Language

American Sign Language and the Arts

By Monique Dobbelaere, posted on Sep 11, 2023

American Sign Language (ASL) is kindred to the arts as it is a visual language. Combining the arts and ASL is one of many ways you can create an inclusive climate in your school community while celebrating school spirit. Our ASL murals evolved from a unit on plaster wrap and artist George Segal. With a goal to fully engage students, I selected a young adult fluent in ASL on TikTok as our primary resource to introduce the alphabet.


SchoolArts magazine, The Language Issue, October 2023, American Sign Language and the Arts
SchoolArts magazine, The Language Issue, October 2023, American Sign Language and the Arts
SchoolArts magazine, The Language Issue, October 2023, American Sign Language and the Arts
SchoolArts magazine, The Language Issue, October 2023, American Sign Language and the Arts
Students╩╝ completed plaster hands were mounted on canvas boards with an additional board displaying the ASL letter below.

The hallmark of an inclusive school community is evident in the various ways diversity and demographics are celebrated, including how people are greeted when they enter a building. Imagine a Deaf student entering a school for the first time and seeing an ASL alphabet mural on the wall. The arts have the power to create a warm and friendly atmosphere for populations that are often marginalized in society.

American Sign Language (ASL) is kindred to the arts as it is a visual language. Combining the arts and ASL is one of many ways you can create an inclusive climate in your school community while celebrating school spirit.

Our ASL murals evolved from a unit on plaster wrap and artist George Segal. With a goal to fully engage students, I selected a young adult fluent in ASL on TikTok as our primary resource to introduce the alphabet. After practicing the alphabet with the visual aids, students were assigned to a letter and placed in small groups where they practiced again.

Preparation
If plaster wrap is a new media for your class, select a willing student to be a hand model for a class demonstration. Because using plaster wrap can be messy, I suggest using plastic tablecloths in your work areas.

Assign students to demonstrate various tasks like cutting the plaster wrap roll into roughly twelve 3 x 2" (7.5 x 5 cm) strips (some can be cut to smaller sizes as needed), applying Vaseline, and assisting with details using a plastic knife. You will also need warm water.

Demonstration and Procedures
Having a student demonstration team will give you a chance to go over the essentials of creating a lifelike cast. Students seem to enjoy the spa-like technique of wrapping hands, and I enhance the experience by playing music that suits this mood.

An ample amount of Vaseline needs to be applied to the skin to help the cast to slide off easily without taking any hairs with it. The hand model forms the desired ASL letter, and another student dips the plaster strip in warm water and lays it gently on the skin. The warm water dissolves the plaster and allows the student to move it around, smoothing the material to conform to the hand.

Working from wrist to fingertips, each strip should slightly overlap to provide structure. Instruct students to have no more than three layers total, or the form will lose definition. A plastic knife is helpful to guide the plaster into creases. The plaster cast will take about twenty minutes to set, but the process can be sped up with a hairdryer. All plaster wrap water should be disposed of outside because it can clog pipes.

After the casts have fully dried overnight, any ragged edges can be trimmed with scissors. If there are places with gaps, small repairs can be made using plaster wrap. If the cast looks rough but still usable, wall spackling can be used to smooth it out, and the painting phase can begin once the cast is completely dry.

Painting and Display
Acrylic paints work best for both the cast and painting substrate. Encourage artistry and attention to detail and have students paint the inside of their plaster-casted hand as well.

The completed hands are mounted on a canvas board with an additional smaller board below it, displaying the ASL letter in a font and color palette of students’ choosing. In the final assemblage, use a construction-grade adhesive or resin, which will serve as a sealant and an adhesive all in one.

Opportunity to Collaborate
In some schools, an ASL class or club is already established. If this is the case, this project is an opportunity to collaborate with other teachers and groups of students. In other schools, this project can be the impetus for a new class or club. Either way, an ASL-based arts project can create or enhance an inclusive climate in your classroom, and on a larger scale, in your wider school community. Inclusion is an action word, and educators are responsible for creating an environment where all students feel welcome and seen.

Monique Dobbelaere is an art teacher at Hilton Head Island High School in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Monique.Dobbelaere@Beaufort.k12.sc.us

National Standard
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

Resource
American Sign Language

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