Teaching American Sign Language with a Stick

In the History of Bad Idea the — the worst one, in my humble estimation, is the practice of teaching students of American Sign Language with a stick.  Yes, a stick made of wood.  In some ASL programs, instructors use a stick during class to manipulate — and intimidate! — their students.

For the record, we don’t teach ASL using a stick, but also for the record, we want to try to explain why some programs use the stick-without-a-carrot method of teaching.

Since ASL is a manual language, the hands need to be formed in specific shapes to create proper understanding and some schools believe that an instructor should never touch a student with their hands — under any circumstance — because that interaction might be considered assault or improper touching or something.

So, instead of using the “Hands On” approach and using your fingers to help form a student’s hand, which is faster and more precise — these schools want you to use a wooden stick, or a dowel, or unsharpened pencil, to “manipulate” the student’s hand by proxy. These schools want you to poke students with a stick — which I find more intimidating than helpful.

Now, I ask you — would you prefer to have your hands and fingers and arms and elbows moved into position with a stick, or with human hands?

We always ask our students for permission before touching them — ASL is a “touching” language where the culture demands shoulder taps and hugs and other physical interaction as part of the overall communication memes — but these other schools believe that students, because of the power dyad between teacher and student, are incapable of providing permission to be touched, and so the “stick method” is used.

I have never taught ASL in a “stick school,” but Janna has, and she says it is awkward and sort of hard to do because you really can’t help the student quickly, you sort of have to point with your stick and try to delicately promote proper finger placement and HandShapes by suggesting and hinting and remotely pressing and pushing rather than just by solving it directly with your hands.

I can’t image the “ASL By Stick” method is a better, or a safer, or even a more reasonable teaching method than hands on hands — and in many ways the stick is more insult to Deaf Culture than valuable learning tool; if I were ever told I had to poke a student with a stick in order to get my point across, I think I just stick with online teaching instead.

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