Leigh Ann Dunn works as a paraprofessional at Savannah R-3. She won a CTA grant to attend ASL classes at a local college. When she found out the college no longer offered those classes, she turned lemons into lemonade by finding a class offered at another location at a fraction of the cost, allowing two other teachers to attend with her. The ASL lessons spread throughout the school, allowing a nonverbal student to better connect with her peers. Leigh Ann shares her story in this essay.

I have always wanted to help make a difference in the lives of children. Our district has a student who is nonverbal, and the paraprofessional who started working with her was fluent in ASL. I had taken a class in college, but without using it daily, I had forgotten most of it. When that Para left I saw an opportunity to fill a void that our district would be facing. I applied for the CTA grant requesting to use the funds to take ASL classes at the local college, and I was ecstatic to find out I was awarded the grant!

As the fall approached, I learned the local college was not offering the ASL classes anymore. I called the next college and received the same answer. I did however discover there were two  six-week community education classes in ASL being offered in Platte City. These classes were offered at a fraction of the amount I was awarded. I contacted my CTA representative and asked if I should return the grant funds or if they would consider letting me invite a couple of coworkers to join me in taking the classes. I was given permission to use the funds as requested. I enrolled myself, the student’s case manager and a potential classroom teacher (for student) for the fall semester.  I had mentioned to the student’s parents that we were taking an ASL class in Platte City. We discovered at the first class that her parents were also taking the class. My student’s parents were now learning alongside us as well. This was the greatest asset of all. We were all learning the same signs, sharing the same ideas, and helping a little girl learn that she has a tribe of people trying to improve themselves to help her learn.

When the spring session rolled around the case manager and teacher were unable to attend. I approached the CTA Rep once again and asked to use those funds to pay for the parents’ spring fees. They again agreed. Remaining funds were used to purchase a variety of manipulatives to use in the classroom. I purchased an ASL See it, Say it, Spell it Board with wooden cards that have ASL letters and signs on them to use when spelling sight words, keyboard stickers for her chrome book with ASL signs for the letters and numbers, a dictionary for classroom with ASL signs to use as a reference and even a pdf to make ASL Uno cards with the number signs on them.

Learning ASL has helped me engage with my nonverbal student. At the beginning of the year, she would cry when we asked her to “use her words” via ASL to ask a friend to play. Since we have worked with her this year she now asks friends to play or for help without being prompted. Our speech pathologist sends out weekly videos teaching the entire school 5 new ASL signs each week. Her classmates (who are learning signs from these videos) can now ask her to play, if she needs help, and what her favorite colors are, all in ASL. She used to try “charades” to communicate and it was a guessing game as to what she was saying. Now we are learning and growing together!

I wish that others could have seen the joy and squeals that my student expressed when I showed her the manipulatives that I was able to purchase. She kept flipping through the dictionary. She wanted to know how to ask our Vice Principal if she could pet his therapy dog. We looked up “pet”, practiced it, and she asked him if she could pet his dog. We of course had to teach him to say “yes you can pet my dog Mac!” She also played “her Uno” with a few classmates and they are helping her learn her number signs and color signs. She asks often if she can play cards. We are making a classroom set of 6 ASL Uno cards so she can teach each team within her class to play ASL Uno. Seeing the Joy in her eyes as she realized these manipulatives were for her, to help her find her voice was the highlight of my job. This is why I love being a Para!