By Bob Skolnik
Room B-204 at the South Campus of Lyons Township High School is one of the quietest classrooms on campus, but that does not mean that there is not a lot of talking going on there.
That is the classroom where Colleen Gibbons oversees five of the six American Sign Language classes she teaches at LTHS every day.
Lyons Township High School is one of a handful of high schools in the Chicago area to offer for-credit classes in American Sign Language. For the past three years, LTHS has offered two years of American Sign Language (ASL), but on Oct. 21 the District 204 school board unanimously approved adding two more years of instruction to the curriculum beginning next year.
Sign language has proven to be a popular class. This year there are about 130 students taking the classes at LTHS, and another 47 students who took ASL II last year probably would have taken another sign language class had it been offered this year.
A number of the students came to the October school board meeting to show their support for adding two more years to the curriculum.
Many students ASL at LTHS say that it is their favorite class.
"It's easily my favorite class," said senior Cristian Avila, a Brookfield resident who takes the one ASL II class held at the district's North Campus. "I definitely look forward to coming to this class every day."
Students say that learning sign language is fun and that Gibbons is an excellent teacher.
"ASL is a beautiful language," Avila said. "I think it is so much fun to do."
Avila became interested in sign language because a friend of his, Ava Dostal, took the class and enjoyed it.
"She would teach me little by little every day," Avila said. "I just found it so fascinating and I loved doing it."
So, last year as a junior Avila stopped taking Spanish and switched to ASL.
"It was more interesting and, obviously, a lot more fun to do, because it's very interactive," Avila said.
Avila said he sometimes uses ASL at his job at Starbucks inside the Jewel/Osco store in Countryside, where he has a couple of deaf customers.
"They just became my regulars because I could actually talk to them," Avila said. "It was just a great experience to be able to help them with their questions."
Avila is so taken with sign language that he wants to become a teacher of the deaf.
American Sign Language was developed in the 19th century but wasn't recognized by linguists as a true language until 1960.
"Sign language is not English with your hands," Gibbons said. "It is its own language, with grammar and syntax and all those wonderful tidbits that build a bona fide language."
Gibbons has been interested in sign language since her second-grade music teacher brought her deaf daughter to class one day. When Gibbons was a student at LTHS did not offer any classes in ASL.
And, when she was a student at Illinois State University, ASL classes there were restricted to those studying to become educators of the deaf or those studying to be speech pathologists.
After getting hired as a special education teacher at LTHS 11 years ago, Gibbons began taking ASL classes at William Rainey Harper Community College.
Then she began lobbying school administrators to offer it as a class at LTHS. After two years of offering it as a summer school class, Gibbons got the go head to offer ASL I and ASL II in 2017.
Only one of Gibbons' students this year was born deaf and he has, as many deaf children do these days, has a cochlear implant which helps him hear. Some deaf people do not like cochlear implants, however, arguing that deafness is not a disability and has its own unique community and culture.
Gibbons sprinkles in instruction on deaf culture and history in her sign language classes.
Once a year Gibbons and her ASL II students host a training session to teach first responders some basic sign language.
"There are too many news stories out there of a police officer shouting at a deaf person stop, and they don't hear and they keep advancing and they get shot," Gibbons said.
Freshman Colette Lewis, also a Brookfield resident, wanted to take ASL because she has a deaf uncle who lives in Texas and because it looked fun. She saw Gibbons talking about the class during Future Freshman Night last winter.
"I thought, when he comes to town I can communicate with him and just help him communicate with my cousins and just get to know them better," Lewis said.
Lewis was also interested because she had some exposure to sign language as a child because her younger brother had persistent ear infections and didn't really talk until he was about 4 years old. Her parents taught her younger brother some rudimentary sign language.
"I thought it was going to be so hard, but it ended up being pretty easy because Ms. Gibbons knows how to teach," Lewis said. "It's my favorite class."
Lewis says that she would like to become a special education teacher and teach deaf children.
Sophomore Hailey Jourige, of Brookfield, took a sign language class as a fifth-grader at Jefferson School in Berwyn and was excited to find out that it was offered at LTHS.
She wants to become a nurse and says that knowing sign language would come in handy.
"If there's a deaf person coming in they won't have to wait hours for an interpreter, because I could just go to the room and help out," Jourige said.
Most students who take sign language at LTHS do so instead of a foreign language. Most colleges and universities, Notre Dame is an exception, recognize ASL as a foreign language, Gibbons said.
Sign language seems to generating more interest, and it is more visible in pop culture and online. The success of Nyle DiMarco, the first deaf winner on the television shows "America's Next Top Model" and "Dancing with the Stars" raised the visibility of sign language. The ABC television show "Switched at Birth" features deaf characters and has scenes shot in entirely ASL raising its visibility.
Girls seem particularly drawn to the ASL classes. Gibbons says that perhaps 60 to 70 percent of her ASL classes are girls, although the enrollment of boys have been increasing. Girls also tend to be more interested in the helping professions and education, where ASL is more likely to be used, Gibbons said.
Avila says many of his friends who do not go to LTHS wish they could take ASL where they go to school.
"A lot of my friends don't go to LT, so they were kind of jealous that we actually have sign language and their schools don't," Avila said.