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December 21, 2002

Speechless party offers loud lesson

From: Ithaca Journal, NY - 21 Dec 2002

Journal Staff
ITHACA -- A roomful of sixth graders, socializing, yet totally silent. It doesn't seem possible.

It is with American Sign Language. Thanks a new club this year at Boynton Middle School, hearing students are learning the silent language and deaf students are communicating with them.

Members of Boynton's first sign language club, which meets during lunch twice a week, celebrated the holidays Friday with a Christmas party. About 20 hearing students and five deaf students gathered, for a mere 15 minutes, to swap gifts and wish each other happy new year.

"I joined because I wanted to make more friends," said Jenna Stein, 11. "And it's fun to be able to do sign language. I know a lot of words now."

The short party was squeezed in between classes. With no speaking allowed, students signed to each other, spelling out names when gifts were taken out of a bag and signing "happy new year" after reading slips of paper.

New this year, the club is allowing hearing students in on the secret world of sign language, and opening social doors for deaf students.

One deaf student, Kelsey Lindhorst, said, in rapid sign language, that the club has led her to make friends.

"It's so cool," she said, her eyes lighting up. "We have parties, and it's fun to help the other kids learn sign language."

Sign language instructor Michele Hochstetter, who runs the club, said the deaf kids have never had so many hearing friends in their lives.

Up until last year, Hochstetter ran a sign club at Northeast Elementary School. Though elementary students were enthusiastic about the language, she said she thinks the club works better in a middle school.

"Middle school is such a social time," Hochstetter said. "Kids at this age are open to each other anyway. I see a lot of interaction in the hallway here."

Jim Meyers teaches deaf students through a Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services program housed at Boynton. Besides helping with the sign club, he has also led efforts for students to raise funds to buy the school more than 100 sign language books. They are given to any student interested in learning the language.

"The kids are expending such effort to be here, and they're very enthusiastic," Meyers said. "They give up their lunch."

Hochstetter leads the biweekly club activities, which at first were spoken but have since lapsed completely into sign language. She and Meyers said the Ithaca City School District will allow Boynton to offer American Sign Language as a foreign language starting next year.

MAMTA POPAT/Journal Staff
Bless Kalfas, 11, signs her classmate's name before giving the girl a present Friday morning during the sign language club holiday party at Boynton Middle School. The organization is the first sign language club at the middle school.

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