FORT VALLEY -- Jennifer Martin may have the quietest class in Peach County.
Here, silence is mandatory. Instead of applauding their classmates, about 30 students wring their hands above their heads. When pronouncing the days of the week, they push their hands into the air to signal “Sunday.” Two students sing a compilation of hip-hop songs -- wordless.
Sometimes, students go an entire class period without uttering a word to one another.
“How are you going to learn most in this class?” Martin asks her students. “By watching.”
There seems to be no disagreement, as students’ eyes are glued to Martin -- or rather her hands. After all, many of them fought to get into the most popular elective course at Peach County High School.
Martin’s American Sign Language class is one of few such classes in Middle Georgia high schools, and it’s growing. Last year, it was the most-requested elective course at the school.
“And there’s only one of me,” she said. “It is very flattering.”
About three years ago, school officials were looking to expand the number of elective classes when they asked teachers if they were qualified to teach any additional courses. Martin, who lost hearing in one ear in a car accident at age 16, had taken sign language classes in graduate school.
Soon, in addition to her regular world literature classes, Martin was teaching students to spell, use phrases and complete sentences with their hands. They learn how to read signs, the difference between speaking English and signing American and, perhaps most importantly, the culture of people who cannot hear.
“My class goal is not just that they learn sign language. That is scratching the surface to me,” she said. “It’s more that they learn an entire culture and become more responsible on how they communicate, how they perceive these people.”
But it hasn’t been easy. Martin has been teaching the class with no funding for materials.
“I’ve taught this class three years with nothing,” she said.
She recently snagged a $263 grant from Flint Energies’ Bright Ideas program, which was just enough to purchase three books. But she makes it work. Martin copies pages from the books for her students. She uses a lot of online materials, including YouTube sign language videos. She has dipped into her own pocket to fund some class materials.
And she keeps her class active with group activities and special sessions called “silent days,” when students cannot speak at all during class. Her favorite project is the end-of-semester musical production, during which students sign their favorite songs in front of other classes and administrators.
Keona Livatt and Amber Gasparich gave their classmates a taste of their routine from last semester. Students can take sign language throughout high school, and Martin gives them more advanced work as they progress from semester to semester.
“My favorite part of this class is just learning,” said Livatt, 18, a senior, “and broadening my horizons to learn more.”
For Livatt and Gasparich, learning to read the language at the speed that it’s signed has been the most difficult part of the class. But both plan to minor in sign language in college.
The college that Ke’Osha King plans to attend does not offer sign language, but the senior plans to take community courses while in college.
What does King love about sign language? “Everything,” she said. “I love the signs, the projects we do, the words she gives us.”
The career opportunities for people who know sign language “are phenomenal,” Martin said, and several of her students have expressed interest in getting an interpreter’s license. A former student is taking the same sign language classes Martin took at the University of Georgia.
Martin patterns her high school classes after the courses she took in college, and her students meet the high standards she sets. She has students in all grade levels and from all backgrounds.
“I have kids who maybe struggle behaviorally or academically, but they strive in this class,” Martin said, “and they love it.”
Martin attributes that success to a skill that makes students feel special. Her class teaches a different way of communication to students who, in several cases, have difficulty communicating.
As they gaze at their teacher, Martin’s students try to hide their giggles when she teaches them a quick way to sign “Girl, please.” A student volunteer stands in front of her classmates, signing that her dog is missing. Another student tells the class that she has four siblings.
“Now, I’m going to ask you a question,” Martin says, “and I’m deaf, so you can’t say anything to me.”
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.