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Sign of the Times

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Students at Winter Springs High School are uniting the worlds of the hearing and the deaf.

At Winter Springs High School, the American Sign Language (ASL) students aren’t just classmates who are studying the same subject. They’re more like a close-knit family with an unbreakable bond.

And that’s exactly how they describe themselves – as an ASL Family. Teachers Holly Hyman and Katie Canteenwalla are the matriarchs of this enthusiastic crew, which strives to build bridges between the deaf and hearing worlds.

One of the biggest ways the ASL program connects those two worlds is by staging an annual production that showcases the kids’ signing skills through songs, jokes, audience interaction, and lessons about deaf culture. The production, which was presented November 21 and 22 at the school auditorium, drew a total of 1,500 people – many of them from the deaf community.

Holly has been fluent in ASL ever since fifth grade, when she became determined to communicate with a deaf boy at her elementary school.

“I’ve grown up with deaf friends,” Holly says. “It’s always ‘the deaf world’ and the ‘hearing world.’ And if you know sign language, you can enter the deaf world. But, we’re truly bridging the gap by having performances that hearing people and deaf people can enjoy. A lot of times, it’s only one or the other.”

Even though sign language is the focal point, the production is by no means silent. Students sign popular songs from many genres including Broadway, country, pop, rap, and rock. The music is cranked up so deaf audience members can feel the vibrations. The sound is so loud, in fact, that hearing audience members are given earplugs when they walk in the door.

The ASL show had a relatively modest beginning six years ago when Holly and a few students threw together a showcase of songs the kids had learned to sign. About 20 of her pupils performed for an audience of around 100 people. Since then, the show has grown and its popularity has mushroomed, with the 2018 production drawing a standing-room-only crowd of about 800 people. For that reason, the show was expanded to two nights this school year. More than 75 students were involved in November’s powerful production, which even incorporated choreography, props, and costume changes.

Proceeds from ticket sales will be used for an ASL field trip in February to Gallaudet University, a school in Washington, D.C., for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The four-day trip will be an immersive, voice-off experience, meaning students will only use their hands to communicate, not their voices.

Recently, the ASL Family also raised $500 for its field trip by winning first place at the Winter Springs Got Talent competition at the city’s annual Hometown Harvest event. The students wowed the crowd and judges when they signed “Party in the U.S.A,” an upbeat song by Miley Cyrus.

When ASL students are signing, they’re typically quite animated. Madeeha Mirza, a senior and president of the ASL Honor Society at Winter Springs High, says good signers must be able to let their guard down and emote.

“You have to be expressive with ASL because some signs look the same, yet they have different meanings depending on your facial expression,” Madeeha says. “It forces you to show your true self to people, and I think that’s why we’re so close.”
Most of Seminole County’s public high schools have active ASL programs, but no one else puts on an annual production that is as elaborate as the one at Winter Springs High.

“Nobody is as crazy as us,” laughs Katie, who previously taught ASL at Lyman High. “The show didn’t start out this big, but now we’ve got a reputation to live up to. Students prep for it all year.”

The production is about more than entertainment, though. The students also educate by teaching audience members a few basic signs and dispelling myths about ASL, the deaf community, and deaf culture. For example, there is a popular misconception that ASL is a universal language, but there are many signed languages all over the world.

Of all the reasons why Madeeha appreciates ASL, what stands out the most to her is the immediate impact it has on others. ASL has allowed Madeeha to communicate with a deaf neighbor who was feeling isolated after her husband died, and it has enabled the teen to do something as simple as assist a deaf person in a store.

“It’s a way to make connections and break down barriers,” she says, “which is something I love.”

Jenna Krausman, a senior and vice president of the ASL Honor Society, shares Madeeha’s enthusiasm for signing and reaching out to others. Recently, she and Holly started a deaf ministry at the church they both attend so that members of the deaf community would feel more welcome and included.

“I wake up and get out of bed for my ASL class,” says Jenna, who aspires to become an interpreter. “I felt alone when I first came to Winter Springs High, and the ASL Family picked me up and continues to inspire and lift me up each day.”

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