Classrooms: Smith Academy launches sign language class

  • Teacher Brittainy Simpson, left, helps Smith Academy senior Hunter Zygmont, right, form his hand correctly during an American Sign Language class. Students Natalie Broga and Connor Fill, background left and right, look on in class last Friday. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Teacher Brittainy Simpson teaches students how to introduce themselves during an American Sign Language class at Smith Academy in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Brittainy Simpson teaches an American Sign Language for students at Smith Academy including seniors Hunter Zygmont, left, and Connor Fill on Friday, September 15, 2017, in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Brittainy Simpson, left, teaches an American Sign Language at Smith Academy for a class including senior Vanessa Skawski, center, and junior Cecilia LaFlamme on Friday, September 15, 2017, in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Brittainy Simpson teaches American Sign Language for a class at Smith Academy in Hatfield. Senior Vanessa Skawski, center, and junior Cecilia LaFlamme, work on a sign in class last Friday. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith Academy junior Natalie Broga plays a game of American Sign Language bingo in an ASL class taught by Brittainy Simpson in Hatfield on Friday. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith Academy junior Abigail Davey, left, interacts with teacher Brittainy Simpson, right, as she leads an American Sign Language class for eight students at Smith Academy in Hatfield on Friday, September 15, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Brittainy Simpson teaches an American Sign Language class for eight students at Smith Academy in Hatfield on Friday, September 15, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 9/19/2017 8:33:30 PM

HATFIELD — Anyone passing by Brittainy Simpson’s classroom last Friday might have mistakenly thought they were witnessing a small miracle: a class of high school students making not a peep, a kind of silence unheard of during the very last period on the last day of the week.

However, although the students were audibly silent, they were all talking together, in many cases at the same time. In fact, they were communicating with the same kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from students on a sunny Friday afternoon.

Simpson and her pupils were chatting in American Sign Language, or ASL, which Smith Academy began offering this year as another option for students wanting to fulfill their language requirement. The pilot program has become popular among students at the school, which is one of the few high schools in the area to offer ASL as a classroom subject.

“I like it a lot because it’s something different, and something most schools don’t offer,” said Vanessa Skawski, a senior and one of about a dozen students enrolled in Smith’s ASL program.

Accurate statistics on the number of hearing students taking ASL at the secondary level are hard to come by. Of course, the language remains as popular as ever among deaf communities, but in the Pioneer Valley the language isn’t being taught to hearing students at almost any public high schools.

A few that do teach ASL are Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School and the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School.

“I couldn’t give you an exact number, but it’s not that much,” Robert Carter, president and CEO of The Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow, told the Gazette. He said schools may not realize the state’s education department long ago approved ASL as satisfying foreign language requirements, can’t find a qualified teacher for the subject or don’t know that it’s even possible to start an ASL program. “People just aren’t aware of it.”

Popular at higher ed level

The picture in higher education, however, suggests ASL’s popularity as a second language of study is soaring. Despite an overall decrease in enrollment in all language courses at the college level between 2009 and 2013, enrollment in American Sign Language increased by 19 percent during that period, according to the most recent numbers from the Modern Language Association.

The language is taught to college students across the Valley in ASL programs like at Holyoke Community College, which has a two-year deaf studies program.

“American Sign Language continued to experience remarkable growth, especially in undergraduate enrollments, and was the language with the third most enrollments, displacing German, now fourth,” the MLA report reads.

What that seems to indicate, then, is that few local high school students are getting that early, precollege language education with ASL like they often do learning other languages, like French and Spanish.

That’s a problem, Carter said, because of the many benefits of learning a second language: communication between communities, experiencing a different culture, opening your brain to different ways of expressing yourself and landing a job — especially amid an ASL interpreter shortage in the region and across the country.

“I’ve seen a number of my students leave here to specifically become an interpreter,” said Ava Fradkin, who has for 14 years taught ASL at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter.

Fradkin herself became interested in ASL when she was in her early 20s working as an aide for an elementary school girl in Vermont who couldn’t speak. Fradkin’s school sent her to evening ASL classes, and she in turn started to teach the girl ASL. Watching a 6-year-old “blossom and drink up language,” she said, was all the motivation she needed.

However, when PVPA approached her to teach the subject, she originally demurred. She said she believed that members of the deaf community should be teaching their own language. But she agreed to take the position for a little while, and with her arts background and love for the language, a little while turned into more than a decade of a job she loves and finds fulfilling, as do her students.

In the classroom

Watching Simpson, who also works at The Willie Ross School for the Deaf, it’s obvious she is an expert teacher of her language, and she teaches like many successful teachers do: entirely in the target language. Students sat completely focused on Friday, as Simpson explained in ASL how to use facial expression to indicate that you’re asking a question.

And, after just a few weeks in that immersion setting, students are already able to talk with one another in ASL. Simpson broke them into groups to practice phrases like “What is your name?” and “I’m hearing, are you?” and together they worked on the essential skill of fingerspelling.

Toward the end of class, she conducted an entire game of BINGO in ASL. When two students called BINGO, in sign, Simpson taught the class the word “win.”

“It is sometimes hard to stay quiet,” Skawski, the senior, said with a sheepish smile.

But despite just a few quick whispers here and there, she and others adhered to Simpson’s ASL-only approach throughout the period.

“I definitely want to keep doing this after high school.” Skawski said. That goal is particularly germane for her, she said, because she is hard-of-hearing herself.

“It’s very inclusive,” junior Abigail Davey said of ASL and Simpson’s class. “It’s an open environment, where you can make mistakes and it is OK.”

Because of the deadline constraints inherent in the newspaper business, the Gazette wasn’t able to secure a translator in enough time to conduct a full interview with Simpson before this article went to print. However, sitting down together with a reporter’s notebook and pen, Simpson explained that it’s good for hearing students to learn ASL.

“I normally teach deaf children all day,” she said, explaining that it’s different to teach hearing students.

ASL has its own grammar and structure, completely different from English, she said. For students in her Smith Academy class, that’s the challenge, but one they appear to be taking to with zeal.

“I think it’s a wonderful skill for our students to have,” John Robert, the superintendent of Hatfield Public Schools, said. He said the school will evaluate the program mid-year, and hope to continue it, although maybe in a different format, next year.

Cindy Kwiecinski, a special education teacher at the school, sits in as a co-teacher in Simpson’s class, helping students as she too learns ASL.

“They were a little nervous when she explained to them that you don’t talk in ASL class, you sign,” Kwiecinski said. “But now they’re really comfortable with it.”

She said after the first day, students were already practicing their ASL at the school’s open house, and that parents told her their children were already signing on their first day home from school.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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