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Class at Penn State's Fayette campus learns to sign

| Sunday, June 8, 2003

Dana Dailey taught the final class of the semester in American Sign Language to a handful of dedicated students last week.

Proficiency in the language depends upon hand-shape, location and movement, according to Dailey.

A lot of it comes from the heart as well.

Unlike Signed English and other systems that mimic the mother tongue, more or less word for word, American Sign Language is a separate language with a grammar all its own. It uses hand signs, eye contact and other body movements to express concepts and ideas, according to a class handout.

It allows for a more poetic expression. "Storytelling is a big part of deaf culture," Dailey told her students.

The class is a continuing education course that has been offered on a continuing basis at Penn State University's Fayette campus for years.

Dailey, a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is a teacher of students who are deaf and hard of hearing for Intermediate Unit One in Coal Center. She oversees the secondary education program for deaf and hard of hearing students that is based at Frazier High School.

About a dozen students have been repeating the signing course at Fayette campus for the past year, going from level-1 to level-3.

In taking the course, Marleen Iacconi, a veteran math teacher at Frazier High School, is able to satisfy continuing education requirements. But she said she's learning to sign to help any hard-of-hearing students she may teach. Tracy Ducar, a teacher at the beginning of her career, signed up for signing for the same reason.

Debbie Hudak said she took the course to help her prepare to become a foster parent. "I love languages," Melanie Thomas, a campus spokeswoman, said of her reason for participating.

Thomas' mother, Peggy Thomas, also took the course with her daughter. The two have another reason for learning how to sign. A close relative is a deaf/mute and mother and daughter want to be able "to better converse" with her, Melanie Thomas said.

Since this was the last class of the semester, pizza was brought in. Dailey formed the double Z's of its sign. She also pointed out that signing can be done with one hand, so the class could eat and talk at the same time.

As in any foreign language, it's easy to make a mistake in signing. Melanie Thomas tapped a finger across her right cheek and declared, "This (the sign) is silver."

"That is fruit," Dailey corrected.

Dailey taped up a grid of categories and dollar amounts on the bulletin board to start a class competition that was a cross between Jeopardy and Charades.

The veteran teacher in her getting the better of her, Iacconi signed "no cheating now."

Identifying some of the signs was easy. The sign for an automobile was a pantomime of turning a steering wheel. And the whole class instantly gripped imaginary handlebar accelerators when the word motorcycle came up.

Other signs were more nuanced, such as the one for run, that left most of the students scratching their heads (which wasn't the correct sign).

Dailey said there is a sign for just about every word in the language and there are multiple dialects. "There's Pittsburghese," she said.

American Sign Language also uses the finger spelling of individual letters from the more traditional signing English. Dailey said all the systems are valuable.

Melanie Thomas said the course has given her an appreciation of deaf culture.

"There's a lot of beauty in the culture," she said.

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