Transcript of Reading with Your Kids Podcast Interview with Kathy MacMillan.

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ANNOUNCER: This episode of the Reading with Your Kids podcast is brought to you by Jedlie’s award-winning children’s book The Great Maritini.

MUSIC: A very very long time ago/ there was a boy named Sam / who liked to do his magic tricks / and he was quite the ham. / He was called the Great Maritini, the best magician of his age. / But his greatest feat took place far away from any stage. / Every trick Sam tried to do would somehow come out wrong. / But Sam just kept on going and that’s what made him strong. / He was called The Great Maritini, best magician of his age, / but his greatest feat took place far away from any stage. / One day as he traveled he helped a stranger in need. / And this was not a trick, oh no, but a magical good deed. / He was called the Great Maritini, the best magician of his age. / But his greatest feat took place far away from any stage. / But his greatest feat took place far away from any stage.

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ANNOUNCER: Reading with Your Kids

JEDLIE: Hey hey hey! So great to see you! Come on in. Hi, my name is Jedlie and this is the Reading with Your Kids podcast. As always, we are so very happy and excited and so very very thankful that you’re choosing to spend time with us today. Thank you so very much. We have a wonderful, wonderful guest today. Her name is Kathy MacMillan. We’re going to have a super discussion about language acquisition and connecting with kids who are both hearing and non-hearing. And we’re going to talk about her fantastic new book NITA’S FIRST SIGNS.

Before we bring Kathy in, we have a big shout-out going out to Denisha Alphonse. She is the author of WE DON’T CRY, WE TRY. It’s our latest Reading with Your Kids Certified Great Read. We think your kids will beg to hear this book’s lovely rhymes over and over again. WE DON’T CRY, WE TRY: BACK TO SCHOOL is a children’s picture book written by Denisha Alphonse and illustrated by Dwayne Blair. Don is a little boy who is excited to go to school and imagines all the fun activities he can do with his friends at school. He’s overjoyed and can’t wait to show his fancy toys including Transformers and his cars to his friends and to play with them. But he becomes upset after being told by his mother that he is not allowed to bring his toys to school, but soon learns that toys aren’t part of the teacher’s lesson plan. And he can play with them after he comes home from school. His mother uses the phrase “we don’t cry, we try” to encourage Don to be a big boy and not to cry over a toy and understand that school is for learning and not playing with toys. We really love this book and we think that you and your family will love it too. It is the latest Reading with Your Kids Certified Great Read and we’re so very happy to add it to our lineup of great Certified Great Reads. Congratulations to Denisha Alphonse, our latest ReadingwWith Your Kids Certified Great Reads author and her wonderful WE DON’T CRY, WE TRY: BACK TO SCHOOL.

ANNOUNCER: This episode of the Reading with Your Kids podcast is brought to you by Jedlie’s Totally Interactive Magic Circus. Imagine a show where magic, Illusions, comedy, music, and inspiration all come together as one. Imagine a show that has helped over 1 million young people and adults change the way they approach Life. A show that has shown people that being kind and respectful is fun. That show is Jedlie’s Totally Interactive Magic Circus, a show that has shown people that being kind and respectful is fun!  To find out more, please visit or call 617-833-7063 today!

JEDLIE: Joining us on the line right now from Owings Mills, a little bit north of Baltimore down in Maryland, she is the author of a wonderful, wonderful book. I really love the concept of the book. The name of the book is NITA’S FIRST SIGNS. Please welcome the author, Kathy MacMillan. Kathy, how are you?

KATHY: I’m great. I’m happy to be here.

JEDLIE: I’m so happy that you’re here and I love the idea of NITA’S FIRST SIGNS and if you’re listening and you haven’t figured it out yet, Kathy, why don’t you tell us what the bit the book is basically about?

KATHY:  Sure. It’s a book for babies, so really birth to two or three, and it is a story about a little girl who communicates with her parents through American Sign Language. I purposely made it ambiguous in the book whether is she is Deaf or hearing because I wanted this to be a story that would be equally accessible to Deaf and hearing families. So Nita and her parents go about their day and do the things that babies and their parents do – you know, eat in the high chair and nurse with Mommy and play – and all of those things are made easier because they can communicate using American Sign Language. And one of the things I really love about how Familius Press, the publisher, handled the book is that the design is so clever. They took the story and put it into a book where the pages actually slide open and underneath where it slides open you see the characters demonstrating the signs. I am an American Sign Language interpreter myself – that’s my day job – so it was really important to me to get this right and Familius Press absolutely got it right.

JEDLIE: That is wonderful. And I love the idea of introducing American Sign Language to kids, especially at a young age. First off, there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of with sign language and I know it’s silly to kind of say that, but I’m of an age where my peers, when they would see somebody signing, it kind of makes some a little concerned because they don’t know what’s going on. And you know there’s so many different reasons why people might be signing. It’s not just because you are hearing impaired or deaf. It could be a child who has autism or has some other kind of communication issues, has some kind of neurological delay and they can’t form words and it’s easier for them to sign.

KATHY: That is all very true, but it is also true that even for typically developing hearing children, there are enormous benefits to signing. For one thing, babies can sign long before they can speak. A three-month-old has the ability to produce signs, and that’s six to eight months before they can produce intelligible speech. A three-month-old can potentially be telling you what they want instead of screaming, which makes it much less frustrating for them, much less frustrating for you. But then the caveat I always add to that is: just because they can sign a three to four months old, that doesn’t mean they will. Because most babies produce their first signs around six to eight months old. My own son, who is now 13, I signed with him literally from the moment he was born and he did not sigh back till he was 14 months old. (laughs) I guess it was to make me look bad but I don’t hold it against him. But he was speaking before that, and he was getting a lot of exposure to language prior to that time. And I just wanted to piggyback on something you said earlier. Yeah, there’s no reason to be afraid of American Sign Language in general, but also I think a lot of hearing parents, when they hear about signing with their hearing children, they get this idea into their heads that somehow if they sign with their child that the child won’t speak. And that is just not true. Even unfortunately some doctors spread this misinformation. Because all the research shows that a child who is signed with as a baby will actually have a larger spoken vocabulary in their toddler and preschooler years. Because they’re getting more exposure to language, they’re able to start a conversation about something that interests them, which means the adults then pick up on that and talk about it more, so they’re exposed to more spoken language. So language begets language, communication begets communication.

JEDLIE: Yeah, you know I hadn’t heard of that those concerns but it doesn’t shock me and it’s the same kind of concerns that I hear when I’m traveling around to different schools. I might go to a school that is adopting of dual-language kind of model. And a lot of the English-speaking parents are freaking out because oh my goodness my child might learn a foreign language! And it’s like, I don’t really see the problem with that.

KATHY: There’s only benefits.

JEDLIE: Most of the world speaks more than one language, except for the folks in the United States. Yeah, talk a little bit more about, if you can – I just know instinctually that if you are speaking different languages and exposed to different languages, that actually helps you, but I’m not able to articulate it because I don’t have the language for it. Maybe you can maybe you can talk about how it…

KATHY: So there are so many benefits to bilingualism. I guess the first thing I want to make sure that your listeners understand is that American Sign Language is a real language. It is different from English. It has entirely different grammar and structure and it is not universal. There are lots of different sign languages around the world. American Sign Language is the sign language that’s used in the United States and in Canada. And it’s completely different from British Sign Language, from Chinese Sign Language, just as the spoken languages are all very different. So I feel like that’s an important thing to understand going in. So, in general there are many benefits to bilingualism and one of the benefits is that, as a child grows older, they have multiple  – Dr. Marilyn Daniels calls them “databases” in your brain. Dr .Daniels has done a lot of the research on signing to support hearing children’s literacy. Her book DANCING WITH WORDS is a really wonderful resource if you’re interested in more of the research on this. But she calls it databases and basically what that means is when a child is trying to retrieve some information, they may be able to get it in one language more quickly than the other and then kind of a bridge is formed and all the little neurons that are going crazy being formed in the first five years of life get more reinforcement and more strengthening because of that. There’s some research that shows that it may take longer for someone who is bilingual to get a thought out, but what they get out is going to be more articulate and well formed because it has kind of gone through those two databases. Also as far as ASL and English, or a sign language and a spoken language, I should say – because it’s not really limited to just ASL and English  – one of the really cool benefits to learning a sign language is that it literally rewires your brain. It literally changes the way that the hemispheres of your brain relate to each other. There is a wonderful book called  LEARNING TO SEE, and I can’t think of the author’s name off the top of my head, but in that book they talk about some of the research that was done with stroke patients. And what they found is that those who had learned American Sign Language used different parts of their brain than those who didn’t, because there is so much spatial grammar in American Sign Language. So when you learn a sign language, your brain is actually reshaping the way it thinks about space and it’s connecting those parts of your brain to the linguistic parts of your brain. So for stroke patients who had exposure to American Sign Language, they were still able to express things that those who did not sign couldn’t express, because those parts of their brains were cut off. So it’s really fascinating. Like I said, it rewires your brain. It helps you to think in new and different ways.

JEDLIE: Before I was able to figure out a way to make a living as an education magician, I worked in human services and I worked with kids who had severe developmental disabilities, so I had a very basic understanding of American Sign Language and had some very basic words. And then I happened to meet and fall in love with a woman who spoke  – or used American Sign Language. She taught kids who were hearing impaired, and so my vocabulary grew a little bit more. We can send each other signals when we are at parties and laugh. But I had this really neat experience. My signing is limited to HI, I WANT, THANK-YOU, I WANT SOME-MORE, but I do know how to say “You have a beautiful smile.” When I meet a kid who is hearing impaired and has a interpreter with him or her at a school, one of the first things I say to them is, “You have a beautiful smile.” And talk about building a bridge between those kids and I had this one experience in a very rural town in Western Pennsylvania. This beautiful little girl, fifth grade girl. She had her interpreter and I greeted her with that “you have a beautiful smile” and throughout the whole show she wanted to come up on stage and help me with the magic trick and she was the perfect candidate to do my grand finale, which is a levitation illusion. And so when I called her up the teachers and the sign interpreter absolutely flipped. “Oh no, this isn’t possible, you can’t do that, it’s too dangerous.” And I just asked her, I turned to her and I asked the Interpreter to sign, “Do you trust me?” and the girl said, “Absolutely.” And I asked the other teachers and everybody sit down and we had the most amazing time and she was great but the thing that was so neat is that when she came down after performing the Illusion the 500 kids who were watching the show applauded for her with sign language. On their own. No cues from anybody else. It was a silent standing ovation and having just that little bit of sign language helped me experience that really magical moment. I’m just thinking of all of that when you talked about all of the benefits of growing up with language and kids can start communicating earlier. But just that ability to have a connection with another human being that can be really magical. What a benefit that can be.

KATHY: Absolutely. And you know, so many times it is a way to connect with people who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing. And for children it’s very likely that at some point they will have a Deaf or hard-of-hearing classmate, because so many Deaf and hard-of-hearing children are in mainstream school environment. So being able to build that bridge is so important. But it’s also something that can help hearing parents and hearing children connect because even though my fourteen-month-old was finally signing, even though he was already speaking by the time he started signing, it wasn’t always intelligible. He wasn’t always able to express himself clearly, especially when he was upset. So being able to have another tool and other way to communicate is so important. And I think the store you told really illustrates this. It’s important to establish that bridge of communication, not just to be able to communicate, but as a way to tell your child, “I care what you have to say.” Think about that. That’s really powerful. If you give your child a tool to communicate with you, you are conveying the message that you care what they have to say. That what they have to say is important and it’s important enough that you’re going to give them this tool to do it. And that’s really powerful in itself.

Jedlie: Yeah, well I never I never thought about that. I’m all about thinking of ways that we can empower kids but that had never occurred to me. I’m so happy I do this podcast. I learn something every time I sit down and speak to an author. This is wonderful. And you’re an author, you’re the author of NITA’S FIRST SIGNS. But you’re also the author of some other books. Tell us a little bit about those books, please.

KATHY: Certainly. I am a young adult novelist. My debut novel SWORD AND VERSE came out from HarperTeen in 2016. And the sequel, DAGGER AND COIN, comes out in October 2018, so I’m very excited about that. It is not about ASL or the Deaf Community. But it is about linguistics and lots of linguistic geekery. It’s basically about a society where only the nobility are allowed to read and write because writing is the language of the gods. The main character is a slave girl who finds herself at the center of a linguistic mystery and a revolution and a forbidden romance. So anybody who knows my background as an ASL interpreter will probably recognize a lot of my linguistics interests in it, but it is, you know, a totally fantasy made up story. And then I am also the co-author of the STORYTIME MAGIC series with Christine Kirker, which is a series of resource books for teachers and educators from the American Library Association, and also another book called Little Hands And Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together which is a resource for parents on signing with children ages birth to six. What makes that one a little different from a lot of books about signing with young children is that instead of it just being kind of a manual with a dictionary, which a lot of the books are, it actually incorporates songs, games, music, rhymes, crafts, all different things that incorporate ASL. They’re literacy building activities that also incorporate ASL and it’s got photos that demonstrate all the signs. My son is actually the sign model in there and he’s pretty adorable.

JEDLIE: Awesome, awesome. Where did your fascination with linguistics and communication and language come from?

KATHY: I think it’s something I’ve always kind of had with me. I’ve always loved languages. I was a French double major in college. I didn’t actually start learning American Sign Language until I was in my twenties. I’ve been a children’s librarian for twenty years now. I was a full-time children’s librarian at that time – now I’m a full-time interpreter. But I met a Deaf woman who was a kindergarten teacher and she used to come to my library to get books for her classroom. And so just in wanted to communicate with her better.  I started taking ASL classes, eventually became an interpreter, started working at a camp with Deaf children and really enjoyed that. I worked at the Maryland School for the Deaf as a librarian for a while and then I became a full-time interpreter and all throughout that I’ve been writing. I’ve always been a huge reader. And all these interests sort of came together.

JEDLIE: wow, fascinating. One of the things that I love is that, as I said earlier, people at my advanced age, people sometimes can get freaked out but we’re getting to the point now where interpreters are becoming the norm at a lot of events. And that’s a really wonderful thing, I think.

KATHY: Yeah, I agree. I actually just had an experience recently at my son’s school. There’s a family where the parents are Deaf, so I’m often coordinating interpreters there. And one of the other parents whose son is in my son’s class came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that this happened. My son was in the airport going on a trip with his hockey team, and there was a group of people signing. And everybody else on his team was like, what’s that? What are they doing? And my son was like, it’s American Sign Language. What’s wrong with you? Because of his exposure to interpreters at all of our school events, you know, it’s totally normal for him as it should be.”

JEDLIE:  This is kind of a funny memory when my son was in kindergarten. No, I’m sorry, when my daughter was in kindergarten. She had a student in her class and the student’s mom was hearing impaired and the teacher knew my wife signed so she said, “Could you come in please and interpret?” And also that she believed that the child was Spanish-speaking. Well, it turns out the child wasn’t Spanish-speaking, he was Portuguese-speaking. My wife speaks Spanish and ASL. But anyway there was one parent who is hearing-impaired, one who spoke Portuguese, the teacher just spoke English, my wife who’s trying to and it was it was crazy it was like who’s on first. It was like going from English to Spanish to Portuguese to some kind of sign and it was…but the wonderful thing was it was a bonding moment because everyone kind of came together and said, well, this is kind of hard, we’re doing this because we love the kid and that was the attitude that everybody had. It was like, yeah, we’re going to. We love this kid so we’re going to go through this, go through the different languages and we’re going to make it so. And it did and everybody lives happily ever after.

KATHY: Yeah, and I think that really brings home the point that there really is nothing more important than communication. And when it comes to young children and when it comes to early literacy, there is nothing more important than communication. I mean, that’s a child’s most important skill to learn, because it helps them get all of their other needs met. And a child who can’t communicate, who is not given the tools to communicate for whatever reason, is going to suffer. And I just want to say one little thing in terms of educating everyone: generally the preferred term is Deaf or hard-of-hearing. For many Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the term “hearing impaired” is extremely offensive. So generally it’s better to avoid that.

JEDLIE: Okay. Thank you for correcting me. When I worked with kids with developmental disabilities, I was told to use hearing impaired.

KATHY: It is often used, especially in institutional settings, but for many people in the Deaf community, it’s a very disliked term

JEDLIE: I do appreciate that because things change and it can be frustrating sometimes. I really appreciate that you said that, because it’s important for us to be sensitive and to respect folks’ wishes. And so thank you for that, thank you for that knowledge. One last question. You might not have the answer for it but we’re talking about language and we’re talking about how important it is to communicate and to use different languages to come together, bring people together. And we also hit upon the fact that folks around the world tend to speak two or three different languages. We host international kids in our home. Every single kid, no matter where they come from, speak at least three languages, and there are a lot of kids from China who speak three or four or five or six languages. What is it do you think about our culture that we have this kind of hesitancy – I’ll be polite and say hesitancy – to learn language?

KATHY: Well, I mean I could point to a lot of political things that have to do with it, but I certainly the idea of American exceptionalism plays a large role in that. And the pressure that even if you look back to a hundred, a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago, the pressure that immigrants felt to assimilate and to leave behind their old languages. So we are all part of that legacy. You know, my parents  – my great-great-grandparents came here from Italy and from Ireland and from Germany in the 1800s and they left their native languages behind and it’s something that I think immigrants today certainly feel as well. So that kind of focus and that kind of idea that there’s only one way to be American and that way is the speak English and only English has really not served us well. Because, as we have seen, the research has shown that bilingualism has all these benefits for children’s development, for adults’ development. It gives you greater flexibility of thinking. It teaches you empathy. It gives you multiple databases to pull from. So it doesn’t really make sense when you look at it from a rational point of view, but I’m not sure that it was ever a rational reason behind it.

JEDLIE: Okay, great, well that makes sense to me, the fact that we don’t learn different languages doesn’t make any sense to me. I have a real struggle with languages but I love doing it and I’m trying to learn Chinese right now because like I’m just a masochist, I guess. (laughs)

KATHY: And often times people who struggle with other spoken languages may find it easier to learn sign languages. For example, children who have dyslexia may struggle with learning other spoken languages, but ASL might be something they might pick up very easily. I have a friend who always struggled with Spanish in high school and in college, and she is in her 40s now and she’s taking ASL and she’s picking it up like this. Because she has ADHD, it’s very difficult for her to focus on spoken languages but she’s much more visually attuned, so ASL is very easy for her. So different people have different strengths, and different types of languages will play to different strengths.

JEDLIE: Excellent. Well, we want people to check NITA’S FIRST SIGNS, but we also want people to check out your website. Tell us your website please.

KATHY: Okay well you can find me – probably the easiest way to find me at is at which is Nita’s website. I’m also at KathyMacMillan.Com and you can find information on all my books there.

JEDLIE: Excellent. Well, you’ve been listening to  – this is been a fascinating conversation. I’m so happy that you came on. Kathy MacMillan and it’s M-A-C. Kathy MacMillan is the author of NITA’S FIRST SIGNS and has really given me a lot to think about and has really educated me today. So I’m so happy that you got on with us. Thank you so much for being here, Kathy.

Kathy: Thank you for having me.

JEDLIE: [Music] Next up on the Reading With your Kids podcast, we’re really really excited we have two wonderful wonderful guests from Goliath Games, Burke Schwartzman and Celia Niu. They’re going to be talking to us about some great, fantastic games we can play with our kids. Because in addition to reading with our kids, we want to play with our kids too. Hey, if you are the author of a wonderful children’s book, we would love to help you tell the world all about it. One way of course we can help each other out about is to have you as a guest here on the podcast. Being a guest is fun, it’s easy, and it’s absolutely free. We can also help your books stand out amongst that big crowd of great children’s literature that exists today by submitting it to our Reading With Your Kids Certified Great Reads Program. Our panel of educators, parents, and kids will read your book and if it is worthy of a 4 or 5 out of 5 Stars, it will receive the coveted Reading With Your Kids Certified Great Reads Sale of Approval. You can find out more about that program and all of the author services we have at our website, Hey, we want to thank Kathy MacMillan for being here today, and of course we want to thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us and as always thank you so much for taking the time to read with your kids. I’ll be looking forward to the next edition of the Reading With Your Kids podcast.