WESTMINSTER - All anyone hears in Pamela S. Kraemer's classroom are the sounds of silence.
Actually, Kraemer encourages her Westminster High School students to chat with each other and even allows banter from one side of the room to the other.
No shouting matches result, though. Conversations must take some non-verbal form, as the students learn American Sign Language, the language of the deaf.
This year, for the first time, the school offered the course to about 50 students. Kraemer, 23, is teaching the basic one-semester elective to two classes now and repeating it next semester.
She also has helped students form a sign language club, as an outlet for those who don't continue the study. They still can practice and "have some fun" with their skills, she said.
Administrators are so pleased with the effort that ASL will also be offered in January at North Carroll High School, with Roberta Rooney instructing.
"We heard how well this program did in other areas, and there was a real impetus from the community and the students to teach it here," said Lillian J. Rodgers, supervisor of English and foreign language.
Sophomore Kim L. Petry, 15, said she's been interested in sign language since her older brothers taught her to finger spell. The class has helped her understand the problems of the deaf people at her church, she added.
Rodgers called the program, which follows a curriculum developed at Gallaudet University for the Deaf, in Washington, "successful judging from what Pam has been able to accomplish in the past seven weeks."
Kraemer, who earned a bachelor of arts in communication from the University of Texas in Austin, heard of the planned ASL class last spring while working on a masters in education for the deaf at Western Maryland College.
The two morning high school classes fit neatly into her own schedule of graduate courses.
"I play teacher in the morning and student in the afternoon," she said, adding she also does some interpreting for deaf students at WMC. "I sign all day, even for the hearing."
Insisting on a silent classroom, she immediately immersed her WHS students into the new language by forcing everyone to hone non-verbal communication skills. They learned quickly to finger spell, use body language and pantomime to get their points across, she said.
"Hopefully, by the end of the course, they will have mastered basic conversation skills," she said.
She decided to take the concept one step further, asking her students to practice their language skills and silent techniques in other classes and at home. The students all pledged 12 hours of complete silence Thursday.
"The idea was to enhance their sensitivity to the experience of being deaf and unable to communicate clearly through speech," she said. "It should also be a challenging, yet rewarding, experience for those who come into contact with them."
Kraemer helped the students practice for situations they would encounter on silent day, suggesting helpful gestures. She also circulated information about the event to parents and to other teachers.
Most students planned to lunch together so they wouldn't slip back into "easy" English. Several young athletes, worried about after-school soccer and football games, decided to let their coaches do the talking for them.
Senior Debra DeHamer, 18, a peer counselor and writing assistant, said an interpreter and a "lot of writing" would help her through the day.
Students record experiences in their journals, which Kraemer reviews and grades every week.
Kraemer has some other ideas for heightening her students' awareness, including a field trip to see a play at Gallaudet. Students will see role-reversal, she said.