Classrooms at Sequoia School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SSDHH) in Mesa are quiet. The rustle of papers and fluttering of book pages is there but talking is replaced by a flurry of hands, fingers and facial expressions accompanied by whispered vocalizations as the students and teachers sign to one another. The K-12 charter school teaches kids American Sign Language (ASL) and how to read and write in English.
I took a tour of the school last week with the principal, Heather Laine, and spoke with her through an ASL interpreter. Laine told me children who come to school not knowing any ASL are at a disadvantage because they lack a mode of communication with other deaf people or people who know ASL. Laine says the school “believes in bilingual-bicultural approach by using ASL and English,” so students can be successful in the deaf and hearing communities.
American Sign Language has its own vocabulary, syntax and grammar, like any other language, and deaf students use their knowledge of ASL to learn to read and write English. Students use manipulatives to help them understand how to construct grammatically correct English sentences as shown in the photo below right.
ASL is a visual and spatial language. In addition to individual letter signs there are signs for concepts and ideas. The expression and body language of the signer adds to the meaning of the signs.
Students learn to relate their ASL vocabulary to written English. Deaf students sign stories to themselves as they read. Laine says they eventually can read without having to sign.
Though the classrooms at Sequoia are very quiet, there is a lot of activity. Kids sign to the teacher and one another to communicate. In the middle school classroom, in place of the cacophony of adolescents kidding around and teasing one another, they vie to get into one another’s line of sight to be “heard.” To get the kids’ attention the teacher may turn off the lights for a second to interrupt conversations and redirect the lesson.
In addition to the school for deaf students there is a Sequoia elementary school, secondary school and school for the arts sharing the campus. Students can participate in activities and sports while going to SSDHH and high school students can take ASL at SSDHH to fulfill their foreign language requirements.