dear sayanthy,

Dear Sayanthy,

I am a bit stunned that this course has now come to an end. 10 weeks has flown by in what feels like a heartbeat. And as I type these words, in all honesty, I wish I could hand sign these thoughts directly to you. But at the same time,  it is unlikely that I could be as fluent with my fingerspelling as I am on paper. Not yet, but maybe someday.

The ASL101 course was the most complex learning I have participated in, in about a decade. It will take me some time to process all of the moments of wonder and confusion and even dissolution I passed through. I have tried several times to explain what made this experience so different than other courses and I stumble in my explanation every time. But what I have landed on, though problematically revealing, will likely help my future learning.

Initially, I would have said my problem with learning American Sign Language was the newness of the curriculum, then it was the time of day, then it shifted to the physical coordination of the hand signs, then it was the silent learning environment, then it was the frustration of being trapped in my head without enough hand signs to express myself, and then it became small bouts of negative self talk … I can’t learn this, I don’t learn this way, I will never be good at this. I was defensive and fickle. I was expressing without reflecting or owning. And it was at this lowest stage that I realized what was holding me back. And I think it came down to mindset and mindfulness.

From the beginning you affirmed and reminded us that learning ASL is not an exercise in direct translation. Yet I fought that. I wanted to shove this new form of language into an old form that I was used to. I desperately wanted to connect and associate. My ego worked very hard to hold on to wrongheaded tools in order to take command of my new learning. And it worked for a while. But, as the grammar, expression, syntax, and structure took on a life of its own, I started to dislike the learning. I disliked hitting the wall that I had built.

For many growth minded teachers, which I consider myself to be, bouncing around the ‘lifelong learner’ moniker means something. And at the same time, I found out that it can mean nothing at all when put to the test. If there were more posts in support of growth mindset that also mentioned it could cause headaches, anxiety, and heart palpitations, likely fewer ‘thought-leaders’ would ascribe to its merits in such an open and audacious manner.

I have had countless conversations with my teacher colleagues about learning yet little of what I understand academically about my learning, prepared me for the headspace I was about to encounter. Or for meeting the version of myself I never thought could exist.

Somewhere around week 3 I noticed my energy towards the course shifting. I felt like I was stupid. I felt like the course was too hard. I felt like I should ask for my money back. I was shutting down. I would drag myself from my home into my car and leisurely take random side streets, sneaking up on our school site hoping that it was shuttered or even disappeared. The one week when you had to take sick leave and we had the night off might just have been the break that I needed.

And the space to get my head straight.

I have not had to suffer for learning in my teaching career so far. The pedagogical stuff has come easily to me. Now I will say that I cried a few times in my first couple years of teaching. But, since then, my compulsion to really dig in, say yes, and remain open to new experiences has worked. Yet I would be the first one to attest to the fact that one of the reasons I have not excelled at guitar playing over the last decade is for reasons similar to what emerged in the ASL class; that I have repeatedly ignored the blind spots in my learning. I want to learn guitar playing because it is attractive to me. The sound of it, the creativity, the portability, are all factors that keep my guitar case in plain view in my closet. Sadly, that guitar sits there, unplayed, as a powerful reminder that I have not dealt well with the grind that comes with developing a new skill set.

ASL and the process of learning ASL is so much more mind-expanding than I ever expected. And I need more time to let this realization take root. I have even considered signing up  again for the the same course. This is new space for my student side to contend with. It is the slow process of reframing failure. It is part of unlocking and settling into that the fact that this course is tough, this course is quick, but this course is for everybody.

My base of assumptions that I did not, maybe even could not, learn in this way was entirely a fiction conjured to make me feel better about giving up. Your positivity, humour, joy, and firmness were a few of the tactics I came to rely on, that kept me centred in the experience even when the learning was uncomfortable.

Wholeheartedly, I offer these ‘thank-yous’. There are so many more, but these are the big ones for me…

Thank you for constantly and courteously pushing me.
Thank you for the feeling of knowing yet not-knowing.
Thank you for staying in my productive struggle.
Thank you for de-formatting the negative assumptions in my OS.
Thank you for reminding me that learning is hard and that I can still do it.
Thank you for making me see that a conversation between my student side and my teacher side has been a long time coming.

… and honestly, that last one really was the best pant-skick I have had in my 46 years of being a learner. So, moving forward, I am intentionally scheduling experiences where my two sides need to collaborate.

In addition to the incredible introductory foundation I have in ASL several other gifts were conveyed in the 10 weeks I spent learning from you and my classmates. Whether it was your intention or not, the ASL101 became a remarkable vehicle for me to reconnect with my teacher’s soul. I wish to give back to you the ‘aha’ moments that you ignited for me, in our time together:

Learning styles are observations and not necessarily prescriptive. New experiences can thaw even the hardest operating systems.

Time, Practice, and Mastery are variables independent of each other. And are sometimes in oppostion to each other. Learning is not a transaction. Paying attention is a cost worth investing in.

Learning is an open space, the law of gravity does not exist there. This can be frightening and freeing at the same time.

Learning places demands on finite resources, there is a bottom to your barrel. What you do when you hit should inform you, but it does not have to define you, at least momentarily, as a learner. Acknowledge that moment and move on.

Ego gets in the way of learning. Be mindful of who is whispering success or failure in your ear. Be skeptical of your own thinking. Share it outside your head, see if it sounds the same.

Accept the whole you. That is what is in the classroom. Whether you know it or not.

These reminders will echo through my own teaching practice and hopefully will create new spaces of expansion and opportunity for my students.

Sayanthy you are an inspirational educator. I wish you and your family well. And I am looking forward to taking the next course sometime in the future.

Best regards,

Chris Cluff


P.S. Here is my final Timber Story exam submission. Watching myself sign gives me both hope and a bit of anxiety. The reminder in this video is that I need to re-enter the content that I have already experienced in order to fully flesh the next steps in my learning curve with ASL.

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