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Quietly getting on with their lesson

Deaf Connections' millennium schools project is still going strong as primary children show enthusiasm for sign language, Eleanor Caldwell reports

As a group of 10 P5-P7 children at St Colette's Primary in Easterhouse, Glasgow, gather for a language lesson, they look pleased with the topic headings on the blackboard: holiday, food and drink, weather and countries. There is no noise, however, as the bright-eyed pupils look up at their teacher and pay attention to his introduction.

Brian McCann, a visiting teacher, uses no spoken language; he communicates with the children entirely in British sign language. They clearly understand his explanation and hands soon fly up to answer questions.

In the familiar pattern of a modern primary language lesson, Mr McCann's simple drawings on the board of food and weather conditions represent holiday destinations. The class has to recognise the country from the pictures and offer its name in sign language.

Laughter breaks out as they spot haggis and rain and eagerly sign Scotland. Drawings of sun tan oil and sunshine are not immediately recognised as anywhere specific, but there is delight as soon as Mr McCann breaks into a flamenco dance.

As individual pupils offer their answers confidently in sign, the rest of the class concentrate on forming their responses. They watch one another and offer occasional signs to help anyone who is stuck. Every member of the group is taking part in the lesson.

As the children come to the front, one by one, to sign their own food and weather clues for the class, Mr McCann helps out. Teacher and pupil turn their backs to the class and run through the sign language needed. The children enjoy the game and enthusiastically volunteer to come forward.

Pupils at St Colette's have been learning sign language since January 2000 as part of Deaf Connections' Millennium Schools Project in Glasgow, which is funded by the National Lottery.

Clare McCann, the project's manager, explains that the scheme was offered free to P7 classes in the area, both as a means of teaching sign language and as a way of educating children about the implications of deafness in everyday life. The schools' programmes range from short introductory sessions to 10-week courses. Fifty primary schools in Greater Glasgow have been involved so far.

Eileen Kidd, headteacher of St Colette's, embarked on learning sign language herself after meeting a profoundly deaf person and has now achieved level 2. She jumped at the chance of the millennium project courses for her pupils, initially opting for a 10-week course for the P7 class. Now the project has been expanded as the British Sign Language Schools Project to include younger pupils. St Colette'sP6 children have completed a course and P5 pupils are taking one.

Since both Miss McCann and Mr McCann are profoundly deaf, they are sometimes joined in class by Gordon Wylie-Black who, as a freelance communications facilitator, acts as a speaking interpreter when necessary. He points out the children's ability to speak clearly and maintain eye-contact with both of their deaf visitors. "They know that I'm like a translating machine," he says, "and just ignore me when they're talking to Clare or Brian."

As the lesson continues, with only a lively arts class next door intruding on the silence, the children compare aspects of everyday life for deaf and hearing people. Responding to Mr McCann's questions, they draw comparisons between household aids. Deaf people, they confirm in sign language, need a flashing light to replace door and telephone bells and a text phone to replace an ordinary receiver. On the subject of alarm clocks, they enjoy explaining the need for a Mum to give a deaf person a good shake in the morning.

In this part of the lesson, each one-to-one exchange between Mr McCann and the pupils is very focused. The rest of the class watch intently, waiting to add their own comments and are always ready to help out with forgotten letters and word signs.

The children are keen to be accurate: one girl shakes her head and hands in disgust as she makes an error and determinedly indicates that she is starting again.

The pupils describe themselves as trilingual. They are also learning Spanish and say that they see sign language as "just another way to communicate". Spanish teacher Louise Morgan says the children often match sign language to new words in Spanish and are keen to teach her.

Sign language has been officially incorporated into the European Year of Languages and this has given unexpected new perspectives to European language learning, Miss McCann says. Apart from Australian sign language, all other languages are signed using one hand only, she says. She was challenged recently to learn French sign when visiting her sister in France.

Deaf Connections hopes that the British Sign Language Schools Project will soon be extended to more schools in Glasgow and in other regions. It is hoped that courses will be introduced into secondary schools.

Miss Kidd would like neighbouring St Andrew's secondary school to become involved in the project to offer the chance for pupils moving on from St Colette's to continue learning the first language of more than 70,000 people in Britain.

Clare McCann, BSL Schools Project manager, Deaf Connections, 100 Norfolk Street, Glasgow G5 9EJ, tel 0141 420 2818 text phone Typetalk 0800 515152 e-mail

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