East Bay High School Teacher Excels With ASL

Michele Lamons-Raiford believes that the exposure her students have to deaf culture in her classes is one of the lasting benefits.


Photo of Michele Lamons-Raiford by Natalie Elischer

Although Michele Lamons-Raiford teaches energy-filled high school students at Pinole Valley High School, her classes are largely silent.

That’s because for 12 years, Lamons-Raiford has been instructing popular classes in American Sign Language, or ASL. “She teaches [at] 120 percent [of capacity] as demand for her courses is so great, we cannot enroll all the students who want to take her class in a regular schedule,” said Pinole Valley Principal Kibby Kleiman. Currently, Lamons-Raiford teaches 207 students in grades 9-12, some in classes as large as 50. Only one or two of the students enrolled in the six classes are hearing impaired. All others are hearing students taking ASL to fulfill their language requirement.

According to Kleiman, Pinole Valley High is the only school in West Contra Costa County that offers four levels of ASL, enabling students who complete their fourth year to achieve a “seal of biliteracy” from the state.

Lamons-Raiford didn’t intend to become an ASL instructor. When she was asked by Pinole Valley’s former principal if she wanted to teach ASL, she hadn’t taken a course in it for years. “I was initially reluctant,” she said. But she went back to college to refresh and increase her skills, eventually earning all the units required to teach all four ASL levels. What she discovered is that not only was she very good at it, she loved it.

“In the beginning, students have a lot of questions,” said Lamons-Raiford. “Is ASL universal? Why do some deaf people speak while others don’t? Is deafness inherited?”

She explains to them that “American Sign Language” is just that — American — and that most countries use their own version of the system. Talking aloud is controversial in deaf culture, she tells them, as are cochlear implants to improve or partially restore hearing. And she informs them, most deaf children are born to hearing parents, and deaf parents typically have hearing children.

For many years, she said, one of the only cultural touchstones for hearing students was the 1979 play and 1986 film Children of a Lesser God. But today, celebrities such as Nyle DeMarco, winner of both America’s Top Model and Dancing with the Stars, have made conversations about deafness more current. “We talk about how deaf people experience music through the vibrations,” Lamons-Raiford said. “It’s important that students gain respect for deaf culture. Ultimately, they become peer ambassadors for the deaf community.”

In class, her enthusiasm is transmitted to her students. She is animated, attentive, and clearly in charge. She is funny, sometimes gently teasing students, but the respect she commands is evident, along with the affection her students have for her. Talking is allowed only during the beginning of the session, as instructions are given. In the class observed, students divided into groups to play an ASL version of the card game “21,” using earplugs to simulate deafness. They had to bid, ask for more cards, and call or fold in sign language.

In addition to mastering the ASL alphabet and numbers, students in Lamons-Raiford’s classes learn about deaf history, culture, literature, and take field trips to the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, the Deaf Bay Area Expo in Pleasanton, Mozzeria (a deaf-owned restaurant in San Francisco), and Deaf Night at Starbucks, among others.

Advanced students are asked to learn and perform a song of their choice at year’s end, which requires months of practice. Third-year student Rhoni Wilborn, 16, has selected “Focus” by the artist H.E.R. and is enjoying creating a sign-language version of it. She plans to go on to Contra Costa Community College to qualify for a certificate as a signing interpreter, as at least two of Lamons-Raiford’s former students have already done. “Ms. Lamons’ classes are a fun way to learn,” she said. “It’s not just studying texts.”

Wilborn’s used her ASL knowledge outside of class at a Six Flags park, where she asked a group of deaf people where the food court was and got a surprised, but pleased, answer in sign language. She’s also teaching her older sister to sign.

Seventeen-year-old senior Sebastian DeLeon, a fourth-year student, picked Daniel Caesar’s “Get You.” He noted that, “The most difficult part is that you can’t interpret it literally. Your facial expressions are really important in communicating it.”

DeLeon’s sister took Lamons-Raiford’s class and encouraged him to do the same. He uses his knowledge of sign with a deaf family friend on trips to Mexico. “Everyone should at least know the [ASL] alphabet,” he said. “Ms. Lamons’ classes are very fun. Everyone engages with each other. She always makes it interesting.”

Students believe there are multiple ways their ASL skills can serve them well in adult careers. Senior Natalie Elischer, 17, plans to major in film in college and wants to become a director. “Right now, there are a lot of deaf roles that are given to hearing people,” she said. “But the way hearing people sign is very different from the way deaf people sign.” She would cast deaf actors in deaf roles, and sees that increasingly becoming the norm.

Lamons-Raiford believes that the exposure her students have to deaf culture in her classes is one of the lasting benefits. “They make friends with deaf people, join social media groups, become a network,” she said.

The challenges she faces as a public schools teacher are a familiar concern: funding. Lamons-Raiford’s teaching skills have been recognized locally and nationally. In 2010, she was named Contra Costa County & West Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year. In that same year, the Rotary Club of Pinole named her Vocational Service Teacher of the Year. And on Aug. 13 of this year, she was awarded Top 10 Claes Nobel Educator of the Year by the National Society of High School Scholars. Yet, she said, “We are very underfunded. We would have more opportunities for all the students trying to sign up for classes if we had more donors.” So, on top of teaching four levels of ASL and acting as the high school’s speech and debate coach, sponsor for the African-American student union, and member of the New Teachers Support Group, she writes “a lot” of grants.

“If people go to DonorsChoose.org and select ‘Pinole Valley ASL,’ they’ll be giving directly to us, for more buses for field trips, and other ways to help the students,” Lamons-Raiford said, describing one of the best ways for those who care to give a sign.

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