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December 16, 2002

Teacher gives students a sign

From: Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, WI - 16 Dec 2002

High school adds ASL to curriculum

By Tracey Wong Briggs
Gannett News Service

SPRINGFIELD, Va. – Back in 1997, a state education official came to check out West Springfield High's blossoming American Sign Language program. Impressive though it was, he told principal David Smith and ASL teacher Margaret Chojnacki that the state would never accept ASL for foreign-language credit.

To which Smith replied: Just watch us.

Within a year, the Virginia Board of Education accepted ASL as a foreign language for its advanced studies diploma. That official had underestimated the impact of a focused lobby that felt discriminated against, Smith says.

And he also underestimated Chojnacki.

She took the lead to write curriculum for Fairfax County's ASL courses and taught the county's first advanced course. She has campaigned successfully for acceptance of ASL by not only the state but also most of its colleges.

She acknowledges that the idea of ASL as a foreign language is controversial, because it's not "foreign" and doesn't have a written form. But 'it absolutely meets the standard of a language' – it has its own symbols and grammar, syntax, irregularities and culture, and it evolves with time, she says.

The founder of the school's ASL Club and the nation's first ASL Honor Society, Chojnacki, 58, was named earlier this year to the All-USA Teacher Team, USA TODAY's recognition program for outstanding teachers.

She has helped make West Springfield a place where cheerleaders sign the national anthem at basketball games, choral groups sign some performances, and juniors fingerspell graduates' names at commencement.

"She's wonderfully effective within the walls of the classroom, and as an advocate at state and national levels," Smith said. "She has a passion for bringing understanding of deaf culture to the broader society."

The second hearing daughter of two deaf educators, Chojnacki is an animated woman whose every movement seems emphatic. She grew up with ASL as her first language and is a registered sign language interpreter. A former English teacher, she is also fluent in French and has a basic knowledge of Japanese.

Chojnacki is foremost an interpreter of culture. Her advanced students sign while holding a glass of water, write position papers on cochlear implants (a bionic device that allows artificial hearing), and shop at the mall in groups of three, using only ASL and paper and pencil.

"Deaf culture is not held together by race, religion, food, commonality of experience or land," she said. "There cannot be the big 'D' in Deaf culture without ASL."

Chojnacki engages students so well that even a 90-minute advanced class conducted in almost total silence flies by. Intimidation is not a factor. "You can be signing something off subject, but she knows what you're trying to say," said Kelly Beyer, 16.

And her knack for understanding teens extends beyond ASL. "I try to find the one thing they're awesome at. I get the feeling some of these kids have never gotten a sincere compliment from a teacher," she said. "She's definitely got a gift for reaching kids," says former student Meghan Shannon, 22, who credits Chojnacki with opening her mind. "She made me realize my way of living was only my way of living."

Copyright © 2002 Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter