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Q&A: McDaniel College names new graduate coordinator for deaf education

McDaniel College announced Jessica Willoughby, a 2018 alumna, to be the new coordinator for the graduate deaf education program.

A news release from the college stated before Willoughby attended the program she will now oversee, she was a teacher at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C. She used differentiated instruction and project-based learning to teach deaf students and also designed lesson plans to advance deaf students’ critical thinking and literacy skills.

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The Times caught up with Willoughby to learn about her plans for the new job.

Q: What brought you to McDaniel College as a student and how did it lead to this position?

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A: I knew McDaniel College was the one for me when I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in Deaf Education because two teachers, who introduced me to the world of creative writing and made me fall in love with reading, graduated from the college.

Also, I strongly believe in a full bilingual educational approach using the natural order of language acquisition of American Sign Language (ASL) and English. McDaniel College is well-known for its prestigious Deaf Education Program and its heavily-focused courses on first and second language learning, literacy instruction for deaf students, and assessment and instruction for deaf students with special needs. I felt that McDaniel’s Deaf Education Program fits my own teaching philosophy and that was one of reasons I picked the program.

I decided to return as a program coordinator because I wanted to make the program grow and thrive due to the dire need for bilingual-trained teachers of the deaf all over the United States. And, I find the task of researching and publishing fascinating, so I hope to build a bigger base of research and resources (i.e. bilingual instructional strategies, STEM for deaf students, and online bilingual learning) for educators of the deaf out there.

Q: What led you to pursue deaf education?

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A: Actually, I never thought I would want to become a teacher until I got my first job as a teacher aide at Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., after graduating with an undergraduate degree from Gallaudet University. I worked with deaf high school students who experienced language deprivation or lack of full access to a natural language until later in age. I discovered my teaching passion, and I enjoyed exploring and creating different instructional strategies to support these students’ ASL and English literacy skills. Ever since, I have worked in the deaf education field as K-12 teacher and coordinator of instructional support. I have taught a variety of classes, including English Literature, Debate, K-12 ASL Digital Literature, and Theatre Arts. I have worked closely with high school English, Social Studies, and ASL teachers to develop bilingual instructional strategies, student-centered activities, project-based learning assignments and bilingual assessment rubrics for their classes.

Q: What are some of the differences between the way students who are deaf learn and the way students who are not deaf learn, if any?

A: Most deaf students are strong visual learners and process all of the new information through their eyes. They benefit greatly from visual aids such as images and videos. And, they use ASL to communicate with people and learn new information. ASL is a unique language because it is visual and three-dimensional. Like English, the language has its own linguistic properties and grammar. However, instead of using a voice to speak, ASL users utilize their hands and faces to express the language.

Deaf students demonstrate great academic growth if they were taught through ASL because it is their natural language, and it is 100% visual. The teachers can describe things like the water evaporation cycle or a gigantic lion purely from their hand movements and facial expressions. In addition, teachers of the deaf use bilingual instructional strategies and different types of formative and summative assessments for deaf students like using Flipgrid, an online-based video discussion platform, to carry ASL discourse with the students. To assess deaf students’ reading comprehension, teachers would ask them to retell the story in ASL or identifying the main idea and key details in ASL.

Q: What’s something you hope students in the deaf education program will learn or continue to learn under your leadership?

A: I hope students will learn that there are endless possibilities they could achieve with their deaf students. There are millions of lesson plans, instructional strategies, and online platforms out there that they could creatively adapt for their deaf students. I hope the program will continue giving students a plethora of rich knowledge and skill to spark their aspiration to flourish their bilingual classrooms.

Q: Is there something you learned as a student or teacher that you plan to implement at McDaniel?

A: I never quite realized that deaf students have intersecting identities of deaf, gender, sex, race, social class and many more until after several years of teaching. I grasped that their layered identities are strongly influenced in their learning experiences, and I do play a pivotal role in their experiences. Hence, I want to incorporate the rooted knowledge and study of social justice and equity in education across our program. And, I aim to make students understand that they are like curricular gatekeepers and they make decisions on what standards are to be used, methods to be implemented, and content to be taught to their deaf students.

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