Popularity of ASL class is a sign of the times

The Baltimore Sun

In a small classroom at Indian Creek School in Crownsville, students are staring at teacher Allen Markel's hands.

Markel, who is showing how to give directions to someone who is deaf, points to an overhead projection of a hallway, then the words "water fountain." He purses his lips and sucks in air as if he were drinking. He moves his fingers in front of his mouth to mimic the flowing water.

Then he indicates how a student who might be standing in that hallway would use American Sign Language to direct a hearing-impaired visitor to the water fountain.

The lesson is difficult to understand unless students pay close attention: Markel is deaf. He relies on hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate.

"He's really good at charades," said Maria McGurrin, a 16-year-old from Gambrills who attends the private school.

Markel is part of a growing trend to offer sign language at Maryland high schools. Participation has jumped 40 percent since state officials revised graduation requirements in January 2007 to allow sign language to count toward graduation credit requirements, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

"It is a way of making sure communication is real and viable for a significant segment of the population," said Mary Gable, who was one of three co-chairwomen of the work group that considered the statewide change. Gable also is director of instructional programs for the state.

Now, more than 1,000 students in public high schools in eight counties, including Anne Arundel, are learning ASL. Last year, only four counties offered classes. Prince George's County also started sign language classes this year for 150 middle school students.

Indian Creek Upper School, which began offering Sign Language I to eight students in the fall, plans to add Sign Language II next year because of the growing demand.

The decision to add the initial course grew from the popularity of the sign language club at the middle school level. Eileen Mattingly, principal of the upper school, and Anne Chambers, head of school, believed that a full class could help students who had learning disabilities.

"It just sort of evolved," Chambers said.

Sign language involves hand gestures, facial expressions and body movement -- something that can be grasped more easily by students who have trouble reading and memorizing the written word.

Students in Markel's class said they took it because they thought it would be easier than French or Spanish. Tonya Brenner, a 14-year-old from Crownsville, said she didn't like taking Spanish, which Indian Creek students start learning in fourth grade. "It's hard to pronounce the words," she said.

Chambers sees the popularity of the ASL class another way.

"Kids who are drawn to that class are more visual, so to them, it's easier," Chambers said.

In fact, not all the students are earning an A, Markel said through an interpreter.

Gunner Sledgeski, a 15-year-old from Crofton, said he is taking the class because several people he plays racquetball with are deaf. He said that the classes are easier for him because they are interactive.

"You don't have to memorize all the verbs and sentence types," Gunner said.

But students do have to memorize gestures, and that requires careful attention. Markel has each student repeat his movements. He does not move on until everyone participates.

Sign language is complex because its syntax and grammatical rules are different from English, Markel said. For example, someone who uses sign language would translate, "What is your name?" by signing, "Your name, what?" To communicate a question, sign language users raise their eyebrows, Markel said.

Because of that difference, Markel relies more on acting out his lessons rather than using the written word. If students are really lost, he writes on the board.

"English can cause students to be very confused," Markel said through an interpreter. "I try to get them to think more visually because that is what they need to do."

Markel has a bachelor's degree in ASL from Gallaudet University in Washington, the nation's only university for the deaf. He said it is important for teachers to be certified by the American Sign Language Teachers Association so they can teach the language and the culture of the deaf community.

He posts fliers on the bulletin board outside his classroom about legislation that is important to the deaf community. He took students to see a play Friday that features deaf and hearing actors at Towson University. He plans to take students on a tour of Gallaudet to learn about careers for interpreters.

Markel has a firm footing in both the hearing and deaf cultures. He lives in University Park with his wife, who is an interpreter at Gallaudet. They have three boys who can hear and an adopted daughter who is deaf. All are fluent signers.

He hopes his position will become full time at Indian Creek. Depending on student interest, it could be, Chambers said.

"I think it is really important to take chances," she said.

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