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By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin

It was challenging for students and their parents to transition to online learning when schools shut down in March. For Deaf and hard of hearing students — and their families — it was even more challenging. That’s because parents are usually not as fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) as their children, which presents difficulties when they’re trying to help with schoolwork.

“I treat all my children like they are my own children. Our children are precious, and that’s how I want teachers to treat my kids.”

Jennifer Hines, a sixth grade Deaf/hard of hearing teacher at Henry Eissler Elementary School in Bakersfield, is helping bridge the communication gap. She creates ASL videos for her students, which she also interprets for their parents so they can improve their ASL.

“A lot of people think that deafness is hereditary, but more than 90 percent of Deaf children have hearing parents,” says Hines, a member of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association.

“When their children are little, parents can keep up with basic phrases. But when the kids get older, the vocabulary gets complicated. Many parents say they have gotten stuck in the basics and are struggling to keep up with their children, who are acquiring sign language at a faster rate than parents can keep up with. This has become even more problematic in the pandemic.”

Jennifer Hines

Jennifer Hines

Aubrey Harris, whose son Landon was in Hines’ class last year, appreciates the effort.

“After the schools shut down, these videos made it easy to help us continue our work at home in a way that was as normal and easy as possible,” says Harris. “It was 100 percent helpful with math lessons — especially word problems. Being able to watch Jennifer explain the lesson while teaching us more sign language was great. It was so nice to have a teacher helping parents be involved, instead of only working with our children at school.”

Hines also translates into Spanish so Spanish-speaking parents can understand ASL in her videos, which she creates in Screencastify. Everyone can watch the videos again and again.

“If the families don’t know English, I’ll put the Spanish word underneath the English word. If they can go from Spanish to ASL, we can bypass English, which makes it easier than having to learn two languages at once.”

Screenshot from video of Jennifer Hines teaching sign language

Jennifer Hines’ video teaches sign language.

Damaris and Raul Zubia are the aunt and uncle of Maria, a student whose mother passed away before school started. As her new legal guardians, they have been struggling to communicate with Maria. The videos are helping.

“Mrs. Hines’ videos have helped us to communicate and to connect as a family,” wrote the Zubias in a text. “Our extended family and friends have been motivated to learn ASL. It helps that in some of the videos, she has the words in Spanish. We also appreciate that Mrs. Hines is truly invested in the well-being of Maria as a whole. She is sensitive to not only [her] educational needs but also her emotional needs.”

“I treat all my children like they are my own children,” says Hines. “Our children are precious, and that’s how I want teachers to treat my kids.”

This year, Hines is creating lots of how-to videos for students, because most videos explaining how to use Zoom or turn in assignments online are designed for hearing students. She also creates videos on demand: A parent whose child was being impolite asked her to make a video on the importance of manners, and she did.

Hines originally planned to teach general education while attending the University of Oklahoma. But a friend begged her to visit a teaching program for Deaf/hard of hearing education at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.

“I was intrigued and ready for something different, so I transferred into that program as a junior and had two years to learn sign language. I immersed myself in ASL and spent all my time with the Deaf community.”

A recruiter from Bakersfield City School District came to the university and hired her on the spot.

Hines has received attention from local media for her willingness to go the extra mile to help her students and their families, but is modest about all the recognition.

“I am just one of many educators in this world trying to find innovative ways to reach our kids and families,” she says.