Okanagan Landings students learn Halloween words as part of sign language course

Signing on for fun

School kids in Vernon had some fun learning Halloween words in sign language as a lead-up to the big night of trick or treating on Monday.

The classroom instruction in American Sign Language is part of a unique language program at Okanagan Landing Elementary, where intermediate students spend six weeks each learning ASL, French, Spanish and the Okanagan First Nation language Nsyilxcen.

The program's genesis came last school year when teacher Aaron Hoffman had a student with hearing loss and is now a fully funded part of the school's curriculum.

"It's my mission to have one of the coolest classrooms in the province," said an excited Hoffman.

And it appears his students are buying in, as participation has been enthusiastic so far.

On Thursday, district ASL instructor Marjorie Cameron and interpreter Cheryl Purll guided the kids through Halloween-themed words, from trick or treat to candy, witch, vampire, mummy.

As Cameron demonstrated, ASL isn't just about finger movements, it involves facial expressions and body movements to help convey meaning.

The kids clearly enjoyed that part.

Cameron notes ASL actually had its roots in American First Nation hand signs, and today is recognized as an official language of Canada.

Hoffman admits to "learning along the way with the kids" in what is more like a high school type language course.

Cameron says she enjoys it as much as the students and that it's important to share the skill while "exposing them to another language."

It's not just about communication, but also the sharing of deaf culture, she adds.

Cameron also regularly visits BX, Hillview, Alexis Park and Ellison elementary schools.

She says ASL is important because lip reading is not perfect and can miss 25-40 per cent of words, leading to misunderstandings. For example: 'I love you' looks a lot like 'elephant shoes'.

Alesha Grimard teaches the Syilx language part of the program and says she, too, is learning with her students.

QR codes on the classroom wall link to native speakers of the language who interpret their meanings online.

She's excited to hopefully have a new Indigenous lead teacher from the Okanagan Indian Band join the classroom to share the language in person.

"It's a bit nerve wracking when it's not my language," she admits. "It's quite different with some new sounds the students haven't done before, but they are having a good time with it."

Michelle Freebairn guides the students in basic conversational French, and the kids put themselves right in France with the help of greenscreen backgrounds as they converse.

Francie Cutler spent two years as an international teacher in Honduras and now teaches Spanish to the Okanagan Landing students.

"They seem to really like the challenge," she said.

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