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Students become sign-language teachers to senior learners

ASL students hone skills by teaching to others

Class had barely gotten started and Mary Ann Shumaker asked one thing of the two instructors sitting across from her: “How do I say ‘It’s my birthday?’”

Teaching Shumaker the phrase in American Sign Language was no problem for senior Katie Tellier and junior Jacob Campbell, who extended their own good wishes then deftly guided her and fellow student Linda Biggins in the correct hand motions.

Kai’Enna Tucker reviews a sign from the prior week’s lesson

Katie, Jacob and about a dozen of their Forest Hills Central High classmates were three weeks into teaching an eight-week ASL class to those who had signed up at the Forest Hills Community/Senior Center.

In this class it’s the teachers who are graded. Students are juniors or seniors in their third or fourth year of ASL classes at the school, where it qualifies as a foreign language.

“It’s an outreach for us, and it helps us learn it better,” said Morgan Wildman, a senior who is in her second year teaching the class at the center. Morgan plans to pursue a career in special education, and is dual enrolled in Lansing Community College’s interpreter program.

Fellow student teacher Kai’Enna Tucker, also a senior, said she’s taking the class just because she enjoys it. “You realize how much you know when you have to teach it,” she said.

Students Gain Confidence

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Teacher Kimberly Anderson said she signed on a few years ago to teach an evening adult class at the senior center. She soon realized there would be more students in a class held during the day, and that some struggled with the pace of her class.

“I had already made the decision to encourage my students to assist in these classes, and thought about the opportunity to have them all teach during the daytime,” she said. “This way, more community members could be involved and my students would all be able to participate.

“The benefit of having my students partner one-to-one is they know how far or how much to push their student week to week,” Anderson said. “It also helps with memory and maintaining a strong pace. … My students all say that this is their favorite experience throughout the entire year.”

What’s more, she said, the Central High students gain confidence in their skills just as they are sharing them with others.

“They are also put in a position of knowledge, meaning they are the ones people ask for help, which I think … helps with future relationships, self image and prospective job opportunities.”

The center classes aren’t the only time Anderson’s ASL students test their skills in the community. They also spend time at Meadow Brook Elementary, teaching younger students the basics as they learn about Helen Keller.

Her students also have practiced signing during preschool story time at the Cascade Branch of Kent District Library, and visit the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to teach signing to some patients. Level 4 students will develop activity packets for patients unable to get an in-person lesson.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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