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Wasatch High School launches American Sign Language class

Students in Jessica McDonald's American Sign Language class sign together.
Wasatch County School District
Wasatch High School

A new course at Wasatch High School is teaching students to engage with the Deaf community through American Sign Language.

About 70 freshmen and sophomores are taking ASL this year. Over 100 students wanted to take the class - some to communicate with family members, and others simply to broaden their language horizons.

Jessica McDonald is the teacher. She says the class is off to a great start, and she tries to make it fun for students. With no spoken words in the language, it involves a lot of showing, rather than just telling.

“It’s surprising for a high school classroom,” McDonald says. “They are quiet, they are silent and they watch me. We play a lot of games to reinforce the vocab that we've learned. I act out a lot — I get super sweaty, because I'm acting and I'm up on chairs, and I'm up on the table so that the students can see me. We just have a lot of fun.”

Sophomore Sloane Ellingford, who took Japanese last year, says it’s a totally different learning experience with more active learning than following a textbook or notes. One main difference is that signing relies on facial expressions to help convey messages.

She says she loves the language itself. She looks forward to using it to communicate with deaf people and may be interested in using it in a future career.

“I’ve been interested in it for a while and on my own time learning things like the alphabet and a couple animals and colors, because I want to be able to teach deaf kids, hopefully, when I'm older," Ellingford says. "It's much more helpful to have a teacher than to learn it by myself.”

She says she’s recommended friends take the class as well.

McDonald says learning the language means more than having a new way to simply communicate with deaf people, who experience life a different way.

“It teaches kids empathy,” the teacher says. “I love that it teaches students to look at a person for their strengths, and to look at a person in a different way to see them as capable and as having something to offer. They're not better than or less than, they're just different, and we can love and accept them for all that they have to give and all that they have to offer. That's what I'm most passionate about — these kids may or may not ever go into anything that uses ASL, but I hope that they see people in a different way.”

With the high demand, McDonald hopes the class will grow to accommodate more students.

“The students in my class are having fun, they're telling their friends, [I hope] that we can develop this into a thriving program here at Wasatch High. I think it'll be great,” McDonald says.

Students this year may meet general year-one foreign language standards like greetings, the alphabet, colors, animals and simple communicative sentences. McDonald says a second year would be designed to teach more elaborate, conversational dialog.