Teaching students to speak without saying a word

E. Meadow High teacher earns grant to improve ASL program


East Meadow High School’s longtime American Sign Language teacher, Robin Portnoy, was one of just four educators from New York state to receive a $2,000 Unsung Heroes grant recently from Voya Financials through its Innovative Teaching Program.

Portnoy started teaching in the East Meadow School District’s ASL program 20 years ago. As only the second ASL teacher in the district, she first taught sixth-graders who showed an interest in the visual language. Now the program is offered to students in sixth to 12th grades, and East Meadow High has five ASL teachers who work with roughly 200 students in the program.

“My ultimate goal is to create a [video] portfolio program,” Portnoy said. “I want my students to be able to see their progress throughout the year.”

She added that because ASL is a visual language, students take tests and quizzes using only their hands to communicate. Although most students excel in the program, she said that many of them show interest in seeing their progress throughout the year to improve their skills.

“Because I don’t have much storage in the computer, I have to delete their work after it’s graded,” Portnoy said. The grant would help fund her innovative teaching idea, “Creating Portfolio Videos.” She plans to purchase tablets that students can use to record videos of their progress throughout the school year, and to communicate with other ASL speakers remotely.

“At Voya, we are proud to recognize the many teachers who go above and beyond to inspire love of learning in their classrooms,” said Heather Lavallee, president of tax-exempt markets at Voya Financial. “We are honored to empower Robin Portnoy to continue to impact the lives of young people who will one day be future leaders of our communities.”

Nationwide, Portnoy is one of 100 winners selected from a pool of 1,200 applicants. Through the Unsung Heroes program, Voya awards educators around the country with grants to honor their innovative teaching methods, creative projects, and their ability to positively influence their students, according to a company statement. The program was created in 1996 and has since awarded more than $5 million to help educators turn creative teaching ideas into reality.

Because Portnoy was selected as a finalist, she is now eligible to compete for one of the top three grant prizes — $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000 — which she hopes to win to expand her “Creating Video Portfolios” initiative.

“It would be great to expand the program even further,” she said. If she wins a top prize, she said she would like to create video portfolios for all students in the ASL program from sixth to 12th grades. “It would be amazing to see the students’ faces when they see themselves in sixth grade trying to sign the alphabet,” she said, “and then see themselves in 12th grade having a fluent conversation with members from the ASL community.”

Until then, Portnoy plans to distribute tablets in her classroom to incorporate technology into the visual language learning process.

“It’s rewarding to see students pursue ASL as a career,” she said. “It’s even better that students understand the deaf community and show compassion and understanding.”