Hands convey the emotions and thoughts of a group of students with both the will to learn a language and to communicate with fellow students.
Sign Club was started recently by Renee Estelle, a teacher for the deaf and hard-of-hearing for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, at Kenai Central High School.
Estelle has traveled to district schools to help students with hearing problems for the past six years.
"Lots of kids have some degree of hearing loss," she said.
However, sign language is not just for students with hearing problems, she said. It's a means for hearing and nonhearing people to communicate.
Estelle spearheaded the club, an extracurricular club for students and faculty, which lays the foundational tools for sign language.
"It is a very different kind of language to learn," she said.
She said that while hearing persons process language from an auditory part of their brain, deaf persons process language visually.
Kyle Aldrich listens as geometry teacher Brad Nyquist talks about a homework assignment.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Compared to other languages, Estelle said, it seems easier to pick up the basics, but the grammar aspects of sign language are harder than most people think when first learning.
Though Estelle helps students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, she has found a way to incorporate sign language into the hearing culture, with the help of staff and students.
A group of six to 10 people gather once a week at the school. The group was started earlier in the school year because the school staff wanted to provide students and staff with social language and facilitate communication, Estelle said. The club started halfway through the first grading quarter.
So far, the group has learned finger spelling, school subjects, greetings and started learning the signs for family members.
Kyle Aldrich and Chelly Snow, one of his school district sign language interpreters, carry on a conversation at the end of a recent school day.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Estelle said she would like to get more theatrical in the signing, but that takes practice. She would like to kick off the holiday season by teaching the group to sign Christmas carols, tell stories and eventually present plays.
Learning and growing
Kyle Aldrich, a 17-year-old deaf student at KCHS, is a co-teacher in the Sign Club.
Kyle, using sign language, said signing was his first language.
He began attending KCHS last year. He is able to attend classes with the help of interpreters and note takers. He also participates in soccer and cross country and has an interest in photography and art.
He said he is part of the club because it is important for his peers to learn sign language so they can communicate with him better.
Since the club began, Kyle said he has noticed that others in the club make more of an effort to communicate.
"They are learning, and I can talk with them better," he said.
He also said it motivates him when people seem eager to learn sign language.
His mother, Patti M. Davis, said she has noticed a difference in her son since the club began.
"He seems a lot more outgoing," she said.
Davis has not mastered sign language, but she, her husband, 10-year-old son and Kyle use a book they refer to as "the sign bible" to help them communicate with Kyle. The book contains illustrations for signing, which helps the family find the right words to say.
Davis said she thinks it is good for other students to learn sign language and wished more were aware of the club.
Estelle said having Kyle in the club brings more of a real experience to those who are not deaf. He teaches the class with a great sense of humor, she said.
"He can present it in a way that is less boring."
Reasons for joining
The reasons "hearing" students join the club varies. Many simply are curious while others want to learn to communicate with friends or family members who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Courtney Wolf, 16, has been part of the Sign Club since it began. Observing classroom interpreters sparked her interest. After being in the club, she said she has future goals related to sign language.
"I think I would like to (be an interpreter) when I get older," she said.
She also found an interest in sign language when she met Kyle at school last year. Though she said it was not difficult to talk with him because he can read lips, she has found the communication process is a bit easier now that she participates in the club.
"It is so much fun being able to talk with your hands," Wolf said.
Being in the club has taught her to sign the alphabet, questioning techniques using who, what, when, where and why, the signs for many foods and more.
Wolf said she is teaching the language to her 6-year-old sister at home.
Though she sees the second language as fun, she said it also takes a lot of work.
"You cant get frustrated. It takes time. It takes patience," she said.
Courtney is not the sole student who wishes to someday work as an interpreter.
Kate Foley, 14, joined the club when it started because she was interested in the interpreting field and also because she wanted to communicate better with her partially deaf friend.
Kate said after being in the club, she finds it easier to communicate with those with hearing disabilities.
She said she plans to be part of the club as long as it is offered and will take future steps to find colleges for sign language interpreters.
Goals of the club
Estelle said the club was formed to provide a social, signing environment for both students and staff.
The club offers hearing students a basic set of social vocabulary so deaf students can move more freely in the social scene in the high school, she said.
Another goal of the Sign Club is to promote deaf awareness.
According to information provided by Estelle, nearly two million people in the United States are considered deaf and more than 15 million have a hearing loss of some degree.
Sign language was created by deaf people to communicate with each other and it is their natural language, often being their first.
Kyle and Estelle agree that the basic goal of the Sign Club is to have fun while learning and sharing sign language.
The Sign Club meets Wednes-days from 2:30 to 3:15 p.m. at KCHS. The meetings are open to students and staff.
Kyle said he would like to see more people join the club.
"The more the merrier."
Shamra Bauder, a junior at KCHS, contributed to this story.
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