Elaina Graham glanced at her notes about the manatee and looked up again, trying to maintain eye contact with the small camera in her laptop while translating her thoughts into American Sign Language. Her goal: to practice transitions between ideas and to determine whether she needed to shorten the content of her presentation. She also wanted to make sure her facial expressions complemented the words.
"It's kind of a combination of the sign and the face," said Graham, a junior in Sunlake High School's sign language program. "I was signing how one of the top injuries for manatees is getting caught in fishing lines. If I appear really happy at that point, it would look really awkward."
The right look is critical for Graham and her classmates, as their project represents much more than a class grade.
They're preparing videos for deaf students and patrons to use on tours at Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens. The tours could become available as podcasts that deaf visitors could play on their own iPods, although officials are still exploring the best ways to deliver the videos.
The students are not interpreting. They are providing carefully planned presentations.
"They are taking the language and applying it," teacher Rhonda Leslie said.
And they're doing it in a way that matters to the public. That real-world application appeals to the third- and fourth-year ASL students, many of whom hope to use their skills in future jobs.
"It's really fun," Graham said. "You're actually interacting with the community. You're not just in a classroom learning it. It's more fun to have projects like this."
Junior Daniel Stanley shares that enthusiasm, while also acknowledging the responsibility that comes along with it.
"You have to have everything perfect and clear," he said. "It's a lot of weight on you because you know thousands of people are going to see you."
Senior Jay Goodman, for instance, signs Louis Armstrong's version of What a Wonderful World for a video that Lowry Park's Zoo School teachers will use for the school's annual student performance of the song. The kids learn to sign it each year, and Goodman's performance will become a teaching tool for the educators, zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said.
She welcomed the involvement of Sunlake students in the zoo's activities.
"We would love to see how this would grow," Nelson said. "We are excited about it and hope it will be of benefit to our guests."
Jill Revelle, a spokeswoman for Busch Gardens, said the theme park is looking for ways to best incorporate the video podcasts that the Sunlake students are preparing. She noted that Busch Gardens offers several opportunities for students to get hands-on lessons, such as camps and high school journalism day.
"Working with a school is really nothing new for us. It's something we like to do as often as we can," Revelle said. "This is a new way."
Leslie sought this type of interaction after sitting through a "teacher day" at Busch Gardens. She thought there must be some way to get her students involved in projects at the animal parks, and after brainstorming, she came up with the idea of providing sign language tours for deaf guests.
She brought the idea to each organization and found support.
The kids eagerly joined in.
"It's just a cool thing," Goodman said.
Senior Sam McGeorge and junior Phillip Leslie, working nearby on their presentation on the hippopotamus, agreed.
They said gathering information about the animals was the easy part. Harder is presenting it in an entertaining and engaging way.
"Nobody is going to watch two boring guys talking about hippos," McGeorge said. "We have to be energetic and be like, 'Hippos are awesome!' "
They practiced smiling while signing, reacting with enthusiasm to each other, even using "cool" signs — one of which they had to give up because of its difficulty.
"I can't do it," Phillip Leslie said, giving up on the extra bends in his fingers. "It's giving me carpal tunnel."
In addition to this project, the students also might soon have a chance to practice their sign language skills during a "deaf day" at Lowry Park Zoo, Rhonda Leslie said. They would act as docents, answering questions and providing information for deaf patrons.
They're also communicating with students at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and signing articles for a new youth-oriented online magazine called Tween Tribune.
"Mrs. Leslie has had us be a lot more involved in the community," junior Rebecca Hisamoto said. "I always use my hands when I talk. Now I have the signs."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.