This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle
Students bond over free sign language classes
By Flori Meeks Published 8:29 am, Wednesday, July 27, 2016 in the Houston Chronicle
Three years since nonprofit organization Be An Angel started offering free American Sign Language classes in Houston, plans are in the works for a reunion.
The gathering will be for those who have completed all three levels – beginning, intermediate and advanced – of the ASL classes, which are taught to hearing persons by volunteer instructor Sheila Johnstone. Currently, the advanced class has 100 alumni.
“They’re always wanting to get together,” Johnstone said. “They’ve bonded so well; it’s lovely.” Plans for the reunion are still being finalized, but the gathering probably will take place in September or October at the Tanglewood/Memorial-area Starbucks, where Johnstone and an acquaintance at the time, Richard Tyler, developed the idea for community ASL classes in 2011.
“I mentioned to him that I was interested in teaching ASL in my retirement, and since he’d been a director of the board of Be An Angel, he suggested talking with their current board about the possibility,” said Johnstone, who has a background in molecular biology, ran her own business as a medical/legal research consultant, is a dancer and plays piano.
Johnstone is not deaf, or related to someone who is, but the dancer in her fell in love with the ASL movements the first time she witnessed them. She later went on to complete the highest proficiency possible in the language.
When she approached Be An Angel, which serves children who are profoundly deaf and/or have multiple disabilities, its board embraced the idea of the free ASL classes. Tyler offered to be the program underwriter, and the first class, for beginners, met in October 2013.
Not only did the course fill up almost immediately, Be An Angel had to develop a waiting list – a list that has averaged about 200 people since. “All I can say is it’s wildly popular,” said Russ Massey, program director for Be An Angel.
As students completed the beginning course, Johnston started getting requests for continued instruction. In response, she gradually developed intermediate and advanced courses in response to alumni demand. “It’s hard for me to turn that down because I’m a teacher,” Johnstone said. “Teachers like to teach.”
Initially, T. H. Rogers School, home to the Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for Houston Independent School District, contributed instruction space for the classes. After the school started renovating its building, Johnstone moved the classes to their current home at the Hope and Healing Center & Institute, 717 Sage. Chief Executive Officer Matthew Stanford is a strong supporter of the classes, Johnstone said.
The program also has had the ongoing support of Tyler, who continues to underwrite the classes so students can take them at no charge.
“Richard Tyler comes to every graduation,” Johnstone said. “He is a motivator par excellence.”
Tyler said he tries to provide perspective on how people succeed in life. “The students see, as with anything you succeed at, you have to be committed to it. You have to be focused on it, and you have to expect bumps in the road.”
Several deaf ASL interpreters and instructors work with the advanced students in addition to Johnstone, including Kathy Ladell, Rachelle Guidry and Matt Dickens. “I like my students to see other hand framing, different styles of sign language,” Johnstone said. “It’s all the same vocabulary, but everyone signs differently.”
Advanced students are expected to complete a final exam devised by Johnstone: an evening out at a restaurant as a class. There’s no talking or writing allowed; students communicate with each other, while eating, in ASL. “If they speak, it’s a dollar a word,” Johnstone said. “I’ve made as much as $5 for a class, but with this group (her most recent class), not a penny. It has really, really worked, and they’ll never forget that dinner.”
It has been exciting, Johnstone added, to see how alumni put their training to use. Students have included nurses, therapists of all kinds and special education teachers, who use their training on the job, along with students who want to enhance their communication with friends and family.
Students also have been going on to take ASL interpreter training and pursue university degrees in deaf education.
“I feel very proud to be a part of the Houston community that helps the profoundly deaf and hard of hearing,” Johnstone said.
“Of course, I’m teaching the people who hear, but they go forward in the community. What I do is give them a foundation and confidence.”
One advanced ASL graduate, Cheryl Crawford, said word about the quality of the classes has spread, and that has contributed to continuing demand for them. “Sheila is fun and obviously a brilliant person,” Crawford said. “This is one of the many things she’s done in her life, and this is her passion. “Nothing is boring in this class, but Sheila does expect you to work. You have to do your homework and practice. By the end, you really learn ASL.” Also volunteering as classroom assistants are Aileen Riley and Monica Guy.
Be An Angel will offer beginning, intermediate and advanced ASL courses again after Labor Day. For details about any of these 10-week classes, email [email protected].
For more information about Be An Angel, visit beanangel.org.
To see the article as it originally appeared visit: Houston Chronicle
Photo: R. Clayton McKee, Freelance