HAMPDEN, Maine — Maybe it’s a sign of the times.
A language class growing in popularity at Hampden Academy is American Sign Language. The number of students taking the subject has grown from 85 in the 2007-2008 school year to 123 this school year, with waiting lists for classes.
Much of the credit for this increase goes to ASL teacher Michael McDonald, or “Mister Mike” as he’s affectionately known to his students.
As taught by McDonald, ASL is less listening and more doing.
“It’s a different style of learning,” said McDonald, 38, of Holden. “There’s so much hands-on learning, with students interacting constantly in class. Students who struggle with traditional languages are successful here. They’ll come in and be successful, and it’s inspiring.”
ASL is a complete, complex language that employs signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and postures of the body. ASL is said to be the fourth most commonly used language in the United States. It’s also one of the fastest-growing languages taken at colleges and universities and is poised to take the No. 3 spot in student study, surpassing German.
McDonald estimated that after two months, students are able to carry on small conversations and after a year, they can interact with deaf people at the academy and in the community at large.
What draws students to sign language? Senior Mike Cayia was attracted to it during a minicourse in middle school:
“I didn’t enjoy French or Spanish,” he said. “The news spread that ASL would be available my first year [at Hampden Academy], and it ended up being one of my favorite classes that I’ve taken since I’ve been here.”
Cayia appreciated the change in approach that ASL represented: “I hate classes that are lectures from beginning to end, and ASL is a nice opportunity to learn in a different way. It’s a much more visually based program.”
Sophomore David Cayia soon followed in his older brother’s footsteps.
“At an assembly, when I couldn’t hear anything, I saw a kid in the band signing to his friend sitting next to me, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” David said. “Also, I’d heard Mr. Mike was an excellent teacher, someone I could talk to about anything.”
The younger Cayia gained an added benefit as well: “I used to have bad stage fright, and I’d heard ASL was good for getting over that. It’s helped me a lot.”
For McDonald himself, it was Marlee Matlin who enticed him to sign language. He was inspired by the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God,” which starred the deaf Matlin, who won an Academy Award for her role.
“I was in love with Marlee Matlin,” he recalled. “I figured that when we met, I’d better know some sign.”
After graduating from Ellsworth High School in 1990, McDonald began learning ASL while in the Air Force at the time of the Iraq War. He went on to major in sign language at UCLA, then attended Gallaudet University in Washington to earn his interpreter’s license. He worked as an interpreter for five years, then went back to school at the University of Maine for a teaching degree. He took over the ASL program at Hampden Academy, which had begun two years before his arrival in 2007.
The ASL program at the academy includes ASL 1, 2 and 3 classes and the latest addition this year, deaf culture and history. McDonald also teaches ASL 1 and 2 and Conversational ASL in Hampden’s Adult Education program.
ASL fulfills the language requirement for students at the academy, just like more established languages such as French, Spanish and Latin.
McDonald acknowledges that not everyone buys into the idea of sign language being taught at the school.
“I can convince students fairly readily, because they enjoy it,” McDonald said. “Some parents aren’t so sure. But once parents see how engaging and passionate students become, any uncertainty is usually replaced by enthusiastic support.” He hopes that ASL will continue to flourish at Hampden Academy.
“It’s good to see the growth of the program,” McDonald said. “The students’ enthusiasm has produced enough students to take ASL 3, and maybe enough for an ASL 4 course. It helps to spread sign language throughout the school and gives deaf students equal access to their peers.”