ASL Tales’ Multilingual Storytelling – Powerful Tool for Learning

I’m on my way to a teachers’ conference, and wrote this, in preparation.  Whether in education or in communities, stories are always better than just information giving.
Multilingual stories include many more people and families.  If you would like an ASL Tales book/DVD set and/or ideas on how to use them with a variety of students, write me.  Let’s tell stories together[To help buy books for teachers and schools, donate on left.]

Storytelling is the most powerful tool in education, and has been in cultures around the world, since the advent of language.  Indeed, language may be the result of the human need to tell stories.  Many scientists think that signing was the first human language.  If true, this would explain the fascination and the strong attraction to visual storytelling.

Experience is the best teacher.  Stories are vicarious experience; they allow us to experience through the storyteller.  Fairy tales and fables contain wisdom and group experience of our ancestors, that is, culture.  We are right in the midst of facing choices and problem solving with the characters.  Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”  ASL Tales makes fairy tales accessible to children who have been traditionally left out.

Stories are student centered, engage affective and social intelligence as well as analytical thinking, and cross disciplines.  Educators for centuries focus on the need for narratives.  Although different terms have been used, such as: discourse analysis, whole language, or constructionism, they all point to stories.

ASl Tales is unique in providing frozen text, created to honor both languages, English and American Sign Language, at the discourse level.  In other words, ASL Tales honors the power of the story.  The writers and the signers are telling stories as if a hearing or Deaf child, respectively, were sitting in front of you. Each story is readily accessible, and present linguistically rich opportunities.  With spoken translations, hearing children, English speakers or English learners of many languages, can also access the ASL story, creating the additional benefits of  exposure to a new language, and learning through multiple senses.

By using two different languages, accessible at the same time, bridged by the illustrations, and spoken translations in up to ten different languages, ASL Tales’ multilingual storytelling reaches a much broader range of learners and levels.  Metalinguistic and metacognitive thinking* is triggered by the observable differences of the expressions of the two languages.  This helps struggling readers or English learners with decoding and comprehension.  More advanced students are challenged to see deeper meaning and can work inductively/deductively between languages.

These differences also relate to cultural differences as language and culture are always married.  The same story with different expressions encourages awareness of cultural differences, a springboard into more stories and multicultural discussions.  Two different storytellers with many translations is a needed message to include everyone in the classroom or family, regardless of differences.

By centering on the child, stories can address many disciplines or meet many standards at once.  By providing many languages and different sense modes, ASL Tales can include many more children.  How many disciplines and many levels and different  kinds of learners could be addressed could take a book to cover.  Let me, instead, simply open the door into the realm of possibilities of reaching many students and many objectives:

For young children or older kids who missed this important foundational skill, the identification of feelings is made easy with visual language.  Context in the visual story offers even greater accessibility to developing this skill, a prerequisite for self-expression, communication and empathy.

While it is fairly easy to see how a story could help a child with reading, for older children, and looking specifically at math standards, how could a story be relevant?  One Common Core Math Standard reads:

“When constructing viable arguments, students justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others.”

The study and learning of literary objectives involving character development, points of view and prediction of plot outcomes, also contain the same skills needed to argue and justify conclusions.  Overlapping with both literature and math are the following social and emotional or relationship management skills:

Respect others (e.g. listen carefully and accurately);

Understand other points of view and perspective;

Identify social cues, verbal and physical, to determine how others feel;

Predict others’ feelings and reactions; and,

Manage and express emotions in relationships, respecting diverse viewpoints.

The above example shows the story’s ability to cross over from literature to math to interpersonal objectives. Einstein saw the power of fairy tales, the power of stories.  ASL Tales provides the power of multilingual stories to bring storytelling to children who are often left out.  Now we can tell stories to the whole village.


* Metacognition research shows (Louise Rosenblatt, 1978) Aesthetic, reader-centered, affective, interactive education, with an engaging personal connection, creates reader responses more than factual, text focused, informational cognitive presentation.

2015: A New Year, New Day, New Post and Planning Meet Up

Happy New Year, ALL.   We are already beyond a dozen days of 2015.  Counting time (I learned from the once languageless man, Ildefonso) is so arbitrary.  Everyday is new and we can begin again, and any time in the day, we can begin yet again.  Who will I be today?  According to the Buddha, I am what I thought yesterday.  Let me share with you the mission stated from the beginning of this web site:

We are our stories.

Every language carries a collection of stories, that is, a culture, a unique perspective. SusanSchaller, et al. uses storytelling’s power to connect people and teach us about ourselves. We work toward including everyone by bringing together stories from many languages, cultures, and through different senses and media. Our work is sharing and making new stories out of every person’s story, to complete our story and ourselves.

The most important bit of the above mission is “et al” – “and others.”  Of course I or one person could not do the above.  I need all of you to add your stories, languages/cultures and personal experiences/insights.  I can begin.  I can offer my experience, my culture, and the gifts of windows into others’ stories, languages and cultures, and, even, the window into a “languageless” man’s world who changed my life, and brought me to this place, time, and sharing with you.  Hopefully, A Man Without Words, the book and/or the short documentary, inspires and/or engages you, encouraging you to add your story, your perspective, to offer another story that inspires, engages and encourages another, then another, connecting us in a chain of stories, using our differences and diverse “clothing” to unite us in the universal truth: we are a “we,” not “I” and “I” and “I.”

I can begin with what I thought/think is a good idea.  I traveled, and am traveling to individuals, teachers, parents, students, and general audiences to demonstrate a multilingual storytelling tool – a book/DVD set.  Up to 10 different translations can be chosen as conduits to the masterful written English storytelling and visual “Deaf” storytelling of American Sign Language.  But, all I can do is show you, and tell you how I think it can be used for teaching empathy, multiculturalism, reading, writing, communication and a love for learning.  Then you need to use it, experiment, add your ideas and tell me and others your success stories – how it helped five-year-old hearing Cathy to read, Alexis to identify emotions, or José to understand English better (or how your hearing students saw that signing isn’t just vocabulary, and their fellow Deaf students taught them about visual communication, giving them insights into their own language).

Inherent in any mission are the goals.  In the above mission, storytelling unifies, accepting others’ and their stories includes, and teaching through others’ stories brings us to understand ourselves.  These goals are, however, as elusive as the mission, if they are not translated into specific objectives: the specific ways, and the targets, players and tasks. I am only one player, and I failed to do anything this last year.  There were successes, and they always included other players, a team, an “et al.”  We attained something.   Invite me to your town, home, school or community group so we can work together and make more progress.

According to Buddha, I am what I thought yesterday.  My mission statement of yesteryear included you all, but many times I acted on what I thought was a good idea, and leaped ahead without you.  Today, I would like to think of me with you – a team. If today, I think as a “we,” tomorrow we will be together.  Please join me in 2015, in team building to build a community that includes everyone and all stories.  Help us plan better objectives, better ways of connecting, to encourage us all through our stories.

The meeting is now open.  We look forward to reading your response in the “reply” box below, AND to your contribution as a blogger on this site.  The name “susanschalleretal.” makes no sense without you.  Your response below is private until it is approved for the site, so you may also write me privately with any feedback, suggestions or if you would like a book, DVD or multilingual ASLTale book/DVD set.

Announcement:  If you have any Deaf (or CODA) theater or ASL consultant friends, please refer them as we – a Deaf/hearing team – are working on a bilingual/bicultural play to premiere this summer, in Boone, North Carolina.



Without Words, a bilingual, bicultural play

Happy December to all.

A play based on A Man Without Words, to be written and directed by Derek Davidson, will be performed this coming summer.  Without Words, the working title, will be bilingual (ASL/English) and bicultural (Deaf/hearing).  Stay tuned for more information and news as it unfolds.

I need to board a bus, so forgive the brevity.  More later.

Enjoy the end of the year.


The Future is None of My Business

Life is strange and gloriously unpredictable. When I was a teenager, under the illusion that I had any control over the future, I thought I was on my way to studying for medical school and becoming a doctor.  Life unfolded much differently. When I was seventeen, a catering truck hit me, and my bicycle, putting me in the hospital with a bruised brain.  For a while I couldn’t read, and was excused from all my classes. Bored, I wandered to the nearby university and chose a classroom door at random.  As I walked in, I saw the professor signing what looked like Van Gogh or Da Vinci paintings in the air. I fell in love with that visual language and its owners, Deaf people. Entering that door changed my life.

Decades later, another car accident left me bed-ridden or on crutches for six months.  All my work and ties with Deaf people and their superior visual world were severed.  I never have regained the access to the Deaf community I once had, and my signing has suffered as a result. I’ve had many days of wondering if I should keep trying, after many failed attempts.

Life’s river laughs in gurgles and rushing breath as it takes me through new rapids, around bends, and into new territory. Perhaps a river is the wrong metaphor as I was brought to the drought-ridden Mojave Desert at the Las Vegas Catholic Worker where I now live and work, serving food to the homeless. In the first five minutes of my first day on “the line,” I saw two Deaf men signing. Three days later, I met a third who taught me the sign for Guatemala. Now, I sign regularly and am teaching an American Sign Language class at the Catholic Worker where some of my students have served one Deaf man for over a decade, and never knew his name. Instead of a doctor, I became a bridge over a grand canyon between two cultures.

The lesson is obvious and simple, but never easy to remember: the future is none of my business.  Deciding who I am or what I should do is not my business.  I need to let the river steer and carry me. Life is always better when I float and enjoy the moment, instead of exhausting myself fighting the current.

Of course, present actions relate to the future, as someone just pointed out to me. We need to look before we cross a street.  Yes, if I can do something now that relates to the future, that is my business. I write a rent check or schedule an appointment,  It is when I can not act, then I need to let go of any illusion of control and not try to think my way into or out of a future situation. [Thank you for the message, anonymous one, pointing out the need to be more explicit about what I mean.]

Write me if you would like a gift of A Man Without Words or The Boy Who Cried Wolf or support materials for different kinds of learners, different learning objectives and various ages. Or, if you have any ideas, suggest them.  Maybe you will be on one of the shores after the next bend.

Loss Without Less: Lost limbs and new gestures in the Lao PDR

by Leah Zani   (one of the two most popular posts – worth sending again for new and old readers)  [If you have a story to share, send it – susan(at)]

I am an anthropologist just beginning a research project on disability in the Lao PDR, a country in Southeast Asia that has experienced some of the most intense bombings in history. I am at the early part of my research project–everything I experience is new and fascinating. I am full of wonder for Lao.

In Lao, most people speak a combination of Lao, French, English, and local dialects. Working in a country where I do not speak the dominant language, I experience a very mundane kind of being langaugeless. I am unable to communicate through words, and must instead speak with people through gestures, smiles, and exchanges of gifts and money. Sometimes I use a translator, and notice, in fascination, how shared meanings emerge out of the collaboration between the speaker and the translator. Working in Lao has also inspired me to new kinds of language: for the first time in my career, I found myself writing my fieldnotes as poems. It may be that my experiences of being temporarily without language are making me engage with the world differently–and out of that engagement comes poetry. Here’s an example of one of my fieldpoems on being languageless:

Marking out cash on the counter
of an almost drug store
I have lost my language.
The shopkeeper and I communicate
through a currency that I cannot speak.
Somewhere on one corner of each bill
is a number I know how to say.
I cannot find it.
My tongue is caught in the turn
of the paper, the way my thumb and palm
occlude half the
edges as I press them into her hands.

The poem describes the multiple kinds of language that people use, and how even when we loose some kinds of language, we continue to use and develop others. I don’t speak Lao, but I still communicate with people through gestures, smiles, and gifts. Money, too, is a kind of language, a currency we speak through exchange.

Taking this idea of loss in language a step further, it might be appropriate to use this to understand disability in Lao, particularly how some survivors of UXO accidents talk differently after a bomb explosion. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance, the legacy of America’s Secret War in Lao in the 60’s and 70’s. Lao is the most bombed country in the world, per capita. America dropped a plane load of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. In total, this Secret bombing is equivalent to one hundred times the power of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Since one-third of these bombs failed to explode during the war, meaning that Lao remains heavily contaminated with bombs today–nearly fifty years after the first bombs fell. More than half of the world’s UXO accidents occur here. Because of this context, disability in Lao is characterized by the successes and struggles of UXO survivors, people who have lost parts of their bodies rather than people born with different bodies. Generally, people are involved in UXO accidents with small cluster munitions, called bombis in the Lao language. These small bombs look like metal balls, spheres of fruit or nuts. Consequently, people involved in UXO accidents in Lao loose their upper limbs and upper senses: fingers, hands, arms, taste, eyesight, hearing, voice, lung functions, and feeling in their upper body.

What happens to language after an explosion, when your body has been radically changed by the blast? The key thing, in Lao, is that UXO survivors experience an immediate loss of language ability, rather than a born difference or a gradual change in their bodies. Focusing simply on gesture, my experience is that people continue to gesture in the ways they did before the explosion, except now they use invisible hands. And, often, people’s bodies are so evocative that I think I see their missing hands, too. In addition to having invisible hands, people acquire other kinds of hands as well: The delicate ends of people’s stumps become pointers and holders and gestures. Their new and different bodies acquire multiple ways of speaking after loss; some are previous habits and some are learned after the explosion. People learn to engage with the world differently. My hunch is that there are always multiple kinds of language layering a conversation: regional grammars and dialects, slang words, ways of talking, gestures, body positions… Loss might just reveal the complexity of these layers of languages while also prompting the addition of new layers.

Leah Zani is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Irvine. This summer, she will continue fieldwork in Lao to learn more about victim assistance programs for UXO survivors. Any questions or feedback may be directed to her at