American Sign Language

New sign language course makes impact beyond classroom ​
Posted on 02/15/2022
Students in Audrey Harris’ American sign language class at PBHS reinforce their skills during a vocabulary exercise.

A student-led American sign language club generated enough interest at Poplar Bluff High School to establish a new foreign language class this school year. Now a movement is happening in the community.

Word is getting back to educators that students are applying what they have learned while providing customer service at their places of employment. Some students have further plans to pursue a related field of study in college.

“I never expected it would have a community impact, but that would be the best hope,” said the trilingual Audrey Harris, who teaches ASL along with Spanish at PBHS. “To actually have it happening [affirms]… OK, we can go somewhere with this.”

Audrey Harris' daughter, Valleri Harris of the Class of 2020, founded the precursory ASL club during her senior year, with sponsorship from communication arts teacher Jennie Randolph. An Alaska native, Audrey Harris volunteered with the weekly club, and soon was inspired to renew her teaching certification in Missouri. She was first hired at PBHS to teach Spanish in 2020/21, while administrators explored introducing the ASL course.

“I’m proud I have made a difference, but mostly just that a community is being established so people (hard of hearing) are able to talk and interact,” commented Valleri Harris, who is currently a sophomore at Drury University in Springfield, studying to be an interpreter. “I didn’t expect it at all to become anything.”

Growing up, Valleri Harris witnessed her mother, who happens to be partially deaf, struggle in communication situations, she recalled. While Audrey Harris wears hearing aids and has learned to read lips well, engaging in dialogue sometimes requires a lot of mental energy. “It’s like putting together a puzzle,” her daughter explained.

A preliminary interest survey among students yielded positive results, and this year PBHS was able to add four sections of ASL under the instruction of Audrey Harris, serving around 80 students. Due to its popularity, an ASL 2 may be added next year, according to PBHS Principal Mike Owen.

“I’m very excited – that the teacher’s doing a good job, that the kids like it, and we’re able to expand,” said Owen, adding that he is pleased PBHS is able to offer another option after French was discontinued following a retirement. “Whenever the kids want it, and it’s a learning opportunity, that’s a win-win.”

During its inaugural year, school officials considered making the class unavailable to seniors to ensure upperclassmen receive each of their requisite credits in the same foreign language. But if that were the route taken, students such as Trista Judd would not be planning to have a concentration in ASL at William Woods University in Fulton upon graduating in May. Earlier this year Trista emailed her teacher, sharing a story about a deaf woman she was able to sign with at work.

“I’m glad a stranger like me, even though we don’t know each other, can make her smile the way she does when she sees me here,” Trista wrote to Audrey Harris. “I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am that you’re taking the initiative to teach me and so many others a language that opens up the opportunity to communicate better with others.”

Sophomore Kaylee Neel also says she has been compelled to pursue certification in speech therapy, upon earning a master’s degree in education. Others may not use it directly, but still feel the skillset will complement their desired profession: like junior Sidonia White, who plans to go into communications, or classmate Alex Borders, who will major in psychology. Others simply cited having loved ones who are hard of hearing as their reasoning for learning to sign.

“It’s not just something they learned in school,” Audrey Harris stated. “It’s real-world application.”

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Cutline: Students in Audrey Harris’ American sign language class at PBHS reinforce their skills during a vocabulary exercise with their teacher earlier this month.

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