Students sign up to learn to speak with their hands at Catonsville elementary school

Seven children throw their hands up in the air, suppressing the urge to speak in order to gain the attention of Tessa Ropp, their sign language teacher.

Every few minutes, a soft giggle can be heard.


Otherwise, the classroom at Westchester Elementary in Catonsville is quiet.

The children, ages 7 to 9, sit on a colorful rug in the middle of the room, playing a card game that teaches them to sign.

Ropp encourages them to refrain from speaking and to communicate only by using their hands instead.

The kids are part of a sign language club that meets after school from 4 to 5 p.m. every Wednesday.

It's taught by Ropp, who also teaches math on the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

American Sign Language (ASL) is acknowledged as the official language of the deaf community, and is recognized as a foreign language in Maryland.

Beyond learning to communicate with those who are deaf, sign language offers other benefits to the young students, Ropp said.

"One of the great things about sign language is that you develop a sense of self and expressing your emotions," she said.


Ropp said it also improves motor skills and teaches children to develop a sense of space.

"It's really hard with spoken words to tell somebody where to find something. But with sign language, you use that spatial orientation that allows you to pinpoint exactly where that thing is," Ropp said.

Ropp, whose younger brother is deaf, said she always wanted her children to learn sign language.

But she had a hard time finding a sign language class close by.

"I was surprised that it's hard to find a class in the area," Ropp said.

So when the school PTA sent out a survey asking parents for input on the clubs offered after school, she said, "Why not a sign language club?"


She offered to teach and her offer was accepted. The club began in the fall and is in its second session this spring.

It's the only class of its kind offered in the Catonsville area to elementary school age children.

Ropp, whose three children attend the school on Old Frederick Road, said holding the after-school club was a way to teach her children sign language.

"I thought if I have a class and I'm teaching them with their peers, it keeps them more engaged," Ropp said.

Her son Theodore, 7, said he enjoys being with his mother and likes to be able to sign.

In the club's previous session, Ropp taught the kids a chapter from a book, "Signing Fun,"' hen had them play a game to test their skills.

This session, she's relying on games more as a teaching tool.

"It's fun because we get to play games and learn," said second-grader Holly Gardner.

Natalie Lanasa, 8, has been in the club since the club began last fall. She said "Go Fish" is her favorite card game because, "it's not like the regular Go Fish."

"We get to learn in a fun way," she said

Another card game, "See It and Sign It" allows the kids to develop a 60-word ASL vocabulary.

Mary Angell, 7, said she enjoys learning something new.

"I get to learn different signs and different things about signing," she said. "I like to get to experience things that other people do who can't speak."

Ropp said her goal for the end of the club is to get all seven children to tell a story in ASL.

She has given them three story books that they're working on to tell the story with sign language.

"Hopefully, they'll have it ready for the last session, so their parents can see," Ropp said.

Her hope is that they will be able to interpret three different stories in their final presentation on April 19, the last day of the club.