Many signs deaf students are welcome at Veterans Memorial School
Students at Veterans Memorial School in Vineland attend the sign language club on Tuesday, October 9, 2018. Adam Monacelli, Vineland Daily Journal
VINELAND – A new Veterans Memorial Intermediate School club is breaking down barriers between deaf and hearing students through a common language.
Rah’Shanti Casper, a deaf student, is eager to teach.
American Sign Language helps her communicate with new classmates. Rah’Shanti leaned forward to gently fold Giavanni Bryant’s fingers to correctly convey a letter in the ASL alphabet.
Giavanni, a hearing student, is eager to learn.
“It opens doors into the world,” the sixth-grader said, building her sign language vocabulary.
The deaf education program, which was home-based at Rossi Intermediate School, was moved this school year as part of a district-wide reallocation of students, prompted by the Lincoln Middle School opening.
Veterans Memorial principal Hope Johnson and assistant principal Dorothy Burke wanted the half-dozen deaf students to feel welcome and comfortable in their new school. They reached out to deaf education teacher Tara Todd, who was moving to their school along with the students, for her ideas and suggestions.
Todd had many.
Johnson called staff meetings where Todd introduced them to deaf education, explaining the role of the students’ interpreters and teaching some basic ASL survival signs to help get them started for the school year.
Todd and the school’s administration brainstormed on school-wide activities for Deaf Awareness Week, which ran Sept. 24- 28.
More than 800 students personalized “I love you” ASL signs that now decorate the corridors.
During morning announcements, Todd dispelled myths about deafness and celebrated achievements of deaf celebrities.
She encouraged hearing students to reach out.
“Don’t be afraid to come and say, ‘Hello,’” Todd told them.
Each day, Todd teaches the student body a new ASL word. By the end of the school year, students should have a vocabulary of more than 150 words.
For some, that was not enough.
In response to student demand, Todd launched a Tuesday afternoon ASL club, expecting to attract 20-30 students.
About 50 youngsters packed the first meeting in the school's library and more are asking to participate.
“Can I join,” eighth-grader Leslie Tellez asked Todd at the club’s second meeting. Of course, she was welcomed but students need a signed permission slip to stay after school.
Leslie planned to be back.
“People in my class were talking about learning sign language and helping people,” said Leslie, who wants to be part of that.
Todd is finding the group a quick study.
Within the first hour, students learned how to sign the alphabet, numbers up to 10, and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Most of the deaf students assist with some “student teaching.”
Saul Nieves, a sixth-grader, picked up finger-spelling. He can now race through the alphabet, without hesitation.
“Sign language will be helpful in the future,” he said.
Todd makes the lessons fun but is serious about the instruction.
Checking finger-placement for the letter I, she joked with the club members.
“Thumb in, we are not hitchhikers,” she said.
During the second meeting, students picked the signs for colors and animals. They were soon able to sign the “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See” children’s story.
“I feel proud,” Rha’Shanti said.
When she is not wearing her hearing aids, she said, she will still be able to communicate with classmates.
The enthusiasm is contagious.
Among the participants in the after-school club is the school’s principal.
“I’m enjoying it,” Johnson said, and she sees it having a positive impact on the school’s atmosphere.
“I’m really proud of the kids and the educators,” she said. “There’s a certain togetherness of it.”
Deborah M. Marko: 856-563-5256; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dmarko_dj
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