A dozen students watched attentively on a St. Francis University stage Sunday, hand-gesturing to mimic their energetic teacher against the backdrop of a reggae beat.
But these dance moves had meaning.
And as the young people mastered them – each a word in American Sign Language – it brought a smile to Jenifer Baker’s face.
“When I learned sign language in the 1970s, people didn’t appreciate it. Some called it broken English,” said Baker, who went deaf when she was 2 years old. “So, to be here today and see all of these kids eagerly learning our language, it’s just wonderful.”
Baker served as master of ceremonies for St. Francis’ second annual Sign Day.
Led by the school’s American Sign Language Club, it put nine deaf or hearing impaired teachers in workshops with a crowd of more than 200 children, comprised of students from several area schools and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, said Gale DeArmin, a clinical assistant professor of American Sign Language at SFU.
“It gives us a chance to share the deaf culture with these kids,” DeArmin said, noting teachers shared alphabet and number “stories” with the groups.
At one station, Sign Language Club volunteers taught a group of Girl Scouts a memory-based follow the leader game.
Across the hall, a recent St. Francis graduate, Chris Freidhoff, curled his hand into a “C” while teaching another group to spell their names using sign language.
“It’s really, really fun,” said Karli Storm of Chest Springs, demonstrating letters she had learned.
Behind her, DeArmin was leading a group in “Sign Jam,” which had them picking up sign language in a line dance to Matisyahu’s song “One Day.”
Baker noted sign language, once all but ignored, is becoming one of the nation’s most-studied.
Oftentimes, young learners embrace it, added Leslie Kelly, a fellow instructor from the Altoona Center for Independent Living.
“They learn so quickly. And they remember it,” said Kelly, calling the young people a “key to our future.”
Some of the children at the workshop Sunday could be future interpreters, she said.
“This is where it all starts,” Kelly said.
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