Friendship and fun, combined with learning, were the goals as students from Dawn Tull and Jennifer Detterich’s classrooms at Monterey Hills Elementary School became one to open the new school year.
Together, the classes were given a task to build miniature boats and determine how many pennies they could hold before sinking in a tub of water.
“They’re interacting and having a great time,” said Tull.
Added Detterich: “It’s obvious, this activity is good for both groups.”
Strategically, the assignment on the first day of school last week was called an “ice breaker” by Tull, as the students intertwined for the first time to kick off the new school year.
“As a group they have to decide which materials they want to use and how they are going to work together, hoping their boats don’t sink,” explained Tull, watching the interaction.
It didn’t matter that one class was full of 30 general education students and the other, a group of 15 with special needs. Together, they were learning powerful life lessons while successfully working to pull off the combined task.
Special education is the practice of educating students in a way that addresses their individual differences and needs, and it seems that Tull and Detterich are onto something positive for both groups. Tull blends her 4th/5th grade general education classes with Detterich’s 3rd, 4th and 5th grade special education students at different parts of the school day.
“Our unique program that we’ve developed eliminates some of the stigmas of special education as all students in both classes can gain acceptance and experience teamwork with each other,” Tull said. “The kids quickly learn that we’re more alike than we are different, and that everyone has something positive to contribute.”
Tull and Detterich have worked hard to create a relationship between the two classrooms with an innovative way of co-teaching. Detterich says the community between the two classrooms is the perfect system, allowing both to help each other become better students. “The kids learn how to work together and there are opportunities for different kids to be leaders in different situations, whether it’s socially-emotional, academic or creatively,” she said. “There are kids in each class who can benefit to get their needs met and shine.”
Sharing the same assignment, many indeed shined while working together as they went to work on their boats. “It’s good to mix it up and watch them mingle,” noted Detterich.
In educational terms, it’s simply called “reverse inclusion,” explained Tull, a longtime general education teacher in the local school district, noting the practice brings traditional students into special education classes and vice-versa.
“We do things going both directions,” she said. “Sometimes they call it mainstreaming where a special education student goes into a general education classroom, but my kids go to her room, too. They go to both places.”
Over the course of the day, students combine efforts in all academic areas, as well as working in the arts and on social skills in “friendship groups,” as Tull refers to it.
“It’s a really unusual model,” the 4th/5th grade teacher explained. “It’s so great for all the kids. A lot of the goals for a lot of special ed kids is to have them in the general education. In the old days, special ed was so isolated. You were in that class and nobody saw you. That’s not how the world works. We’re all part of the same community. We have to be able to work together.”
Students from both classes carried out the first day boat-building project smiling and laughing as they used their creativity on outside tables in the lunch area on campus. They were provided with pipe cleaners, paper, tape and other supplies before they were set sailing on the task.
“Introduce yourselves and explain the project,” urged Tull to students in her class. “We need you to get to know each other before we get started.”
Sharon Stearn, who works on the special education team with Detterich said, “We just broke up the paradigm” by combining both classes. “It’s all about dropping labels. The highest value for a special needs identified child is to have the experience of a typical model of a general education student.”