Halstead middle-schoolers learning basics of sign language

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—Bubbles, frog, watermelon, chicken, bear. Those are just a few of the words that a group of Halstead eighth graders added to their vocabularies, last week. But, this isn’t your normal middle school English class—these students are learning to communicate in sign language.

Eighth grader Korbin Anderson has enjoyed learning the new language.

“I think it’s great, especially if you have relatives who are deaf and it’s harder to communicate with them, then this is a great class to take,” he said.

Anderson has three deaf cousins and knew how to sign the alphabet beforehand, but he said learning numbers and other words is definitely something he can use.

His favorite sign that he’s learned so far has been his name, he added.

His classmate, Nicole Rounds, has likewise built upon the little bit of sign language she’d known.

“I knew how to spell my name, so this is definitely not my name,” Rounds said.

Lots of practice helps the new language stick in her minds, she said.

“It just stays. I have no idea,” she said. “I’ll be in the car signing to my dad and he’ll be like, ‘huh, what are you saying?’”

Rounds said her best friend’s mom is deaf and so she’s been able to practice with them, using her friend to help translate. She wants to continue deepening her knowledge of sign language in the future.

“I enjoy this class and I do want to continue learning after this class is over, for sure,” she said.

The sign language course is taught by English/Language Arts teacher Cara Weishaar. It’s one of several mini courses offered to seventh and eighth graders, this year.

This is Weishaar’s second year teaching in Halstead—her third overall—and it’s the first time she’s tried teaching sign language.

“Sign language is something that’s very much a part of my life,” she said. “My oldest daughter is deaf and has cochlear implants, so sign language is something that we use a lot at home.”

The version Weishaar is teaching is called Signing Exact English, which is different from American Sign Language.

“Basically, it’s a manual form of English, so it’s a sign for every word that you say,” she said.

Weishaar said Signing Exact English is common among deaf elementary age children as an introduction and then they switch over to American Sign Language as they grow into adults.

“A lot of deaf kids are born to hearing parents, so for hearing parents to learn sign language, it’s so much easier to learn Signing Exact English because it’s just a sign for every word you already know,” Weishaar said. “Whereas American Sign Language is based off the French language and it has its own verbiage, its own tenses and its own order of words. It’s so different.”

During one class period, last week, students started out by stretching, which Weishaar said is vital. She reminded them to keep their hands within their “signing space”—the area in front of their chests—so that people watching their hands would also have an easy view to read their lips and facial expressions, as well.

First, they reviewed their letters and numbers together and then Weishaar read through a list of several dozen common words for students to review. After that, Weishaar taught them colors and asked them if they had any words they needed help with for their final project.

“I’m keeping it very basic, teaching them words they may see a lot, like good morning, good afternoon, good evening, hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome,” she said. “We’ve done the alphabet; we’ve done numbers one through 10.”

Sign language is one of the mini courses that all seventh and eighth graders will get a chance to rotate throughout the year. Among others are coding, 3D printing, science world exploration, vacation planning and athletic training.

Students rotate to a different mini course about every 20 days, so the first group just finished up, this week. Their final project was to present a short story or poem in sign language to the class. Next week, Weishaar will start introducing sign language to a new group of students and by the end of the year, all seventh and eighth graders will have taken the class.

Weishaar said she’s been surprised by her students’ progress.

“There are some of my kids that struggle to catch on that fast in core class, but they’ve caught on to this really quickly, so I’ve been really impressed,” she said.

Her plan for next year is to continue introducing sign language to the seventh grade class, but to teach eighth graders photography as her mini course, since they’ll have already taken sign language. She does hope to spark an interest in students that’ll make them want to pursue it further.

“I would love to see it turned into an elective at the high school level because the book that I have could be an entire semester of curriculum,” she said.

Based on her daughter’s experience in the Maize school district, Weishaar has seen how easily interest in sign language can spread among students.

“It grows really fast, so I think if it were something that we could eventually turn into a full elective, I think we’d get a lot of interest in it,” she said.

Alexis Westfall, Calie Acker and Sloane Linton review different signs during class. The version students are learning is Signing Exact English, which closely represents English vocabulary and grammar.
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