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May 2, 2005

Kids learn life lesson with sign language

From: Huntsville Times - Huntsville,AL,USA - May 2, 2005

Ridgecrest choir taught to connect without a sound

For The Times

Ridgecrest Elementary's fifth-grade choir members are singing a song, but not a sound is coming from their lips.

As the country music group Lonestar's "Let Them Be Little" plays, the students' hands go up and down, swish front and back, telling their story in sign language.

For the past six years, volunteer Patty Ragsdale has taught sign language to the fifth-grade choirs at Ridgecrest. It has been a personal mission for a mother who has a deaf child. Her daughter, Samantha, is just a few days shy of her 20th birthday.

"Samantha can't talk to the world, so I thought I would teach the world to talk to her," says Ragsdale." I want to teach as many people as I can how to use sign language so they will accept her."

Each year, Ragsdale works with a new group of fifth-graders, meticulously teaching them the signs they need to sing the year's chosen song. The students have signed for national audiences at the National Children's Advocacy Center, their school PTA and at a local nursing home.

"It is real slow at the beginning because she teaches them every word and every sign," says Ridgecrest music teacher and choir director Rhonda Dennison.

"But, it's real neat when they put it all together. It is so beautiful. It is like they are dancing with their hands."

Learning sign language is easy as long as you pay attention, says 10-year-old Shay Pickett.

"If you watch the teacher and practice at home, you will learn it real fast," Shay says. "I like to look around and stuff during class. So, I really have to work at watching the teacher all the time."

While they're learning to sign their song, the students also begin to "understand a little about deafness," says Ragsdale. That's when she introduces them to her daughter.

Samantha answers questions from the students about her life as a deaf person. Often, the conversations turn into life lessons.

"We talked about how there may have been somebody who teased her as a child and that's had an effect on her entire life," says Ragsdale. "In front of 45 kids, there was an opportunity to teach a lesson that you can't teach from a textbook."

For most students in the class, their favorite sign is "love." Crisscrossing their arms and wrapping them around their chests, the students smile at Ragsdale. They also like the sign for clapping, which is raising their hands above their heads and shaking them.

Eleven-year-old Victor Miller likes the signs for kisses, prayers and wishes. Other favorites are signs for laughter, tears, praise, hope and a blooming flower.

Beyond enjoying the language's beauty, Dennison believes learning sign language gives her students an awareness of the lives of people with disabilities.

"It opens their eyes to people who are different than they are," she says.

© 2005 The Huntsville Times