I know it’s hard to imagine right now while new cases are surging around the world, but there will come a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.
When I was a senior in high school, I spent part of the year living in Vancouver, Washington. I thought I got to know the town, which is just across the state border from Portland, pretty well while I was doing some programming for the local power company. But I recently found out Vancouver is home to one of the state’s most remarkable schools—and 17-year-old me had no idea.
The Washington School for the Deaf is the state’s only fully bilingual K-12 school in American Sign Language, or ASL, and English. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students come from across the state—many staying overnight during the week to attend classes—to learn in both languages. The school has had a lot to be proud of since its founding more than 135 years ago, but it recently added a new feather to its cap: WSD is home to Dana Miles, the 2023 Washington State Teacher of the Year.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dana. I was blown away by her thoughtful, compassionate, and practical approach to teaching. As a graduate of WSD herself, she understands how her kids feel when they first step into her classroom. Many of them grew up in hearing families where they don’t sign, so they learned how to communicate later than most children. Some even join Dana’s classes with virtually no language at all.
“My students often feel insecure because maybe their English or ASL isn’t good enough,” she told me through an interpreter. “So I first want them to know that whatever they share during class is important. Once they realize what they say has importance, they feel like, ‘Okay, I matter.’ And that’s when they start learning.”
Dana teaches three classes to high school students that she describes broadly as “Adulting 101.” The first is a consumer math class, where students learn how to double recipes, calculate paycheck deductions, and more. The Gates Foundation supports many partners working to make math more engaging to students, and I think Dana’s focus on how math is used in the real world is super compelling.
Her favorite class to teach is Work Experience, because it’s all about helping her students imagine their future after school. As they work in a campus coffee shop, the school’s office, or off-campus at a local store, Dana helps them learn the hard and soft skills necessary for a successful career.
Many of Dana’s students will choose not to go to college, because there are other paths to a career that are more appealing to them. “A lot of my students really enjoy vocational fields because they’re hands-on,” she told me. “They don’t require as many linguistic requirements. Vocational fields can provide them with the potential to pursue a dream job.”
I was especially interested to hear about the third class Dana teaches, Applied Bilingual Language Arts. Just like in any bilingual class, her students study vocabulary and grammar in both languages at the same time. What makes Dana’s class unusual, though, is that all of the lessons they learn are directly connected to a real-world scenario they’re likely to encounter.
As an example, Dana told me about a transportation unit she does every year. If you’re a hearing person, chances are you learned a lot of what you know about transportation passively. You grew up overhearing your parents talk about what time a plane arrives or how the bus schedule just changed. If you’re deaf or hard-of-hearing, that might not have been the case. So, Dana teaches her students not only the vocabulary needed but how to read maps, navigate the city bus system, or even purchase car insurance. It’s a deeply practical approach to education that I believe every kid could benefit from.
I asked Dana if she could teach me a couple of signs, and she was kind enough to oblige me. I have a long way to go before I’m fluent, but I’m glad that I now know a couple key phrases. You can watch a video of Dana teaching me here:
I also asked Dana what hurdles she faces as a teacher. “For me, the challenge with bilingual education is the lack of resources,” she said. “We tend to create materials from scratch, because it’s not easy to find Bilingual Language Arts materials.” For example, if she’s teaching her students about job applications, she will film a video of her filling one out. She also records herself explaining what she’s doing in ASL, which she overlays on the corner of the screen. Videos are an effective tool, but they’re time consuming for Dana to create.
Fortunately, technology is improving a lot for the Deaf community. When Dana was in school, she had to ask a hearing family member to help her if she wanted to call someone. Now, her students have a huge array of communication tools at their disposal. She showed me two of them: an app called Cardzilla that transcribes spoken language super quickly and displays typed responses in a large font, and a video relay service, or VRS, on her phone that instantly connects her with an interpreter when she needs to call someone. (I was surprised, however, to learn no one has made an app that translates ASL to spoken English yet. I think it’s doable.)
Dana believes that introducing her students to all the tools available to them is one of her most important jobs. She says, "It is so critical for Deaf people to learn how to self-advocate, because often we are oppressed by so many barriers in our lives that we need to figure out how to overcome. Teachers have a responsibility to teach how to overcome those barriers.”
I am always amazed by the passion and commitment our Washington State Teachers of the Year bring to their work. Dana brings that dedication to an area of incredible need, and I left our meeting more inspired by our state’s remarkable teachers than ever. Educators like Dana make me proud to be a Washingtonian.