 4th grade, respectively) received life-long gifts that her daughter will not receive until licensed librarians are restored to our public schools. I told her I know this in my gut, and I know this because I've seen first-hand the "before and after."

My daughter stopped receiving library services from a full-time, licensed Teacher Librarian/Media Specialist when she entered middle school five years ago. My son stopped receiving these services three years ago when he entered the fifth grade. I'm sincerely happy with my kids'  classroom teachers, I deeply admire the principals in both of my children's schools, and I'm particularly in awe of the technology teacher at our middle school. I'm also grateful for the stellar library assistant who currently staffs our K-8 school library. (To Note: Our library assistant also happens to be a parent at our school and a public librarian by training. We are especially lucky to have her skill set in our building, given the fact that her job classification does not require a college degree and the posted pay scale for her job title begins at only $1.00 more per hour than an entry level school custodian).

My own two kids will be okay. They live in a house full of books, their mom (me!) writes books for kids and teaches classes about early literacy, and they were lucky enough to receive a foundation of support from a licensed teacher librarian in their formative primary school years. But the children entering our beloved Beaverton schools this year, and the year after that and the year after that will be at a comparative disadvantage if our school district does not restore professional librarians to our schools. The research supports this claim and my personal experience aligns with this claim.

The parent across from me put down her pencil and asked, "But what are our kids missing out on?" This is what I told her:

You daughter is missing out on Newbery Club, and a professionally administered Oregon Battle of the Books program. She is missing out on deep literature studies and lunchtime book clubs (and in some cases the ability to enter the library during lunchtime and before/after school because the library assistants are often assigned to supervise the lunchroom and/or playground). She is missing out on school author visits that are tied to and embedded in school-wide curriculum and carefully procured book collections that are developed with your child's and her classmate's interests in mind. She is missing out on having her librarian intentionally place "just the right books" face out on the shelf before her class comes in for a visit, and she is missing out on her own personal librarian putting a book into her hand and saying, "You are going to love this book. I can't wait until you can read it."

The parent's eyes actually welled up a bit. She said these programs sounded like something her daughter would especially love. She said, "What is Newbery Club?" This is what I told her:

Newbery Club is a celebration of the most distinguished books published for children each year and an opportunity for students to read and discuss books based on the Newbery Medal criteria. Every club is a little different, but the general idea is that students learn about the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor Books and award process and many students get to hold their own Mock Newbery award celebrations. Here are a few examples of club web pages:

Elementary School (Grades 4 and 5)
Elementary School (Grades 5 and 6)
Middle School
Middle School

My daughter's Newbery Club was nothing short of spectacular. First of all, it was an honor for students to participate in the club. There was not a limit on the number of children who could participate, but participants needed to commit to reading a designated number of books from Newbery Watch Lists and agree to meet during lunch times for several weeks leading up to the actual Newbery Award announcement.

I don't remember all of the (many!) books my daughter read during Newbery season each of those school years, but I distinctly remember the two titles she predicted to win: As a fourth grader, she fell in love with Diamond Willow by Helen Frost, and as a fifth grader she was enraptured with Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (which won a Newbery Honor that year). Some years before my daughter was eligible to participate in the club, she was invited to attend a tea party with author Susan Patron, the author of the Newbery Award winning book, The Higher Power of Lucky. I tried to wrangle my way into the event, but it was just for kids. I recall my daughter feeling quite special.

The students in Newbery Club did not just read distinguished books. They discussed the books. They blogged about the books. They debated the merits of the book they planned to vote for vs. the books others planned to vote for. They used technology to exchange opinions with students from other schools. They compelled friends and family members to read and discuss the books they thought were the strongest Newbery contenders. And then they selected one book to feature in a science-fair type display board.

On Newbery Night, students gathered in the school library with parents, grandparents and interested others. They stood by their book boards and met their public. Adults milled about the room and asked students to talk about their book selection and why it should win. Students gave impassioned one-on-one talks to interested adults about the books they read and why they chose the title they did. And then they ate cookies.

A few days before the actual Newbery announcements were made, students held their own Mock Newbery vote. On the mornings of the actual Newbery announcements, I distinctly remember my daughter asking me to check and see who won. She was interested. She was engaged. She was hooked on reading. She was indignant that "Diamond Willow" did not even get an honor, she was not at all surprised that "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" received a well-deserved honor (and she acknowledged that the award-winning book that year, "When You Reach Me," by Rebecca Stead was also a good choice).

Newbery Club enriched my daughter's education in countless tangible and intangible ways. She developed critical thinking skills. She practiced debate skills. She developed public-speaking skills. She gained a stronger sense of confidence and a stronger sense of self. She made art. She consumed art. She learned to identify the marks of a strong story. She learned to budget her time. She grew as a reader and she grew as a human being.

Today, my daughter earned her lifeguard certification. She has trained as a junior lifeguard for the past several summers. To qualify to participate in the full lifeguard certification class, she was required to complete many hours of pre-requistite reading, on-line exams and rigorous swim tests. She made the cut. Over the past two weekends she completed 32-hours of intensive lifeguard training and testing. She had a bit of anxiety last night and again this morning as she worried about the risks of trying and possibly failing. But she gathered her composure. She reviewed the manual and quizzed herself on acronyms and procedures as we drove to the pool. She endured one of my pep talks and she envisioned herself lifeguarding. She earned her certification today, and I am so very proud of her. But the foundation of reading and comprehension skills she needed to prepare and succeed for this major accomplishment started many years ago. In a school with a school library full of stimulating, thought-provoking literature and a professional teacher librarian that facilitated literacy-rich, multi-layered learning experiences. Newbery Club was just one of them.

I have more School Library Advocacy stories to tell and I would love to hear your stories as well. If you have a story to tell that relates to the theme of School Library Advocacy, I would love to feature it on the School Library Advocacy Council's upcoming Blog Tour. Leave a comment below or via private message in the contact form to the left, or Click Here for more details.

September 19, 2014

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

Image Source
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

Image Copyright 2014 Dawn Prochovnic
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

Image Credit
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

Image Source
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

Click Here for Image Credit
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

Click Here for Image Credit
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:

Click Here for Image Credit
"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!

May 7, 2014

Dawn's Quasi-Recipe for Double-Cheese Lasagne

Photo Credit: Parker Baldwin
Last Christmas Eve I served several pans of lasagne to the 25+ people around our table. Recently, my niece asked for the recipe so she could make it for her husband's birthday. He enjoyed it and gave a shout-out on Facebook. Now, several friends have asked for the recipe. So here is is . . . well, kind of.

Upon reflection, I realize that many of the meals I cook start with a base recipe from a cookbook and/or a canned sauce that I customize and enhance to my liking. Also, I tend to use measurements and ingredients as a guideline, not as a firm requirement . . . I eyeball a lot of things. This particular "recipe" incorporates the Kirkland marinara sauce from Costco, my fondness for cheese, and *some* elements of the lasagne recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, (truth be told, it bears little resemblance to Betty Crocker's guideline ; ) I do open that cookbook to page 54 every time I make lasagne, mainly to remind me,  in a general sense, how to make lasagne and how long and at what temp to bake it, and I ALWAYS add more cheese (about double) than what the recipe calls for!).

"Official" Ingredients:
9 uncooked lasagne noodles
2 cups (likely more!) of shredded mozzarella cheese (purchased pre-shredded in bulk from Costco)
1/4 cups (likely more!) of shredded Parmesan cheese for top layer 

1 package of lean ground turkey (from Costco--approx 1 1/2 pounds . . . I have less luck with "extra lean")
1 (2 lb) jar of marinara sauce (from Costco--you could substitute your own sauce recipe)
1 or 2 small cans of mushrooms (optional)

Cottage Cheese Layer:
2 cups of small curd cottage cheese
1/4 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese
1 Tablespoon of dried parsley flakes
1 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano leaves

I begin by browning the ground turkey, then I add the marinara sauce (I only drain the ground turkey  if the liquid looks particularly fatty). Sometimes I also add a can or two of mushrooms (drained). I let the sauce simmer while I work on the cottage cheese layer mixture.

I mix the cottage cheese with 1/4 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, the dried parsley flakes and the dried oregano leaves. (I do not add the salt that the official recipe calls for re: the marinara sauce and bonus cheese I add provide plenty of salt)

I cook the lasagne noodles as directed on the package.

Now comes the fun part: The layering of ingredients. I use a 13x9x2 pan (ungreased). I cover the bottom of the pan with three noodles, then a I spoon on about 1/3 of the sauce, then 1/2 of the cottage cheese mixture and 1/2 of the grated mozzarella (but as I mentioned, I'm very generous with the mozzarella, and instead of measuring, I just sprinkle handfulls of cheese to make sure each layer has a nice covering of cheese). For layer two, I repeat the steps for layer one. For layer three, I include the noodles, the remaining meat sauce and then a layer of grated Parmesean cheese (again, I don't really measure, but instead put a nice coating of Parmesean cheese on top).  

I often pop the lasagne in the fridge overnight and then cook it the next day, or I put directly into a pre-heated (350 degree) oven for 45 minutes (uncovered) and then let stand for 15 minutes before cutting/serving. (IF I put into the fridge overnight, then I bring it out of fridge about an hour or so before cooking, and I cook it for closer to an hour).  

I serve it with a green salad, a nice loaf of bread, and a glass of red wine (unless I drank all of the wine while I was cooking). Cheers!  

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. (  (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 (  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

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
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

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 or by email at  You can also order all of my books through and  

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!