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DawnSignPress Interviews Standout Educator, Amy Andersen

  • 06 February 2019

In 2018, ASL teacher Amy Andersen was nominated for National Teacher of the Year, click here to read about it. Prior to that, she was selected as NJ Teacher of the Year, click here to read about it. DawnSignPress wanted to learn more about Amy so we reached out with some questions.

1. How did you first become interested in American Sign Language?

When I was 7 years old, my mother took me to with her to a sign language class two nights a week. She was a teacher and had a new student who was autistic and Deaf, but did not have language. I remember immediately connecting with signing and practicing all the time - I loved those classes.

Once I entered grade school, I started playing the flute and by high school, I was going to Philadelphia every weekend for private lessons and traveled with an orchestra to Moscow, Russia. Playing the flute was a significant part of who I was and it was the logical path to take after high school. As one of only four flute players to be accepted in 1990, I was honored to be going to Indiana University.

But, while at Indiana University, I began taking American Sign Language classes, getting involved with Deaf community and volunteering in a kingergarten classroom of Deaf students. And I fell in love - again - it's what I wanted to do all the time and although performing for an audience was extremely gratifying, what I felt when working with children was different than anything I had experienced up until that point. There was something pulling me towards teaching.

I found the courage to follow my instincts. Holding my breath, I made that phone call home. "Mom, Dad.... I really want to be a teacher, and I want to work with Deaf children." My parents supported me because they had suspected this was going to happen for a long time.

2. Who along your path was really instrumental in your becoming an ASL teacher?

After graduating from Indiana University, I went on to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel) for a master's in Deaf education, one of only 4 hearing students in the program. The other graduate students were all Deaf, many of the professors were Deaf, most of the classes were taught in ASL, not spoken English. We went to Gallaudet University on the weekends and I became immersed in ASL and Deaf Culture, and I loved it. My Deaf classmates, friends, roommates were all mentors to me during that time on my path to internalizing ASL and understanding Deaf Culture. Those friendships and experiences are crucial to what I can now share with my students. I loved being a part of that community and I still remember the moment it dawned on me, "I get to do this for the rest of my life!" I've been part of the Deaf community for 25 yeras and teaching for 22 and I know it was the best decision I ever made.

I also know that nothing thrives in isolation and no one gets to this point without love, support and mentors along the way. When I look back, my greatest accomplishments can be attributed to a handful of strong women, who empowered me to expand boundaries and shaped the teacher I am today.

My mother showed me the person I wanted to be, how a teacher's loving demeanor gets the results we all want for students. She was constantly pushing the boundaries or walls of her classroom to enrich the experiences of her students - Bringing Life to Learning and Learning to Life!

In graduate school, Dr. Judith Coryell taught me how to be an ally in the Deaf community and how to inspire students. After being diagnosed with Leukemia, she trusted me to care for her recently adopted Deaf daughters. I learned about the consequences of language deprivation, and then the powerful transformation that access to language can bring. Because of that experience, my high school students understand why I demand the highest commitment from them.

My principal in Boston, Patrice DiNatale was tough, petite, and someone you couldn't help but respect. Opportunities I had to partner with the Department of Education or pursue National Board Certification was because she encouraged me to keep pushing myself, and she believed in me.

And now in Ocean City, Dr. Kathleen Taylor has been that influence! She trusts what I propose, ways I want to expand the ASL program and believes in the opportunities I want for my students. Without her appreciation, encouragement and support every thought would have remained... just an idea. I strive to be that strong, inspiring mentor for my students, giving back the passion that was given to me!

Most of all, my Deaf community has been instrumental in my personal growth as a teacher of ASL as well as the evolution of Ocean City's ASL program. As a hearing teacher, I immediately sought collaboration and connections with Deaf colleagues in the community because I knew as an individual who was teaching a language and culture neither of which I was a native member, it was paramount to work hand in hand with my local Deaf community and colleagues.

Their support was instantaneous and now in addition to colleagues, I have cherished friends and my students have supportive mentors, year after year. Leaders in the community like Michelle Cline, treasurer of the National Association of the Deaf, Khanh Lao, President of the NJ Association of the Deaf, Carrie Pogue, Vice President of NJAD and husband, Eli Pogue, former President of NJAD. I have had unconditional support from leaders like Rosemarie and Dan Chrisham, now on their way to becoming certified Teachers of ASL themselves. Annmarie Buraczeski and Steven Klinger, trailblazers in the community have also been incredible.

This collaboration, working side by side is why my students enjoy the successes they do and acquire the comfort they have communicating in a Deaf environment. My hope is that within the next year or two, I will have a Deaf teacher working with me, a necessity for a program that is growing beyond the capacity of one teacher.

3. If you could have, would you have gone to a college like Gallaudet, specifically for the Deaf and if so, what do you think it would have brought to you individually and as a teacher?

Yes! I still toy around with the idea of spending a summer at Gallaudet pursuing a doctorate! The benefits to someone pursuing a career teaching ASL is invaluable at a university like Gallaudet - learning in your second language, living within the Deaf community - it is the best way to acquire fluency and gain some understanding of Deaf culture.

I do go to Gallaudet a few times a year for mini-conferences with the Mid-Atlantic Coalition of Teachers of ASL, run by Dr. Jason Zinza, Amy Crumrine and Meg Vickers. Last month, I had the honor of being the guest presenter for teh day. The knowlege and expertise in that room was unmatched and I know I learned as much as, if not more, from the talented ASL teachers in attendance.

Fortunately, when I think back, my graduate school experience was similar to a college for the Deaf but on a much smaller scale. My classmates were all Deaf, only 4 of us were hearing. In between academic years, I worked at the Austine School for the Deaf summer camp in Vermont, where I was one of two hearing teachers among the entire staff.

At Western Maryland College, my roommate was Deaf, my friends were Deaf, my boyfriend was Deaf and most of my teachers were Deaf so I was signing more than I was talking. I remember waking up one night signing in my sleep - hands in the air in the middle of a dream.

I did my practicum at the Maryland School for the Deaf and then my internship and first teaching job was at The Learning Center in Framingham, MA. I started working there in 1996 right after the school launched the Bilingual/Bicultural initiative and it was an ideal environment for students and teachers. My experiences in graduate school and at The Learning Center are stories I refer to all the time with my students.

One story I always tell is about the summer when there were 6 of us sharing an apartment, 4 Deaf and 2 hearing, so we were a bilingual/bicultural apartment. We had two TV's side by side in our living room - both with the sound off and captions on. The boys could watch football or basketball and the girls watched soap operas, Day of Our Lives I think it was - which all sounds very stereotypical, but the point is because 3 of my roommates had Deaf families, this was a natural part of their own living environment and I was able to experience it, and then 20 years later share it with 150 hearing ASL students every year.

4. Being an ASL teacher, what did it mean to you to win Teacher of the Year for the state of New Jersey?

Becoming the 2018 NJ Teacher of the Year gave me the opportunity to talk to people all over the state about the value of ASL as a second language and also as a first language for deaf babies. Throughout my time as a teacher of the Deaf and teacher of American Sign Language, advocating has been as important to me as teaching. I know that the idea of fighting alongside Deaf mentors for every child’s right to language, culture and the right to be themselves is what initially drew me to teaching and what has fueled my passion for the past 22 years.

Becoming the NJ Teacher of the Year magnified my ability to successfully advocate for these rights and for that - I am most proud and grateful.

Winning Teacher of the Year as an ASL teacher has been about the right that every child has to their voice - no matter how different – spoken or signed. At every speaking event I was invited to, I told the story about a deaf baby named Cole, who was spending 10 hours a day in a daycare classroom where he could not access the language. At 18 months old, he was lost, disconnected and unable to communicate. The one hour a week I spent with his family, as his teacher of the deaf, was not having an impact – how could it? So, I started to use my teacher of the year voice to advocate for Cole. I asked that he have American Sign Language in his daily environment, a language he could acquire naturally because he could see it. The answer was No, that has never been done. So, in collaboration with Cole's mother and immense support from the local Deaf community, I used that "Teacher of the Year" voice for 3 months until NJ Early Intervention finally heard me and agreed to try something new. Cole became the first deaf baby in NJ, in the country, to have a Deaf para-professional in a daycare setting, five hours a day, five days a week.

In a little over a year, Cole went from being a child who could not communicate at all, to a 3 year-old who knows his colors, numbers and animals; a little boy who can fingerspell M-A-X, the name of his favorite toy dog.   

A little boy who can tell his mother when he isn’t feeling well or that he’s excited that Daddy gave him candy, which sometimes gets Daddy in trouble. He is a little boy who can communicate with his hearing twin, Ryan who now signs.

Advocating, knocking down barriers, ensuring that every child receives the education they deserve - that is what this year has meant for me. And the real gift is that my journey will not end simply because a year has passed.

At the end of June, I joined 12 adults and children, both hearing and Deaf, at the NJ State House to advocate for deaf children throughout the state. That day, the NJ Senate Education Committee voted unanimously, 5 – 0, in support of legislation that will provide language equality for deaf children, LEAD-K and the Deaf Child's Bill of Rights. On October 18th, we testified in front of the NJ Assembly Education Committee who also voted unanimously 14-0 in support of both bills.

On July 5th, I received a call from the NJ Budget and Appropriations office – the proposal I submitted with my colleagues Chris Sullivan and Michelle Cline to enhance NJ early intervention services for deaf babies was accepted. In coordination with the Department of Health, we now have $550,000 to establish the “Cole Model of Early Intervention” for deaf babies all over the state. If we are successful, NJ could potentially become a model for other states across the country. For me, being able to influence policy in this way is a lifetime dream, but I know it did not happen simply because I am the NJ Teacher of the Year.

It happened because THAT honor empowered me to use my voice to advocate for the right that every child has to succeed, not as a version of anyone else, but as themselves.

5. You went on to be one of FOUR nominees for our National Teacher of the Year. Has that experience changed you as an ASL teacher?

The experiences and opportunities I have had over the past year have most certainly had a significant impact on who I am as an ASL teacher, a fellow educator, a mother and simply as Amy Andersen.

As a National Finalist this year, I had the opportunity to visit Google headquarters, tour the White House and the West Wing, meet with federal legislators and spend a week at Space Camp, where I piloted a mission to Mars and survived a minute and 45 seconds on one of those 3G astronaut simulator spinning contraptions.

I have learned so much and forged lasting friendships with a truly exceptional cohort of state teachers all over the country – but most importantly, I learned that I am happiest when I am teaching. After my year as NJ Teacher of the Year, I chose to continue to lead from within my classroom - in fact I couldn't wait to get back!

My district and community are going through some exciting transformations as a result of my year as a State teacher and national finalist. With the encouragement and support of my superintendent, principal and Board of Education, Ocean City High School will be expanding our ASL program into what will be called an "ASL Academy".

Students are able to choose pathways like engineering, performing arts, and Teachers of Tomorrow to guide their course selections throughout high school. Starting Fall, 2019 students will be able to choose the "ASL Academy", which will include 4 levels of ASL, collaboration with our Teachers of Tomorrow program and theater department.

Our district has also begun preparing to offer a program for Deaf and hard of hearing students beginning in our primary school and eventually extending all the way through high school.

6. You've just been recognized as the receipient of the California Casualty Award for Teaching Excellence for New Jersey along with 45 other teachers in the U.S. and you'll be going to the NEA Foundation's Awards gala in Washington next year. What message will you bring to the other teachers and attendees about teaching ASL?

I begin with two goals for my ASL students each year: to understand that every individual has the indisputable right to communicate; and every voice has value, whether spoken or signed. As we learn about the interconnectivity of language and culture, I want students to understand we are stronger because of our differences, not in spite of them. I could say this all year, but for students to truly internalize the concept, I need to transcend the four walls of the classroom and help them experience language and culture in various authentic situations.

Collaboration with our Deaf Community creates dynamic, authentic learning opportunities. Once a month, our Deaf Community, students, and parents of Deaf children, sign and get to know each other at Starbucks ASL Chats. Students become immersed in our Deaf Community naturally, gaining lifelong mentors. I have developed even more opportunities for students to interact with the Deaf Community by inviting world-renowned Deaf artists to present painting parties, coordinating silent dinners with parents, welcoming diverse panelists to demonstrate the range in deafness, and coordinating videophone connections. Using our videophone, students have interacted with a Deaf survivor of the 9/11 attack, the Deaf Studies Director at Boston University, and a cyclist from the 2013 Deaflympics.

Deaf mentors provide practice sessions to prepare students for conversations with a variety of signers. Every year, Deaf chaperones join our Gallaudet University field trips where students, now the minority, are immersed on a campus rich with ASL and Deaf culture.

Teaching is an opportunity to inspire, and ignite students’ passion for ASL, although my responsibility doesn’t end there. I encourage every child to build a future they will love living.

I truly am proud of students like Megan, who interpreted for Michelle Obama, and Ashlyn, among the 5% of hearing applicants accepted to Gallaudet University. I succeed when students feel safe to be themselves, appreciate diversity in the classroom, and develop life-long empathy.

Recently, some of my students volunteered at the "ASL Connect " event at the NJ School for the Deaf, where they organized t-shirt sales, games, and ASL songs. After school, students sign with a local deaf toddler, witnessing the impact of the gift of visual language. Annually, current students, alumni, the Deaf Community and I collaborate on an original show to promote deaf awareness. Funds raised support student scholarships and national deaf charities that promote language equality. ASL students perform with deaf coaches and deaf children and learn, not because I teach them, but because they experience it. More than 100 deaf audience members from surrounding states attend this show year-after-year, helping students realize the value they bring.

Nearly 150 students learn ASL every year, (this year I have 176) transforming Ocean City into a “deaf-friendly town”, where people in restaurants, shops, and on the boardwalk, sign with deaf visitors, making an accessible environment. Because nothing thrives in isolation, I facilitate meaningful connections between students and the world around them. In collaboration with students, parents, colleagues and the community, we empower leaders, expand perspectives, and maximize learning for all.

7. What would you say to a student, Deaf or hearing, who wants to follow in your footsteps?

When I stand before my ASL students, I know some will do incredible things in and with the Deaf community.  For students who want to become teachers, I emphasize the privilege of being part of the journey of every child you teach. What an honor. But with this honor comes great responsibility because every day we, as teachers, are showing our students what we believe is a priority. We can choose to focus only on our content area, or to commit to the whole child. I urge them to decide their students will feel equity within a classroom free of judgment; to show students their humanity, and make relationships with students a priority. Above all else, to ANY student planning on becoming a teacher, I want them to realize they will have the power, the choice, to make kindness a priority. As teachers, we plan, we assess, we inform our instruction… and we advocate. We change lives one child at a time, removing obstacles and creating educational environments that allow students to succeed not as a version of everyone else, but as themselves. My students are learning and excelling in American Sign Language, and for that I am exceedingly proud. But, I am even more proud - grateful - that these students are evolving into exceptional human beings.

8. We're wondering if you have a favorite DawnSignPress product?

I love the Signing Naturally curriculum Units 1-6 and 7-12 and most of all I LOVE that DawnSignPress has made the videos available on-line. Students don’t use DVD’s anymore and most of their computers don’t even have DVD drives so the fact that I can offer a curriculum with an online video option is essential. I just started teaching at our local university, Stockton University and I am using the Signing Naturally curriculum with my beginning students there as well.

In an effort to expand the reach of ASL in our district, my superintendent recently hired a teacher who is Deaf to run a class for teachers in the district who want to learn ASL. Kathy Reese was hired and recommended the book “Signs For Me”. This is another fantastic product from DawnSignPress that we are loving!