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Class partnership helps everyone fit

In Mrs. Penman's "reverse inclusion' classroom at Tyrone Elementary School, the emphasis is on accepting other's weaknesses and recognizing everyone's talent.

By CHRISTINE GRAEF

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- On a wall in Kim Penman's classroom at Tyrone Elementary School, 2401 66th St. N, a bulletin board has been decorated with a puzzle cut from paper bags. Each student has a piece. On it are their names, a crayon drawing of their family and a list of things they like, such as food, skating and reading.

The pieces fit perfectly together, just as Mrs. Penman's class of 16 fourth- and fifth-grade students, with all their differing abilities, are taught to complete each other's learning.

Mrs. Penman, who has dual certification in both regular and special education, is a front-runner in combining the two populations into one class. The process is evident during a science project for which students sat in groups of three and four to discover if there is more sugar in some foods than in others.

"What do you see?" 10-year-old Dovile Saldaitis asked Nikki Miller, also 10, as she held up a glucose stick that measured the milligrams of sugar in oranges and lemons.

At another table, applesauce was found higher in sugar content than apples as Courtney Blend asked Nicole Baker, both 10, how to spell "experiment" as the students wrote down the results of their trials. Others were counting to 30 as a group -- the time required for the glucose stick to take a reading.

When the experiments were completed, Mrs. Penman explained how the body uses more sugar during exercise. She asked what kinds of snacks would be better to eat after school if they would not be running around burning fuel. Hands shot up with answers of "yogurt, celery sticks, carrots."

Students then paired up to write conclusions on large sheets of paper that would be tacked on a poster. Taking turns with lettering and taking advantage of those with art talent to decorate the project, students wrote the hypothesis and variables, and charted the results for ketchup and tomatoes, apples and applesauce, chocolate milk and milk, and lemons and oranges.

The shared learning is extended into other subjects; for example, there are reading buddies. For about 30 minutes each day, students work with a partner to read and question each other about content. Learning is reinforced and self-esteem is heightened by the process, Mrs. Penman said.

"In the beginning of the year, each student writes down his or her goals," Mrs. Penman said. "They all want to learn and improve."

Students are not isolated to be pulled out of Mrs. Penman's class for services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. Instead, the services are brought in as support so that all students benefit.

"Mainstreaming means a lot of things these days," Mrs. Penman said. "We used to send special education students out of the classroom for services. With the new rules, there is more mainstreaming."

In 1975, Congress passed legislation requiring that schools accept disabled children. Not much before that, students with disabilities were considered to have lower intelligence or to be lazy. Today, now that learning disabilities and handicaps are better understood, placing all students in the most mainstreamed class possible has become a requirement.

"They all learn acceptance of each other's weaknesses and recognize each other's talents and abilities," said Marla DeFalco, one of the classroom's four teaching assistants.

"Like all of us, someone may not be great at math, but they'll be a wonderful artist. Or they can't read well, but they can explain things well."

Following state guidelines, a mix of about 50 percent general education and 50 percent students with varying exceptionalities such as physical impairments, autism and specific learning disabilities are taught together in what is called a reverse inclusion class. Mrs. Penman believes the method will become a trend, especially since the addition of a University of South Florida course, "teachers of all children," which allows for dual certification under one degree.

"One key to inclusion is focusing on multi-intelligence learning and learning styles, rather than on classifications of disabilities," said Mrs. Penman. "We don't focus on disabilities. We focus on strengths. Success goes a long way in being a good student."

Using tools that address the senses of sight, hearing and touch, rather than just memorizing notes on a blackboard, gives every student the opportunity to learn in whatever way is easiest for them. No students are penalized because they can't take notes well or can't process the spoken explanation easily.

Calling herself more a facilitator than a teacher, Mrs. Penman said, "It allows students to take more ownership of their learning. We try to create a way for that to happen."

During "Buddy Reading," a student with a reading disability will be paired with a good reader. The two will read, question and summarize, allowing the below-average student to work at grade level. Students work on math skills individually at their appropriate levels. The class is composed of three different levels of math: below grade level, at grade level and above grade level. For example, those who can add two digits and those who can add three digits and more will then be brought together in a group to solve a math problem in a game. The advanced students act as peer tutors as they explain the steps that Mrs. Penman says reinforces their learning.

"At the same time, it gives the below-average student reinforcement and stretches him to the next level," Mrs. Penman said. "My entire goal is, maybe not for them to get straight A's, but to inspire them to learn."

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