English Tutor Accommodates Deaf Students on Campus

It is mid-morning, and the Learning Center is packed with students and tutors. A young woman sits at a table using American Sign Language (ASL) with students; this woman is Katherine Firkins, GCC’s first deaf tutor.

A native Californian, Firkins spent her early childhood years in Toronto. Her mother is from Canada. Both her parents decided to move back to Canada when she was 18 months old and they found out that she was deaf. Firkins also has a deaf sister and her parents wanted more support by being near family.

Serependity has led Firkins to work with deaf students at GCC. As a teacher’s assistant, she worked with Barbara Boyd, a deaf English professor, in teaching a university-level literature course to deaf students for a year at Cal State Northridge In addition, she was an English tutor working with deaf undergraduate and graduate students. She helped students with their English

papers for three years at the National Center on Deafness.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English with emphasis on writing, she received an e-mail from Elizabeth Barrett, an adjunct instructor in the English department and adjunct counselor in the Center for Students with Disabilities, showing interest in using her as a tutor and assistant in the deaf program.

“I had to grab the opportunity, and I’m glad I did,” said Firkins.

Being deaf has not kept Firkins from fulfilling her dreams to teach English. Aside from being an English tutor and helping Barrett in the classrooms, Firkins is also a graduate student at Cal State Northridge, working towards a master’s degree in English with concentration on Rhetoric and Composition for college-level teaching.

Firkins has always been interested in English as a subject, but she never thought of becoming a teacher. She was geared more toward publication.

Through this interest, she is is helping people nationwide by writing for publication for the deaf, including SIGNews, published by the Communication Services for the Deaf; The GLAD News, by the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness; and NADmag, by the National Association of the Deaf.

When Firkins is not hard at work tutoring or assisting teachers, she is an artist on the side. She is currently working on a graphic designs for Sign World TV Inc.

Firkins says she is always on the lookout for travel opportunities.

“I’m making arrangements to attend the World Federation of the Deaf conference in Madrid, Spain next summer,” WFD is an international non-governmental organization representing approximately 70 million deaf people worldwide. Firkins also said, “In addition, I’m hoping to volunteer to teach English to deaf adults at a deaf school in Kingston, Jamaica for a few weeks nextwinter.”

New deaf student, Oushin Chetin says, “I think it’s cool that I have deaf tutors at GCC.”

Barrett, who has been with GCC since 1998, took over The Deaf Program in the English department in 2000. At that time there were only eight deaf and hard of hearing students.

Enrollment for The deaf Program has grown over the past five years. As of now, there are approximately 40 deaf and hard of hearing students on campus. GCC is the only community college in Southern California that offers specialized English classes by someone who is fluent in both ASL and English. In addition, GCC is the only college that offers deaf and hard of hearing tutors to the students.

The college has English classes that are designed for deaf and hard of hearing students with the instruction using ASL. English 150 is a reading course and English 151 is a writing course, both classes have a beginning and intermediate levels.

Chetin is currently taking English 150 and 151 taught by Elizabeth Barrett.

“Katherine is the first deaf tutor at GCC,” said Barrett,

Barrett would love to see Firkins work here as an instructor someday after she gets her master’s.

According to Barrett, she began to realize that the deaf students were not comfortable with hearing tutors and interpreter, and felt it was vital for deaf students to be tutored by someone who was fluent in ASL and English. Firkins explained that ASL is based on the French language, not English.

“ASL has all the properties of any language and it is a fully realized language in all senses of the word,” said Barrett.

“ASL is the primary language in the deaf community, and English is second. It’s extremely important for instructors and tutors to understand the structures of ASL and English to address the language problems that deaf students face,” said Firkins.

Firkins explains more in-depth that most deaf students deal with two languages, ASL and English, in the classroom, while hearing students only focus on English. It’s easier for hearing students to learn English than deaf students because hearing people can hear the words, sound them out whereas deaf people cannot.

Christina “Cat” Parker, has been interpreting at GCC for the past two years. She said, “I think hiring a deaf English tutor will have a positive affect/impact on the students since they will be learning English from someone who ‘speaks’ their language.”

When asked if she thought it was better for deaf students to learn from deaf teacher/tutors or hearing teachers/tutors? Firkins said, “I don’t think it makes a difference if deaf students have deaf or hearing instructors as long the English classes are taught in ASL.”

Firkins, believes it’s quite difficult for deaf students to learn English from instructors and tutors using sign language interpreters due to a high risk of miscommunications and misunderstandings. For example, if there is a deaf student, a hearing teacher, and the interpreter at a table, the deaf student may use a sign that does not mean the same in English words or there a English word that has no sign so there could be some confusion. In addition, some sign language may vary from state to state or city to city.

“From my experiences in teaching and tutoring, it’s a pleasure helping deaf students understand the complication of English as a language.” Firkins said.

From the sixth grade up Firkins was mainstreamed. She had one deaf teacher when she was in middle school. She also took two English classes and one Public speaking class with Barbra Boyd at Cal State Northridge.

Jose Estrada, a third year deaf student who had tutoring sessions with Firkins last semester and is now taking mainstream classes with an interpreter, said, “I think I prefer deaf tutor, because deaf tutors are easier to communicate with me.”

Firkins was surprised that GCC did not have any deaf tutors or teachers. She said that Cal State Northridge has 250 deaf students and a very good deaf program, so she was very pleased to come and work at GCC.

When Firkins was asked if being so young, 24, she found it challenging teaching her peers, she said, “I don’t see my age as a challenge or issue in teaching or tutoring. I get respect from students and workers because of what I’m capable of doing on the job.”

Firkins believes that it’s good for deaf students to have deaf instructors and tutors as their mentors. Due to the success of Firkins tutoring sessions at GCC,Barrett has hired three more deaf tutors, two for English and one for Math.

Her goal is to become a full-time English instructor to the deaf students by the time she obtains her master’s which she is 6 classes away from getting. Firkins has put a lot of hours and hard work into

pursuing her goals to become a teacher. She is role-model and a mentor for deaf students on campus.