Davie Co. teacher introduces students to sign language

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David Rolfe/Journal

MOCKSVILLE, N.C. — Teri Morgan stops by the Media Center at Davie County High School with a visitor when the daily announcements are read over the PA system.

Then comes the Pledge of Allegiance. Morgan doesn’t recite it aloud. The teacher’s fingers and arms begin to move quickly, not frantically, but purposefully.

She is “signing” the pledge using American Sign Language.

Morgan then walks to her classroom, where she teaches ASL I and ASL II to students under a unique arrangement.

Davie High is one of a handful of high schools in the state where American Sign Language can be taken to satisfy a foreign language requirement toward earning a diploma. The class can also be used as an elective.

Morgan said a few high schools in the Cary and Charlotte areas are the only other places ASL is taught as a foreign language.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools does not offer any ASL classes, according to Theo Helm, a school spokesman.

ASL is an approved language by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. More than 150 U.S. universities accept ASL, including the UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, UNC Wilmington and Gardner-Webb.

American Sign Language is a complete, complex language that uses signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and body postures.

It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are deaf.

The exact beginnings of ASL are not clear, but some suggest that it began more than 200 years ago from the intermixing of local sign languages and French Sign Language (LSF, or Langue des Signes Française).

Morgan, who lives in Advance, has been teaching ASL at Davie for 10 years. She teaches one ASL I class and two sections of ASL II.

Morgan said in the fall, the ASL I class usually has 25 to 32 students. ASL II classes average about 20 students in the fall and spring. Second semester ASL I classes are smaller, with about 13 students.

When she’s not teaching she is working part time at Haj Paj, a gift and clothing boutique in Farmington, or teaching Zumba exercise classes at the Jerry Long Family YMCA in Clemmons.
Her journey to high-school teacher has been a long one.

She began her college education at UNC Chapel Hill, then transferred to UNC Greensboro, where she received a bachelor’s degree in deaf education. She earned her master’s in education from UNCG in 2011.

She taught deaf children for five years at Latham Elementary School and Philo Middle School, both in Winston-Salem, helping them to mainstream into traditional classrooms. She also taught preschool at Clemmons United Methodist Church.

Her next workplace was the home — raising four children. Her youngest child is in college.

In 2003, then-Davie High principal Larry Bridgewater was seeing some of his students struggle in Spanish and German, the only two foreign languages that were offered at the time. He decided to add ASL to the curriculum.

A teacher of Exceptional Children taught the ASL classes that first year, then he offered the job to Morgan. She began teaching ASL in fall 2004.

Her classroom is in a complex of trailers. While student teacher Kiely McGuire reviews vocabulary with the ASL I class, Morgan calls each student, one at a time, to her desk, for one-on-one work.

The student must sign different things to Morgan. Each starts with the Pledge of Allegiance. She mixes up the rest of the requests: ABCs, Mississippi, Bananas, 867.

Students are usually there to meet a foreign language requirement. But some have a more personal reason for learning ASL.

Sophomore McKenzie Folk wanted to learn ASL so she could better communicate with one of her sister’s friends. “She took the class before me and now we can talk with Eric,” she said.

Levi Boger, also a sophomore, has an aunt who is deaf.

“I really wanted to be able to talk to her,” he said. “I started out slow, but it is going better than it used to.”

Morgan’s classes include many activities to fully integrate ASL into the students’ lives.

“We have ‘voice off days’ in the classroom, nothing but ASL,” Morgan said. “We do ‘deaf for a day.’ They must carry pad and pencil. They can’t speak. They only can sign.

“It’s tough in the cafeteria. Students can only use their phone at lunch, and the ASL students can’t use the phone. A lot of times students get frustrated signing to friends who don’t understand it, so they will sit silently with lunch or with a book.

“We also have a big song project. They have to create how to sign a song and present it. It must be in ASL and not just signing ‘words.’”

Morgan said the students challenge each other to see who can sign a word or concept the fastest.

“They have signed conversations in groups and one-on-one signed conversations with me so I can see how they are doing,” she said. “They are given a topic and then must come up and sign to the class about that topic.”

Attendance and attention are paramount for learning ASL, Morgan said. “We move quickly. If a student misses a class, they’ll come back the next time and they go ‘what?’ They are behind.

“In an ASL class, you can’t spend the time looking down. You’ll see how they will learn very quickly to have their eyes up at all times to see what you are signing.”

A combination of texts are used. Notes are written in the margins, with some signs crossed out and replaced, to modernize the language and add new words and phrases.

McGuire, a senior at UNCG, will graduate in May with a degree in deaf education. A Texas native, she attended Kent State University in Ohio for a year before transferring to UNCG.

She may be one of the last students to earn a deaf education degree at UNCG. The school is putting the program “on hold” because of a lack of students showing an interest in teaching ASL, Morgan said.

McGuire plans to return to Texas after graduation. “There are plenty of places I can teach there,” she said. She said there are only one or two students remaining in the deaf education program at UNCG, and they will be allowed to complete the program.

“One of them will be my student teacher this fall,” Morgan said. Other colleges teach American Sign Language, but generally for people who want to go into interpreting for business or government.

Morgan said she likes to keep her students, both present and former, on their toes.

“If I see them in the hall or at a game or anywhere, I sign to them and they have to sign back to me.”