Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Language popularity: It's a sign

There was a great write-up about ASL classes at two high schools in Yakima (about 40 miles from us). I'm thinking of contacting these two teachers to see if they know of any recent graduates who might be interested in being Evan's Aide...

Language popularity: It's a sign
Signing classes prove popular as foreign language requirement

Yakima Herald-Republic

Silent yet boisterous.

Nonverbal but expressive.

American Sign Language classes at Eisenhower and Davis high schools are filling up so quickly these days that students can't sign up fast enough.

"It's exploded," says Bruce Mortimer, who directs technical and career education for Yakima schools.

The Eisenhower program started with nine students five years ago. Now, nearly 200 students crowd into six classes, beginning with a third-year group that meets at 6:30 a.m.

Even with that, there's no more room, so not everyone who wants to can take the sign-language classes.

"We have so much fun," reports Lori England, the Eisenhower teacher.

Similarly, Colleen Woodcock, who's been teaching at Davis for a year and a half, is building the program there, complete with already-bulging classes. Since more than 100 students have enrolled in her four classes, she'll be adding a fifth one next year.

"It's very visual," says Woodcock, noting that sign language classes appeal to a full spectrum of students, from the quiet to the dramatic and artistic.

Technically called Sign Interpretation class, it's offered in the career and technical department, designed to ready students for jobs as interpreters.

And there are plenty of jobs, according to Mortimer. "There's a pretty severe shortage both around the state and nationally of sign language interpreters," he explains.

That coincides with findings by a program supervisor who oversees ASL teachers and programs throughout Washington for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Citing information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mary Nagel says the need for interpreters and translators is projected to increase 24 percent by 2016.

It isn't just the promise of jobs that lures students to the two sign language interpreter classes in Yakima. The program is also popular because it fulfills a foreign language or a technical credit, says Mortimer. But mostly it's because "we have two dynamite, phenomenal instructors."

Several other schools around the Valley offer instruction in ASL, either at the high school or middle school level.

Davis and Eisenhower emphasize learning the skill to use in the workplace.

One day a week in Woodcock's class, everyone wears earplugs, so the communication is entirely in sign.

"She's a really good teacher," says Kiabeth Ornelas, a freshman who describes class as "interactive and really, really fun." Ornelas is also spreading the wealth, having taught her 2-year-old nephew how to sign for "milk" and "please."

Bilingual in Spanish and English, Ornelas hopes to become a nurse and use sign to communicate with patients.

Describing herself as loud and unorthodox, England's exuberance often spreads out of the Eisenhower classroom and down the hall.

Using multiple resources, she admits she's not much of a by-the-book teacher and often gets inspiration on the spur of the moment. "I'll get a revelation in the shower and think, 'Oh my goodness, we're SO going to do that today.'"

Both teachers are largely self-taught. Always interested as a youngster in sign language ("I'd take a book in the library and sit there and practice signs, feeling kind of silly"), Woodcock honed her skills when her roommate left her alone with a friend who was deaf.

"Out of sheer necessity, we had to find a way to communicate, and I found that I had a knack for interpretation."

When England was 11, she was intrigued by learning to talk with a friend's sister who was deaf. Soon she was meeting more deaf people and their friends. After a young deaf woman became her mentor, her vocabulary exponentially multiplied.

Mortimer says that students who intend to become interpreters have "a great opportunity as an occupation." Some employers pay a higher salary to people who can sign, while agencies who deal with large numbers of the general public are particularly in need of sign language interpreters, he says.

Indeed, adds Woodcock, freelance interpreters earn between $25-$60 per hour.

Skills can be used right away -- two Eisenhower graduates were hired as interpreters by the school district -- or further developed in college.

Davis senior Jacob Ivy-Bailey thinks he'd like to do just that, so he's planning to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., to become a court interpreter. While primarily a school for hearing-impaired students, it also has interpretation classes for people with hearing.

Or, in the case of Alaura Stiltner, she hopes to dovetail the skill with a profession. She wants to take the Eisenhower class for three years -- "The teacher is amazing" -- then use the skills in physical therapy or sports medicine.

Just about as much goes on outside both classrooms as in. One Friday night a month, students receive extra credit if they attend Deaf Chat Coffee time, organized by members of the deaf community, at the Starbucks on 56th Avenue.

"The first time the kids go, they're scared to death, but they have such a good time," says Woodcock. "It's a friendly bunch of people in the deaf community, and they're very supportive."

Sunshine Cano, a community advocate for the South Eastern Washington Service Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on North Fourth Street in Yakima, welcomes student participation in Deaf Chat Coffee.

"It's good for anyone learning ASL to come," she says, noting that there are about 50 active members in the local deaf community.

Some members of England's class interpret for deaf athletes in Eisenhower's after-school sports, and several help interpret at musical performances in the school's Little Theatre and during assemblies and graduation ceremonies.

Students from both schools recently helped deaf pupils at Whitney Elementary School build gingerbread houses, practicing their signing at same time, and they will also be working one-on-one with deaf youngsters there each week for the rest of the school year.

Because no deaf students attend Davis, Woodcock brings people from the deaf community into the classroom. For instance, one of her deaf friends frequently visits to play games with students.

England, too, believes in the importance of exposure not only to deaf people but also to any group that may not be mainstream.

Underscoring the equal value of all students, England engages in what she calls diversity acceptance education. Once a week, special education students come to the signing classroom where England's students teach them sign.

"Every population here is part of the family," England emphasizes.

Woodcock agrees. "What we're doing is teaching the kids not to be afraid of someone who is different."

English also extends her philosophy to sharing pearls of wisdom she thinks all students need, such as developing manners.

"I'm glad to have students say that I taught them sign, but even better is if they say I taught them some fabulous life lessons," England notes.

Both teachers are gratified by the enthusiastic response to their classes.

"Students are so tired and so distracted and have so much on their plates, but it's extremely rewarding when the light bulb goes on, and they're eager to learn what's next," says English.

1 comment:

Kristi said...

Great article... and an even better idea about contacting the teachers about help finding an aide! Sometimes the school districts aren't resourceful enough (or don't have the time/resources in the first place) to get more creative in finding an aide. Good for you for taking the initiative yourselves!