Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Summer Learning Adventure

Last year, I challenged myself to create and carry out a learning adventure that would help me improve personally and professionally. I decided to do this by reading as many YA novels as I could in about 1 1/2 months. At the end of summer, I completed about 20 novels-- not bad for someone who doesn't LOVE to read (that's a whole other blog post).

This year, I started the summer convinced that I was going to repeat my previous summer reading challenge, until I discovered this little distraction known as Netflix. Quickly, my reading time was taken up by the television series, "Switched at Birth" from ABC Family. It's the story of two teenage girls who discover that they were accidentally switched as babies and must adjust to their new reality. The series includes several prominent characters who are deaf, and the deaf community is featured in the show. Watching the show gave me the inspiration I needed to begin my summer learning adventure! I was going to learn to sign.

In all fairness, I went into this adventure with a comfortable grasp of the sign alphabet, which is an important first step to mastering sign language. For the next 3 1/2 to 4 weeks, I used an internet website to complete several lessons as I worked to learn this new language. Through this journey, I came to some very important realizations about students who are second language learners...

1. Internal motivation is key: I was inspired to learn sign language after watching a T.V. show. I am motivated to learn this language because I want to be able to communicate with my in-laws, who are deaf and hard of hearing. Learning to sign is a choice I made, but if I stopped tomorrow, I would still be able to communicate readily with the people around me. For most ESOL students, acquiring a second language is a necessity. They are learning English to assimilate to a new country and a culture that is very much based on a new language. I am able to learn sign without the stress that most ESOL students feel. Understanding this difference helps me to better understand the frustration my students may be feeling during the process of language acquisition.

2. Practice makes perfect: I decided to use a free, online website ( to learn to sign. The lessons included a set of vocabulary (usually about 20 words), video of each vocabulary as a sign (with written instruction), practice quizzes, and a 30-40 minute video of the professor (Dr. Bill Vicars at CSUS) reviewing the lesson in a classroom situation. As I worked through these lessons, I would spend at least 2 hours each day practicing, viewing and reviewing the signs and lesson videos. I realized quickly that practicing the signs made them feel more automatic. At the beginning of my journey, this was easy. Now, I'm about 24 lessons into my studies. I have so many signs floating around in my head, that I am starting to forget which words I actually know. Unfortunately, I do not have a signing buddy to practice with each day. As a result, I find that I am forgetting signs from my early lessons-- especially signs that I might not use in daily conversation. What a great lesson for me as a teacher! Practice really does make perfect in language acquisition. If there is no one to practice with at home or outside of the classroom, language learners can quickly become overwhelmed as they strive to learn a new language.

3. Showing others your new language can be scary: When I became a teacher about 17 years ago, I took ESOL strategy classes, and I remember the instructor discussing this concept. It was not until I tried to learn a new language on my own that I truly understood this concept. I'm excited to learn sign language, but I'm a little nervous about showing others what I know. In large part, this is because I only practice with my online videos and myself. I'm not secure enough in my language acquisition to feel comfortable showing others what I know. In addition, I am very slow at signing and I am not very good at signing and talking together (it's a syntax thing). I have a whole new appreciation for students going through the same issues as they learn English.

As I continue to learn this beautiful new language, I reflect on how this experience will improve my teaching. I certainly believe that embarking on this adventure helped me to feel more empathy for students who are forced to learn a new language, and expected to master it quickly.

Summer will be ending soon, and you can be sure that sign language will make its way into my classroom in a variety of ways. This summer learning adventure certainly opened my eyes to a wonderful new language and helped me understand the challenges that students face when they attempt new language acquisition.

Have a wonderful year!!

P.S. If you want to learn sign language and start your own learning adventure, I strongly recommend starting with


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