Sign language thrives in Federal Way schools | ASL counts as foreign language class

Federal Way High School student Vanessa Delatorre (right) works with Jasmine Guitterez on a math problem last Thursday at Illahee Middle School. Vanessa is a sign language student at Federal Way High School. - Andy Hobbs/The Mirror
Federal Way High School student Vanessa Delatorre (right) works with Jasmine Guitterez on a math problem last Thursday at Illahee Middle School. Vanessa is a sign language student at Federal Way High School.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/The Mirror

America has another foreign language all its own that thrives in Federal Way schools.

Contrary to common assumption, sign language is not universal. Each nation pretty much adopts its own version, even in English-speaking countries like Canada and the U.K.

American Sign Language, commonly called ASL, also doubles as a world language requirement for college. Every Thursday, Susan Hundrup’s ASL class at Federal Way High School works with deaf students at Lakeland Elementary and Illahee Middle schools.

The experience is more of an internship, and the interaction benefits all involved.

The older students learn conversational sign language, like slang and the sign for Facebook, from the deaf students who are fluent in ASL. Younger students receive math help — and teenage advice — from the high school students.

“For my students, it gives them kids to look up to,” said Jen Mark, who teaches deaf students in sixth through eighth grades at Illahee. “They have a lot of questions about high school and life.”

Last Thursday, 10 middle-schoolers at Illahee sat with markers and erasable slates, pounding out math problems with a handful of high school mentors. At one table, three students in Hundrup’s class chatted with Ryana Wilkin, who is deaf. Ryana quickly corrects one high school student on the sign for “free.”

“I have trouble understanding a lot of signing. This gives me a little more practice,” said Summer Webster, who plans to attend Seattle Central Community College and train to become a sign language interpreter.

Melissa Wilson, another Federal Way High School student, said the sign language classes pay off at her job outside school. Whenever she encounters deaf customers at Taco Time, Wilson is able to communicate and help with orders.

The high school students also perform poetry and interpret songs in sign language — even hits by rapper Eminem, for example: “We clean up the swear words,” Wilson said. She noted that deaf people can feel the beats and appreciate music. In addition, sign language interpreters are sometimes seen at concerts.

Students in Hundrup’s class tested their artistic sign language expression April 22 at an ASL talent night at Federal Way High School. Wilson and classmate Jocie Weinberger were among those who performed poetry at the event.

In the presence of her students as well as the deaf, teacher Hundrup signs when she speaks, regardless of whether she’s talking to a person who can hear. It’s a sign of courtesy for the hearing-impaired, she said.

The interactions at Lakeland and Illahee help Hundrup’s students sharpen their sign language and math while gaining a better understanding of deaf culture.

“My kids are learning ways to teach math to deaf students,” said Hundrup. “This gives them more experiences and makes them comfortable.”

ASL Comedy Night on April 28

An American Sign Language Comedy Night featuring the Anderson Twins will begin at 7 p.m. April 28 at the Federal Way High School gym, 30611 16th Ave. S. Cost is $7 for adults, $5 for students and free for children ages 8 and under. A voice interpreter will be provided. Email

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