NO VOICE, JUST SIGNS; Sign Language Class Opens New World One of Fletcher's ASL Teachers Was Recently Named State Teacher of the Year

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Byline: MAGGIE FITZROY

Fletcher High School teacher Julie Durden told her students to pretend she was a waitress, and tell her what they wanted for breakfast.

She told them to not use their voices, but to tell her with sign language.

"Eggs," many said silently as their hands moved through the air.

"Bacon, toast and orange juice."

"You guys are getting it, very quickly," Durden told the students in her beginning American Sign Language class one recent morning.

In her fourth year at the school, Durden has inspired many students to learn American Sign Language, or ASL, the visual language used by many deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States.

She was recently awarded the Florida American Sign Language Teacher of the Year Award, which recognizes her as the best of hundreds of high school ASL teachers in the state.

Durden's students were happy for her, but not surprised.

"Miss Durden is a great teacher," said sophomore Megan Brittingham, a student in one of Durden's ASL I classes.

"This class is so much fun," said classmate Morgan Pinchot. "She makes it easy for us to understand."

American Sign Language is one of several languages, in addition to Spanish, French, German or Latin, that Fletcher students can choose to study to meet a foreign language requirement.

Durden uses a variety of techniques to teach the language that is fundamentally different from English in structure.

She first teaches her students single words, then combines them into phrases and then sentences.

Students practice what they learn again and again until it comes naturally. They practice speaking to each other in small groups, making progress by increasing their vocabulary.

But learning sign language differs from learning spoken languages, Durden said.

It's completely visual, which some students find easier to learn at first.

Since it's spoken with the hands, body language and facial expressions, some students also think learning it is fun.

But as they advance into ASL II and ASL III, which Durden also teaches, she said it becomes more of a challenge to learn because the order in which words are communicated is not natural to English speakers. For example, "Are you hungry?" is signed "Hungry you?"

Durden said that's why ASL is accepted by most colleges as a foreign language and why many high schools are adding it to their curricula.

Enrollment in ASL has increased about 30 percent nationally since 2002, according to the Modern Language Association, and Durden credits the support the program gets at Fletcher for its growth there.

She was the only sign language teacher at Fletcher her first two years there. …