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Sign savvy

Jack Hocog, a fifth grader at Woodlands Elementary School, decorates “Christmas tree” Jordyn Geno, an Olympic High School sophomore Dec. 16. Geno is a member of her school’s American Sign Language Club that organized a party for deaf and hard of hearing students at the elementary school. - Kristin Okinaka
Jack Hocog, a fifth grader at Woodlands Elementary School, decorates “Christmas tree” Jordyn Geno, an Olympic High School sophomore Dec. 16. Geno is a member of her school’s American Sign Language Club that organized a party for deaf and hard of hearing students at the elementary school.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka

Kendyl Mussman first saw sign language in use at Woodlands Elementary School.

Immediately she wanted to learn.

Now a junior at Olympic High School, not only does Mussman take a class in American Sign Language, she is also president of the school’s American Sign Language Club.

“I think it’s amazing being able to talk with your hands,” Mussman, 16, said. “It definitely is a language.”

And the language classes, an alternative to foreign language courses, have drawn more than 200 students at five of Central Kitsap School District’s junior and high schools.

“It’s good for people who are hands on,” said Rebecca Matz, American Sign Language teacher and the club’s advisor.

This year the club organized a holiday party for deaf and hard of hearing students in the Central Kitsap School District. Woodlands Elementary School has more than 20 students from preschool to sixth grade that are deaf or hard of hearing, Principal Jeff McCormick said.

It’s a skill that can lead students to careers in special education and the legal and medical field, Matz said.

“It’s the third most common language in U.S.,” she said.

At Woodlands Elementary School, students learn Signing Exact English rather than American Sign Language. Signing Exact English is a visual representation of English, whereas American Sign Language is its own language, said Sherry Schwab, a Woodlands Elementary School teacher who works with kindergarten through second graders in the deaf and hard of hearing program.

“We sign everything, which doesn’t happen in ASL,” Schwab said, adding that suffixes and tenses are used in Signing Exact English, which is not necessarily the case in American Sign Language.

Matz explained in order to sign “I’m going to the store” in American Sign Language, the literal translation of the signs read, “me store go.”

Whether signing in American Sign Language or Signing Exact English, facial expressions and body language are used aside from gestures with hands. This is what many students in the club find challenging.

“When we talk, we can raise or lower our voice, but in signing we have to show it in our faces,” Mussman said.

Senior Chris Pitts decided to take American Sign Language classes as a sophomore rather than another foreign language because he wanted to be able to communicate with a group of people that he otherwise would have difficulty being able to relate with.

Many of his peers in the club also learn signing without having family or friends that are deaf or hard of hearing.

“The deaf community is a tight knit community,” said Madison Munro, a freshman at Central Kitsap High School who has joined the club. “ASL club is like a family.”

Munro wants to be a certified interpreter in the medical field, hopefully interpreting in a hospital. In the meantime, she and her friends can continue to practice signing and look forward to planning more community events with the club. In January, Matz will have a “deaf experience day” where her American Sign Language students will participate in very limited talking to 24 hours of no talking depending on their class level. The club will also have a signed choir concert before the end of the school year. The Bremerton High School and Olympic College American Sign Lanugage clubs are hosting CJ Jones, a deaf comedian and storyteller, at Bremerton High School Jan. 29.

For club members, it isn’t just an in-school activity.

“Outside of school, we sign back and forth because we all love it,” Mussman said.

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