Learning by hand

The sign language class at Vincent Middle/High School reviews signs with their teacher, Jessica Olsen. Olsen teaches the class via videoconference from the Alabama School for the Deaf. (Reporter photo/Amy Jones)

By AMY JONES / Associate Editor

VINCENT — When teacher Jessica Olsen greeted the class at Vincent Middle/High School, she launched into the day’s lesson without ever saying a word.

Olsen, who is hearing-impaired, teaches Vincent’s American Sign Language class by videoconference from the Alabama School for the Deaf in Talladega.

Principal Gary Minnick said the ASL class, which is the first in the Shelby County school system, started this year. Two students at Vincent are hearing-impaired but needed to get foreign language credits in order to graduate with an advanced diploma.

Enter Olsen and the ASL class, which is considered a foreign language course.

“The two here have grown up with interpreters, and as the years have gone by, interpreters have taught the classes some sign,” Minnick said. “So we had a very high interest in signing. In our first survey, 60 students expressed interest in the course.”

The class, which meets daily, has 16 students, who are aided by interpreters Pat Smartt and Jeannie Ware. Learning ASL has made some students interested in being future sign language interpreters, especially after they get to know Ware.

“I started doing ASL in high school, so I think it really encourages them,” Ware said. “I’m so excited because I see them, and it makes me think of myself in high school. I’m their cheerleader.”

Junior Kayla Greene said she is definitely interested in a career as an interpreter.

“This class sparked my interest because I want to be an interpreter when I graduate,” Greene said. “I want to go to Troy (University) and be in their ASL classes.”

Greene had another reason for taking the course. She’s been friends with fellow junior Courtney Holston since second grade. Holston is hard-of-hearing, but is finding it easier to communicate these days.

“When I was young, I had a hard time communicating, but now more people know ASL,” Holston said, signing. “It’s fun. I don’t feel left out.”

Freshman Kristin Smith, who is completely deaf, agreed with Holston.

“Before it was hard to see people (finger spelling words), not signing,” Smith said. “But now it’s changed, and people are signing more and more.”

Olsen said she enjoys teaching hearing people sign language and offering a glimpse into a different culture.

“It’s a good way for students to have the opportunity to learn ASL if their school does not offer that,” she said. “I like seeing it when they come to class. Some know nothing, then they gain knowledge and they can have conversations. I enjoy that.”

Minnick said he hopes the school will continue to offer the course. It will be offered for at least one more year so the current students can fulfill their foreign language requirements, but Minnick hopes to see it last much longer.

He said the job market for interpreters and sign language instructors is strong, so students interested in studying sign language may be on track for a good career.

“I would love to continue to offer it because the job market is so good,” he said. “I hope it stays here for a long time.”