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March 26, 2004

Sign language knowledge spreads

From: Ann Arbor News, MI - Mar 26, 2004

Hearing students join others to learn how to communicate with peers

Friday, March 26, 2004
News Staff Reporter

When Kevin Bozek was in the third grade at Brighton's Spencer Elementary School, he joined the Symbols of Silence choir. Even though he's now 13 and a student at Maltby Middle School, Kevin is still a member of SOS. He was born with a hearing impairment and learned to sign in first grade.

"Kevin's hearing loss is moderate," says his mother, Kate Bozek. "He is verbal and also reads lips. He loves being part of SOS."

There are 30 students in SOS this year, four of whom having hearing loss. The choir started meeting in October and meets until the end of the school year. Teacher Karen Coen, along with Dale Hermsen, started the group 23 years ago. "We wanted to promote deaf awareness in this community," says Coen. "Having deaf kids in the school is intriguing to students."

Most of the students in the choir do not have a hearing loss, like third-grader Carly Mohr. "It's fun, and sign language is helpful to other people. I'm going to do it again next year."

Fifth-grader Sterling Richards agrees. "I like doing sign language, and it's not hard. I like the songs we do, too."

Spencer Elementary School is where Livingston County students with hearing loss attend school.

Interpreter Tracy Kopczyk, who assists Coen with SOS, has received a lot of interest from students at Spencer who want to learn sign language

"They give up their lunch recess to learn it," says Kopczyk. "I run it like a mini-SOS and add music to keep their interest. They pick up sign language so fast."

Kopczyk has been instrumental in getting the SOS choir booked at events including college hockey games at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit and performing the national anthem at Brighton High School hockey games. The group also will sing at the Relay for Life event May 21 at Brighton High School. The choir performed with the group Alabama at the Fowlerville Fair in 2000, and sent a videotape of the song "This is America" to President Bush who sent them an autographed picture that now hangs on the school media center wall. Kopczyk is trying to arrange performances at Pistons, Tigers and Red Wings games.

Meanwhile in a nearby classroom, teacher Jennifer Koehn leads the sign language club. Like SOS, the students also meet once a week after school. None of the students in the club has a hearing loss.

"I want to be able to talk to people who are deaf," says student Lily Vulaj.

"I want to know what deaf people are saying," says Carly Gawronski.

About half the students in the sign language club have friends in the school who have hearing loss. This is the third year of the club.

"The younger they are, the faster they pick it up," says Koehn. "Kids see interpreters signing with students and want to learn to sign. It helps them form relationships with the kids who have hearing loss."

Fifth-graders at Spencer who can sign take turns leading the Pledge of Allegiance on closed circuit television during the morning announcements. Koehn introduces students to American Sign Language by teaching them the letters of the alphabet. Then she assigns name signs to each student based on their name, initials, or a characteristic.

Alicia Underwood wears glasses, so her name sign is the letter "A" sign made around the eye. Karl Sinacola's name sign is the sign for king. Because Brittany Liss like soccer, her name sign is the letter "B" in motion to kick a soccer ball. Koehn tells the class to applaud themselves, which they do by twirling their hands.

"American Sign Language is a beautifully expressive language with its own grammatical structures separate from English, and it's a natural language for anyone to learn," says Koehn, who has also had adults from Spencer in her club. "As a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing, it is one of my goals to make sure my students have positive language models at school every day. I am one of those models."

"This school and being in SOS turned Kevin around," says Kate Bozek. "He used to be frustrated, but the staff worked hard with him and did an awesome job getting him ready for middle school. This is like his home away from home."

Lisa Carolin can be reached at or at (810) 844-2010.

© 2004 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission

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