Why Deaf Students Need Access to ASL Stories During Distance Learning

 (Motion Light Lab/YouTube)

For Melissa Malzkuhn, the best part of creating storybook apps in American Sign Language and English is seeing children’s reactions. “They retell the stories, or they pick up a sign or phrase, or they repeat something they find funny. It's incredible, always incredible and uplifting when you see kids learning, absorbing and enjoying,” she said.

Malzkuhn is the founder and creative director of Gallaudet University’s Motion Light Lab. Since 2013 her team has worked with Deaf storytellers and artists to create bilingual stories for their VL2 ASL Storybook Apps. Exposure to stories in ASL is essential for young Deaf students, she said. “ASL is their natural visual language, and they learn swiftly. You can see the foundations being built.”

But with schools across the country closed amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Deaf children have less access to such stories. About 73% of Deaf and Hard of Hearing children live in homes where family members do not regularly sign, according to a 2014 national survey by Gallaudet University. And according to Malzkuhn, many online educational resources being recommended to families right now are dependent on audio. Even when captions or transcriptions are available, Deaf children who are learning to read are unable to use those resources. “They need ASL access, and strong ASL models to develop literacy skills. With strong ASL skills, it bridges right into learning how to read and write,” Malzkuhn said.

That’s why, as schools across the country moved to distance learning in March, her team opened free access to their storybook apps. They weren’t alone in their efforts. Educators and advocates across the Deaf community have curated lessons, created storytime videos and organized events to support Deaf students’ literacy. “It's been fantastic seeing how the Deaf community has rallied together through this, with our creativity, storytelling and our sense of community accountability for all Deaf children,” Malzkuhn said.

Here are six ASL resources to help Deaf students engage with books and storytelling during distance learning.

ASL Literacy Activities from the Motion Light Lab

In addition to making one of the VL2 Storybook Apps available for free each week, Malzkuhn’s team responded to COVID-19 school closures by launching a website full of related resources. ASL Literacy Activities includes daily ASL literacy lessons, games, a sample schedule for Deaf education at home and other materials.

#OperationASLStorytime

With a majority of schools closed for the rest of the year, online read-alouds have become a popular literacy tool among educators and authors themselves. In mid-March actor Shoshannah Stern, who plays Dr. Riley on Grey’s Anatomy, encouraged her social media followers to create and share ASL storytime videos using the hashtag #OperationASLStorytime. Stern shared a video of herself signing “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. Dozens of signers have followed her lead on Instagram and YouTube.

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ASL Storytimes by Black and Brown Deaf People

While #OperationASLStorytime has broadened linguistic access to virtual storytimes, most of the stories have been signed by white people. It’s important for Black and Brown Deaf students to see themselves reflected in the signers and the books, said Victorica Monroe, founder of the nonprofit Transformative Deaf Education. TDE’s website spotlights ASL storytimes that offer that representation, such as Monroe’s translations of “I Don’t Want to Go To Sleep” and “My Princess Boy.” TDE has also partnered with another nonprofit, ASLized, to sponsor Deaf people of color to submit original ASL stories for the ASLized library

Boston University’s Deaf Education Library

Boston University’s Deaf Education Library pulls together lessons and other teaching for multiple academic subjects, all in ASL and English. BU faculty and students crowdsourced the collection from across the internet in response to a call to action from Aiken Bottoms, a BU alumnus who teaches kindergarten at a Deaf school.

ASL Campfire Stories

Since March, families with Deaf children have gathered weekly for “ASL Campfire Stories” events on Zoom with tents, sleeping bags and all. Unlike the #OperationASLStorytime videos, which are akin to read-alouds with readers signing English books, the campfire events feature master storytellers performing “in the purity of ASL,” according to the organizers, Adele Ann Eberwein and Elvis Zornoza. “Many of you probably huddled around the campfires sharing stories, some people in Deaf clubs shared stories, and/or some told Deaf jokes. This is ASL STORYTELLING. … Similar to oral tradition, it is important for ASL Storytelling to be cherished for children to develop a variety of literacy skills,” they said in an Instagram video.

Everywhere Book Fest

With hundreds of book festivals and author tours canceled since March, several children’s authors teamed up to organize Everywhere Book Fest, a virtual book festival held on May 1 and 2. All of the sessions that were recorded live included ASL interpretation and are archived on the festival’s YouTube page. Some of the pre-recorded sessions did not include ASL interpretation. The schedule featured bestselling authors and diverse subjects, such as a panel on immigrant stories in middle grade novels, a picture book draw-off and a session on the future of superhero stories