Foreign languages are often considered to originate from another country. However, what many are unaware of is that another language and entire culture exists within the United States — that of the deaf culture and their language, American Sign Language.
Stansbury High School’s Daniel Edwards
Daniel Edwards, ASL teacher at SHS, is dedicated to educating his students about the ASL culture.
“I enjoy helping others learn and impacting their lives,” said Edwards. “I want to make their lives better and give them more opportunities.”
Edwards, 34, was born legally deaf. He grew up in Kearns with three brothers and two sisters. Two of his siblings, a brother and a sister, were also born deaf and Edwards was raised speaking ASL with his family.
“ASL is estimated to be the fourth most common language in the U.S.,” he said.
After graduating from Kearns High School in 1996, Edwards served an LDS mission in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., from 1997 to 1999. Upon returning, Edwards started to attend school at Brigham Young University. After changing his major a few times, he finally settled on English education.
While attending school at BYU, Edwards taught at the LDS Missionary Training Center. He also substitute taught several classes during his education there.
“Because of my experiences with people, I decided to become a teacher,” said Edwards.
During his time at BYU, Edwards also met his wife, Jessica.
“She was taking beginning ASL class,” said Edwards. “I was talking with my deaf friends at the student center. She asked if she could join us at our table. We dated for about two years and then got married.”
Since marrying in 2005, the couple has had two boys. Logan, 2, and Henry, 4 months, can both hear, but they know sign language.
“Logan’s first language is ASL, but he speaks very well like other hearing kids,” said Edwards.
Shortly after graduating in 2005, Edwards taught in Ogden with the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind from 2006 to 2009.
In 2009, Edwards agreed to teach at Stansbury High School, beginning with its opening.
“I interviewed with the administration, and felt good about them and the new school,” said Edwards. “They were positive about having me teach there and expanding the program.”
Within his classroom, Edwards uses a highly interactive class structure to teach ASL vocabulary, grammar and deaf culture.
“I have a lot of partner and group practice and encourage class participation, so students can develop their ASL skills through expressive and receptive skills,” said Edwards.
Each class, Edwards begins by asking how the students are, encouraging the use of signs depicting emotion and state of being that have previously been taught. He asks each student individually what activities they have participated in since the previous class period, assisting with any words they do not know.
“I love it when the students try to express themselves, to participate and talk with me and other students in ASL,” said Edwards.
According to Edwards, the best part of teaching ASL is getting to know the students he teaches.
“I can get to know the students as individuals and talk and joke with them,” he said.
Though learning ASL as a language is important, Edwards directs much of the focus of his curriculum to teaching students about the history and culture behind the language as well as the structure of the language itself.
“Learning about ASL and deaf culture helps people to understand the deaf community’s unique perspective and needs,” said Edwards, “People often think that because some deaf people don’t talk, they aren’t that smart or capable of doing much, that the only successful deaf people are those who have good speaking skills, or that if you want a deaf child to learn to speak, they cannot use signs.”
The way Edwards teaches his class is similar to any other foreign language including history, language structure and vocabulary and testing students on the materials learned.
“It is a misconception that ASL is signed English, and that it is easy to learn,” said Edwards. “It is a separate and unique language with its own grammar and language usage rules.”
The most frustrating thing to Edwards about teaching students sign is when they will not use the language to communicate in the classroom.
“The biggest challenge is getting students to use signs,” he said. “Some students won’t stop talking and use signs instead. Some are shy. Some don’t pay attention. Some think that it’s too hard and don’t try.”
His goal is to reverse that pattern, encouraging students to employ the small knowledge they have of ASL so that he can assist them in developing it.
“And in the process, because they use the language in a real and meaningful context, they learn and remember so much more and become more fluent in ASL which helps them to acquire even more ability to sign,” he said.
Tooele High School’s Greg Montgomery
A deaf high school American Sign Language teacher is a rarity, but having one who can also speak clearly and has earned his doctorate from the only deaf university in the country is even more rare.
Only 2 percent of the deaf population is able to speak, Lake Point resident Greg Montgomery said. Montgomery, who has been deaf for as long as he remembers, teaches not only at THS, but also travels to teach sign language at Weber State University two nights a week. Montgomery completed all of the coursework for his PhD from Gallaudet University, the only deaf university in the U.S., and lacks only writing his dissertation to complete his doctoral degree.
Most PhD candidates from the Washington, D.C., university are unable to complete their dissertations because, he said, after four years of study they have to seek employment to support their families. Montgomery, who is a very proficient lip reader, holds a B.A. from Utah State University in physical education. The 53-year-old also holds a master’s degree in deaf education, along with his doctorate from Gallaudet. He met his wife in 2008 on a singles website. They have three children. Montgomery’s wife has learned ASL since they met four years ago.
At present, Montgomery, who is in his fourth year at the high school, teaches approximately 200 students. He has three classes of first year students, two second year classes and one class with third year pupils at Tooele High. The classes Montgomery prefers to teach, however, are his college level classes, which he has taught for five years.
“The college students pay to learn. I am happy to teach them.” he said. “I love to teach those who want to learn.”
Montgomery was born and raised in Sun Valley, Idaho.
“Nobody knew I was deaf until I went into the first grade,” he said. “My teacher recognized that there was more than just meets the eye.”
The teacher asked his mother if she would be interested in having her son’s hearing tested. She consented. The testing was clear. The doctors bore the news to his mother, asking her “do you understand that he’s totally deaf?”
Apparently, Montgomery was not deaf at birth, but he suspects it was caused by a childhood bout with meningitis.
“My mother remembers me being very sick with a high temperature,” he said. “The symptoms seem to fit meningitis exactly.”
The high fever associated with meningitis most likely burned up the millions of tiny hairs inside Montgomery’s cochlea.
“It is these hairs that carry sound to the brain,” he said. “I have none of those hairs.”
Montgomery does not know what year he suffered with meningitis, since the hospital which housed his records burned down. However, Montgomery was able to hear before his sickness, because his ears had heard speech and his brain recognized sound. Only those who hear at one time are able to learn to speak clearly.
Following his hearing test results early in his first grade year, Montgomery went to live at a residential deaf school in Gooding, Idaho.
“I would go home only for holidays,” he said.
It was then that Montgomery became fluent in his first language.
“Signing became my native language,” he said.
Though his mother began learning some sign language, he said she basically only ever finger-spelled.
Montgomery continued his schooling in Gooding and graduated from high school there. During his sophomore year, he told his mother that everyone could understand him well enough, and ceased speech therapy, which he had been participating in for a decade.
Now, as Montgomery’s students begin their course work, they are allowed to talk some at the beginning of the year. Walking into Montgomery’s deaf classroom is an interesting adventure. There are no desks, because writing would defeat the purpose of using one’s hands to sign. One’s eyes need to be on the teacher to learn the signs, as well.
“ASL is a visual language,” he said. “They have to look at me. They can’t look down at a book. Their eyes have to be kept on me in order to learn the language.”
Montgomery’s chair is in the center front of the room with two half circles of chairs surrounding it. A reversible sign at the front of the class reads “ASL Only – No Voices or Whispering Allowed.” The other side says “Talking Allowed.”
“It gets tiring for them having to pay close attention,” he said. “I understand. Ninety-nine percent of the time I am patient with them.”
Montgomery is also the vice president for the Utah Deaf Teachers for High School ASL. There are currently 19 high schools in Utah that offer ASL. Utah is one of the top 10 states for what Montgomery termed as large and supportive high school ASL programs. It is Montgomery’s goal for his program to be the best in the state.
Montgomery said most hearing people take for granted that deaf people know what’s being said around them and what’s going on, but in reality, they don’t.
“We are human beings. Do not to treat us differently,” he said.
Another thing most hearing people don’t understand is that deaf people have a heightened visual sense. When Montgomery goes hunting with his buddies, he said he’s the first to see a deer or elk.
“I also see a lot of flaws in movies that hearing people miss,” he said.
Montgomery does not lack an appreciation for music, though he is deaf. He said he actually likes to listen to music in his truck.
“I can hear sound in general, but not specific sounds or words,” he said.
So, sometimes when he is driving along, he takes his hearing aids out and enjoys some country or church music.