ETHAN-Two Ethan teens signed their way into the history books last week.

Sophomores Gabby Sonne and Adaya Plastow are the first in the school's history to advance to the national Family, Career and Community Leaders of America convention. Their Illustrated Talk, titled "Sign It Out," focused on their efforts to bring American Sign Language into the Ethan first-grade classroom. Theirs was among 59 entries vying for a spot in the Anaheim, Calif., competition this summer.

Initially struggling to come up with an Illustrated Talk topic, Plastow turned to Sonne during an FCCLA meeting and suggested they marry the ASL class they are taking online together with the project. With the blessing of their adviser, Katrina Hostler, the girls identified the first-grade class as their target. They chose that class because Sonne's brother, C.J., is in the class, and because another student, whose mother is their English teacher, is hearing-impaired.

"Any time we can get down in the elementary, I think it's a fantastic opportunity for our kids," said Hostler, who until recently had posters from a previous student's project hanging in her classroom. "When they can take the lead with teaching, designing lesson plans and designing a curriculum, the life skills that they're developing and gaining" experience, it's a win for the whole school.

Together, Plastow and Sonne went through their ASL assignments, tweaked them to the first-grade level and created games, flashcards and quizzes. Over the course of four meetings with the 21 students in Sara Mora's classroom, the children learned to sign their alphabet, numbers, colors, animals and various other common words.

"It's crazy how much they're taking in," Plastow said.

Mora said her students were excited when C.J. Sonne came to school and shared the news of the teens' success and upcoming trip to Anaheim.

"They look up to those big kids so much, and they're just all-in when they're talking," she said.

Now, the girls said the youngsters greet them whenever they are in the hallway and are quick to sign with them, either words they were taught in class, or some that they have learned at home since then. Teachers and parents in Ethan have encouraged the girls to keep working with the students. They hope to implement a plan to bring ASL instruction to all of Ethan's classrooms by leading a signing seminar for local teachers.

Ahead of the curve

It wasn't until Plastow and Sonne prepared their speech for the regional meeting in Mitchell earlier this year that each realized the other had taken an interest in American Sign Language long before their web-based class this year. Both girls' mothers had taught them sign language as young children - Plastow's because she was a worship interpreter at their church, and Sonne's because she worked at the South Dakota School for the Deaf.

"First semester, we felt like we were kind of ahead of the curve. We already knew our ABCs and we already knew our numbers, and that's what you mostly do for the first little bit," Plastow said.

Now, though, they're learning more complex sign language phrasing fundamentals.

"It's not ... subject, verb, predicate" like in typical writing or speech, Plastow explained, but rather "object, verb, subject, question," with a focus on facial expressions.

"Instead of 'Hi, what is your name,' you say, 'Your name is what' in sign language," Sonne explained.

But their second language is becoming more familiar, and the girls, who are the only Ethan students in the online ASL class, often find themselves unintentionally signing to one another. They say it is good practice for the future, when Plastow hopes to work as a physician and Sonne as an optometrist, and they may encounter deaf patients.

"Right now, in sign language class, we are learning about the culture, and how to respect ... them as people," Sonne said. "It's really beneficial for us ... because we get to see a whole new culture. ... Being able to learn and explore in this new language and this new culture is very beneficial, and I think it will push me farther in college."

Plastow agreed.

"They have culture and different standards and different things they believe in, and we need to be considerate of them and respect them. ... They're not that different than us - they just talk with their hands," she said, but some social norms are different. "We can go up to someone and tap them on the shoulder, and that's the polite thing to do to get their attention. It's very rude to tap a deaf person on the shoulder, because you could scare them, and if they're having a conversation it's interrupting."

And they stress that sign language is good for children, regardless of their hearing ability.

"Studies show that signing to babies helps ... with infant frustration, parent-to-child relationships," Plastow said, adding that, children who learn sign language early score an average of 12 points higher on IQ tests. "It has so many benefits, not just to communicate if your child is deaf. It's not just for communication - for hearing children, it can help them," too.

It was passion

Sonne and Plastow spent under 10 minutes summing up their project and the history of sign language and its importance at the regional level first. They earned a Gold and advanced to state. The top five Illustrated Talks at state advanced to a run-off round. The girls' nerves intensified when they learned that they'd be competing against their peers. Ethan farmers and students Jake Storm, Jay Storm and Kaden Klumb, too, made the final round, for their hog confinement presentation. Contestants were judged on time, speech fluency, appeal of visual aids, physical appearance, poise and paperwork.

"The lady would say, 'Ethan,' and then pause," Plastow recalled. "The pause felt like forever. ... It was nerve-wracking."

The Ethan boys knew their material well, having been raised as farmers, and they actually earned a higher initial score than the girls.

While most Illustrated Talk contestants simply present a speech with visual aids, both Ethan groups went above expectations. The girls taught ASL to younger children, and the boys constructed a mini hog confinement and explained the process of raising pigs from 14-pound piglets to 250-pound hogs.

"I think that's one of the reasons we made it to nationals," Plastow said. "It wasn't just research - it was passion. And it was different than what they're used to hearing."

The FCCLA adviser Hostler agreed that the unique nature of her students' projects likely stood out to judges.

"I do usually try to have them do some type of project with their illustrated talk, but few of them go beyond the speech with the poster or brochures," she said.

Plastow and Sonne will compete among teens across the country at the national convention in Anaheim June 30-July 4.

Between now and then, they will work to raise the $1,200 necessary for each of them to compete, as well as pay for Hostler's trip. They said they hope to be invited to present their speech for businesses and others who are interested in helping fund their trip, both to get more practice and to continue to raise awareness for deaf education.

"Usually you think you can't make a difference until you're a senior ... but your hard work really can pay off," Plastow said.