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November 21, 2002

A lesson in silence: Sign language a popular elective for high school students

From: King County Journal Newspapers, WA
Nov. 21, 2002

by Nora Doyle
Journal Reporter

W hen Jordan Stead finished delivering his comedy monologue in class at Issaquah's Skyline High School Tuesday, he was met with dead silence from the 20 or so students watching him.

But he knew he did a great job, based on the frantic waving of open hands from each of his classmates, the sign for applause in American Sign Language. If the students had been clapping instead, Stead's entertaining summary of the goofy film ``Happy Gilmore'' could have been heard down the hallway.

Stead is in an advanced ASL class at Skyline. The school offers five classes a day of sign language.

ASL is increasingly popular at local schools, with most all South County and Eastside school districts now offering the course in at least one of their high schools. Although there are several forms of sign language, Skyline teacher Cozette Amador said ASL is typically the one taught in the schools because it's most commonly use by the deaf.

ASL is considered either a foreign language or an elective, and students are often making long-term commitments to it, taking it for three consecutive years. ASL can also be considered a vocational course because the skills learned in the class can be directly applied in a job, a distinction which may not be far from the minds of some ASL students. With a two-year certificate in ASL interpreting, people can make up to $65 an hour as a freelance interpreter, Amador said.

An estimated 20 percent of the Puget Sound area population has hearing loss or speech challenges associated with a hearing impairment, said Susie Burdick, executive director of Seattle's Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center. The agency is a non-profit that serves about 2,500 people a year.

People with ASL skills are more in demand as corporations and service industries begin to see the benefit of hiring people who can sign, Burdick said. It's becoming common for banks, retail outlets and hotels to hire those who can interpret for their hearing impaired customers, she said.

``It's the only way to communicate with deaf people besides writing notes,'' Burdick said.

ASL teacher Joani Bishop at Tyee High School in the Highline School District, said she focuses her teaching of six ASL classes on the interpreting skills which will open up the most professional possibilities. Taking ASL in high school gives students a leg up on getting a job, she said, and can result in college credit.

Some of Bishop's students already use ASL as they come into contact with hearing impaired people at their after-school jobs. Tyee junior Katie Rogge, a clerk at a Safeway store, wears a tag that identifies her as being able to sign. When hearing impaired customers have questions, they come to her, she said.

``It makes me feel like I can help out . . . and it makes them feel a little bit more normal,'' Rogge said.

As a certified ASL interpreter for 20 years and a freelancer, Amador has worked at the winter Olympics, signing ``ready, set, go,'' to skiers and signing the opening ceremonies. She's worked at political conventions, concerts, hospitals and courtrooms. For the last two years, she's been Skyline's sole ASL teacher, growing the program since it started about eight years ago.

She speaks very little in class, but that doesn't mean her students don't know or understand her. With her advanced students, Amador signs almost the entire class, even doling out progress reports in silence. Her hands, face and body say what she wants to express.

With the spoken word, so much of the meaning is conveyed through tone, Amador explained. When you speak with your hands, there is no tone, so meaning must be picked up through facial expression and body language. To ask ``Where are my shoes?'' in ASL, you merely sign the word for ``shoes'' and put a questioning look on your face, eyebrows raised, shoulders up.

The class, while good for many students, is not for everyone, Amador said. There's little written work required, but a lot of courage. Tests are not answers on pieces of paper with grades handed back in secrecy. In her ASL class, tests are people signing before their peers, demonstrating what they know in front of 20 others.

``The kids are courageous to do this because there's room for a lot of ridicule,'' Amador said.

Her students learn about 300 vocabulary words every seven weeks. At the end of the first year of class, they can have basic conversations in ASL, and after three years, a class can be held almost entirely in silence, with only signing for communication.

It's a great class for kids who are active and like to move around, Amador said. ``In my class, they leave sweaty.''

Sitting on chairs arranged in a circle, students played an ASL version of musical chairs Tuesday, using their signing skills and being speedy about it. And yes, some of them break a sweat running from chair to chair.

When game time got a little rowdy and the kids were excited, they couldn't help but speak, and the chatter grew loud.

``There should be no voices. You all sign really well,'' said Amador, who always talks with her hands. The only way to stifle the habit is to sit on them, she said with a laugh.

Copyright © 2002 Horvitz Newspapers, Inc.