IM this article to a friend!

September 11, 2003

Talking with hands

From: Fauquier Citizen, VA - Sep 11, 2003

County high schools for first time offer American Sign Language

By Ty Bowers - Staff Writer

The students in Liberty High School’s Room 232 stayed quiet even as they talked in class.

Brows furrowed. Fingers twisted and curled.

One could hear a pin drop last Friday as 14 students learned to speak with their hands using American Sign Language (ASL).

Used to communicate with the deaf, the intricate system of finger symbols, hand gestures and expressions has evolved into what most educators call a modern, foreign language.

Fauquier’s high schools for the first time are offering ASL to students this year. More than 40 Fauquier and Liberty High School students have signed up for the introductory ASL course.

Liberty senior Misty Stevens, 17, who has deaf friends, "thought it would be interesting to get the whole concept behind it."

"It’s something different, you know," said Miss Stevens, who already signs some songs for the deaf at her church.

Other students, like Michelle Sawyer, plan to take up to three ASL courses to fulfill the foreign language requirement of an advanced studies diploma.

The 15-year-old described herself as a "visual learner."

"I wouldn’t say learning to sign is any easier than other languages. There’s a lot to remember," Michelle explained. "But I decided this would be easier for me than taking Spanish, where you have to speak."

Public school systems in more than 30 states and 700 colleges and universities allow students to take ASL as a foreign language, according to the National Association for the Deaf.

The Virginia Department of Education approved the course in 1998.

"Most people don’t think of it as a foreign language," first-year teacher Joanie Cassese said. "But it’s very different than English."

The language has its own grammar and syntax, Miss Cassese, 21, explained. Forms of sign language vary from country to country. In France, the deaf use French Sign Language. In Japan, they use Japanese.

Introductory ASL students in Fauquier will learn 1,000 signs by the end of the term. They also will learn about language’s history and about the culture of America’s deaf.

Miss Cassese, who is not deaf, first became interested in sign language as a sophomore at North Stafford High School. She took two years of the language there, and planned to continue at George Mason University when she graduated in 1999.

The Fairfax university didn’t offer courses in ASL, but gave its students credit for taking them at other schools, such as the Northern Virginia Community College.

Miss Cassese immersed herself in the language and its culture while taking ASL classes at the community college’s Annandale campus. She attended "silent dinners" throughout Northern Virginia, where she could only communicate with signs.

More than a few of her FHS and LHS students seemed taken aback "when they saw that their syllabus says no voicing," Miss Cassese said with a smile.

"They all elected to be here, but it’s been interesting to see the reception."

Miss Cassese last Friday had several of her students pull out their keys for an exercise shortly before their lunch break.

"We’re going to say what each key is for," she said.

She twisted a knuckle into her palm, the sign for "key."

Pointing to one of her keys, Miss Cassese showed her students that it worked her car. She turned an imaginary steering wheel, the sign for "car."

The class grew quiet again as they began to sign.

"We’ll watch videos with a lot of people signing and it’s totally silent," Michelle said.

Weird at times. "But it’s really cool," she added.

County school officials first proposed the sign language course last November, Associate Superintendent for Instruction Sandra Mitchell said this week.

The course not only will expose hearing students to another language, but it will allow Fauquier’s hearing impaired students to receive an advanced studies diploma, Mrs. Mitchell explained.

Seventeen hearing impaired students were enrolled in Fauquier’s public schools for the 2001-02 term, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Each December, school systems are required to report the number of disabled students attending their schools.

"But one thing we have learned is that (ASL) is not just for students who have auditory problems," Mrs. Mitchell said. "It’s a more visual way for other students to learn a language as well."

Loudoun, Spotsylvania, Stafford and Fairfax counties also offer sign language courses to their high school students.

Liberty junior Richard Perryman said he plans to take three ASL courses before he graduates.

The 17-year-old wants to become a special education teacher. "So I thought it would be useful."

In 2002, more than 30 million Americans — about 12 percent of the population — had some sort of hearing impairment, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

How many were completely deaf or used American Sign Language remains unclear.

But the Washington, D.C.-based Gallaudet Research Institute estimates that as many as 500,000 of them use sign language.

America’s deaf have been using some form of sign language since the 1700s, according the American Association for the Deaf.

In the early 1800s a Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet founded the country’s first school for the deaf in Hartford, Conn.

The school’s students began to learn French Sign Language. Soon after, an American version of the language began to evolve.

To further bridge the gap between her hearing students and the deaf, Miss Cassese plans to take them to "silent dinners" in the area.

And perhaps some of her students may even become ASL interpreters — a lucrative profession.

Interpreters can earn between $12 and $40 per hour part-time, according to the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Salaried interpreters can make as much as $50,000 a year.

"There’s so much you can do with this," Miss Cassese said.

County school officials plan to offer ASL II in the spring, but have decided whether to offer a third level, Foreign Language Coordinator Marvin Rodriguez said.

"It will be enrollment driven," Dr. Rodriguez said.

If enough students express an interest in taking ASL III, then the county will offer it.

"I hope they do," Richard said. "I want this to be my foreign language."

You may contact Ty Bowers at 347-5522, extension 30, or by e-mail at

© 2003 Fauquier Citizen