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November 11, 2004

Sounds of silence fostered in Urbana classroom

From: Business Gazette - Gaithersburg,MD,USA - Nov 11, 2004

by Mackenzie Ryan
Staff Writer
Nov. 11, 2004

High schools are full of noises: slammed lockers, squeaky tennis shoes and whispers of gossip. But there's a different kind of noise in Nikki Gouker's classroom at Urbana High School.

The low hum of the heater can be heard from the corner, as can the soft buzz from the fluorescent lights overhead.

The sounds of a silent classroom are startlingly few, and in Gouker's American Sign Language class, it is not unusual. As she teaches her students an introductory class on ASL, she requires that, unless otherwise directed, they remain silent.

"It's very visual," she said after class. "These kids are like sponges. It seems effortless for them."

The lesson on a recent school day is a new set of vocabulary words: transportation, then colors. To teach, Gouker demonstrates the sign of the word then steps sideways to show her profile as she signs, emphasizing the motion and silently mouths the word.

Her 36 students imitate her motion, and the muffled echoes of 72 fists as they pat vertically together fills the room for a few seconds, briefly overpowering the hum of the overhead lights.

Gouker turns to the other side, and then points to the blue writing on the board. Two motions for a noun, one for a verb.

Three Frederick County public schools currently offer an introductory American Sign Language class as an elective: Urbana, Frederick and Middletown high schools.

An ASL class was offered two years ago at Linganore High, but faded due to lack of interest, said Guidance Department Chair Dianne Keilholtz.

"It's offered at any high school as long as there are enough students signed up for the class," Keilholtz said. "I've had students ask me about it this week, we encourage students to go ahead and sign up for it during the registration period in February."

If there is enough interest, Keilholtz said that Linganore would make every effort to have an ASL class again.

The difficulty may come in finding teachers. Since the school would most likely hold only one class, and since it is counted as an elective, the ASL-certified teacher would either need to be a full-time teacher in another subject or a part-time teacher, said Susan Helm Murphy, foreign language curriculum specialist.

A part-time teacher would only clock in two-hours per day, and Murphy said that it is difficult to find properly trained and certified ASL teachers only willing to work a small portion of the day.

The state Board of Education does not consider ASL a foreign language, and the class does not count toward graduation requirements, she said. The state Board of Education decided that classes in American Sign Language would not count as a foreign language credit when they last discussed it in the 1990s because it did not have a written component, Murphy said.

"I feel very strongly that it is a distinct language, it has a unique grammar structure," said Murphy, who plans to continue advocating for change. ""There are many languages in the world that are not written. Papua New Guinea has 100 or more different languages, and no more than a quarter are written."

Having an introductory ASL class may be especially appropriate in Frederick County, where a distinct Deaf community exists. The Maryland School for the Deaf is located in downtown Frederick.

Teaching students about the Deaf community and culture is not only a way for them to learn about a unique community within their own, but may also help bridge the gap between the hearing world and the Deaf, said Gouker, who considers ASL her second language.

"We talk about Deaf culture," said Gouker, who explained that, like any culture, certain things are considered appropriate or rude. When people stare when at others while they sign, it's considered rude and equivalent to listening in on their conversation, she said.

"I tell my students to let them know they are learning sign language [and not trying to eavesdrop]," Gouker said.

Gouker's student assistant for the class, senior Kimberly Bauman, said learning basic sign language has proved useful. As a checkout clerk at a local grocery store, Bauman has served deaf customers and has been able to communicate with them. Experiences like those, coupled with a childhood passion for sign language, have made Bauman want to pursue a career as a sign language interpreter.

For senior Crystal Parker, taking the ASL class was more personal. Her great uncle is deaf, as was her late great-grandmother. The class offered her a change to communicate with them past the basic fingerspelling that she already knew, she said.

"I can use it at family gatherings," she said. "I wanted to be able to talk to my great uncle."

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