Senior brings ASL class to high school


Susanna Kemp

Senior Sophie Arnstein, sophomore Sophie England watch as junior Ling-Li Rotella practices signing in the high school’s new ASL class. The class is run through Adult Ed and takes place Tuesday and Wednesday during Z-block.

Susanna Kemp, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Room 409. 8:30 a.m. Tired students sip their coffee. A girl walks in late, binder in hand. Except for the occasional giggle, students are now silent; class has started.

Despite numerous hurdles, senior Sophie Arnstein has managed to bring a new class to the high school that she sees as necessary and important for the community: American Sign Language (ASL).

Arnstein took polls to gauge interest for the class, spoke with adults and administrators and fundraised. She said she has always been interested in ASL because she was born with nodes, and there was a chance she would lose her voice for an undetermined amount of time as a child. She wanted to bring ASL classes to the high school after attending an assembly at school that discussed all the facets of identity but neglected to mention ability and disability.

“{Ability} is something that we take for granted so much that we don’t even acknowledge it as part of our identity, but it’s a huge part,” Arnstein said. “And as a school which boasts of being so accommodating, we don’t accommodate students who are hard of hearing or students who are blind.”

Arnstein sees this class as a first step to creating a safe space for deaf students at the high school. She said that some of the Newton Public Schools have specialized programs for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and a deaf student in Brookline would have to travel to Newton for school. Elon Fischer, an English teacher who helped Arnstein with the process, said that is not fair.

“If there’s anyone in Brookline who’s hearing impaired, they would go there rather than here. One of Sophie’s initial motivations, I think, was that that didn’t seem reasonable. I mean, this is something that we can offer; this is a type of diversity that we could have,” Fischer said.

Besides the logistical motivation for creating the class, Arnstein said that ASL itself is an “incredible” language.

“It’s a real language, and I think a lot of people actually brush that off. It has its own syntax, its own grammar, its own mechanics, and it’s really beautiful,” Arnstein said.

According to Fischer, the process of creating a high school class is long, complicated and usually takes two years. This presented a problem for Arnstein, who worried that the other route, creating a club, would be less official and inspire less commitment than a class.

“So many staff members were telling me, ‘You should make it a club, that’ll be easier.’ But I worried that if it started as a club, it would end as a club,” Arnstein said.

In the end, the best option was to offer the course available through Brookline Adult Education, although the class is attended only by high schoolers. Fischer helped negotiate a contract. According to Arnstein, to make the class free of charge, she had to fundraise. She obtained the majority of the money by asking around her neighborhood for donations, but the school (through Headmaster Anthony Meyer) donated funds, and the World Language Department also pitched in.

“The fundraising has been difficult,” Fischer said. “There’s not a lot of money around here for new things, and there’s a process. That process takes time, and we didn’t have time. So we had to really push to get the money to pay for this.”

Fischer and Arnstein communicated with Boston University through its Deaf Studies Program, and they found graduate student Odun Akin, who is deaf. There is wide agreement among Fischer, Arnstein and the students in the class that Akin is energetic, great at connecting with students and entertaining. Fischer said he is a natural-born teacher.

Akin said over email that ASL is important because it exposes people to a visually expressive culture.

“Learning sign language is the bridge between the Hearing and Deaf worlds, for it allows us to connect in the visual modality,” Akin wrote.

ASL teacher Odun Akin and senior Hannah Stern Pait practice conversing in ASL. Akin is a graduate student at Boston University. SUSANNA KEMP/SAGAMORE STAFF

Junior Ling-li Rotella is in the class and has taken an ASL class outside of the high school as well. Rotella said that she has deaf friends at her rock climbing gym, and knowing some ASL helped her to communicate with them.

“My favorite part of the class is being able to learn how to connect with people, being able to learn a language without having to make sounds. I think it’s very interesting that shapes that you make with your hands, someone can see that as a word,” Rotella explained.

As of now, the class’s future is up in the air because it is funded only through January. Arnstein hopes it will continue during second semester and hopes that in upcoming years ASL will be offered as an official class for credit. According to Arnstein, although everything is still tentative, the World Language Department is considering taking up the class as a senior elective next year.

Senior Christina Yeo, who is also in the class, said that if it was offered as an official course, the class would be accessible to more students.

“There would be a lot more structure,” Yeo said. “There would be more people taking it, and it would just be a more widespread culture. That would be really cool.”

Rotella compared the class to any other language class. If we teach Japanese or Latin, she hypothesized, why not ASL?

Fischer sees the class as an example of student-directed learning: Arnstein said she wanted to learn ASL, and she made it happen. Fischer said there is a lot of talk at the high school about student-directed learning being the best kind of learning because it gives students a chance to study what they are actually interested in, but it does not actually happen that often.

“They wanted to learn this, they figured out how to do it and they did it,” Fischer said. “I would love to see that become a model for more things.”