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Sign Me Up: A Fun Approach to Learning Sign Language

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What is the third most common language used in America today? After English and Spanish, it’s American Sign Language. With that in mind, It may be a  good idea to learn this language of hand positions and gestures. It would be nice if the learning process was fun and colorful, as well.

Former Garrettsville student and current Michigan animator Christopher (“Topher”) Putnam of PutnamStern Enterprises has it all worked out with Sign Me Up. He plans to encourage better communication between hearers and those with hearing impairments with a new animated series of shorts starring a colorful animated cast of hands which play fun characters. This publicly-funded project will focus on the needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community while teaching everyone basic Sign Language.

The Sign Me Up series focuses on American Sign Language and the things hearers and non-hearers have in common. It is fueled by STEM education with the hope the series will be utilized as a teaching tool as well as by families who are just interested in enhanced communication skills.

The son of Garrettsville native  (JAG Class of ’84) Sheila Cooper, Putnam went through James A. Garfield schools with the class of 2009. Putnam eventually graduated from high school in Canada, then went on to art school in Cincinnati. Today he co-owns PutnamStern Enterprises, Inc., an animation/mixed media production house in Southfield, Michigan. His animated educational children’s show, Bug Bites, was purchased by American Public Television last year. The 26th episode of Bug Bites was just produced and the show is airing all over North America on local PBS stations.

Now he’s moving forward with Sign Me Up, which is poised to have a multi-platform application. “The goal is to make these vignettes available on every device, meaning YouTube, or a partner distributor would help us make this a multi-platform show, which is one of the reasons we are making this a publicly-funded project; to see if the public desire for this content could be enough to fund it. Our real goal is to make this a passion project by the people, for the people, and not a commercial product. This would be a series you could watch anywhere: your tablet or smartphone, even in the classroom,” Putnam explains.

The team collaborating for this project shares a common mission. Andy Bisaha, the co-creator of the show, is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) who has always been a part of the deaf community, and considers himself culturally deaf. PutnamStern’s director of education, Adam Lazarus, is a science teacher who seeks ways to make lesson plans that are inclusive and engaging for all learners.

As for Putnam, “My primary goal, as a storyteller, is to create a program that is not only fun to watch, but that is true to the culture we are addressing. This should be a show that not only teaches about the nuance of Deaf and Hard of Hearing culture, but that honors it. Our gold standard is a pedagogical approach that embraces every person… providing one type of lesson that simultaneously raises awareness of ASL for hearers, raises awareness of social nuance for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and teaches to both the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core State Standards (CCSS). If we can successfully produce funny, awesome vignettes that hit these three marks, then we can draw students of all hearing abilities closer together, without concentrating focus on the attributes that distinguish them from one another.”

But this endeavor needs funding to become a reality. PutnamStern established a $65,000 Kickstarter campaign that began on May 1 and ends May 26. This funding will enable the production company to produce and distribute six 5-10 minute animated vignettes. Through American Sign Language, the series will address issues in science, technology, engineering, art, math and collectively, effective communication. The hope is to minimize social and educational barriers between Deaf/Hard of Hearing and hearing students.

“Finally, as a group, we love kids, and we love to see them learn,” Putnam says. “We already have experience creating cutting-edge television that pushes the envelope for the amount and sophistication of knowledge and critical thinking skills that can be crammed into the young mind, and Sign Me Up is very much an extension of our process.”

To read more, the Sign Me Up Kickstarter preview page is located online at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2111595488/1759516990?token=e5f04bc9