High school students learn to converse in sign language

Ann Hilburn began learning American Sign Language for an elective course in college, thinking it would benefit her aspirations of becoming a nurse.

That class led her to change her career field entirely. "I had just fallen in love with sign language," she said.

She's passing that love on to a dozen Wrangell High School students taking her class for their foreign language requirement. Hilburn is new to the district this year.

It is a language unto itself, 17-year-old senior Caleb Garcia-Rangel observed, which people unfamiliar with ASL often don't realize.

"I think it's pretty cool," Garcia-Rangel said. "I've taken Spanish for three years. It's refreshing to do something without even speaking orally."

The students have ASL names, too. Names can be a combination of signs and fingerspelling - each letter of the alphabet has a corresponding handshape.

The names can be irreverent, as well.

Garcia-Rangel, whose ASL name is "rat" - the letter R brushed against the nose - said ASL is a helpful skill to have. "Some of the kids in our class are losing hearing, too."

Freshman Addy Andrews said it's her favorite class.

"I'm a quick learner," said the 14-year-old. "I find it pretty easy and I can remember most things. I've been able to pick up the signs easily in class. I show my family and they find it cool, too. I have a lot of fun in class."

Andrews wants to go to France one day. Her name sign is the sign for France - the F handshape which the signer turns in toward themselves, except hers is with the letter A.

"We have an amazing teacher," Andrews said, of Hilburn. "She's really helpful."

Hilburn's first college degree was in education of the deaf, which she earned at Southern Mississippi University, followed by a master's degree in education administration at a university in Illinois.

Of her jobs in Alaska - the Lower Yukon School District, Gustavus and Angoon - Wrangell is the biggest Alaska town in which Hilburn has worked, she said.

Sierra Hagelman is a 15-year-old sophomore. Her name sign is "Radio Girl." For "radio" take your dominant hand and form it into a claw, then bring it near your ear and twist it back and forth, as if you are adjusting one side of a headset while listening to something. For "girl," form your hand into an A and then trace along your jawbone with the tip of your thumb, starting near your ear and moving to near your chin.

(The sign for "girl" harks back to bonnets, essentially tracing the bonnet strap under a girl's chin.)

Leroy Wynne, a 17-year-old junior, said Hilburn's ASL classes have been pretty difficult, even a little harder than most of his classes.

"I think it's a really cool skill to have," Wynne said. "I was looking for a language credit, because most colleges require it, so this was my option." His name sign goes out like a layup, then back in toward his shoulder with a W-hand.

Hilburn said Wynne, Hagelman, Garcia-Rangel and Andrews have been working hard, practicing together in class and responding well to instruction, and it's only the end of the first quarter.

"They always have their stuff together," Hilburn said. "They come to class and pay attention. Whatever they have to do, they make it happen."

The students learn from Hilburn as she signs stories in ASL, and from books and videos.

Hagelman said she finds herself turning to signing outside of class, "like when I'm talking to my friends. We do that very much, and fingerspelling."

To display their skills, Hilburn and the students have been preparing a performance in American Sign Language for the school's Christmas program, and the community's Midnight Madness holiday night, Hilburn said.


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