In a classroom with a teacher more animated than most, it is so quiet one could hear a pin drop. The teacher paces around the room, fielding individual queries from students while teaching the principles of a dependant clause all while not making a sound.
If one were to close his eyes, the only remaining indication of being in a college classroom would be the squeak of the marker on the drawing board and the occasional good-hearted laugh. This class, although identical to many freshman English classes taught throughout the college, is unique as it is taught in American Sign Language (ASL) to hearing- impaired students.
The Deaf Studies Program at GCC is paving new ground by taking unique approaches to teaching deaf students. As a result, the enrollment of deaf students has increased from 8 students in 2000 to its current 40.
Elizabeth Barrett, started at GCC as an interpreter for deaf students in 1998. She had previously spent her career as a school psychologist for deaf students. She noticed that deaf students at GCC required an interpreter when meeting with counselors and felt she could bridge the gap, given her qualifications for counseling and fluency in ASL.
As a result, Barrett accepted a position as an English teacher to deaf students. Most colleges use signing English, also known as pigeon signing, which is a, “combination of English language structure with ASL signs thrown in,” said Barrett.
“They way the classes were structured in the past were not working,” said Barrett. “I wasn’t happy doing it and they weren’t happy. There was no plan really.”
With English being an auditory language and ASL being a visual language, students are easily lost in translation. “When you try to throw a visual language in an auditory structure, it doesn’t make any sense to deaf people,” said Barrett. “Their learning is a cycle of trying to figure out what’s going on.”
With ASL having little in common with English, Barrett examined the two languages and attempted to “tease out the similarities and differences and use ASL to teach English,” said Barrett.
The English program for deaf students is structured with three components: a reading class and a grammar/writing class, all taught in ASL a characteristic uncommon to many area community colleges.
Also, GCC offers ASL-1 every fall, a class that teaches the grammatical principles and structural rules of ASL, enabling deaf students to acquire knowledge about their language in the same manner that English-speaking students learn their native language in English classes.
Much of the success of the Deaf Studies program has been its ability to accommodate each student’s specific needs with an open-minded approach. “We’re always open to looking at what else we can do. We’re not afraid to think outside the box,” said Barrett, “we really do try and look at each student and what they need.”
Another aspect of the program that has sparked attention in the deaf community has been GCC’s tutor program. The college offers tutors for deaf students in both English and math who use ASL.
Winston Bae, a student in the college’s Deaf Studies program, attended GCC before the addition of an ASL fluent tutor a greatly beneficial addition, according to Bae.
“When I first came to GCC there were no deaf tutors. We had to go with an interpreter and it was very difficult trying to deal with a tutor and look at the interpreter.” said Bae. “And now just recently, [the ASL-fluent tutor] has joined us and now it’s a lot easier.”
Before his arrival at GCC, Bae explored his post-secondary education at community colleges in the area but found the uniquely personal and accommodating atmosphere for disabled students at GCC superior and crucial for his academic success.
“I went around to different colleges and different programs but nothing really fit with GCC,” said Bae. “I have learned a lot of the English structure and basics. It has helped me for my major-and in getting a job and now I’m taking mainstream courses. GCC is my home.”
This sort of appreciation for the deaf studies program among its students is not uncommon. Gabrielle Velasquez, a student in the deaf studies program and computer science major at GCC echoes Bae’s support of the program. “GCC is a nice place to get support if you’re disabled.” said Velasquez.
According to Barrett, “deafness cuts you off from people.” Barrett noticed in 2000 that the relatively small population of deaf students on campus were hesitant to use sign language in public.
As an illustration of the importance of communal support, Barrett commented that times are changing. “But now with 40 of them, they have a force behind them,” said Barrett. “They stand around like everybody else signing to each other and not being embarrassed or self-conscious about it, so the social thing is the biggest for them and one of the reasons the program at GCC has grown so much.”
Raymond Bejar, a freshman in the deaf studies program praised GCC for allowing him the opportunity to make friends as well as excel in the mainstream of academia.
“I’ve made a lot of new friends.” said Bejar. “I’ve learned a lot of things that I didn’t learn in junior high and getting ready for my future.” Bejar plans for a career in architecture as well as teaching.
Apart from the social success is the academic success offered from the unique program at GCC. “All the students that I started with 4 years ago are now in the mainstream, in regular English classes.” said Barrett.