Jan Morris wasn't impressed when her fifth-grade son started tinkering with a watch, then proceeded to take a camera apart.
But her interest was piqued when she discovered that the boy was dissecting devices to understand how they work as part of his gifted and talented education (GATE) class at Valley View Elementary School.
Morris, who teaches special education at the same Duarte school, had an idea.
She thought her students, who have learning handicaps such as dyslexia or an impaired ability to concentrate, might benefit from rubbing shoulders with GATE students.
Trip to Airport
She approached GATE teacher Lloyd Martinez and by January, her eight fifth-grade students were constructing model airplanes out of balsa wood next to their GATE counterparts. The joint class on planes and aviation history culminated in a recent excursion to the El Monte Airport.
"Combining classes on different levels was like walking on thin ice," Martinez said of the 6 weeks he taught with Morris. "You don't know what's going to happen."
Morris said her main concern was that Martinez's class not feel used. "We were careful not to change the program for the GATE kids," she noted. "There was the same high level of expectation."
Morris said the match was ideal because of the small number of GATE students, 24, and the greater freedom that class has in deciding how students want to learn.
"In regular classrooms they don't take the time very often to do non-academic projects," she said.
GATE students served as role models for her pupils by being attentive and focusing on their own work, she said. The once-a-week visits to the GATE classroom also gave her students a chance to socialize with mainstream students.
"It's deadening to group children by ability. They become stifled," she said. In the mixed class, her students were stimulated by their GATE counterparts.
Role Models Teach
"We identify with who we're around, so we should be around the best-quality people" to perform best, Morris said. "There's nothing that teaches faster than a model."
Kiwan Sims, a 10-year-old with a short attention span who has difficulty processing what he sees, was "in seventh heaven" in the combined class, Morris said.
Kiwan said he didn't think he could make a plane at first, but he did. "It was harder, but I still liked it," he said, adding that constructing the wings was the hardest part.
While Kiwan usually can concentrate on an activity for a maximum of 5 minutes before losing interest, he worked intently for 2 hours at a stretch with the GATE students, Morris said.
She said the model-building assignment also boosted her students' self-esteem. "There's less pressure here," she said.
Some GATE children altered their views of the special education students after working with them.
"One kid was constantly asking for help," recalled Greg Hagopian, 10. "But he built a better plane than I did. I was shocked."
Heidi Duffin, 10, had thought the special education class was for students with problems. But she said she did not notice any special problems, except that her once-a-week classmates were a bit slower. "It's kind of hard having to teach them all the time," she added.
"It's difficult working with people that can't keep up with you," agreed Starr Pebley, 10. But "I learned that even if people are in special classes, they're still human beings. You can talk to them."
Other GATE students had not even realized that their visitors were from a special class.
The experiment was so successful that the two classes hope to build a pump to learn how the heart works.
Alberta Schroder, coordinator of the district's elementary-level GATE program, said she would consider making the collaboration a permanent feature in planning next year's curriculum.
"It's important that very bright people learn to communicate with others to understand that everybody is special," she said.