IM this article to a friend!

March 6, 2004

Kids learn how to talk without any noise

From: Indianapolis Star, IN - Mar 6, 2004

First-graders taught to accept differences among people as they learn sign language.

By Debbye Butler Star correspondent

March 6, 2004

Landry Long, 7, doesn't listen during roll call in his first-grade class, but that's OK with his teacher Instead, he and his 13 classmates watch and wait for teacher Summer Koonce to finger-spell their names using American Sign Language.

"Every day, she spells our names, and we raise our hands when it's our name," Landry said. "We know how to sign the four seasons, the seven days of the week, the 12 months and the current day's date. We can count to probably 900 and ask each other how we feel. And I think I could spell everyone's name in class if I think really hard."

Koonce and a colleague, Emily Wuest, incorporate ASL into their daily curriculum as a learning tool at Greenwood Christian School, at Worthsville and Averitt roads. The school, which has classes for Grades K-5, is affiliated with Greenwood Christian Church.

"We don't have to learn sign language, but it's fun and helps us with our spelling and reading," Landry said. "It's easy, and we are learning how to communicate with people who can't hear."

Indiana has an estimated 58,370 deaf residents. An additional 428,066 are hearing-impaired.

Wuest and Koonce sometimes observe students finger-spelling words when they work on spelling or take written tests. If someone struggles during a reading lesson, the teachers start to sign the words that stump the children. It's just enough to trigger the children's memories and help them sound out the words.

"These kids are like sponges," Wuest said. "It's exciting as a teacher to see them react when they figure things out for themselves."

Wuest, who teaches all-day kindergarten, learned ASL at Cincinnati Bible College. Koonce holds a master's degree in deaf education from the University of Tennessee.

"Sometimes it gets too noisy in the hallway or lunch room, so we tell students it's a no-talking zone," Koonce said. "That makes it a big temptation to many of the kids. We tell them they can sign -- use their 'quiet voices' -- and they enjoy it."

The teachers are careful to make sure the plan doesn't backfire.

"We have to watch them, because otherwise they may spend all their lunch time talking with their hands instead of eating," Koonce said.

Beyond spelling and reading, the teachers said their students get another lesson, perhaps the most important one.

"I want my students grow up to be tolerant and appreciative of people who seem different than they are," Wuest said.

Two years ago, she had a child in class whose deaf aunt visited.

"When this child's aunt came to our class, she explained how her house was set up to help her know when her alarm clock was going off and when the doorbell rang," Wuest said. "She even brought a phone in to show how it works so deaf people can talk on the phone."

Wuest said it bothered her in college when she watched people make fun of other people.

"I never had the guts to stand up and say, 'Stop!' But it bothered me. I teach my students that this kind of behavior is not acceptable, and that we are to love God's people for who they are."

Koonce shares that passion. "We talk in class about what it means to be deaf. I explain that deaf people are just like we are, except their ears don't work and they use a different way to communicate."

Landry hears that message loudly and clearly. He wants to learn more ASL after he finishes first grade and to show other people how to sign.

"I really want to sign to a deaf person sometime, but I can't talk in very many sentences yet," he emphasized. "Their hands would probably go crazy anyway."

Facts and figures
In Indiana, 58,373 people are classified as deaf and 428,066 as hearing-impaired. Here's how those figures break down locally:
• Johnson County: 1,106 deaf; 8,111 hearing-impaired.
• Marion County: 8,260 deaf; 68,836 hearing-impaired.
• Shelby County: 417 deaf; 3,476 hearing-impaired.

Sources: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; U.S. Census Bureau.

Resources for the deaf
The Indiana School for the Deaf provides education and social programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing children throughout Indiana. Located at 1200 E. 42nd St., Indianapolis, the school has preschool through high school programs. Its Web site is:
Other helpful Web sites include:
• (Family and Social Services Administration)
Additionally, Jerry Cooper, program coordinator of deaf and hard-of-hearing services at the Family and Social Services Administration, says there are three colleges offered exclusively for deaf students in the United States:
• Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college in Washington, D.C. Web site:
• National Technical Institute for the Deaf, part of Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, N.Y. Web site:
• Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf, Big Spring, Texas. Web site:

Links to external sites will open a new browser. does not endorse external sites.

Copyright 2004 All rights reserved