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Young minds grow along with a bunch of bananas

Ten emotionally handicapped students are transfixed by a plant, which provides an opportunity for lessons.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Seven-year-old Willie Lane was so excited about answering his teacher's question he forgot to raise his hand.

"Be a respectful listener," she reminded him gently.

He raised his hand for two or three questions, but then his enthusiasm took over again. It was all he could do to keep from shooting out of his chair every time the teacher asked the students about their favorite subject: the banana plant growing outside their classroom window.

The children have a good reason to be excited. The 5-foot plant is doubled over under the weight of not-yet-ripe fruit. They discovered the "baby bananas" in September while weeding their garden at Mount Vernon Elementary School, 4629 13th Ave. N. The plant has been at the center of their attention ever since.

It has also been at the center of Carol Dinsdale's lesson plans. She knows that the best way to hold the attention of her 10 emotionally handicapped students, ages 6 through 9, is to find something they're passionate about.

"I get them to learn by finding out what interests them," she said. "You find something they're interested in and they'll just go bananas -- literally."

The plant was a gift from former Mount Vernon behavior specialist Claudia Hunter. She took a shoot from one of her own backyard banana plants and presented it to Dinsdale's kindergarten through third-grade class two years ago as a reward for their school beautification project. With money collected from an aluminum recycling drive, they had planted a garden of marigolds, Mexican blue bonnets, periwinkles and heavenly bamboo.

Mrs. Dinsdale explained that the children's gardening project gives them a feeling of ownership and community.

"It gives them a sense of "our room, our school, our school's flower bed,' " she said. "Now they look out the classroom window and say, "our banana plant, our baby bananas.' "

Mrs. Dinsdale's first academic lesson using the banana plant was a science lesson. She taught the students the basic needs of plants. Next, she taught a geography lesson, using a map to show them where bananas grow.

From geography, she moved to social studies. She taught a lesson on the culture of the people who use banana leaves to weave baskets and thatch roofs.

From there, she said, they started talking about one of their favorite subjects: food. While they watched the bananas grow, she asked them to start thinking of their favorite banana recipes. Within days, they had compiled a recipe booklet featuring such delicacies as Banana-Peanut Butter Snack, Banana Fruit Cocktail and Treat from India.

Last week Mrs. Dinsdale used the banana plant to teach the students how to compare and contrast. She asked them to tell her how their banana plant is similar to and different from a Christmas tree.

They told that her both are living things and both need water. But, they told her, banana plants have leaves and Christmas trees have "little pokey things." Banana plants come from where it's warm and Christmas trees come from the store. Banana plants have bananas on them, and Christmas trees have ornaments.

After reminding the children that Christmas trees have needles, grow in a cold climate and have pine cones, Mrs. Dinsdale asked them to use their findings to write an essay. Cregg Mitchell, 7, didn't hesitate to propose a topic sentence: "Let me tell you the difference between a banana plant and a Christmas tree," he said, and the children applied themselves to their essays with the same enthusiasm they brought to their gardening.

Mrs. Dinsdale is energized by their eagerness to learn. She said that having multiple grade levels in one classroom is a challenge, but she tries to use it to the children's advantage. If a second-grader is having a problem reading at second-grade level, he or she can go into the basic reading group to work on skills. The second-grader in her class who reads at a third-grade level is free to work at his accelerated pace. She arranges the chairs to encourage the older children to work with the younger ones.

"These kids have difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships, so we work on social skills," she said.

She said that sometimes their emotions get in the way of their academic achievement.

"My goal is not only to focus on getting behavior and interaction appropriate, but on catching them up academically as well," she said. She hopes to mainstream them into a regular classroom at Mount Vernon.

Mrs. Dinsdale, 47, wanted to be a teacher since she was 5. She was born in Texas but lived "everywhere," including Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico and Tennessee, before coming to Florida when her 23-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son were children. She believes the fact she has been exposed to different cultures makes her more accepting of differences.

"Over the years, I saw kids who didn't fit in for one reason or another," she said. "I just seem to be drawn to those kids."

She has been teaching at Mount Vernon since 1991.

"I can't imagine being anywhere else," she said. "I can't think of a day when I didn't want to come to work."

She said her students' special qualities -- their kindness and sensitivity -- are sometimes overlooked.

"I tell them, "Every one of you is special in a different way.' I try to find a specialty for each of them."

She admits that teaching emotionally handicapped children isn't always easy.

"There are days when the positives you find are really minor, and then there are other days when you want to go out there and stand on the picnic table and say "Listen to this!' " she said.

Mrs. Dinsdale is as excited as the children about tasting the bananas when they're finally ripe. She figures it will be about two or three weeks, just in time for Christmas.

"When Claudia brought them the plant, she explained to them that the bananas won't taste the same as the ones in the grocery store," she said. "The kids are planning to bring in some grocery-store bananas and do a taste comparison."

And of course they're planning to try some of their recipes. Eight-year-old DJ Leggon wants to make the banana muffin supreme recipe he came up with, which begins with "Go to the store" and ends with "Eat it all up."

DJ's mother, Juanita, has been impressed with everything DJ has learned since September. And she said she has learned something herself: She didn't know that DJ liked bananas.

When she asked him about it, he explained it very simply.

"Well, I don't like plain bananas," he said.

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