Wings Christian Academy students Jessica Saunders, center and Megan Ruffridge, right pay close attention to their teacher Linda Ruffridge, left as she signs the mornings opening program.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Mornings in Linda Ruffridge's first- through sixth-grade classroom are a bustle of activity. Eleven kids are talking about their plans for the day, if it's too cold for recess and what their favorite foods are. But the noise level doesn't phaze Ruffridge in the least, because there isn't any it is completely silent.
That is because she has been teaching sign language to the students since the beginning of the school year.
Ruffridge is helping the kids develop basic conversational skills using American Sign Language. So far, they have learned basic finger spelling, foods, weather, action words, greetings, signs for family members and numbers.
"My basic goal is to teach the kids to not be afraid of people that are different than them, to help them reach out to the deaf for the Lord," Ruffridge said.
Ruffridge has been teaching signing at Wings Christian Academy for several years and has practiced it for 15. She also has taught sign language to her daughter, Megan, 10, and her two sons, Brandon, 18, and Justin, 21, though her sons no longer use it.
She said signing at first seems easy enough to learn, because many of the signs look like the words they represent, but the grammar aspect is more difficult to grasp.
"One of the harder things for anyone learning sign is to express themselves," she said. "It's a whole body language. Many people are just too self-conscience."
She explained that in a spoken language, words and emotions can be expressed verbally, but if a person is signing the word joyful, the sign could mean excited or even just happy if their facial expression doesn't match the intensity of their feeling.
Ruffridge thinks her class, whos ages range from 7 to 11, makes it perfect for teaching sign. Her younger students pick up the language quickly and are naturally expressive. The older students are more reserved but can remember more of the signs.
"The older kids help the younger ones with the signs they forget and the younger kids help the older ones to be more expressive," Ruffridge said.
Though there are not any deaf or hearing-impaired students at the school, the church it is affiliated with, Immanuel Baptist, is building a deaf ministry.
Fourth-grader Brandon Saunders expressed his desire to use sign language to work in that ministry. He wants to witness to those who cannot hear a sentiment that was echoed by many in the class.
Third-grader Matanya Bush already has put her new skills to use by teaching her hearing-impaired grandparents sign language.
"It really helps because they don't hear so well," she said.
Second-grader Jesse Puletau said that he would like to become an interpreter when he gets older.
"So I can show deaf people that they can reach out to others to share what I know with them," he said.
Whether they continue with sign language depends on how often they use it. Ruffridge believes, like any language, signing needs to be constantly built upon. She uses daily question-and-answer sessions, and when a word the kids have learned comes up in conversation or a lesson, she substitutes the sign for the word to give the students an opportunity to practice as much as possible.
Also, Ruffridge's former students who have graduated to the Upper Learning Center at the school sign with the younger students, giving them a connecting point that is hard to achieve in a school setting between older and younger students.
Leah Howell, 15, is one of those students. She became interested in signing because she wanted to talk to her cousin who is deaf. She now signs for church services and will go to Peru next year to work with a deaf ministry there.
"What I got out of signing is confidence. I know that I can go anywhere and at least sign to be understood," she said. "It's pretty much a universal language."
Neither Ruffridge nor her students could think of any real drawbacks to learning sign language other than keeping the different signs straight.
Ruffridge said she believes learning to sign helps the kids in other areas by teaching them to concentrate. It also requires them to pay close attention to what she is signing to them.
"If I am talking, I have to make sure that I am speaking loud enough and even then someone may not be paying attention, but with sign, I can see everyone's eyes on me and know they 'hear' what I am trying to tell them," Ruffridge said.
One side benefit to learning sign that the students were quick to catch on to was they discovered a new and easier way to "pass" notes to each other.
Ruffridge says it doesn't happen often and has even taught them the sign for "get to work" so they can tell each other. Even that is one more way the students can practice their skills.
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