PA Grant Report: Identity, Storytelling, and Culture in Washington, DC

January 18, 2024

In March, ASL teachers Amanda Toomey and Rick Caceres are taking a group of ASL students on a four-day trip to Washington DC, where they’ll visit Gallaudet University, the global leader in education for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and tour the city while participating in ASL experiences. Rick and Amanda have been thinking about this trip for a long time. But it was thanks to a grant from the MMFS PA that they were able to take a scouting trip to Washington last summer, to turn “thinking about” into “planning for.” Here is their report on that trip. 

We have been talking about a trip to Washington DC with American Sign Language (ASL) students for a long time. We are so grateful to the MMFS Parent Association for the opportunity to travel to Washington last summer so that we could plan a trip for our students that focuses on culture, community, storytelling, and identity. We are finally taking our inaugural trip this March.

Our trip to DC began at Moynihan Train Hall, where we scouted restaurant options and pictured what snacks our students would purchase for the train ride ahead.

Our first stop in Washington was the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, where we plan to take students on a guided tour with ASL interpretation provided by their education department. We focused on the museum’s “Exploring Identity Through Portraiture” program, which “explores the way in which artists and sitters use portraiture as a means to convey individual, community/cultural, and national identity.” Highlights from this program include the official portrait of Michelle Obama as well as Roger Shimomura’s self-portrait, “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.” We devised a storytelling activity for our students, in which they will find a piece that they connect with personally and then they’ll share information about both the artist and the subject.

We were delighted to find a pop-up exhibit from one of our favorite Deaf artists, Christine Sun Kim. Kim is a visual and sound artist whose work uses score, graphical notation, text, and performance. We were particularly struck by her piece “The Star Spangled Banner (Third Verse)” which utilizes the graphic notation she used when she was asked to interpret the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 2020. Her piece considers the third stanza of the original lyrics (not sung as part of the national anthem) in the context of the growing call for equity in the United States.

The following day, we headed to Gallaudet University for a guided campus tour in ASL with English interpretation. Our guide was a current junior who shared brilliantly about her experiences on campus as a proud Deaf student. Our interpreter was also a student, and a member of the ASL-English Interpreting program.

After teaching about Gallaudet’s history in ASL classes for years, we felt a little starstruck seeing the campus for the first time. Gallaudet is the first and only liberal arts university for students who are Deaf and hard of hearing. It was founded in 1864 by Edward Miner Gallaudet, who named it after his father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who co-founded the first school for the deaf in the United States 50 years earlier. Artwork commemorating Gallaudet, as well as Deaf icons such as Laurent Clerc and Ida Hampton, was visible all over campus. We saw a few students walking around, communicating through ASL. We also briefly saw a JumpStart class, an immersive ASL program that helps new Gallaudet students get comfortable with learning in a signing environment. We’re excited to return with our students during the school year and see the campus in full swing!

After our Gallaudet tour, we stopped at the Signing Starbucks—a must see for any DC visit! We know our students will love the opportunity to order their drinks using ASL. Now we just have to figure out how to sign “venti nonfat no whip java chip frappuccino.”

That evening, we did a self-guided tour of the National Mall and visited some of the memorials and monuments. We saw plenty of beautiful green space and imagined our students enjoying lounging and signing together.

On our third and final day, we took the Metro up to the Smithsonian National Zoo. We were thrilled to see pandas, elephants, antelopes, lions, orangutans, and so many different birds and reptiles. We observed how the animals behaved and thought about how we would bring ASL into this space with our students. We settled on a collaborative storytelling activity that encourages students to show the way different animals move.

We packed so much into just a few short days in Washington, DC, and we are so excited to return with students. Thanks to the PA Summer Grant program, we feel prepared to lead this trip with students with a thoughtful itinerary, planned activities and destinations, and of course, lots and lots of restaurant options! Thank you again to the Parent Association for their generous support in helping us design our first ever ASL trip.

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