On a recent Monday, Jenn Wilson’s students arrived at Rosary High School and, at Wilson’s behest, spent the next several hours listening to not a single word their teachers or anyone else had to say.
Not that they weren’t concentrating. In fact, they may have been more tuned in to the sights and other non-aural stimuli around them than they ever had been before. Because they were, effectively, deaf.
Spending an entire school day wearing, at the same time, ear plugs and noise-cancelling headphones, the students in Rosary’s American Sign Language classes were participating in Wilson’s “Deaf for a Day” exercise.
“It’s my second year doing it,” says Wilson, Rosary’s American Sign Language teacher. “My girls come in before school starts, pick up some ear plugs and the sound elimination headphones and they wear them all day from 8 to 3.” The teachers, she says, are alerted ahead of time and some provide advance notes for the sign language students, although many girls arrange to share their friends’ class notes. Also, each student is issued a small white board on which to write when they want to ask or answer a question in class.
Apart from that, however, the students communicate with sign language.
“They really had a meaningful experience because we had Mass for All Saints Day,” says Wilson. “I and one of my level three students helped interpret Mass so they really do got a powerful experience. I want my girls to experience what it’s like to be deaf in a school setting, where it’s so easy for hearing people to take our hearing for granted. We don’t realize how much the world is made for hearing people. They come out of it learning a lot. It’s such an eye-opener for them.”
Wilson began the American Sign Language program at Rosary in 2010 with 42 students. Today she teaches about 75 students in four levels. She inaugurated the “Deaf for a Day” program last year when the school received a grant from the American Sign Language Teachers Association to pay for the sound eliminating headphones.
Why do her students take the class? “I’ve gotten so many reasons over the past five years,” says Wilson. “A couple of students want to make a career out of it. One of my seniors wants to be a courtroom interpreter. Some of them have family members who are deaf and they want to be able to make that connection. Some see their friends taking the class and see how much they’re enjoying it and having fun with it and they want to join them.”
Also, says Wilson, the learning style of many of her students is an excellent match for the subject matter.
“They quickly realize they are learning a different language and it’s going to be just as challenging as Spanish or French, but in a different way,” says Wilson. “It takes a while for them to realize they have to be looking at me the entire time. I’m finding, though, that a lot of students nowadays are visual learners and they’re kinesthetic learners—they have to be doing something to learn it—so they seem to be picking it up more quickly.”