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! 

April 16, 2014

Sign Language Can Be a Communication Tool for Older Kids, Too!

Since my last post, I've heard from a lot of parents/teachers of middle schoolers. Given that sign language is a major focus of my blog, it seems appropriate to share some specific ideas for signing with older kids.
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In my experience, older kids think of sign language as a secret code to unlock. They love learning to sign because it gives them a way to “talk in code” with their friends. Once kids learn how to sign the alphabet, they can have entire conversations by finger-spelling. (Shhh! Don’t tell them signing is also good brain food!).

Signing also offers an opportunity for older kids to express sensitive topics without saying the words out loud. Saying, "I'm sorry" falls into this category. When I was a kid, one of my favorite television shows was "Happy Days." Henry Winkler's character, "The Fonz," was incapable of saying the words, "I'm sorry." I distinctly remember an episode where he could get as far as "s-sah-sor-sor-sorrr," but he could not muster the full phrase, "I'm sorry."

It can be similarly awkward or embarrassing for a young person to say the words, "I apologize" or "I'm sorry" out loud, even when that child is sorry for what they've done. In public places and spaces I've witnessed power struggles erupting when a parent or caregiver insists that a child apologize for something they've just done. ("Say you're sorry. Johnny, you need to apologize to your friend. Look him in the eye and say you're sorry . . . "). Offering a child a choice to apologize with their words or with their signs can give them an opportunity to maintain their dignity (and personal power) while still apologizing for their actions.  

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Signing can also make it easier for older kids to hear some messages. When my daughter was in middle school she would have been horrified if I hollered “I love you” from the audience after her band performance, but her eyes always twinkled when she spotted me signing the same message.

Likewise, when one of my kids has said something particularly sharp and hurtful to me, I've been known to sign "hurt" over my heart, to indicate that their words stung. Somehow this is easier to hear than similar words that are said out loud. There have been times that one of my kids has erupted emotionally, and I've quietly signed "hurt" over my heart, and just as quietly my child has signed "sorry" back to me and then come in for a reconciliatory hug. The emotions needed to be expressed, but the words didn't need to be said out loud for that to happen. Sign language came to the rescue once again, offering a bridge to communication.

Some things are just easier/more convenient to sign than to say out loud. Many teachers I know ask their students to use the sign for "toilet" or "thirsty" to ask permission to leave the classroom to use the restroom or get a drink of water.

One of my favorite classroom management strategies that is useful for all ages is to have kids to raise their hands with an informational sign instead of just raising (waving!) their hand in the air when they have something to say. Here is how it works: Teach students the signs for the letters "Q," "A" and "C." Ask kids to raise their hand by making the sign for "Q" when they have a question, "A" when they have an answer, or "C" when they have a comment. Going forward, when you facilitate a classroom discussion and hands go in the air, you can prioritize who to call on based on the signs they indicate (e.g. by calling on the kids who have answers to your question instead of the ones who still want to provide  comments about the topic . . . or their pet frog). Here is a more in-depth article about this strategy by author/education consultant Rick Morris. NOTE: Morris uses the letter "I" (for "I have a question") instead of the letter "Q to identify questions, but the overall strategy of using sign language to distinguish between students with questions/comments/answers is similar to the approach I use).

Once you've introduced older kids to a little bit of sign language, it's not uncommon that they will be interested in learning more. Lora Heller's, "Sign Language for Kids"and Penny Warner's "Learn to Sign the Fun Way" are great resources with lots of fun signing activity ideas. Older kids are particularly keen on self-guided learning. Students can easily navigate online dictionaries such as www.signing savvy.com  and www.lifeprint.com, and Dr. William Vicor's ASLUniversity offer's a great self-guided learning program that students can explore at their own pace. In addition, my series of blog posts entitled,"Capture that Story," provides a self-directed learning experience that can incorporate sign language.

I particularly like to pair older children with younger children during signing activities.  The Signing Activities in the back of my Story Time with Signs & Rhymes books and linked from ABDO's resources page (scroll down past the Star Wars info to find the sign language links) provide a great opportunity for older children to facilitate learning experiences for younger children through scout troop community service projects, big/little buddy pairings at schools, and in homeschool settings.

And, for those kids who are really interested in signing, I offer complimentary 20-30 minute SKYPE (or FaceTime) Q and A sessions as well as Email Q and A sessions (in addition to traditional school/library visits). For more info, click here, or to schedule a visit, send me a message via the contact form on the left sidebar.

I would love to hear some of your experiences incorporating sign language into your communication and/or learning environment with older children. I look forward to your comments and messages! 

April 7, 2014

Where are the “Mommy and Me Groups” for Parents of Middle Schoolers? -- My Messy Beautiful

I get invited to share information about signing with babies at a lot of “Mommy and Me” groups for parents of infants and toddlers. The new parents bundle up their babies and slog their tired butts into these meetings to openly share their trials, tribulations, and success stories with strangers.

I’ve noticed some things about these conversations:

1) The discussion topics are similar from group to group and have remained fairly consistent over time. (I’ve been visiting these groups for nearly 15 years, and parents consistently talk about crying and sleep issues, nursing and feeding concerns, daycare and return to work logistics, health and safety matters, and developmental milestones).

2) Parents are willing to share their difficult experiences unabashedly. They talk about how long their babies cry night after night, how projectile their spit up is, and how explosive their diapers are.

3) Parents are interested in the experiences and ideas offered by their peers. If someone is preparing to return to work, the group facilitator turns the issue back to the group and asks other parents who have already returned to work for their input and perspective. Parents with experience with the situation gladly offer their perspectives. 

4) I love visiting these groups. I feel extremely confident, experienced, and nostalgic when I listen to new parents discuss their concerns. It’s all I can do to resist the temptation to chime in and share my own war stories, solutions and disasters. My years of parenting infants and toddlers are more than a decade behind me. All the things that seemed so difficult and unfamiliar then seem so familiar and manageable now. Part of this is because I’ve already lived through it, (and part of it is likely because the passage of time has numbed my recollection of the painful aspects of those early years of parenting).

5) Those types of open, honest (and facilitated) conversations with other parents seem to peter out about the time kids start preschool, and they are essentially non-existent for those of us parenting kids in middle school and high school. If there was ever a stage of parenting where I’ve felt the need for encouragement and support, it is the middle school years (6th grade is a doozy for our family)!

It’s not that there aren’t resources for parents of older children. There are classes and counselors, websites, and workbooks, but I’ve yet to see parent support groups for older families modeled after the “Mommy and Me” format that is so widely available for new parents.

In my experience, parents don't completely stop talking to each other as our kids grow up, but the conversations are more filtered and skew toward the positive as time passes on. We talk about how our kids are doing in school and on their sports teams. We talk about their after school activities and summer camp experiences. We talk about the logistical challenges of juggling work responsibilities, carpools, and meal preparation, but we don’t talk about the horrible meltdown our child had over the weekend, or the hurtful words that were spewed at us in a fit of teen rebellion, or the concerns we have about our child being socially awkward, resistant to personal hygiene, or afraid of going to the doctor. 

These topics don’t come up as readily when we chit chat during soccer games or bump into each other at the grocery store. They don’t come up when we share a glass of wine or cup of coffee with other parents—particularly if those other parents have kids our kids’ age. And they certainly don’t come up in our social media outreach. Seriously, when was the last time a Facebook friend posted something along the lines of: “Today my middle-schooler threatened me physically, then looked me in the eye and said she hates me. I’m heartbroken, angry (and a little bit scared). Would love some advice for how to navigate this age and stage.”?

I think one of the reasons we are more hesitant to share our dirty laundry as our kids get older is that we want to protect them. We don’t want to “out” them to the world. My kids have done some pretty rotten and embarrassing things. There is a little part of me that thinks others won’t be as forgiving as I am, or that others won’t be able to see beyond their uglies once they hear some of our family stories. More truthfully, however, is that I too am afraid of being judged. I worry that the challenges I’m experiencing with my own children are a reflection on my parenting skills. I worry that I’m the only parent whose child has thrown a full-on temper tantrum at the age of twelve. I worry that the challenging parenting moments I experience in the privacy of our home are unique to our family, and that other households are more peaceful and pleasant and perfect.

I think I need a “Mommy and Me” group for middle school. I want to slog my tired butt into a meeting room and share my trials, tribulations and success stories with strangers. I want to hear that others are struggling with the same types of things I’m struggling with, and I want the opportunity to feel confident and share my perspective when someone is experiencing something I’ve navigated successfully. That said, I don’t think I want my kids at these meetings--I’m not ready for them to find out how close I am to giving in to their daily dose of irrational demands!

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences. If you have older kids, are you involved in a parenting support group? If so, is it comprised of strangers (initially) or of people that are part of your school/neighborhood community? Do you have a facilitator or do you self-faciliate? Has the experience been helpful? Please share!

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