Amy Andersen’s students wear ear plugs in class.
It’s not to block out her voice — Andersen rarely speaks during class at Ocean City High School. The ear plugs block out sounds during American Sign Language II classes so that students can focus on the language being spoken with their hands.
“She tries to make it as much like a deaf class as possible,” said senior Sarah Best, of Upper Township, who served as a translator.
Tuesday’s lesson was on sports. Andersen explained there are regional differences in the signs for some sports, noting that basketball has at least three.
She does not speak at all during the second-year class, and students must stay focused if they are to follow the movements of her hands and fingers. She teaches the lesson, then the students break up into pairs to practice.
An estimated 800,000 New Jersey residents have hearing disabilities, the state Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing says. In 1995, the Assembly passed a resolution encouraging high schools and colleges to award credit for sign language courses. In 1996, the state Department of Education included American Sign Language, or ASL, among its accepted world language for public schools, and in 2004 it added teaching certification requirements for ASL. The state also offers a certification for sign-language interpreters who assist deaf students.
About 100 teachers were certified each year in 2005-06 and 2006-07, mainly through the emergency process, which is an immediate certification that allows teachers to teach while working to complete standard certification. The numbers have since dropped each year, and in 2009-10, 43 teachers got the standard certification and seven received emergency certification.
This year, only about 20 public school districts in the state, including Ocean City and Vineland, teach ASL to hearing students. Vineland also has a separate program for deaf students.
A former teacher of the deaf in Boston, Andersen began teaching ASL at Ocean City High School six years ago after moving back to the area. About 100 students take the two-year program. They sign a song during a holiday program and put on their own fundraising music event each spring to raise money for scholarships and a deaf-related charity. Last year’s show benefited a school for the deaf in Haiti.
Andersen said some students prefer ASL to other languages, while others take it in addition to Spanish or another language.
“This really is an entirely different way to communicate,” she said. “It is its own language.”
Andersen spent part of Tuesday’s class working on the grammar and syntax of ASL, which is not a direct translation from English, but has its own structure. The class ended with a rehearsal of the song “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the students signing along to the music.
The Champion Baptist Academy in Absecon is offering sign language for the first time this year to students in grades seven through 12. The small school used to teach Spanish using an online program, but it was not very successful. Science teacher Jose Gonzalez knew how to sign and offered to teach the course. It caught on quickly, but Gonzalez is not surprised.
“I wasn’t very good at Spanish myself,” he said. “But I picked up sign language right away.”
Gonzalez’ interest was whetted as a teenager when he helped out at a camp for the deaf through his church.
“Then I would see the people at church, and I just kept learning,” he said. His students are learning a song, “Follow On,” that they will perform during a school open house. Gonzalez quizzed them on their signing, noting that two students had improved and were no longer slurring their words.
“You have to make the signs distinct so they can be understood,” he said. He especially encourages the boys in the class because there is a shortage of males who sign, and if they were to decide to become interpreters, he said, they would be in demand.
The state Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing maintains a list on its website of certified interpreters, some of whom also have specialized expertise in law or medicine.
“This is really just a springboard for the students,” Gonzalez said.
Students said they like being able to communicate fairly quickly. In just a few months, they have learned hundreds of words.
“We’ve already talked to some people,” said Priscilla Osbourne, 16, of Egg Harbor Township, a student at Champion Baptist Academy.
Andersen said some of her students have gotten summer jobs in which knowing sign language has been an asset, such as on the Boardwalk, and Ocean City is becoming known as a deaf-friendly place to visit. She also teaches about deaf culture, and her first-year students are “Deaf for a Day” each February, during which they wear earplugs and cannot talk.
“It’s interesting to see how the teachers participate,” she said. “Some will find a way to include the student in class, others will just let them do nothing. It gives the students an idea of what it might be like to be deaf. They get to sit together at lunch and are so glad by then to have friends they can sign with.”
Students admit learning sign language is a bit like learning a secret code — almost like texting without technology.
Ocean City senior Cat Willett wants to become a teacher of the deaf, and said she and some friends learned the ASL alphabet in middle school and realized they could talk to each other without others knowing what they were saying.
Sarah Best took the course so she could talk to a deaf friend she works with at an animal shelter. Rob Gray has a friend who signs and likes being able to converse with him.
“I love this,” he said. “I’m in the band, and (sign language) really helps to communicate during football games.”
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