Caledonia — “Look at my kids,” teacher Nancy Dryburgh said to a visitor as she beamed at the wall of lockers outside her classroom that displayed self-portraits of her second-graders.
The hallways of Kettle Lake were quiet until students arrived for breakfast. By 8:45 a.m. they have trickled into her classroom and finished their morning checklist: sanitize their hands, bring their laptops to their desks and read until the start of class.
“Hello second grade,” Dryburgh said in greeting. “Let’s all stand for the pledge of allegiance and our Cougar Promise.”
Following a chorus of “…with liberty and justice for all,” the second-graders transitioned into reciting their school’s pledge:
“I know the way and I can show the way. I am safe. I am responsible. I am kind. I am Cougar Cool.”
In addition to knowing all the words they learned as kindergartners, these second-graders know how to sign the promise in American Sign Language.
Sharing the Wealth of Knowledge
Dryburgh’s inspiration came in 2019 from a friend at her church who signed throughout the service for their hearing-impaired son.
“I asked her to teach me to sign our Cougar Promise and she made a video to teach me,” she explained. “I taught my class, and then when we went into quarantine our staff took turns making videos of baking cookies or reading books, so I made one to teach the Cougar Promise in ASL to the whole school.”
During the first full month of virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic building shutdown in April 2020, Dryburgh recorded a video to teach Kettle Lake.
Dryburgh said she had noticed students in other classrooms coming up with their own hand gestures before the pandemic to go along with the promise.
“They wouldn’t all match and would differ between each class, so before my first year back in school fulltime in fall 2019 I wanted to teach my kids the same motions and for them to mean something,” she explained.
The next school year, other teachers at Kettle Lake used Dryburgh’s video to teach their classes, and eventually the entire school knew how to sign the promise.
And her own second-graders know the promise in English, ASL and Spanish, thanks to Spanish teacher Emily Dixon.
“We are pretty proud of our Cougar Promise,” Principal Megan Ballmer said. “It most likely started 10 years ago and has been used ever since. It is unique to Kettle Lake, our school rules and our mascot.
“We also refer to students being ‘Cougar cool,’ which means students are taking responsibility for themselves and demonstrating expected behaviors.”
During a recent morning circle time, Dryburgh’s second-graders talked about where they first heard about ASL.
“My dad taught me,” Amelia Boland said.
Hudson Bird added, “My brother taught me how to sign the promise when I was in kindergarten.”
“Which one? You have three brothers,” Amelia retorted.
He clarified it was his older brother, who learned to sign the promise when he was in Dryburgh’s class, in fall of 2019.
When asked if they thought learning the signs were easy or difficult, some admitted to either, but a consensus formed.
“It was medium because I knew a little bit, so that was easy but (learning the new signs) was a little bit hard,” Amelia said.
“You never learned it before, so it’s new and you’re not used to it,” Elizabeth Dipzinzki said. “It was medium for me because the ‘Cougar Cool’ part is easy.”