Inside Oak Middle School’s New American Sign Language Club

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Inside Oak Middle School’s New American Sign Language Club
Sarah Powers works through new vocabulary with a group of students. (Photo/Evan Walsh)

SHREWSBURY – Just after 3 p.m. on any given Wednesday, a group of Oak Middle School students excitedly gather for the school’s new American Sign Language (ASL) Club. 

The club has become a source of inspiration for many students. Many students decided to learn the language as part of an attempt to increase the sense of inclusivity. 

“We try to support a community of inclusion,” student Cecilia Quintero Johnson said. “It helps us welcome members of the deaf community and to be able to communicate with a wider variety of people.” 

“I joined because I have a deaf aunt … I want to learn ASL to communicate with her,” club member Priya Vohora said.

Starting the Club

The club, which had its inaugural meeting in October, was the result of months of planning by eighth grade social studies teacher Jason Ponticelli. With help from Oak Middle School Principal Hallie Burak and Assistant Superintendent of Operations and Finance Patrick Collins, Ponticelli was able to secure funding to purchase ASL workbooks for students.

“I really wanted to offer [ASL] to our students,” Ponticelli said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to learn.”

Ponticelli runs the club alongside Sarah Powers, who is a seventh grade special education teacher with experience in ASL, and Kathy Romeo, an ASL interpreter and  advocate as well as a member of the deaf community. 

With the goal to provide the students with constant practice, Romeo joins the club biweekly to teach new vocabulary to the students while Ponticelli and Powers facilitate review sessions. 

“What’s wonderful about Kathy Romeo is that she’s also teaching us about deaf culture; it’s not just from the book,” Ponticelli said.

Impact of the club

Students said they have found a sense of community in the club. 

“[My favorite part of the club] is being able to meet with everyone and having a space where everyone can come together and learn,” club member Sophie Kunsc noted. “It’s nice to be with your friends and learn something without much pressure.”

“It’s a time to have fun and do something that you like,” Quintero Johnson added.

All club members reported noticing significant growth in their ASL, and many look forward to continued improvement.

“I hope that in a few months or a year I can communicate with somebody and be able to help translate for somebody who may need help,” student Jose Delvalle said.   

The club has also made an impact on the entire Oak school community. 

There’s a display case in the main lobby dedicated to ASL, and the weekly morning announcements at Oak now feature an “ASL Word of the Week.” 

Before Halloween, students learned words like “zombie” and “candy.” Ponticelli recalled walking to the cafeteria and noticing students signing “pizza,” a word they had learned earlier that day.

Still, the club hopes to expand its reach in the coming months, including performing the National Anthem before the Unified Basketball games in the spring. 

Ponticelli hopes the club will help people communicate and spread knowledge of the language.

“If any of these students ever come back to me and say ‘I helped out, I was able to communicate with somebody that I couldn’t communicate with before,’ that’s a win,” he said.