Fritsch's ASL club supports student friendship, learning in new language

Arlo Gelsone, 7, back left in a gray shirt, starts a chase in “Duck, Duck, Goose” at Fritsch Elementary School. The game was adapted to his needs with students rubbing each other’s heads to indicate who they choose to chase.

Arlo Gelsone, 7, back left in a gray shirt, starts a chase in “Duck, Duck, Goose” at Fritsch Elementary School. The game was adapted to his needs with students rubbing each other’s heads to indicate who they choose to chase.
Photo by Jessica Garcia.

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When Arlo Gelsone, 7, and his classmates high-five each other in class at Fritsch Elementary School, it’s about more than congratulating each other for a good thing. They’re connecting as buddies to practice sign language, and they’re discovering how to express themselves through physical contact.

Gelsone has sparked an interest among his Fritsch friends to learn American sign language to adapt to his needs as a deaf student, and now the school has an ASL club dedicated to teaching students learn how to communicate with each other.

The program is rare among elementary schools and one Gelsone’s classmates joyfully received.

“His mom loves it,” Principal Dan Brown said. “She loves what we’re doing for him. She thinks he feels like he’s a normal kid. She says it’s so awesome that he can be a part of (his class). The kids just hang out with him, and that’s the best part.”

Gelsone came to Fritsch last year as a kindergartner, and it took almost no time to be accepted by his classmates, according to district deaf interpreter Marilyn Weese. She recalled one of his greatest moments of support as he participated in the school’s annual turkey trot at Thanksgiving in his first year.

“He’d only been here two months and it was November,” Weese said. “(The students) all went and he was last and he was struggling to get around the field, and without prompting, the kids in his grade ran over to the area of the field he was coming around and just started cheering him on the whole way. I started tearing up. That was rewarding that the kids had only known him for two months and they knew he needed that support and continue to love him.”

Today, his classmates have learned to adapt with familiar kids’ games such as “Duck, Duck, Goose” and will modify it so that Gelsone could respond and participate. Instead of calling out “Duck, duck” and tapping “Goose” to choose whom to chase, the chaser rubs a person’s head. In a recent demonstration at Fritsch, Gelsone was excited sitting in a group circle among his friends and teachers, enjoying the morning sun.

Weese said it’s wonderful to see them interact with each other at recess time. They’re also very protective of him and genuinely try to make a real connection with him in and out of the classroom, she said.

“They’ll sign with him and figure it out,” she said. “It’s amazing. They all want to play with him. Sometimes they’ll fight over who gets to play with him.”

Weese said her goal is with the ASL club is to generate that interest among all students so that students like Gelsone enter the secondary levels of school independent of an interpreter and prepared for their next stage of life to communicate with others in any situation. Eventually, he might want to confide with his own peers during normal adolescent social situations, such as developing crushes, that he wouldn’t want to speak with an adult about as he enters middle or high school, she said.

“They’re often alone in this sea of high school students … and often they don’t want an interpreter around,” Weese said. “I want (Gelsone) to be able to talk to his friends to say, ‘Hey, I got into trouble last night.’ I want him to make that connection that he can’t do with an interpreter all the time.”

Ruth Torres, Gelsone’s first grade teacher and who also has been learning sign language to help her students with the ASL club, said she has used the experience to help the children feel welcome in school and in the community.

“Our first signing club was crazy because we had all the kids, all grade levels, (meet) and we didn’t know where to sit them, so we sat them on the floor, and it was such a heartwarming feeling,” Torres said. “This is a good school for (Gelsone) because he’s a part of something.”

Torres said Gelsone has been growing in his reading and math skills and is excelling as a result of the help he is receiving. The staff and students make him feel special with the signing assistance he receives at any time of the day as Weese stops to ask basic questions to go to lunch, get to a classroom or other needs.

The ASL club meets once a week, Brown said, and it became so popular, staff members split it into two times for first- and second-graders and an afternoon time for the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Torres said she hopes other teachers in the school will follow and learn ASL as well.

“I want to hopefully stick with it,” she said. “Arlo’s going to the next grade, Ms. Weese will be moving on, so hopefully me, it’ll be college courses. … For people, it should be a part of our education. … We’ve seen kids on the playground by themselves, no matter what language they speak, and it’s very sad to see kids by themselves. But just seeing (Gelsone) in a group, it’s a good feeling.”


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