En Español. As a child, Rebecca Abeyta arranged her stuffed animals on her bed like a classroom and taught them English, math, and signing. "The best part was there was no talking back, no attitudes and all the students got good grades–most of the time," she laughed. Growing up in Lansing, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, Rebecca's favorite part of the year was school shopping. "I loved the new decorative folders, new pencils, and new products needed for class. For me, it meant a new school year to learn something."
Learn something she has. Rebecca has a Bachelor's degree in Deaf Education from Northern Illinois University, a Master's degree in School Health from Southern Connecticut State University, and an Administration certification from Sacred Heart University. "I've always loved learning! To gain knowledge for myself is something no one can take away from me." The only one in her family who is deaf, Rebecca credits her parents for guiding her through life's ups and downs and not allowing her to use her deafness as a reason she couldn't do something.
Rebecca attended a mainstream school, South Metropolitan Association (SMA), in Chicago. "There were about 40 - 50 other deaf students in this public school," she said, "so I hung out with deaf and hearing students and signed with my teachers. It was awesome." Other childhood activities included reading novels and engaging in water fights with her family–"in the house too," which she noted took a bit more time to clean up. Her parents also learned sign language "at a time when many parents weren't doing that," she said. "I'm grateful because that kind of attention is so important for a family to communicate. My siblings learned sign language too."
At SMA, Rebecca met English teacher Meg Healy-Frain. When Rebecca pursued her degree in Deaf Ed, she returned to SMA to work with Ms. Frain as a student teacher. Under Ms. Frain's mentorship, Rebecca learned the value of making room in the lesson plan for teachable moments–students asking real-life questions. "She taught me that not everything is going to go the way I want in a classroom," Rebecca explained, "which is hard because I want to teach everything that I can in such a short time."
Persistent, strong-willed, and independent, Rebecca has had a lot of practice implementing teachable moments in her 20-year teaching career. She taught for thirteen years at the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Connecticut and went on to teach at Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, Deer Valley High School, and Glendale Community College. At Phoenix College, Rebecca recently transitioned from adjunct to full-time residential faculty in the Deaf Studies department, where she teaches American Sigh Language (ASL) and Deaf Culture. She said east coast signing tends to be faster than in Arizona, and some vocabulary includes regional signs, which she would love to study. "But I can't go to school for the rest of my life," she said, "or I'd be broke!"
While working at ASD, Rebecca met her husband, Francisco, who is hearing but knows ASL. "We've been married for 18 years," she said, "and he is the love of my life!" With no family in Connecticut, they moved to be closer to family when their children were young. Their choices? Chicago suburbs, where Rebecca is from, or Arizona, where Francisco's family is from. "We decided to go the sane route and came to Arizona," she said. "Ironically, the day we arrived was one of the hottest days of the year–115 degrees!"
Rebecca and Francisco have three children, all hearing and bi-lingual in ASL. The oldest, 28 years old, lives in Connecticut, while their younger two–a sophomore and junior in high school–live with them. Rebecca said her teenagers "talk and talk and talk–sometimes for hours!" She considers herself lucky, knowing not many teenagers talk that much with their parents. Her family has "a wacky sense of humor," she said, and they encourage her to sit back and relax with them. "We enjoy traveling together when we can." Rebecca and Francisco traveled to Sonoita with friends for spring break to enjoy some of their favorite vineyards.
The Beauty of ASL
No longer teaching stuffed animals, Rebecca still brings a youthful spirit and sense of humor to her college classroom. She encourages anyone to learn ASL "because it's a beautiful language." As faculty, she helps students understand the concepts behind signing and show them which signs are better for specific situations or contexts. "I'm the kind of teacher that interacts with students, making a connection with them. Once that connection is established, the signing becomes easier."
April is National Deaf History Month. Phoenix College offers American Sign Language, Deaf Studies, and Interpreter Preparation program for those who want to learn another language or pursue a career as an interpreter.