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06-12-12: American Sign Language Teacher is CTE Educator of the Year
06-12-12: American Sign Language Teacher is CTE Educator of the Year

Except for the occasional sound of students shuffling paper in their backpacks, Mitch Noll’s classroom is silent.

All eyes are on him as he directs students’ attention to a screen projecting a list of vocabulary words at the front of the room.

Within minutes the Emerald Ridge High teens all begin to speak at once, except not one of them utters a sound.

Students hear with their eyes and communicate with their hands, using movement, hand shapes, and space to identify the concepts on the screen.

Noll, an American Sign Language (ASL) teacher in this district for 15 years, calls up a new slide and speaks audibly for the first time as he explains the day’s lesson. He teaches students how ASL is used to communicate directional (inflecting) verbs.

Midway through the class period, Noll asks the class to stand up so they can freely move their hands from side to side as they sign the phrases, which incorporate the subject and object into the verb in one fluid motion.

Noll climbs onto a chair so students can see him clearly as he demonstrates first, then invites the class to sign together.

His ability to captivate students’ attention and bring ASL to life are among the many attributes, colleagues say, that make him an effective educator.

Noll has been recognized for his efforts by being named this year’s Puyallup School District Career and Technical Education (CTE) Educator of the Year.

CTE Director Mike Joyner presented him with a plaque during a surprise announcement last month at a schoolwide staff meeting. The Puyallup School Board also recognized him at its May 14 meeting.

The award is given annually to a CTE teacher who exhibits outstanding knowledge, expertise, or exceptional achievement in his or her field of study.

“His expertise is second to none,” Joyner said. “He works endless hours to make his program one of the best. He is truly a master teacher.”

Noll, a 1989 Rogers High School graduate, began teaching ASL in Puyallup 15 years ago. He split his time between Puyallup High and Rogers High, becoming the first ASL teacher hired to open the program at his alma mater.

Noll moved to Emerald Ridge High when the school opened in 2000.

Jessica Mattson is one of Noll’s many former students who pursued the language as a career after high school. She studied under him as a Rogers High School student and now teaches ASL next door to him at Emerald Ridge High.

“I know just about every ASL teacher in western Washington, and I assure you that you will not find a more qualified or dedicated instructor in any other ASL classroom,” Mattson wrote in a letter nominating him as CTE Educator of the Year.

She continued, “Mitch will stop at nothing to increase his knowledge and skill set so he can provide his students with the highest quality learning experience.”

Mattson added that Noll is “the technology pioneer in our department, consistently finding new ways to bring this language to life and make it accessible for all students. … Never a day goes by that he doesn’t share with me a new idea to improve a lesson or improve student involvement and understanding. It is very motivating.”

Noll also regularly shares his knowledge and teaching materials with teachers outside of this district, including Orting High School ASL instructor Monique Hirschkorn.

In her nomination letter, Hirschkorn describes Noll as “an amazing mentor.”

“The minute I reached out to Mitch he opened up his classroom and vast file cabinets to me,” Hirschkorn wrote. “I am a better teacher today because of the time and resources that Mitch shared with me. Mitch is exceptionally talented, incredibly patient, and is truly a wonderful teacher. His passion for ASL and the students of Puyallup School District is evident in everything he does.”

ASL is taught at all three of the district’s comprehensive high schools, with more than 700 students enrolled this year. It is second only to Spanish for being the most requested world language to learn among students, Noll said.

Noll learned ASL after he graduated high school and went to New York City on a two-year church mission. While there, he became friends with a deaf missionary, learned sign language, and worked with the deaf community in New York.

Noll quickly became fluent in the language and held several jobs as an interpreter over the years, including jobs with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, Tacoma Public Schools, and Utah Valley University. Noll earned his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in secondary education, English, and humanities.

As a young new teacher in Puyallup, Noll said he was fluent in the language but wanted to learn more about how to teach ASL grammar.

He reached out to colleagues in surrounding cities and established a group of teachers that met monthly to share ideas.

Those teachers are now part of a larger statewide organization, the ASL Consortium, which meets twice a year in Seattle for workshops and trainings.

Noll teaches beginning through advanced ASL classes, and classes are open to Glacier View Junior High ninth graders who walk to and from the neighboring campus to participate in the world language course.

An articulation agreement between Puyallup and Seattle Central Community College offers ASL students the opportunity to earn college credit for classes taken in high school.

His greatest satisfaction, he said, comes from watching students build confidence as they get comfortable using the language.

“There is huge growth that happens from the time they learn to fingerspell to when they get up in front of the class and present to the class,” he said. “You really see their confidence when they invest in it.”

Emerald Ridge High ASL students perform each year at the school’s Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly, take to the stage at the district’s annual Education Day at the Puyallup Fair, and held a first-ever ASL Showcase earlier this month featuring duet and group signsong performances.

Many ASL students also participate in an ASL Club directed by fellow teacher Jessica Mattson.

Noll said there are about five students every year who continue to pursue ASL study in college and, for many of them, eventually become professional paid interpreters for the deaf.

“Mitch Noll’s dedication and impact on students and colleagues alike is unquestioned,” said Emerald Ridge High Assistant Principal Steve Leifsen. “His instruction has allowed our students to develop tremendous skill in ASL and ignited a passion within them.”