Teachers and students at Eagle River High School are putting their money – or perhaps more accurately, their gym shoes – where the mouth is when it comes to the school’s commitment to inclusion of special needs students in “regular” education classroom.
In the fall 2016 semester, ERHS staff and students embarked on a privilege of sorts taking on the creation of gym class that encourages neurotypical students to interact with their peers of cognitive disabilities.
The class was formed in the summer of 2016, an idea by one of the current gym teachers: Lisa Kelzenberg.
“I’d actually call it a ‘Brain Child’ of Mrs. K,” Jeanni Blakeney, teacher aid of the class, said. “She decided to do some research, take some classes, and create a class where people actually wanted to be here.”
“It was an idea at a PLC (professional learning community) conference in the morning,” Kelzenberg. “There were two weeks by trial run, and it kinda morphed out of that.”
The special education department also had a major role in this class’s development – mainly from Ron Snively, lead teacher in the life skills and structured learning class, a division of the ERHS special education department that works with high-functioning cognitively challenged students that need some additional support during the school day.
“The beginning was a slow start, being a pilot class,” Kelzenberg admitted, yet her thoughts continued noting, “But a lot of collaboration with other adults, along with Mr. Snively made it possible.”
Along with a slow start from the first few weeks of school, the students were hesitant to interact with one another. But over time, there were changes from both groups of students.
Now, many of the students of cognitive disabilities describe the class as an opportunity to form lasting friendships. Whereas many of the neurotypicals claim that being in this class has opened their eyes to disabilities and helped them understand their peers better.
“We’re like Yin and Yang. Salt and Pepper,” replies Timothy Jones, a neurotypical student currently paired with Amber Mauyer. “She taught me to have a lot of patience and to always be funny. But I taught her to always be happy. Her smile brightens everyone’s day – especially mine.”
“This class has taught me how to get along with people regardless of how they are.” says Charish Amancio, “I learned to have more patience and be more involved in something I normally wouldn’t do.”
After being questioned on the attributes of his fellow classmates, Jared Raynes, a student diagnosed with cognitive challenges, said, “Good. They’re people I could trust and have fun with. It’s a best friendship.”
Another important aspect of this class is the pairing between a neurotypical and a student of cognitive disabilities. This pair is essentially their own individual team, constantly working and collaborating with one another. Although communication can be difficult, the pairs always find a unique rhythm with working together.
“Being a team,” Amancio added, “that’s what we (Amancio and her partner, Chase) did. And I’ve already been able to achieve that. It’s only been two months, but it feels like we’ve been together a long time. Chase is a very interesting person; she has a lot of knowledge. I learn from her, and she learns from me. It’s a very ‘give and take’ relationship.”
Keegan Sharpe spoke of her former partner, Amber. “Amber and I are like peanut and butter and jelly, we just mesh. We are just two funny people looking for a laugh and we just love the same things.” Amber then replied, “Keegan is my bestest friend ever.”
Along with teaching valuable lessons, this class specializes in making developments (or more commonly known as ‘modifications’) to help make everyone successful. Many of the games start off with their original rules but eventually alter into a sport with modifications that help everyone succeed. This method tends to help the students of cognitive disabilities flourish.
“I’ve beat my laps in running,” says Piper Evans, “I normally don’t run. But, from being here, I’ve seen that it’s ok to run, and it’s ok to walk. Whatever gets you across the track.”
This type of environment allows the cognitive students to fully participate, along with having fun in the process.
Working together is a major accomplishment, the class has had to face a few obstacles as well.
“One of the biggest problems has been to get the word out,” Blakeney said. “But lately, Mrs. K. has had to turn away students. Also, you (the neurotypical students) have to want to be here, people can’t just take the class for P.E. credit.”
The importance of the enrollment of neurotypicals and what it means to be a student of this class is vital. The reality is that these students needed to be recommended and it takes someone with a mature level to make this class work.
In the end, all students are successful in this class by meeting Kelzenberg’s goal of helping neurotypical students and students with cognitive disabilities leave the gymnasium with a new perspective on life.
Editor’s Note: Erin Barkhurst is an editorial intern with The ECHO News and a student at Eagle River High School. She is a member of the PE class which is the subject of this article.