iPads at 347: The ASL Location Parameter

iPads at 347: The ASL Location Parameter

With this lesson, I wanted to use iPads as a recording tool instead of being the main focus. My class is exploring the different parameters of ASL: handshape, location, and movement. There are two others (palm orientation and non-manual markers) but I’m saving those for a later unit.

I have a funny relationship with the ASL parameters. Sometimes I feel this topic acts like a crutch for ASL-as-L1 teaching. You don’t know what to teach? Just teach another handshape lesson! Let the children learn that ASL is all about handshapes and movement! It’s analogues to an English teacher falling back on teaching only spelling when he or she isn’t sure what else to teach.

It’s a symptom of the paucity of ideas about what to teach young ASL users about ASL. I remember last January’s ASLRT in Austin, TX when Dr. Todd Czubek encouraged us to move beyond handshapes. “ASL isn’t only about handshapes,” he said.

But then at last November’s ASLRT in Tucson, another presenter said there was nothing wrong about teaching the parameters. It’s a good starting point, and good K-12 ASL instruction would frequently refer back to the parameters. English teachers in high school refer to spelling, pronunciation, and punctuation–things you learn in the early elementary grades. You never really stop talking about these things as a part of English, and the same goes for parameters and ASL, supposedly.

I was also inspired to return to the parameters by watching my team teacher, Cheritha, teach phonics to our students. First grade is all about phonics–learning the sound-letter correspondences, consonant blends, digraphs, segmenting and blending. A strong background in phonics is linked with better reading ability. So if first-graders are learning about the building blocks of English, perhaps they should also be learning about the building blocks of ASL.

So, this current unit’s about parameters. I use a big book (and I keep it on the ASL/Deaf Culture bookshelves in our classroom library) where each page focuses on a parameter.

The focus on this lesson was to introduce location as a parameter. After reviewing handshapes, I asked them which signs they thought were around the forehead. After some prompting with FATHER, DEER, SUMMER, they quickly chimed in with other signs. We did the same with the chin, then the chest, then the hands, and finally neutral space (overall, five basic locations). I also introduced a quick tap-song where you tap on your forehead, chin, chest, hand, and neutral space, and do it over and over again quickly.

I then had them pair up, assigned each pair a location, and they ran off to list as many signs as they could on a piece of paper.

Now, there’s a philosophical argument in ASL-as-L1 circles for not including one modicum of English in ASL instruction. Or more of a challenge: is it possible to teach ASL without using English? Sure, you could try. But teaching ASL without English ignores the reality of my students’ natural environment which is both ASL and English. If there’s an English label for something they’re learning about ASL, they should know it.  I’m not talking about 50/50 language allocation but, you know, sprinkling in some English here and there isn’t going to hurt. And children do need quick and easy-to-compose memory aids like the lists of signs my students produced.

And produced, they did. Then it was time to introduce the iPad part of the lesson. I want them to get more comfortable with recording themselves on the iPad’s front-facing camera.

But we have a practical problem: no iPad stands. The Smart Covers are expensive ($40-$70 each). I’m not keen on my school spending more than $5 each for a stand for more than 30 iPads. However, there are lots of DIY solutions out there: business card holders, easels, wire book stands, bookends. I’ve been ordering one sample from each solution, testing them out. So far, the easels I ordered were too short. The wire book stand works well but the angle is too far back for young children to use while sitting at tables. I have high hopes about the bookend idea and will work on that this week.

For now, I just had one student hold the iPad while the other student shows example signs from the list of signs they both created. Teamwork! I modeled for them how they should start the video (e.g. “Our location is the chin and these are all the signs with the same location: MOM, WHO, FARM…”).

This lesson was the third or fourth time they’ve had the chance to record themselves and I notice improvements every time. They are understanding the constraints of the video frame; they’re getting better at centering and keeping their signing space within the frame, and also checking for bright lights behind themselves (we have lots of windows!). I want to develop a checklist for students to use when recording themselves–much like an editing checklist for writing papers!

I guess the point of this write-up was to show another way to use iPads in an ASL lesson–for recording student work, and also for moving from English to ASL. Now with the videos of themselves listing different signs with the same location, they don’t necessarily need the English lists anymore.

Another issue with video, though, is how to move them to other iPads or to classroom computers. I have to start teaching them soon how to move their self-created video content into Dropbox so other students and teachers can access these videos.

Next week: movement!

Apps Used:  Camera

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on foundinblank.com on December 18, 2011.]

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