The sign language club of Dr. Gustavus Brown Elementary School meets once a week before the start of the school day. Third graders Sophia Orellana Chavez, left, Isabel Lugo and Mykaela Mims, go over the sign for “corn” before playing a game of bingo featuring fruit and vegetables.

Sign language club gives Dr. Brown students a hand at learning new skill, making new friends

News Release, Charles County Public Schools

Once a week, students at Dr. Gustavus Brown Elementary School close their mouths and talk.

They chat about animals, colors and say the Pledge of Allegiance without making a peep. The sign language club at Dr. Brown has been meeting for three years under the direction of Darcy Piazza, an educational sign language interpreter with Charles County Public Schools (CCPS).  

Many students joined the club to better communicate with their friends who are deaf or hard of hearing. “I knew there were deaf people in my school, and I knew I wanted to talk to them,” said Olivia Bellamy, a fifth-grader who has been in the club for three years. She also wanted to be able to help others communicate by acting as an interpreter.

Students who are deaf and hard of hearing are paired with educational sign language interpreters during the school day including at lunch and recess. Lilyana Evangelista, a third-grader who is deaf, is a member of the sign language club and helped give each member their sign name — a sign that uniquely identifies a person rather than fingerspelling out their name. Bellamy’s is “science” because she loves the subject; Sophia Orellana Chavez’s sign name is “cat” after her favorite animal; Evangelista’s is “silly.”

In the U.S., American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary language of deaf and hard of hearing people and is expressed through hand and facial movements.

Learning to better communicate with their friends is the pull, but students are also engaging in new skills. Piazza said young children are particularly receptive to learning a new language. “They’re little sponges when it comes to language, and they think it’s cool,” she said.  

Piazza was introduced to sign language in high school when she learned her computer teacher was deaf. The teacher taught Piazza how to sign, leading her to study in an immersion program at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf to become an interpreter.  “The best way to learn a language is to be submerged in it,” Piazza said.

After completing her practicum at corporations, Piazza said she felt a calling to work in public schools and fell in love with it. “I knew I wanted to work in public schools and give kids a voice,” she said.

She and her family moved to Charles County from upstate New York with Piazza working in Prince George’s County Public Schools for five years and for three years in CCPS before taking time off when she had her daughter, Hannah, now a senior at La Plata High School. Piazza returned to CCPS about 12 years ago. Before Dr. Brown, she worked at the F.B. Gwynn Educational Center, Thomas Stone High School, and Mattawoman Middle School.

The students in Brown’s sign language club have performed a song at the school’s winter concert and will say the Pledge of Allegiance at an upcoming award assembly. “I think more people should try to learn sign language,” Isaac Watson, a third-grader, said.

“It’s not very hard to learn,” Orellana Chavez, a third-grader, said. “You just have to memorize the signs, and nobody is left out.”

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David M. Higgins II

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in Digital Marketing, eventually leading him back to his passion. David started The Southern Maryland Chronicle in December 2017 and has grown it to become the #1 news source in Southern Maryland.

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