Adding a course on American Sign Language in York County schools will not only introduce a new language, it will also bring in a new culture and foster inclusivity, according to two ASL teachers in the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools.
Starting next school year, York County high schools will offer an ASL course, making the school division the second on the Peninsula after WJCC to teach the subject.
An immediate challenge that comes with learning ASL is the expressiveness that is necessary to convey meaning through signs, said Jennifer Swinson, an ASL teacher at Lafayette High School. "They start off looking pretty blank, and it's hard for them to be expressive," she said while simultaneously signing. "They have to break out of their comfort zones."
Swinson said the expressiveness in ASL is a reflection of deaf culture. She said deaf people are usually straightforward and blunt; they want information in a direct way and wear their emotions on their sleeves.
"Students say they can't do it and say they feel stupid, but they eventually realize that the expression comes naturally," said RaShaunda Peters, who teaches ASL at Warhill High School.
Peters and Swinson are animated communicators themselves, speaking and signing while making facial expressions and moving in their seats to convey the emotions of their signs.
"They overthink it, and it can be so cute," Peters said. "They laugh at themselves, but then they start learning the movements and pick it up."
Beyond the classroom lessons, the teachers agreed that learning ASL fosters inclusivity for people who use signs. Peters, who is deaf, said her students become her interpreters in the school building because she can't always take in everything that happens. She also said she likes to ask her students where they work so that she can see them in the store and ask for help in ASL if she needs it. She can read lips, but she always gets excited when there's someone around who can make even a few basic signs.
Swinson pointed out that while ASL is the third most common language in the United States, most deaf people live almost entirely in a hearing culture. "They constantly have to accommodate by reading lips, so it's always nice when they find a person who knows some signs," Swinson said.
The idea of teaching ASL in York County began about four years ago with students who wanted to accommodate a deaf student and started to learn signs to communicate with her, according to Royce Hart, the principal at Grafton High School.
"The kids didn't want the student to sit alone at lunch, so they really tried to learn signs," Hart said. The handful of students who started picking up ASL then formed a club that grew to about 25 members.
Hart remembered seeing them sign to each other from across the cafeteria and interact with the deaf student in classes. "These kids really just cared about other kids," he said.
Eventually, the students asked about turning the ASL club lessons into a class and brought the idea to administration. Anthony Vladu, the school division's director of secondary education, said administrators hosted a discussion with students on ASL, and interest in a class was high from the beginning. He said the school division also consulted with the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton to develop its proposal for the first class.
In December 2016, the School Board approved a resolution to offer ASL in the 2017-2018 school year.
By then, all the students involved in the original club had graduated, Hart said, but he credits their initiative for bringing the opportunity to learn ASL to all county students.
"It's always great to see students get involved. We always encourage them to bring ideas forward," Hart said.
The curriculum is still being developed, but Vladu said the first offering will be a yearlong survey course credited as an elective. He said the school division plans to offer higher level classes the following years and hopes to offer ASL as a language credit, just like Spanish, German or French.
The first class is planned to be interactive and taught virtually with audio and visual elements in a curriculum developed with the help of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, Vladu said.
Swinson said she was glad to hear the course was being offered in York County, but she added that a personal component is important to learning ASL. Peters also said it's helpful to see signs from different angles, which isn't always provided in videos.
But Swinson and Peters said they both embrace technology in their classes, using online videos from their favorite YouTube channels and ASL websites to supplement lessons. They also rely on ASL educator Facebook groups to get ideas for lessons and activities.
The internet helps keep them current and learn signs for new pop culture phenomena — they demonstrated the signs for Snapchat, Instagram, "on fleek," "twerk" and President Donald Trump, whose sign involves his famous hairdo.
The teachers noted that students are more in tune with changes in slang and are encouraged to find new signs and teach them to the class. "I asked them if anyone said, 'What's up?' anymore, and they said, 'No, that's so old,'" Peters said. "They said it's, 'Suh dude' now." Peters looked exasperated as she recalled the new slang term, but she still learned the sign.
Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692.