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March 11, 2006

Deaf teacher incorporates culture into language class

From: Contra Costa Times - CA,USA - Mar 11, 2006

Educator brings unique elements into lessons in sign language, but credential requirements may put her job in danger

By Andrew Becker

ANTIOCH - As her Deer Valley High School students gestured at each other, their hands a flurry of concepts, words and letters, Jennifer Goins quietly patrolled her classroom.

Silence predominated, save for a few voices reading aloud and the subtle sounds of hands moving in the air. Then one group called out, "Whoa. You skipped ahead."

But they didn't direct the reader to stop. They were talking to the student translating the children's book, "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" into American Sign Language. Then Goins, the only deaf teacher in Contra Costa who teaches hearing students, stepped in to confer with her third-year ASL pupils.

"She brings the deaf community right on campus. She brings what some hearing instructors can't," senior Nicki Freeman, 18, said about Goins, for whom she interprets. "People talk with their hands, but my movements now actually have meaning."

Nicki is one of Goins' 170 Deer Valley students in five classes. Introducing hearing students to deaf culture is a point of pride for Goins.

"Deaf culture has its own identity, but the same rights, the same beliefs," Goins said through her interpreter. "I try to expose to a lot of people that deaf people are the same."

Goins, 35, of Brentwood is also in a group of 15 on track to be the first in the state to receive a credential specifically to teach ASL as a foreign language, according to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. And she might be out of a job next fall because of federal law.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires teachers to be "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Teachers such as Goins who have an emergency credential will no longer be able to teach. Although she has three years of full-time high school teaching experience, including the last two at Deer Valley, Goins still has to complete her teacher preparation program at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill to earn her credential. And to do that, she needs 18 credits of field work -- teaching.

In February, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing set its passing standard for the ASL subject matter exam, said Larry Birch, an administrator in the professional services division. That essentially makes California one of about a dozen states that not only allow American Sign Language to meet foreign language requirements for high school, but also offer a credential for teachers or recognizes certification from the American Sign Language Teachers Association, said that group's president, Glenna Ashton.

"While ASL is growing in enrollment, there are still not enough ASL teachers at any level," Ashton said.

Besides completing her field work, Goins, who lost her hearing when she was 15 months old after a bout with spinal meningitis, still has to pass the California Basic Education Skills Test. If she does lose her job, she plans on continuing to teach Los Medanos College ASL courses.

"Those teachers not able to complete the program or pass the subject matter exam are in a precarious position of not being able to renew or have a valid credential in the fall," said Donna Becnel, Antioch associate superintendent for personnel. "If they don't have a valid teacher credential to teach, unfortunately, we will not be able to employ them."

About 40 states recognize ASL as a foreign language, according to the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. American Sign Language, which is derived from French Sign Language, is only used in Canada and the United States.

In California, where sign language was first recognized in 1987, ASL is the sixth-most-popular foreign language taught. In the 2004-05 school year, 10,080 students enrolled in an ASL course, according to state Department of Education statistics. In Contra Costa, 1,051 students enrolled in ASL classes at six schools, including Concord High, making it the third-most-popular foreign language behind Spanish and French.

Sophomore Sean Hadlock, 15, the only deaf student at Deer Valley High, started taking the entry-level course as a freshman, the first year Goins taught there.

"When I took her class, I realized how much differently I signed," he wrote in an e-mail. "Every ASL class, Jen observes my signing and corrects it and she helps me a lot."

He said that while many students look up to Goins, some still take advantage of her deafness. It shows a lack of respect for deaf culture, Sean said.

"They even play with their stupid cell phones while she's talking (signing) to the class," he said. "It's really not fair to her that she can't hear the talking, the whispering and their cells ringing."

But that hasn't deterred Goins from following her passion for educating people about deaf culture, said Bryan Berrett, a friend of Goins for 15 years who works in Fresno State University's Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Studies.

"Jen is about empowerment and culture," Berrett said. "Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do but hear. She educates the hearing community one student at a time to overturn prejudice."

Goins could be released at the end of the school year and hired back once she has her credential, said Becnel, the Antioch schools official. But Goins said she might continue to teach at the college level. Becnel said although the school and district would hate to lose Goins, there isn't much they can do to help her.

"The Commission on Teacher Credentialing right now is not very flexible on program or test waivers," Becnel said. "Although we attempt our best to do those waivers for qualified candidates, if they don't meet the strong criteria set by the commission, our hands are tied."

Andrew Becker covers East Contra Costa education. He can be reached at 925-779-7116 or

© 2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.