Porirua school on a mission to learn sign language

Andre, five, was St Theresa’s school’s only profoundly deaf student when he started in January – and the whole school has joined him on his journey to learn New Zealand Sign Language.

The school has since won an award for its efforts to include Andre and to promote NZSL.

School principal Donna McDonald says she was “blown away” when St Theresa’s was named winner of the NZSL in Schools award this year. “We are still at the very beginning of our journey to learn New Zealand Sign Language.”

From a group of teachers attending a local night class to the formation of a sign language club – Donna says many of the teachers and students at St Theresa’s have been making a big effort to learn NZSL.

“We can definitely see what Andre has brought into the school,” she says. “We’re trying to incorporate sign language into everything we do on a daily basis.

“Andre is learning New Zealand Sign Language alongside the rest of us, we’re all learning together. It’s a real two-way street. The children and adults have both benefitted from having him here.”

Donna says it has been a learning journey for the whole school since Andre started.“We’re expecting there will be highs and lows along the way,” she says. “We have noticed little things that we’ve had to adjust to over time. For example, he can’t hear the teacher’s instructions for pack up time so one of the other children has to go over and quietly alert him that it’s time to pack up.”

Teacher Deborah Norris says that anything Andre learns, the rest of the class does too.“One of our first learning initiatives we put into place was for all students to learn three NZSL words a week for their homework,” she says. “These were taken from our word wall and now we are putting them together and beginning to sign full sentences.” The children are like sponges and are absorbing NZSL quickly, Deborah says.

“It was daunting at the start because I didn’t know anything, but we have just been taking it step by step.”Andre’s learning is supported by his teacher’s aide Vinny, and specialist resource teacher from van Asch Deaf Education Centre, Darryl, both of whom are fluent in NZSL. Vinny, who started learning NZSL more than 20 years ago, says she has been impressed by the enthusiasm of students and teachers at St Theresa’s.

“They’re just so receptive, I’m so inspired,” she says. “The whole community has been getting involved, teachers and parents as well.” Donna says students and teachers throughout the school have been learning their sign names, something that is gifted to them by the deaf community. Next term the school will be holding their own NZSL classes for teachers, part of their ongoing professional learning and development.On Mondays the school has sign language club, which is open to any students from throughout the school.

Organised by Vinny, the club uses the Thumbs Up! section on the TKI website and the NZSL dictionary to learn new signs. Vinny says the students often go home and teach their parents.“It’s amazing, some of them can stand up and do whole sentences by themselves now.”

Even the school song has been made accessible with the addition of signs. Vinny and Darryl have worked with teachers at St Theresa’s School to develop a wide range of learning resources for Andre to use.For example after a trip to Te Papa earlier in the year, Vinny created an NZSL story book about the visit. This is now one of Andre’s favourite books. Andre also uses the Aurasma application on his iPad, which allows him to match up images in a book with signs.

Deborah says it is important to be inclusive of all students. “When Andre leaves our school, we want the six years that he has spent at St Theresa’s school to have been rich in communication, including NZSL,” Donna says.“We want Andre and his peers to be fluent and confident users of NZSL and to have developed strong social and learning communication skills. It is our belief that the whole community will benefit from this.”


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