SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Colleen Barber is one of two American Sign Language instructors in the Sioux Falls School District (SFSD). Until recently, she was the only one teaching ASL in the district, which she’s been doing at Washington High School for 23 years.
Taking a class with Barber is not just an experience in language education, but also in cultural education.
Barber herself is deaf, and speaking with KELOLAND News with the help of an interpreter, she offered insight into the cultural aspect of ASL.
“It’s an American Sign Language class and we’re instructing them about our culture — the language of ASL — and it’s an actual language,” said Barber. Beyond the classroom, she says she’s seen a growth over the years in deaf culture at large.
“Compared to my time in the beginning, they weren’t really culturally aware,” said Barber. “Now, there’s more deaf involved, even in the media; the acting level; the national level. People are becoming more aware of our culture — and they want to be a part of that.”
Barber added that ASL is technically a foreign language. “The students receive their foreign language credit,” she clarified.
As mentioned, Barber is one of two ASL instructors in the district, with the other recently starting at Jefferson High School. “The other students from the other schools — from Roosevelt they actually can come to Jefferson to take the class, and then the Lincoln students are welcome here at Washington High School to take the class with me,” she explained.
“We are a very popular program,” Barber explained. “More students are really wanting to take the ASL class.”
Barber says that in her ASL 1 class, she has around 25 students in class on average. “For this Fall, I have 29, so that’s a pretty large number compared to the other previous years,” she said.
This year, the SFSD has opted to continue growing its ASL program. In past years, students were able to gain just one year of language credits with ASL and would have to take another language course to attain the credits required for university admission. Now, with the addition of ASL 3 and 4, students can complete their second language requirements with ASL.
“It wasn’t a huge program, and this now has really expanded ASL,” Barber said. “It is growing so much.”
Barber’s classes are an immersive experience in ASL. “Typically in my class, I pull in an interpreter on the first day because none of those students know sign language, so I want to make sure the students understand where I’m coming from. They can connect with me and have the interpreter in the class to provide the basic cultural norms and the understanding of the grammar,” she said.
After that first day though, the interpreter leaves.
Barber says that for the first days after the interpreter is out of the classroom, there are a lot of questions from students, and she does a lot of writing on the board. In her class, in addition to a book, students learn in large part through dialogue, gradually relying less on writing to communicate as they progress in their ALS skills.
“They have to watch me and copy my signs, and it’s really an interactive process,” said Barber. “It works out — it really does — and it works well at the end of the day.”
Seeing the program expanded as it has already, Barber is optimistic for the future of ASL.
“I’m most excited about having it expand and grow more,” Barber said. “I look forward to maybe one of those students taking the opportunity to become a professional interpreter or work with the deaf education aspect of things when they graduate high school.”
Barber, in 23 years, has seen a lot of kids graduate. As a matter of fact, she estimates that over the course of her career, she has taught somewhere in the range of 3,000 students how to sign.
“I have a few students — their parents actually took my class in the past,” she said with a smile.
Taking a moment to recognize this, that she has given thousands the tools to communicate with the deaf community, Barber smiled even larger.
“I’m so proud of that,” she said. “I am so inspired and happy that I have this opportunity for these students to have that learning opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity Barber hopes many take advantage of, citing the need for those who sign in the community.
“The most important thing is the interpreter and deaf educators,” Barber said. “These schools all around our area — they need more opportunities — but to interact and see them out in the public, and just knowing these students can learn from my class and then communicate and you know, just really dive into that.”