UI student teaches signing

By Courtney Klemm

As the clock nears 9 p.m. in the basement of Allen Hall on Monday night, John Brand III, senior in ALS, takes out a large sheet of yellow paper and hangs it above a chalkboard behind his seat. On the paper is written simple words, like slow, bad, best and city. Within minutes, several students arrive and take their places on the large block seats surrounding Brand.

“Let’s do ‘animals’,” he says, at the same time moving his hands to convey this. They go around the room, each student making the sign with their hands for a particular animal they had learned the lesson before.

Talk of various animals sparks other topics, which also lead to the teaching of new signs. When ‘horse’ comes up, Brand asks his students to recall the last time they rode a horse, helping the students with the signs for numbers and time frames.

This is a typical night for Brand, who has been giving these lessons in American Sign Language (ASL) since his freshman year at the University. Brand is classified as deaf, but wears hearing aids to help him pick up sounds. He said he began as a teaching assistant for formal ASL classes in the speech and hearing science curriculum, but decided to offer informal group lessons to advance the students’ learning.

“I wanted to help ASL class here on campus. The only way for a person to really benefit is to learn from a deaf person and interact with them,” Brand said. “(My lessons) became pretty popular, so I continue to do it.”

Brand, who is also known as J3 to his friends, was born in Batavia, Ill., and attended Jacksonville’s Illinois School for the Deaf. Both of Brand’s parents are deaf, as well as his sister. He said he decided to come to the University over the popular Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington D.C., which his parents attended, because the curriculum for his major is better at Illinois.

Brand said he enjoys attending a primarily hearing college because he can work to bring both the deaf and hearing communities and cultures together.

“I enjoy being in both communities, but I’d rather be involved in the hearing community, so I can be the bridge between both,” he said. “I’ve taught a lot of people, and they have told me that they’re grateful for me helping them.”

And Brand’s efforts will soon be worth it. With some advocating from the Society of Signers, a student organization dedicated to spreading deaf culture and ASL, of which Brand is the education coordinator, the University will be implementing an American Sign Language curriculum in 2006 or 2007 that will count for foreign language requirements.

Brand said he and other members of Society of Signers are extremely excited for this new program and hope that the ASL and deaf culture will continue to spread throughout the campus and community.

“I wish they would have done it sooner,” said Marcia Walsh, junior in ALS and Society of Signers assistant education coordinator. “Once they get more formal classes, it’s going to be huge.”

Walsh, who is hearing, said she came to the University wanting to learn ASL, but was nervous about taking the first step. During her sophomore year, she attended a Society of Signers meeting, and Brand told her he would be holding informal lessons.

“By October I was going every day, every week,” Walsh said. “I got friends involved, and it was a good way to hang out with them. I also had a deaf culture class with John, and we’d meet before the class and sign. That really improved my skills a lot.”

Walsh said Brand’s teaching style was one of the things she liked best about his lessons.

“He’s very patient; there were definitely people that came and couldn’t get it,” she said. “He’s very laidback and not a conventional teacher at all.”

Brand said his favorite parts of teaching lessons each week are the people that he meets and the interesting conversations he has with his students.

“A variety of people come to ASL lessons, that’s what I like best,” he said. “Every time I teach, something new comes up. I like when students use their imaginations when they are trying to learn a new sign.”

Stephanie Schutzenhofer, senior is ALS and internal vice president for Society of Signers, said she feels Brand has made an impact on campus and within the community over his years at the University.

“Without J3 having his sign language lessons, I don’t think people on campus would be that interested in learning it,” she said. “His classes bring together people of all levels and it’s fun. He’s a large part of why we have a sign language club and stay friends.”

And although there will soon be a formal ASL curriculum, Walsh said Brand and ASL have made such an impression on her that she and another student want to follow in Brand’s footsteps when he graduates in May.

“We’re going to try to keep these lessons going because we understand the importance of teaching the language in a relaxed environment,” she said. “It really opens people up to taking formal classes too. It’s definitely just a nice language to learn.”