Tell me a story

Maryville College students attend sign language workshop

Practicing what they learned at the American Sign Language Storytelling Workshop are Maryville College students, from left, Sunny Master, Ayesha Turner (back), Michelle Barnes, Peter Cook, Elizabeth Hasner (back) Katherine Anderson and Peggy Mahr.

Practicing what they learned at the American Sign Language Storytelling Workshop are Maryville College students, from left, Sunny Master, Ayesha Turner (back), Michelle Barnes, Peter Cook, Elizabeth Hasner (back) Katherine Anderson and Peggy Mahr.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a gesture worth? To many in the Deaf Community, it is priceless.

Several Maryville College students and faculty recently traveled to Johnson City to participate in the Narrative Development of American Sign Language (ASL) Storytelling workshop, led by Peter Cook.

Cook is an internationally reputed Deaf performing artist whose works incorporate ASL, pantomime, storytelling, acting and movement. For more than 20 years, he has traveled extensively with hearing poet collaborator Kenny Lerner to promote ASL literature. When he is not traveling, Cook teaches ASL-English interpretation at Columbia College in Chicago.

Katherine Anderson, Michelle Barnes, Elizabeth Hasner, Sunny Master and Ayesha Turner (all Maryville College students and ASL majors) and Peggy Maher, associate professor of sign language and interpreting at the College, spent much of the two-day workshop in small groups, learning the specifics of how to effectively tell stories using ASL.

The participants exercised shifting between the roles of narrator and character and learned about a variety of gestures, such as body shift, eye gaze and power shifting.

They also explored the role of discourse in ASL, the patterns that occur in formal and informal conversations and created discourses from personal experiences. Hands-on group activities and professional demonstrations were utilized in expanding information in a story.

“The students who attended are at a variety of levels in the ASL and interpreting learning. Most are doing their Senior Study projects that they design individually to target specific skill areas,” stated Mahr. “These projects include use of classifiers and character placement with role shifts while interpreting theatrical productions, stories and narratives.”

Barnes, a sophomore, said that she learned more about the importance of facial expressions when storytelling.

“It’s like telling a hearing person a joke, but with no inflection - just monotone. That is very similar to telling a funny story or joke in ASL with no facial expressions. The joke could be the best one out there, but without visual cues to express what’s going on, the signs are just that - signs,” she explained.

At the end of day one, Cook and his voice interpreter performed “Feast for the Eyes” for the community.

Barnes was impressed with Cook’s ability to draw the audience into the story.

“He interacted with the audience in a way that made me feel like I was part of the story. Peter’s energy was electric and contagious. He is an amazing storyteller,” she commented.

Mahr said that she immediately applied what she learned at the workshop to her weekly lab skills sessions and classes. All ASL students, she pointed out, must use spatial placement, matching eye gaze shifts with role shifts, showing the persona of characters and classifiers in their interpreting.

Maryville College was the first college in the United States to award a bachelor’s degree with a major in sign language interpreting in 1974. Irma Kleeb Young, an empowering advocate for the Deaf Community and faculty member of the College for 13 years, was instrumental in starting the program and guiding it into national prominence.

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