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Solving Common Classroom Problems: Sign Language Lends a Hand

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This morning, four of my students asked to use the bathroom in the space of 10 minutes. In those same 10 minutes, I was able to conduct three formative assessments and adapt my teaching based on those assessments, all the while making every student feel listened to and keeping the class engaged. I don’t have a robot, two heads, eight arms, or an over-inflated ego—but I do use my hands as well as my mouth to communicate.

When I first became an elementary school teacher, I certainly felt like I needed extra arms to balance all the dynamics of my classroom. I had learned how to teach math and how to leverage technology, but not how to contend with Johnny’s drawn-out and distracting expression of his immediate need to go to his cubby. Technology tools and teaching tips are great, but there are many pressing questions to answer first: How do I avoid juggling hall passes? How do I know who is grasping factorization and who could use another explanation? How do I know my students are even listening? How can I encourage my students to engage without screaming over one another?

By introducing five simple signs in American Sign Language to my class, I’ve eliminated some key daily challenges. No software needed.

Confronting Challenges

One problem I wanted to address was my students’ seemingly endless needs to sharpen pencils and drink water.

The ASL sign for
The ASL sign for "bathroom"

The solution? I taught my students the signs for water, bathroom, pencil sharpener, and locker. Now, their requests don’t interrupt or divert our discussion about the Civil War. And with these side conversations becoming nonverbal, the momentum of our class discussion is undisturbed.

Next there was the problem of pacing learning. Even if frequent assessment weren’t mandated, I’d want to help my students catch up as soon as they began to fall behind. My exit tickets were helping me assess each student on a daily basis, but a bit too late. If I had known six students didn’t master the material, I could have taken a few more minutes to explain it before they became confused and discouraged. Now, I have to find a way to squeeze that extra explanation into tomorrow’s lesson plan. And what if they still don’t understand? They’ll be two days behind.

I started to identify and address confusion as soon as it arose by using nonverbal checks for understanding. I found out that many other teachers already use the stoplight technique, in which students show traffic light pictures to indicate their comfort with material (red means "stop and explain," yellow means "slow down" and perhaps "quickly review," and green means "let’s move on"). My students seemed too advanced for traffic light pictures, so I converted this technique into ASL.

Depending on the content and the learning objective, signs for "yes" and "no," "true" and "false," or even the letters of the alphabet (for multiple choice) can help gauge the temperature of a classroom. Having explored mass and density, are most students understanding that a pound of feathers is just as heavy as a pound of lead? After our debate about freedom of religion, how many students agree with the outcome of the Scopes trial?

Even one of my college professors uses nonverbal communication to pace learning. She asks students to hold up three, four, or five fingers to indicate how much more time they need to work independently.

Another challenge I wished to tackle was what to do when multiple students raise their hands in response to a question. Do I want what’s behind door number one, two, or three? Who is going to share an irrelevant story, who is going to ask when recess begins, and who is going to further the development of a productive class discussion? Who had the right answer and did not get the satisfaction of my recognition? More importantly, what about the students who are too shy to propose an answer?

The ASL sign for
The ASL sign for "point of interest"

The solution: My students use a sign for "point of interest" if they have an immediately relevant thought to contribute. A point of interest is an idea that has not yet been brought up in the class discussion and that must be expressed before the conversation moves on to other topics. A student holding up this sign knows that he will get priority picking. After only a few days of learning how to use this sign properly, my students started to think more critically about what they wanted to say, and were better able to decide whether an idea was truly a point of interest. This is important for their analytical thinking skills as well as the momentum of our learning as a class.

The ASL sign for
The ASL sign for "me too"

Signs for "me, too" and "agree/disagree" allow all students a chance to quickly and quietly let me and their classmates know that they, too, knew the answer. This is one of the most important benefits I have seen in my classroom: Students are almost continuously engaged in careful listening and eager feedback. Moreover, students who rarely participated in the past have built confidence as they can see that half the class also thought the answer was 8.5; mistakes become not only acceptable, but an essential and productive part of our shared learning process. I make sure to nonverbally recognize as many students as possible for their signed contributions to the discussion.

Where to Begin with ASL

To jump-start basic ASL implementation in your own classroom, follow these three simple steps: 1) Decide with your students and fellow educators which issues you would like to address with ASL; 2) visit to learn a few particular signs in a matter of seconds; and 3) teach these signs to your students and use them consistently.

Keeping students attentive and excited is a teacher’s dream, and often remains a dream as behavior management and increased pushes for mass assessment reduce the time available for interactive learning. We often look to technology for new and improved ways to address these problems, but the low-tech use of a few simple signs borrowed from ASL offers a stress-free way to multitask—and even reshape the power structures of learning.

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