Exemplary Teacher

Principal Heather Gibson

taking pride and making strides in ASL culture and curriculum

by Leanne Miller

“All children deserve to learn the history of their language and its people, the richness of its expression, the beauty of its poetry. And they deserve to learn it in their native language, be it English, French or ASL.”

That’s the philosophy that has inspired Heather Gibson to lead the development and implementation of North America’s first curriculum based on American Sign Language (ASL).

Gibson is currently principal of ASL Curriculum and Bilingual-Bicultural Projects for Ontario’s three provincial schools for the Deaf, in Milton, Belleville and London. She is based at the Ernest C. Drury Provincial School for the Deaf (ECD) in Milton, where she was previously principal of the elementary school.

Gibson is one of three recipients of a 2007–08 Premier’s Award for Excellence in Leadership. The award honours her own commitment to lead as well as her active encouragement of teachers and staff to take strong leadership roles and collective responsibility for student success and achievement.

Gibson has been an advocate and mentor for students and parents in Deaf communities in Ontario and throughout North America. In the last decade, Gibson has led a transformation in the way ASL-Deaf children are educated – lobbying for, helping develop and then leading implementation of the first language-arts curriculum in North America that has ASL as its primary language.

The curriculum is fully aligned with Ontario’s standard curriculum, having the same learning expectations, rubrics, and assessment and evaluation philosophy. ASL-Deaf children take home the same provincial report card and write the same EQAO math and literacy tests as other children.

Using ASL-English interpreter Brenda Kristensen, Gibson expresses herself with passion and conviction. Gibson sees her work as being about equity and strongly advocates that the ASL-Deaf community be treated as a cultural-linguistic minority.

“People using ASL have a culture, as do people using LSQ (Langue des Signes Québécoises),” she explains. “There is a distinct language. There’s history, culture and literature.”

Gibson points out that ASL-Deaf children need the same rich experiences in their first language, ASL, as children whose first language is English or French.

She asserts that ASL literature – like any literature – is an important building block that enables ASL-Deaf children to learn the language, knowledge, values, morals and experiences of the world around them. It also provides a bridge to English and other languages.

But, she proposes, literary works are intimately tied to the culture from which they spring and have their deepest meaning and strongest impact when the storyteller and audience share a common cultural ground.

“Original ASL stories and poetry convey the experiences and emotions of ASL culture.”

Gibson has worked with colleagues to develop a curriculum that gives Deaf children these kinds of authentic and meaningful learning experiences. Previously, poetry, songs and stories were translated from English to ASL. Deaf Cinderella is a classic example.

This translated curriculum never fully resonated with ASL-Deaf children because it came from an experience foreign to them. It would be like an anglophone learning English only through translations of French literature.

The proof is in the classroom.

“Original ASL stories and poetry convey the experiences and emotions of ASL culture,” explains Linda Wall, a veteran Grade 5 to 8 teacher at ECD. “They have always been enjoyed in social circles, but previously never in academic settings.”

The ASL curriculum allows students to finally study these stories and poems in an academic setting and provides additional perspectives on their language and culture.

“Students analyze ASL story and poetry formats, as well as the semantics and conventions, to gain deeper understanding of how our language works,” Wall explains. “Then they apply this understanding to create and synthesize their own ASL stories and poems.”

In Wall’s Grade 8 class, students study a classic ASL poem, I’m Sorry by Clayton Valli, a renowned ASL poet whose PhD dissertation outlined the features of an ASL poem. They analyze the poem’s rhythm and rhyme and come to recognize the internal parts and specific structures of ASL rhymes.

To wrap up the ASL poetry unit, the students write their own poems.

“This activity is a historic first,” Gibson proudly signs.

Gibson has argued that students with strong ASL literacy skills are able to convey academic knowledge in other content areas more effectively. We know this is true with English and French literacy, but it just had not been applied to the ASL context before.

Gibson’s program is completely bilingual and bicultural. ASL and written English are the languages of instruction, and students study both in great detail.

“Our curriculum is about enabling our children to build a wider knowledge of the world at an academic level,” Gibson asserts, “and written English is a vital component.”

Gibson gives a tour of ECD’s Success Display in the elementary school’s main hallway, featuring pictures and bios of successful Deaf people. Among them is graduate Gary Malkowski, who sat in the Ontario Legislature as a New Democrat MPP from 1990 to 1995 representing the Toronto riding of York East.

Malkowski’s native language, the one in which he earned his BA in social work and psychology and his MA in rehabilitation counselling and the one in which he ran for and won his Queen’s Park seat, is ASL-bilingual.

Gibson also points out Samuel Thomas Greene. Educated in the US, Greene came to Belleville in 1870 and became Ontario’s first Deaf teacher at what is known today as the Sir James Whitney Provincial School for the Deaf. Greene developed a bilingual approach to teaching his students, using sign language and written English. Co-founder and first president of the Ontario Association of the Deaf, he was renowned for his eloquent public addresses and poetry recitations in sign language.


Gibson (centre) chats with ASL curriculum-support teachers Robyn Sandford (left) and Linda Wall at Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton.

Gibson’s admiration of Greene’s legacy is clearly evident.

She also points enthusiastically to a picture of George Veditz accompanied by a quotation from 1913: “As long as we have deaf people on earth we will have signs … the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”

Gibson believes in inspiring and empowering students – providing opportunities for them to develop leadership skills and a sense of ownership of their school. She tells how students took over assemblies at her elementary school. They planned, organized and ran the show while Gibson and the teachers sat on the gym floor with other students, watching and enjoying.

But Gibson sees the need for education to reach beyond the walls of the school itself. She has developed ASL classes for the parents and siblings of students, both hearing and ASL-Deaf, to promote closer family ties through better communication. She works with other organizations – such as the Ontario Association of the Deaf, which promotes and protects the rights, equity and access of Deaf Ontarians, and the Ontario Cultural Society of the Deaf – to provide resources for parents.

She has also provided workshops for school-bus drivers so they too would have a better rapport with the students they transport every day.

“I ran training sessions with help from a few students. The drivers came and learned some basic ASL vocabulary.”

In 1999 Gibson wrote, “If we want ASL-bilingual children to be prepared for the 21st century, we need to provide a curriculum that will equip them with high ASL literacy to access deep knowledge and understanding of the world around them. The ASL curriculum is this golden key.”

Fewer than 10 years later, that key has opened a door for many Ontario students. The Premier’s Award for Excellence in Leadership has acknowledged Heather Gibson’s contribution to this change and its impact on children, teachers and parents throughout the province’s Deaf community.

Premier’s Awards for Teaching Excellence

The Premier’s Awards recognize educators and staff who excel at unlocking the potential of Ontario’s young people. The awards are open to everyone working in Ontario’s publicly funded schools, boards and authorities, including teachers, support staff, principals, vice-principals, supervisory officers, directors of education and many others.

Awards are given in the following categories:

  • Teacher of the Year
  • New Teacher of the Year
  • Excellent Support Staff
  • Excellence in Leadership
  • Team of the Year
  • Lifetime Achievement

For more information visit www.edu.gov.on.ca/teachingawards.

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