When professor Corrine Occhino took the helm of the School of Education‘s American Sign Language (ASL) program in Fall 2021, three sections of ASL 101 and one section of ASL 102 were offered. Since then, ASL has been added to the languages accepted for the University’s core language requirement, and the program has doubled in size. Students will be able to choose between five sections of ASL 101 and two sections of ASL 102 in Fall 2023. ASL 201, a brand new course, is also available. ASL 202 should be available in spring 2024.
Wonderful New Worlds
ASL is housed within the School of Education (SOE) thanks to the school’s long, pioneering history in disability studies and inclusive education.
Signed English was first offered as a class (a visual representation for English words, grammar and syntax). ASL, which has its own grammar with syntax independent of English, was later added as an elective topic. In 2013, the School of Education added the ASL prefix to its list of courses.
First studying ASL as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Occhino says, “like many of our students, I was curious about ASL and interested in learning more about the language and culture. Taking ASL classes really can open the door to wonderful new worlds!”
Occhino joined Syracuse in the Fall of 2021 after spending the previous year at Rochester Institute of Technology as a Research Assistant Professor in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. In keeping with another SOE tradition, she now has a dual appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics (LLL).
Occhino says it’s important that ASL classes at Syracuse are taught by Deaf ASL teachers. “The Deaf community should be the keepers of their own language,” she says. “They have the cultural and linguistic knowledge to best teach the language and culture to future signers.”
The ASL classes will be taught by three Deaf teachers: Kimberly Amidon and Michael Mazzaroppi. (Another instructor is expected to join the team in the fall.) “Each of these instructors has several years of teaching experience,” says Occhino. “It is good for Deaf ASL teachers to have the opportunity to teach ASL, and it shows that the University supports cultural values among the Deaf community.”
Mazzaroppi is enthusiastic about the expansion of ASL in the University. “They have been discussing this for years now,” he says. “SU is big on being inclusive and diverse, so it would make sense that they would offer more ASL classes. I believe ASL’s popularity has to do with the exposure in mainstream Hollywood, and I know it is growing popular among the disability community as the language for the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
“Taking ASL classes really can open the door to wonderful new worlds!”
—Professor Corrine Occhino
“When I was first hired, students found ASL fascinating because of facial expressions, body language and immersion of Deaf culture,” says Amidon. “Students learned more from a native Deaf teacher, and when they found out that I am providing level 3 instruction, that has made them even more excited to go further with their ASL studies. I enjoy giving back to the students and sharing my passion for the Deaf community, to teach them how to become allies.”
Amidon says she hopes to see more courses related to Deaf studies added, addressing history, culture and language: “Deaf studies includes Deafhood, a deeper look at history and culture, as well as linguistics.”
You’re Up to Par
Occhino has a busy research career. She directs the ASL course and teaches Diversity of Signed Languages Deaf Cultures at the 300 level. She collaborates with the local Deaf-run non-profit Deaf New Americans (DNA) on a funded by an A&S Engaged Communities Grant. The grant supports a storytelling initiative for members of Syracuse’s Deaf refugee population to share their experiences with the broader Deaf and hearing community, both in Syracuse and beyond.
Another project—Documenting Individual Variation in ASL (DIVA)—is a continued partnership with researchers at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. It charts the language’s minoritized and marginalized varieties.
Occhino collaborated with Htoo to make ASL a requirement for core language requirements. “We began to bridge the gap between LLL and the School of Education, to make sure that the ASL curriculum was up to par with other core requirement languages housed in LLL.”
The pair reviewed and re-designed the ASL curriculum to meet national benchmarks, designed new syllabi, and ran the curricular changes through the SOE and A&S curriculum committees. The newly designed program was introduced in the fall of 2022. Occhino’s team is currently working on developing new courses for the ASL and Deaf Studies curriculum.
A Fun Class
What can ASL classes offer to students?
First—there’s no talking. “Our classes are fully immersive—’voices off, hands up’ as we say! ASL is a visual language that uses three-dimensional space, so it’s different from learning a new language in a spoken modality. “Students also learn about the richness of Deaf culture and the Deaf community,” says Occhino. “It’s a fun class—very interactive, and you learn to move your body to make language.”
“I enjoy giving back to the students and sharing my passion for the Deaf community, to teach them how to become allies.”
—Professor Kim Amidon
Students play games, perform skits, and practice ASL in small group settings to facilitate learning. There’s regular conversation tables and game nights that meet in Huntington Hall throughout the semester. “These extracurricular activities also are a chance for students to meet members of the local Deaf community, and a chance for the Deaf community to see what a great job ASL at Syracuse University is doing.”
“We as a Deaf community are so excited to see SU promoting our culture and language for students to learn,” says Amidon. “We are thrilled to share our perspectives and teach the students a beautiful language that will promote accessibility. A student might encounter a Deaf person in their career—by knowing ASL, they can communicate and remove barriers and frustration.”
Adds Mazzaroppi, “The Syracuse Deaf community looks forward to being more involved with the University’s signing community.”
For more information about American Sign Language, please contact Professor Corrine occhin at [email protected].
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