If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post, maybe you’ve heard of it before. If you’re an ASL teacher, maybe you’re already teaching this way and didn’t even know it. Maybe this is the first time you’ve crossed the term, but are so fed up with the current way you’re teaching that you’re dying to learn something new.
That was me.
My first three years teaching, I taught sixth grade English in a very small middle school setting. Last year, I was offered the chance to switch to high school to teach American Sign Language, and though I had never taught ASL before, I decided this was one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” things that I couldn’t pass up, so I accepted.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Not only did I feel unprepared to make the switch to high school, I had only experienced college-level ASL classrooms, and mostly with Deaf teachers. Here I was, a hearing teacher, trying to maintain the interest of 120+ hearing high school students in a silent classroom Monday – Friday in a world full of short attention spans and technology at everyone’s fingertips.
I was drowning.
The ASL teachers in my district were following the Signing Naturally curriculum, which was the same curriculum I used in my college classes. At first, I was happy about this, since I was already aware of what sort of lessons this would entail. However, I quickly realized that not only was SN focused more towards college/adult ASL learners, it was also extremely dry to teach everyday. My kids were zoning out. I was using my voice more and more just to keep them awake. I felt like a failure as an ASL teacher. Sure, my kids were signing, but it wasn’t good, and so much of my time in front of the class felt like I was doing them a disservice more than helping to teach them this amazing language.
Then I found Comprehensible Input.
I can’t remember how exactly I found it, but one day I stumbled upon a Facebook group called CI Liftoff. That led me to another group specifically for ASL teachers using CI. Through those groups, I found a bunch of websites and YouTube videos from the amazing Tina Hargaden and Stacy Wilson Cannady. I watched one video. Then another. Then another. Before I knew it, I had watched over four hours of videos on a Sunday night about Comprehensible Input. I watched videos in French and Spanish, and I understood (even though I haven’t taken Spanish for over ten years, and never set foot in a French class in my life) every question that was asked and story that was told. This was proof enough that these strategies worked.
I began writing in an old notebook. I wrote out lesson ideas and important verbs to teach students for communication (many of which I hadn’t gotten to yet, even three+ months into teaching ASL). I learned about how to change my gradebook to reflect participation and proficiency in the target language. I learned that, according to ACTFL (the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages), students in my first year ASL class really only needed to know how to sign one-word responses or short phrases — and here I was expecting them to understand already how to have full conversations with each other! Most importantly, I learned that it. was. just. fine. if I talked in English to get to know my kids. Or just to make sure they understood. And then I learned that making sure they understood is actually what my entire job needed to be.
That’s right. I said it. I use English in my ASL classroom. And my kids are learning.
One of the best things I read during my initial research into CI is that it’s imperative that we as language teachers ask comprehension questions in class. When I was an English teacher, I would ask comprehension questions to my class only to the extent of, “Did that make sense to y’all?” or “What questions do you have?” and that was it.
As an ASL teacher, this doesn’t cut it. Not even close. Not even a little bit. If you are not checking for understanding constantly, you do not know if your students are “getting it.” If they are not “getting it,” what you are saying to them does not count. It is not comprehensible to them. So you have to ask! If you don’t ask, you won’t know!
And when you ask a kid a question, and he looks at you and says he doesn’t know or he doesn’t understand, praise the dang kid for being honest! I don’t know how many times before I read that I asked a kid what a word meant in English and he looked at me with that blank face of “Oh crap,” and I got angry because I assumed he didn’t know because he wasn’t paying attention. Now I look back and I think to myself, was he not paying attention, or did he literally just not know the answer?
The first day I implemented comprehension questioning in my classroom, I learned so much from my students. Specifically, I learned what they hadn’t learned. This changed everything for me. From there on out, I decided I needed to be better. The kids taking this class were going to learn something from me this year. They were going to succeed. They were going to go into ASL 2 as little signing rockstars, even if it meant practically starting over from scratch. That very next day, I taught my first lesson using Comprehensible Input, and I’ve never looked back.
So what is this blog for?
I have loved watching Stacy C. teach on YouTube. She has really taken the reigns with this whole CI thing in her ASL 1, 2, and 3 classrooms. Personally, I’m still a little camera shy. But I’m totally aware that what I’m doing every day in my class is working. My kids are signing. They are understanding me. And better yet, I don’t completely dread going to work anymore like I used to. My classroom management is improving. My relationship with my students has skyrocketed. And those dry lessons from the textbook? I threw them out the metaphorical window and didn’t shed a single tear. So I want to share what I’ve been doing in a way that is comfortable for me: through words. (Maybe I’ll try filming later on.)
I’ve been Teaching Comprehensibly in ASL 1 since October. I started using CI with my ASL 2 class when we came back from winter break. Next year, my school is adding ASL 3 to the mix, and they will also be learning from these CI strategies.
It’s possible. It works.
Join me and try it yourself.
More to come. Keep learning.