Passing Notes and Signing Words at Snack Time
By Adrienne Gelpi Lomangino, Head Teacher
The first note delivered to the Blue Triangle Snack Table during the second week of school read: Dear Teacher Adrienne’s Table, Why are you writing? What are you doing? What are you eating? What are you writing? I love you.
The message was signed (in varying forms of writing) by everyone at the Purple Diamond Snack Table.
Children at the Blue Triangle Table were making pencil drawings before having snack. This caught the attention of the children at the Purple Diamond Table, prompting teacher Christina Davis to suggest that they write a letter to ask about it.
An exchange of notes ensued, often involving requests for food. Danny, for instance, asked for some pear, noting that the tray at the Purple Diamond Table did not include this favorite snack of his. When teacher Adrienne Lomangino read the note aloud, her group gathered up their few remaining pear slices, and a child delivered them to Danny’s table.
All the notes carried authentic inquiries prompted by genuine questions. Children could have simply called out their questions, but the teachers had pointed out that the other group might be in the middle of talking about something else, and that a note would allow them to respond when the opportunity arose instead of interrupting their snack conversation. In this way, the messages reinforced social awareness. The exchanges also drew attention to literacy by giving teachers a natural opportunity to model writing and by encouraging the children themselves to write (each table member wanted to sign the note).
Words can take many different forms, the children soon discovered. In further snack-time conversations, Davis deftly introduced her table to some sign language, using the hand gestures for milk, water and apple. Lomangino, too, modeled the signs for milk and water. The children immediately picked up the sign for milk: closing the fist as if milking a cow. The sign for water was more challenging: touching the thumb to the smallest fingertip while extending the middle three fingers to make a W next to the signer’s mouth.
Cognitively, discussing and trying out signs expanded the children’s experiences with symbolic representation. Physically, signing promoted their fine motor control and manipulation skills, while providing an outlet for their energy while sitting at the snack table. Noting these benefits, the teachers decided to incorporate signs into the snack time routine as long as the children remained interested.
As soon as Lomangino wondered aloud what else they might want to sign, her table suggested words from the immediate environment and from their experiences. Some guessed at the signing gestures as well—saying, for instance,
“I think this is the sign for jumping.” As new inquiries arose, she first tried to find the answers in a children’s sign language dictionary. Although the pictures sparked interest learning even more words, they were difficult to interpret. Examining one instructional image, Scott announced, “You need three hands!”
When the dictionary proved insufficient, the children suggested asking Davis instead: Dear Purple Diamond Table, How do you sign banana? What’s the sign for graham crackers? What’s the sign for cubby? From the Blue Triangle Table (with names signed below)
Someone from the Purple Diamond Table delivered the following response: Dear Blue Triangle Table, Navya and Danny and Matthew can show you how to sign banana. Natalie and Taerim and Maliyah can show you how to sign graham cracker. Teacher Christina has a book with a lot of signs in it in her cubby. You guys can borrow it. We don’t know the sign for cubby. From the Purple Diamond Table (with names signed below)
Difficulties interpreting the signing dictionary, and the fact that it did not include many school-related words such as cubby, spurred the class to make its own dictionary. The intent here was not so much to teach signing as to engage children to think about alternative ways of expressing themselves during snack time. The class created a book with pictures of children signing and written descriptions of the hand positions. As both children and teachers expanded their signing skills, they added new pages to the book, building up from single terms like “apple” to sentences like “Please pass apple.”
Attempts to make requests using limited signing vocabulary soon led to opportunities for humor through wordplay, as phrases like “Please pass pear” became “Please pass baby bear” and “Please pass red shoes.” Who knew the benefits of signing would include such comic value?