Storytelling, Deaf Culture, and Disney

Storytelling is an art, but I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun telling stories as I do with the Deaf community. Without spoken words, you have to rely entirely on your body to convey meaning.

And it’s not just body language and facial expressions; there’s a theatricality behind the signs you use. For example, when I was first taught the word in sign language for abeja (bee), I was told to put my index finger and thumb together, act like my hand was flying around my head, tap my cheek with my fingers, then slap my cheek in the same place. This, by itself, is the sign for bee.

But Clara acted out an entire story: she was walking through a forest when she saw a beehive. Mmmm, the honey inside is so sweet! She wants it! So she takes out her bow and arrow and shoots the beehive, which falls to the ground. A million bees fly out and sting her everywhere! Ouch, it hurts!

This was how I learned the word for bee (as well as forest, trees, sweet, pain, etc.)

In the same way, I didn’t just learn the word for policía. I had to act out a thief robbing a purse from an unsuspecting woman, the woman crying, the police officer chasing the thief, putting the thief behind bars, angry that he’d been caught.

At first I didn’t like this technique. I just wanted to know the sign for the word, nada más. But I’ve started to understand the importance of storytelling in this community. With only your hands and face at your disposal for communicating with others, theatricality is necessary.

On my very first day in charge of class at the school, I decided to use a story as the basis for my lesson plan. And if you know me at all, you probably know that I really love Disney. So, here’s what we did:

I recommend watching it without the sound, so you can see what it’s like to understand the story as someone who’s deaf. 

I showed this video clip to the students several times (the two fifteen-year old girls cried every time) so they could get the plot down. Then each student acted it out.

Here’s a video of Jhon Alex, one of the younger students, doing a great job telling the story in sign language:


After students told the story in their own words, we practiced writing in Spanish. This is to practice Spanish literacy; they already know the words in sign language. The words you can see on the whiteboard behind Jhon Alex in the video are the vocabulary words needed to tell this particular story. There’s avion (airplane), papel (paper), volar (to fly), hombre (man), mujer (woman), encontrar (to meet), etc. They wrote the words in the journal, then each student came to the front to spell the words in sign language from memory in front of the class.

Because paper airplanes are central to the story, after we finished writing and spelling, we made paper airplanes and flew them outside!


I asked them to color or draw on both sides of the paper. Many of the students wanted to draw the lipstick smacked on the paper, just like in the video! 

This class was such a blast that it’s going to be the basis for many of my classes when I’m teaching on my own! Erika, my supervisor, asked me to find 20 videos, preferably between 5 and 10 minutes, with minimal or no dialogue. I’ve found several Pixar and old Disney clips (ie Silly Symphonies) that I can use, but I would love suggestions! If you know of any clips from movies or come across anything on the internet, please send it my way!

Thanks, everyone!



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