For as long as she can remember, Elizabeth Burnette, now teaching a class on American Sign Language (ASL) at Bishop Maginn, has been educating others on ASL and deaf culture. (Franchesca Caputo photo)
For as long as she can remember, Elizabeth Burnette, now teaching a class on American Sign Language (ASL) at Bishop Maginn, has been educating others on ASL and deaf culture. (Franchesca Caputo photo)

Walking into Elizabeth Burnette’s classroom feels like you just joined an exclusive club where only the members can understand each other. Away from the bustling hallways of Bishop Maginn High School is a classroom full of 11 students, sitting in silence while simultaneously speaking to one another in American Sign Language (ASL). 

The desks outline the room, leaving a wide-open space in the middle. Pairs of two, sometimes three students, are fully engaged in conversations. Burnette says it’s time for an activity, one that involves the students becoming elephants. 

Burnette explains she will stand in the middle of the circle they form, and randomly point to a student. It’s then his or her responsibility to stack their two fists together in front of their nose to form an elephant trunk, cueing two more students to cup their hands on each side of their ears, forming an elephant as quickly as possible. This activity is meant to warm up the students visually. The students, now “elephants,” giggle and stumble as they try to keep up. 

Since last fall, Bishop Maginn has offered ASL to students as an extracurricular course. Principal Michael Tolan said the idea came from the many students who have been eyeing the healthcare field as a future career, bringing with them an interest in learning ASL. Next year, ASL 2 will be offered to students who want to progress, while ASL 1 will still be available for new students who want to learn the language. Burnette says although the course counts toward the language criteria, since the students aren’t required to take the course, they are even more enthralled with learning the language. 

The class is done with as little talking as possible, with Burnette only speaking to give more complex instructions, such as with the elephant exercise.Relying mostly on ASL allows students to become fully immersed in the language, and prevents what Burnette calls “cross-simultaneous conversation,” or when students speak and sign at the same time.

Passionate about learning the subject, Burnette, who is deaf, says her students often bring their own research to class, creating an interesting dynamic which leaves her as the instructor learning new things each day. 

“I’ve been using ASL my entire life, and now I’m like oh, ‘There’s grammatical nuances I didn’t know about,’ and there’s this different expression that I want to show the class that I discovered,” Burnette said.  She’s even seen them practicing at school when they aren’t inside the classroom. 

For as long as she can remember, Burnette has been educating others on American Sign Language and deaf culture. She earned a bachelor’s degree in science from Rochester Institute of Technology and a master’s in Public Health for the University at ­Albany. 

Whether it’s at the doctor’s office, when she calmly explains to her medical provider to not ask the professional interpreter to “tell her I said this” after every sentence (“She’s not my mom!”), or teaching others random signs to help them communicate, Burnette says it wasn’t a big adjustment for her to start teaching. 

“Deaf people’s interactions with hearing people are usually just ridden with negativity and … people don’t know or they’re just ignorant, and that unfortunately can cause quite a few negative experiences,” Burnette said. 

By educating high-schoolers, Burnette says they can educate others, creating an awareness around deaf culture and a more inclusive community as a whole.  

“Just having the exposure early on is going to let them teach others (to) make a ripple effect. They can help kids their age, friends, and family, become more aware that there are deaf people out there that are just as easy to approach like me and my family members,” Burnette said.