ASL, a new world language option in St. Mary’s County schools, gains following in first year
Friday, Feb. 27, 2009
Meg Vickers stood up in front of her class Friday at Great Mills High School, and she told her students a story. It was a funny story about how Vickers’ dog had chewed up a student’s project the day before. The students laughed and asked if that student gets an automatic A on the project.
The students had to pay attention to understand the story, because Vickers hardly spoke during the telling of it. She used American Sign Language to say “Last night I arrived home. My dog was bad. My dog destroyed a … collage, my first-period student’s work.” She gave the sign for “destroyed” several times and then said the word, because it was a new sign to the class.
The class is one of four ASL classes being offered this year for the first time that, if two years are completed, fulfills the students’ world language requirement in St. Mary’s County public schools. In 2007, the state board of education voted to allow ASL as a recognized world language in Maryland’s public school curriculum, according to Linda Lymas, supervisor of instruction for English, ESOL and world languages for St. Mary’s County schools. St. Mary’s County schools also offer French, Spanish, German, Latin and Chinese language classes.
Two ASL classes are now held at Great Mills High School; the other two at Chopticon. Altogether, 93 students are taking the course. Vickers is the teacher for all the classes.
“We were very pleased and little surprised that so many students signed up” for the new course, Lymas said, noting that anytime a new class is offered, it’s difficult to gauge how popular it will be with students.
“Oh, I love it. I. Love. It,” Vickers said of her job. “I feel 10 years younger. We laugh. [The students] like to laugh.”
After telling the story about her dog’s naughty behavior, Vickers had the students stand in a circle and they played a form of Simon Says, where Vickers and then the students took turns using sign language to describe someone in the class. The student who understood all the signs and then located the subject got to lead the game next.
Then Vickers handed out collages of pictures of people and the students paired up and took turns describing a person in the collage, playing I Spy. The other student then pointed to the person being described.
It’s largely quiet in the room, with Vickers pointing to signs reading “ASL only” if the students lapse into verbal speech too much.
Several students noted that ASL was easier to learn than other languages they’ve studied. Virginia Callis of Lexington Park, a senior, took Spanish for four years. “I thought taking a third language would help me a lot,” she said of her choice to take ASL this year. “I enjoy the class.”
She noted that Spanish is harder because “you have to conjugate the verbs,” Callis said.
Ryan Dement of Lexington Park, a junior in the class, has already completed three years of French. “I would say learning French is harder,” he said. “This is easier because you’re getting immersed in the language.”
The games and conversation all look like fun in the class, but the students’ performance in those games is graded. As the students played I Spy on Friday, for instance, Vickers stood to the side and using a portable video player recorded the students’ performance. She grades the students after studying the video at home.
ASL is more than hand movements. It also employs facial expressions, palm orientation, movement and body language. “You have to look at the whole picture,” Vickers said. “You are a TV screen.”
ASL is the third or fourth most commonly used language in the United States, according to Vickers. So there are plenty of reasons to offer the course, she said. Some of the students have a family member who uses ASL. Some hope to use it in a future career.
Shawnese Taylor, a senior at Great Mills who takes Vickers’ class, has partial hearing loss herself. “I was very excited when I heard there was going to be a signing class,” she said Friday. She has been signing since she was 4. In the second-grade, Taylor attended a special school in Frederick for those who are hearing impaired. Taylor’s experience allows her to help the other students learn the language, she said.
Vickers is also hearing impaired. She said she functions with a hearing aid.
She didn’t have the chance to learn to sign until she was 18 because she would have gone away to school and her parents wanted to keep her at home. “It was very hard,” Vickers said. “And then I went to Gallaudet University. That was a whole new world to me … It was wonderful.”
Vickers hopes to take her students on field trip to Gallaudet in Washington, D.C., a university for deaf and hearing-impaired students, later this year.
One of Vickers’ students at Chopticon High School said she hopes to use ASL in her career. Lina Skarwecki, a senior, plans to join the Air Force and wants to work as a translator. She said she’d been wanting to take a sign language course for the past several years.
“It’s amazing. I love the subject,” Skarwecki said. “It’s my favorite subject. I love Mrs. Vickers.”
The plan is to offer both ASL I and ASL II in the county’s high schools next year. After completing this year’s course, Vickers said the students will know basic communication — their name, how to say things like “slow down” “thank you” as well as letters, numbers and colors.
“Next year it will be more dialogue, more three-word sentences,” Vickers said of the second-year course.
She hopes to offer a third year of independent study in ASL eventually, where advanced students will assist her in the lower-level classes, Vickers said.
Danielle Baker and Haylie Parks, both in their first year at Great Mills, are in Vickers’ class, and both plan to take ASL II next year and continue their study of the language.
“It’s a fun course,” Baker said, as the two took a break from their I Spy game.