ASL Slam Night

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Connecting UMD Students with the Deaf Community


“What's really important is for the hearing world, as a whole, to learn that ASL [American Sign Language] is a language of its own, which you can experience for yourself with events like this,” said Joe Hill, ASL 5 student majoring in Communication and earning a minor in Deaf Studies.

In celebration of the newly established National ASL Day, April 15, the UMD ASL Club put on an ASL Slam. Students, faculty, and Deaf community members put on skits, told ABC stories, and interpreted music and books. There were interpreters to announce the next performers, but otherwise the event was wholly in ASL. Over 200 people attended.

“Events like these give students exposure to a different culture, and they learn how to communicate with that community,” said Justin Small, ASL instructor and ASL Club advisor. “You can’t practice language without interacting with the people who use it. Students in class never get to see how the language is used. They understand how it works, but don’t get to see it in action. It also gives them a sense of the overall community.”

About UMD's Deaf Studies Minor

Students, who performed in this event, are pursuing a Deaf Studies minor, part of the College of Education and Human Service Professions. Students take the minor for many different reasons.

“I grew up knowing ASL and have several friends who are deaf,” said Kelsey Ernste, ASL Club vice president and pursuing a Communication Sciences and Disorders major. “I have always been inspired by the culture and language. In my professional career, I want to work with people who are deaf and hard of hearing, so it fit perfectly.”

“When I was in elementary school, I was in a mainstreamed class with about half and half hearing and deaf students,” said Maddie Belisle, an ASL 5 student majoring in Criminology with a Women's Studies minor. “I was in first grade when it started, and I used to be fluent in sign language and had plenty of deaf friends. As I got older and stopped signing, I forgot it all. When I came to college, I figured I might as well give ASL another shot, not knowing I would sign up for a second minor because I fell back in love with it.”

“When I was younger, the high school in my town offered ASL with a deaf teacher,” said Hill. “My older sister took it, and I'd jealously watch her practice. She did help me learn fingerspelling though, which I thought was fun, but I had no one to practice with. When I got to high school, they had already cut the program. Finally in college, I saw that they had ASL classes and was so excited I had to try it out. I fell in love with the language.”

“I had to take ASL 1 for my major,” said Morgan Cunningham, a ASL 4 student who is majoring in Elementary and Special Education. “I had JoJo [Joanne Coffin-Langdon], and I just remember being amazed by how cool the language was, as well as all the things she had to share with us. So from then on, I decided that this was something I wanted to do.”

UMD ASL Club members  
Members of UMD's ASL Club  

Song Interpretations

At the ASL Slam, students performed interpretations of songs, including “Put That Record On” by Corinne Bailey Rae and “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. All of these acts were solo except “Uptown Funk," which was performed by the UMD ASL Club.

“My professor Nancy Diener encourages us to sign in front of others,” said Cunningham. “She always says that we have to learn to be comfortable signing in front of others, rather than just submitting videos for class.”

Cunningham interpreted the song “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.

“I decided to interpret that song, because I like it,” she said. “I think it is a fun song and it is one where if you just signed each part, word for word, you may not get the point across, so it was easy to have fun with it. I just tried to use signs that I knew and signs that would convey what I think the song represents. I listened to the song over and over, and then practiced by video taping myself and watching where I thought I may need to change a sign or facial expression.”

“It’s important to connect with other members of the Deaf community to learn about their background and their opinions. That way we can show that we are willing to learn and participate in their culture and language, so that we can all be friends and not be afraid of what we don't know or assume about other cultures and people,” said Ernste. “It is just always important to connect with people who are different from you, that is how we grow.”

ASL 5 Students

The ASL 5 class, taught by Small, performed the children's book The Giving Tree in ASL. Each of the students played a role in telling the story.  The class performed this story a month before the ASL Slam at the Myers-Wilkins Elementary school for a group of deaf children.

“We all kind of volunteered for each part,” said Hill. “I thought it would be somewhat funny to have me, the only boy in the class, be the tree and have only the girls represent the boy in the story.”

“I think events like these are wonderful,” said Belisle. “It gives Deaf Studies students an opportunity to use what we've learned in the real world. ASL is a language you need to use and practice daily in order to get fluent, and it's awesome to have the Deaf community participate and encourage students to pursue the language.”

Other Performances

Justin Small and ASL Instructor Julie Guddeck performed ABC stories, a ASL art form. An ABC story only uses alphabet letters to tell a story moving from A to Z. Small’s performed a story about a scientist. Guddeck’s ABC story was about a haunted house.

“It's performing with ASL as a form of storytelling, which is different than utilizing ASL in a social construct,” said Small. “ABC connects with the Deaf community as a poetic art. The ABC handshapes are used to convey a visible story. ABC stories are not random. There are rules in telling the stories. The handshapes have to have a purpose and can’t be random. The story has to makes sense, be cohesive, and flow from A to Z. Because of these rules, ABC stories can be difficult.”

Small was also involved in a skit retelling "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." The retelling of the story started with the oral method of communication then moved to the Rochester method or fingerspelling every word method, then to Signed Exact English (SEE), the cued speech, and ended with ASL.

“Oralism, SEE, the Rochester Method, cued speech are communication methods, but are not a language,” he said. “They use English as their language which is different than ASL. ASL is a language, because it has it's own grammar and syntactic structure. The skit showed the difference between all the communication methods and ASL. It shows a little history regarding Deaf education.”

More About National ASL Day and UMD's Deaf Studies Program

“This event was important for the preservation of the language,” said Small “It teaches that the language has value and that is it has a purpose.”

National ASL Day celebrates American Sign Language. The first school for the Deaf in the United States was opened on April 15, 1817 by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc. With the intermingling of Native American Signs, French Sign Language, and Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language from children who attended this school and other schools, modern American Sign Language was brought forth. People all over the country come together to celebrate with this day with skits, ASL art forms, and other ASL-related programs.

UMD’s Deaf Studies program strives to educate students about the Deaf community and ASL. Students can take five sections of ASL from beginning to advanced. Additional courses include Linguistics of American Sign Language, Deaf Culture, and an American Sign Language Skill Building Workshop.

For more information about UMD's Deaf Studies Minor, visit their website.


Written by Katarina Menze, April, 2015.

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