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October 27, 2003

Sign language gains popularity at Wa-Hi

From: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, WA - Oct 27, 2003

Students of American Sign Language want it recognized on a par with foreign languages.

By Cathy Grimes of the Union-Bulletin

In Shelley Mann's classroom, fingers talk. Eyes listen.

Mann teaches American Sign Language at Walla Walla High School. She began four years ago with a single class. This year she has five sections, all full, a repeat of last year.

''Kids get in and they think it's fun and then they discover it's a foreign language,' Mann said.

She is one of 20 high school teachers in the state offering ASL, which is recognized by more than 150 colleges as a world language. The class satisfies the foreign language entrance requirement for those institutions, which include Washington's public colleges and universities.

But students receive an added bonus when they take Mann's class, according to Wa-Hi Assistant Principal Kirk Jameson. They can earn community college credit for the classes through the school's applied academics programs.

''It's the way a number of our classes should work,' Jameson said. ''There's no reason every student can't leave without 12 to 15 credits through the community college earned here on campus. ... It gives them a leg up on college.'

Mann, who began her career as a teacher of the deaf in Iowa, said students master more than language. They gain a life skill. She said many of her students speak English as a second language. Once they master sign language, they become trilingual.

''Bilingual students who can interpret in sign language are in demand,' she said.

Students speak using a combination of signs and fingerspelling, using the sign language alphabet. Mann adds 20 vocabulary words each week to their repertoire. They must write and tell stories with the words and take weekly quizzes. During the tests, Mann quietly spells and signs, while students watch intently. Her fingers move fluidly from letter to letter when she spells. Signs are conveyed gracefully, hands and arms linking movements cleanly and clearly.

Junior Jeff Crane said the tests seem easy, but are deceptively difficult.

''The hardest part is trying to remember every vocabulary word,' he said.

Crane is taking the class for language credit.

''I took French and I didn't like it,' he said. ''Here, I'm actually learning something.'

Fellow junior Jessica Criss also chose ASL over another language.

''It's easier than Spanish,' she explained. ''I have a movement that goes with the words. ... That kind of helps imprint it in my head.'

Bill Sasha took the class for two reasons: his girlfriend liked it and he plans to apply to colleges requiring language classes. ''I'm not interested in other languages,' he said. ''I think this is more useful.'

Mann said the students have developed a strong loyalty to the class and the language. When student officers touted the school's world languages program, noting Spanish, French and German, sign language students complained - loudly and vocally, she noted - that their class was left out of the mix. The student officers quickly added ASL to the foreign language mix.

Some students, like sophomore Robin Fledderjohann, said they are gaining more than an appreciation for language. She hopes the class enhances future career options. She plans on a medical career and said the skill would be useful whether or not her patients had hearing problems.

''You pay a lot of attention to body language,' she said. ''This has helped me with communications because I pay more attention to expressions and posture.'

Jared Greenwood, a freshman, decided to take the class for a personal reason. His grandparents are deaf and he wanted to communicate with them more easily.

''I like it. It's easier than I thought it would be,' he said. ''You didn't think you could do so many signs with your hands.

''I always thought it looked cool.'

© 2003 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin