When students enter teacher Mitch Noll’s classroom at Emerald Ridge High School, it’s silent.
As each student walks in the door, Noll signs hello to them in American Sign Language.
Noll has taught American Sign Language in the Puyallup School District for 18 years, 15 of those at Emerald Ridge High. With nearly 300 students enrolled in ASL at Emerald Ridge, it’s the second most popular foreign language taught at the high school.
“It gives students an option if they aren’t good with audio or oral concepts,” Noll said. “If they’re more of a visual spacial learner, this gives those students something they’re good at.”
One of Noll’s first-year ASL students, sophomore Keirsten Ferrin, has enjoyed being an ASL student.
“It’s really cool to learn about,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot so far this year.”
ASL is a win-win class to take for students at ER. The three levels of ASL taught count toward both career and technical education credits and foreign language. As a CTE course, Noll has hopes students will someday go on to become interpreters.
“The students are amazed at how much they can sign,” he said. “It’s the most gratifying for them when they can use it outside of school. They don’t have to get a passport to use what they’re learning in class.”
When students enter Noll’s ASL 1 class, he doesn’t talk for the first two weeks of the school year to give students a glimpse of what’s to come. From there, Noll will sign 50 percent of the time in ASL 1, 75 percent of the time in ASL 2, and 90 percent of the time ASL 3.
“Students learn to rely on voice less and less,” he said. “I train them to listen with their eyes. It works; they learn a lot.”
Noll himself learned the third most used language in America while on a mission with his church.
“I served a two-year mission in New York City,” he said. “I met another missionary who was deaf, and we became best friends. He started to teach me ASL. The last year I was there, I worked with the deaf.”
From there, Noll moved back to his native Puyallup and began teaching ASL with the district.
He even taught his own children how to sign when they were babies, and his two oldest for three years when they were in high school.
“I forgot a lot of it, but it all came back once we got started,” said daughter and former student Brette Noll.
Noll’s favorite part of ASL is the expressive nature of the language.
“It’s combining face and body movement,” he said. “It’s so expressive. It’s like facial fireworks.”