Independence High School senior, teacher help toddler learn sign language

by Sara Hill

Ask any teacher what they find most rewarding about their work, and they’ll tell you it’s when a student suddenly understands a difficult concept.

Grant Sears of Independence remembers when his preschool-aged student Barrett Hovanic-Weeda finally understood a complex lesson. The 3-year-old Strongsville resident, born deaf, was in the beginning stages of learning American Sign Language and excitedly signed for the first time what he was seeing. It was a breakthrough moment that impacted both student and teacher.

But technically, Sears isn’t a teacher, at least not in the traditional sense. He’s a senior at Independence High School and has been voluntarily teaching Barrett sign language for more than a year, alongside Independence High School ASL Teacher Meg Popa. Sears is a four-year ASL student and serves as president of the American Sign Language Honor Society and captain of the high school swim team.

“I knew when I started teaching Barrett what I would be giving him and his gaining of knowledge, but what I didn’t think about was what I would be getting,” Sears said. “Just seeing him grow and watching his personality emerge and seeing him understand that ‘wow, there is meaning to what I am seeing,’ is truly amazing.”

When a longtime friend reached out to Popa last school year about tutoring her toddler son, Popa knew she had a partner in Sears. Barrett had undergone a cochlear implant, and a language deficit was detected.

Sears said, “I was taking Mrs. Popa’s ASL class for more than two years when she told me there was this little boy who needed help and needed to learn sign language to be connected and if I wanted to help teach him, and I said, ‘yes, totally, without a doubt.’”

When Sears started as an ASL 1 student his freshman year, Popa said, “He understood the nuances of the language, and those are things that can’t be taught. It came naturally to him.”

Popa and Sears began meeting with Barrett and his parents at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and local parks. As the toddler grew more comfortable and trusting of his new companions, the trio ventured out on their own, meeting twice a week to help the child learn ASL. The partnership continues each Wednesday and Saturday.

“As we formed this relationship, I knew I needed someone consistent because, in theory, it’s a commitment of eight hours a week, but actually, it’s closer to 12, and Grant is a busy student,” Popa said.

But the weekly commitment doesn’t burden Sears, who plans to study American Sign Language in college and tutor Barrett after high school graduation and during college breaks.

“Their relationship has blossomed so much,” Popa said. “Grant almost anticipates Barrett’s moves. The patience that Grant has, and the energy he brings to this, is incredible. Watching the two of them together is magic.”

Sears, whose mother, Carrie, serves on the Independence Board of Education, is one of six children. While this upbringing has no doubt taught him patience and multi-tasking, it’s his innate sense of humor and silliness that really aids in his teaching of a toddler, Popa said.

“Sign language is more conceptual and it’s almost like you’re telling a story or painting a picture with your hands,” Sears said of ASL. “It’s really cool to learn the structure of it. With Barrett, we want to really immerse him in ASL and deaf culture and give him the most experience as possible.”

Sears recalled the moment when ASL clicked for his young student.

“We were at the tiger exhibit at the zoo, and he signed, ‘tiger,’ and you could see it in his face that he had realized, ‘wow, there is meaning to this object in front of me,’” Sears said. ∞