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Deaf Professor Teaches Students Her First Language, American Sign Language

The first thing you notice is how quiet the class is. The next thing that makes an impression is the level of activity.

Things are a little different in AnnMarie Bacino’s American Sign Language (ASL) class. Bacino, who was born deaf, communicates in class via ASL and by writing on the whiteboard. Her classroom was largely silent one recent morning as eleven students worked in pairs, practicing ASL slang.

Laughter broke out repeatedly, however, as Bacino, moving from her desk to a whiteboard, helped correct the class on expressions such as “love it!” and “trumps.”

“ASL slang is so animated and funny,” Bacino said with a smile, taking a moment to respond to a visitor’s questions in writing. “I want to empower them to sign with facial expression. I teach them with ASL slang that you never find in English.”

Bacino, who is in her third year teaching at Kean and her first as a full-time lecturer, is Kean’s first deaf faculty member. She said she loves teaching the language at Kean.

“It’s a fun language, the facial expressions and the use of the body to communicate,” she said in an interview conducted with one of her students serving as interpreter. “It never gets boring.”

Her students said learning from Bacino is an “amazing” experience.

“I’ve never walked away from a class before saying, ‘I learned so much,’” said Alannah Sullivan, a junior who is majoring in psychology and minoring in ASL.

Lauren Jurcsek, a junior special education and math major with a minor in ASL, said Bacino’s classes are “immersive. It’s like going to a Spanish-speaking country versus studying Spanish.”

Kean offers ASL as a minor within its Speech-Language-Hearing Science program. Lecturer Marybeth Imsho, Kean’s ASL coordinator, said the University offers classes from beginner to advanced. Along with that, students take courses such as  “Deafness in Society,” and take part in events, such as a recent breakfast for the deaf community held at East Campus.

“It provides practice for students, socialization for the community, and allows students to understand ASL in its natural setting,” Imsho said.

A New Jersey native who earned her bachelor’s degree at California State University at Northridge and her master’s at Virginia Commonwealth University, Bacino said she works to offer students a unique view of deaf culture.

“AnnMarie’s experiences of the deaf world and innate knowledge of ASL in practice deepen the learning experience for our students,” Imsho said.  

As a deaf professor teaching hearing students, Bacino said she has seen shocked expressions on the first day of class with her ASL1 students. “Like a deer in the headlights,” she said, smiling as she signed the words.

But she said the most rewarding thing is to watch her students develop. “It’s exciting to see how the students grow,” she said. “It’s awesome.”