ASL instructor strives for cultural awareness in students



Robert Nielson has taught American Sign Language (ASL) in some capacity for more than three decades. Today he can look back and admit that teaching is his true calling even though he resisted it for years.

“I was serving a mission for my church. My companion and I were doing volunteer work at DCARA, an agency that serves the Deaf,” he said. “They asked me to teach ASL to deaf individuals who had immigrated to America from other countries. They knew no ASL and no English. So, I had to get creative in bridging the language barrier for them. That is when I realized I truly love teaching. I knew, however, that teachers just don’t make a lot of money. After my mission, I pursued other careers such as computer programming. About 18 years ago, I finally accepted that teaching was in my blood. It was my calling in life.”

Nielson teaches the ASL course at Liberty Hill High School, teaching the program in four phases.

“For students who take ASL, the goal is to take that to a much higher level. By the time they finish with ASL 2, they should be able to have basic conversations with a deaf person on a variety of topics,” said Nielson. “They’ll also have a more in-depth understanding and awareness of deaf history, culture, and current events. Some students opt to continue on to ASL 3 and 4. There they have the opportunity to explore more of the artistic side of the language and culture learning more about deaf art, ASL performances, deaf music, poetry, and more.”

Nielson also leads the ASL Club and the ASL Honor Society, and these students play vital roles in many school events.

“My ASL kids have been actively involved with the homecoming parade, signing the national anthem at football games,” said Nielson. “They have club activities where they practice signing with each other. They attend the annual homecoming at the Texas School for the Deaf so they can meet deaf members of the community and other ASL students.”

With experience teaching at the community level, the college level, and over a decade of experience at the high school level, Nielson will be heading the Panther Academy’s after-school ASL lessons. Lessons began this week, with adult courses coming in the next few weeks.

“In the Liberty Hill Panther Academy, the students will be learning some basic signing concepts. They’ll learn colors, numbers, greetings/farewells, finger spelling, and more,” said Nielson. “They’ll also learn some basic information about the deaf culture and community. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity for students to learn about the ASL program. I’ve had students tell me they weren’t aware of the ASL program beforehand, so I am trying to reach out to the community more and create that awareness.”

The married father of five was born deaf. Nielson has no usable hearing in his right ear, with what is medically referred to as a severe to profound sloping loss in his left ear. He hopes his efforts can open a new world of understanding for his students.

“At the very least, I want my kids to develop an awareness, appreciation, and respect for the deaf culture and their language,” he said. “To get a glimpse of a beautiful language as well as a rich culture that still has many challenges today like any other minority group. Being so passionate about my own language and culture, I would like my students to fall in love with the language and culture. I hope they embrace them and incorporate them into their lives in some way.”

Learning ASL starts with simple phrases and concepts to provide students with a foundation that they can build on.

“Generally, they will start with learning how to introduce themselves. I use the language to teach the language. I teach visually, using ASL,” said. Nielson. “I am deaf, so I do not speak with my students, only visual communication methods such as signs, gestures, pointing, drawing, and writing. Like any other language, fluency takes time and effort. Reaching near-native fluency, the average student of any language generally takes around nine years, depending on the complexity. To communicate in ASL on most any topic on a comfortable level can be done in a few years.”

Looking back, Nielson sees the power and influence of his work through the many students who have moved on to ASL-based careers.

“I know that most of my students are simply looking to get language credit to graduate high school. But a number of my students have fallen in love with the language and culture and have pursued careers utilizing what they have learned,” he said. “Some of my students have become audiologists, ASL teachers, Deaf Education teachers, and interpreters. One of them has opened his own optometry office. He specifically reached out to the deaf community to let them know he can sign and that he also has an assistant who is a certified interpreter.”

Sometimes the program can be totally life-changing for students.

“I still smile when I think of one of my students. As a freshman in ASL 1, she was extremely talkative during class. By the time she got to ASL 3 and 4, she was absolutely passionate about the language and culture,” said Nielson. “Before school started one year, she came into my classroom to tell me she hated me. She had all her plans worked out and knew what she was going to be. But, after taking my class, all those plans were out the window. She had fallen in love with ASL. Now she works at the Texas School for the Deaf. She married a deaf man she had met during a trip to help with a deaf school in Haiti.”

Passionate about what he teaches, Nielson is eager for the opportunity to share ASL and the culture around it with anyone and everyone.

“In the deaf community, we have what are called name-signs,” said Nielson. “These are cultural names given to us by other members of the deaf community. Often, they are descriptive names, and in my case, my name-sign is ‘Nuts’. A lot of my kids will tell you that it is a very accurate name-sign. I have a lot of fun with my kids.”