SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – It is no secret that it is important to be inclusive, and students and staff at Nansemond Parkway Elementary School in Suffolk take inclusivity seriously.
In Kari Maskelony’s fourth grade classroom, students are learning about lunch.
“So, today for lunch, guys, it’s pizza,” Maskelony said.
If you take a closer look, you’ll quickly see the students aren’t learning the menu. They’re learning sign language.
“So, cheese pizza. Pepperoni, like you’re putting the pepperoni on. Pizza,” Maskelony said, using her hands to show the students how to sign cheese pizza and pepperoni pizza.
Maskelony is passionate about her mission to teach her students to sign.
“I have many deaf family members,” Maskelony said. “I also have deaf friends and I took sign language in high school and college.”
It’s a kind of fate, then, that Food Nutrition Service Associate Leisa Duckwall is deaf. Before Maskelony stepped in, kids had their own way of sharing what they wanted for lunch.
“I noticed that, when they go in there, they’re all pointing,” Maskelony said.
So, this teacher felt it was time to teach the kids a new life skill starting with their lunch order.
“After your utensils, what do you get? Milk. Milk,” said Maskelony, signing the word “milk” to the class.
Fourth grader Michaela Waddell loves being able to communicate with Duckwall.
“Sometimes it almost makes me cry,” Michaela said, “’cause I’m so excited that I’m learning it, and I’m happy that I’m learning it, because it’s nice.”
Her classmate, Brooklyn Wilson, agreed.
“I always wanted to learn it, and I can talk to other people who are deaf,” Brooklyn said.
All of Maskelony’s students know how to sign their order. When the school principal, Dr. Janet Wright-Davis, learned of this language lesson, she made a decision.
“October is Disability Awareness Month. Let’s teach the whole school,” Wright-Davis said.
So, on the morning announcements, students and staff at Nansemond Parkway Elementary School learn a new word per week. Every day on the announcements, they review the proper way to sign the word. Some of the words learned include thank you and good morning.
“Sometimes when I’m walking in the morning, I’ll just see kids drop their books, and they sign, ‘Good morning, Dr. Wright!’ So, I love it,” Wright-Davis said.
She believes learning sign language teaches the students an important lesson.
“Everyone has weaknesses. Everyone has strengths. Instead of focusing on the disability, we focus on what they can do,” Wright-Davis said. “With Miss Duckwall, we don’t focus on the fact that she can’t hear. We focus on how neat is it that she can communicate with her hands.”
Maskelony is happy she is able to teach sign language to students while they are so young.
“I think learning it at a young age, it is something that will stick with you,” Maskelony said, “and I think it’s good for them to understand that all of us are different. We all learn differently. We communicate differently.”
Students are learning the whole lunch menu, and much more.
“We started off with just the things that were for lunch,” Maskelony said. “The main dish, chicken, fish, and then we went to good morning, because some of them asked if they could say good morning at her breakfast cart. Now they are doing good afternoon. They do thank you, all of the main dishes, and even some of the vegetables they do now.”
Students learning manners, kindness and inclusivity – some of the best lessons in life.
“It makes me cry. I tear up. Especially to see how happy (Duckwall) is,” Maskelony said.
Wright-Davis tells WAVY.com she initially planned to only have students learn sign language in October. But now, that has changed, and students will continue to learn to sign one word per week through the end of the school year.