High school students speak volumes in sign language class

Spirit of the Bluegrass
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NICHOLASVILLE, KENTUCKY- (WDKY)- One of the most recognized people in Kentucky right now is a woman who stays in the background and never says a word. Virginia Moore is the interpreter who stands behind the governor every day, helping deaf Kentuckians understand the latest news about the state’s COVID-19 response.

She’s shone a spotlight on the importance of American Sign Language and students at one Kentucky high school may have the upper hand if the demand for interpreters suddenly goes up.

A room on the second floor of West Jessamine High School may be the quietest classroom in the state, even though the conversation there never stops.

 “Anywhere you go in America, odds are you’re going to find individuals who speak with ASL, so it’s the type of language you can use immediately and change people’s lives immediately,” said Marci Smith, the  school’s curriculum resource administrator.

She said the class became a reality after students pitched the idea two years ago. She worked for a long time to format how it would work and to find a teacher. They hired Samantha Fowler just two weeks before the class began.

Fowler, who has been deaf from birth, said students didn’t know how to react to her at first.

“They were very scared of me,” Fowler said. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m deaf , but I had to explain to them I’m not going to bite you.”

There was an interpreter in the class for the first couple of days, but after that, it was up to the teacher and students to learn how to communicate with each other without spoken words.

Senior Olivia Wright said,  “We definitely realized it would be super hard and it scared a lot of students, but i think it was definitely a great experience to have.”

She said they learned quickly how important eye contact is to learning ASL. And Fowler said she can see “the lights come on” in a student’s eyes when they start to understand words and phrases. Then, she said, they go from being scared to having fun in the class.

She has also introduced the students to deaf culture, taking them on field trips to places such as the advanced ASL labs at Eastern Kentucky University or to the campus of the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville.

Students have enjoyed practicing their newfound skills outside the classroom.

Junior Mati Jones said she used it at a part-time job at an ice cream shop.

“I swear word got around that I knew sign language,” she said. “We had so many customers come up to the window and say’ where’s the one who know sign language?'” She says the customers were grateful to find someone who could have a conversation with them.

For Fowler, that’s what it’s all about.

“I love to hear the stories from the students who say, ‘I saw a deaf person at the store and I was able to talk to them.’  Those types of stories are of benefit to me, just to keep me motivated. I’m really enjoying teaching them,” Fowler said.

There are just two units of the class right now, but the interest is strong to make it a four-year program.  When it comes to enthusiasm, it’s the quiet students who sometimes speak volumes.

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